What did you do before you became a literary agent?
I worked in publishing. I started my career in Dublin and then moved to London in 1991. Between 1991 and 2003, I worked in various sales and marketing roles for major UK publishers, including HarperCollins and Hodder.
I didn’t go to university; I went straight into publishing after my Leaving Cert (Irish A-levels). I’ve learnt everything from the ground up. In a sense, I was given an internship in a publishing company without being a graduate, so I was very lucky.
Why did you decide to change to ‘the other side’? What was it about working as a literary agent that appealed to you?
I love books, I adore the industry, I enjoy working with authors, and I had a very good working relationship with retailers when I worked in publishing. However, it got to the point where commercial terms were being renegotiated day in, day out.
When I first became a sales director in London in 1991, I was dealing with WHSmith, a small Waterstone’s chain, some other groups and a couple of wholesalers. But from the middle of the nineties and through into the noughties, supermarkets came into the picture and then Amazon in 1998. Amazon was trading in the UK for five years, when their deep discounting kicked in.
I’m a very ‘can do’, positive person, but when the goalposts keep moving on a regular basis, your whole creative energy is sapped. My feeling is that authors deserve better. And I felt, as an agent, that I could work more closely with the author and deliver more to and for them.
How did you find the transition from working in publishing to working as a literary agent? Was it quite an easy change for you?
It was easy because, for whatever reason, I just had a good relationship with authors. Maybe it’s my Irish charm, I don’t know!
When I worked in publishing, I enjoyed explaining to authors how it all worked, i.e. what would happen each step of the way, from acquisition through to publication. Consequently, I was able to use all of that experience and knowledge in my new role.
As I’m sure you’re aware, sales are down and the market is changing. Digital is having an impact. The book industry is in a state of flux, especially with regard to how books are sold to the consumer. So, actually, in the current climate, it is very tough for authors.
Why did you decide to join Curtis Brown?
Initially, I worked for another agency for five years before moving to Curtis Brown three and a half years ago. I felt, again, that the market was in transition, and my list is very commercial, so it’s a better fit here.
Curtis Brown is the biggest literary agency in London and there’s also a wonderful collection of knowledge across the book department and the whole company, and we all share it.
Do you miss publishing at all?
Yes and no. Sometimes I go to meetings and I think: “Oh! I’d love to do it this way.” But my role, as it is, is close enough to the publishing process anyway.
I must say that most publishers, not all, but most, do listen to what I have to say. Some publishers think they know best, but the publishing success stories are those where there is genuine collaboration between the publisher, the agent and the author.
You specialise in women’s commercial fiction, crime and thrillers, memoir, business, sport and MBS. Is this because you personally enjoy reading these kinds of books?
Yes, absolutely. It’s what I know. My ethos in work is always: be passionate about what you do and know what you do.
If I’m going out to buy a book, I want a good quality woman’s read or a good crime-thriller. I love interesting memoir, I like business books with inspiration, and I love sport too: I watched three rugby matches at the weekend, and I can tell you who is currently leading the Premiership by two points. These are things that I love.
What is the best part of your job?
Reading and discovering new talent is very exciting. Getting a new novel or a new script from a client and thinking: “Oh yes! He or she has done it again.” To unravel a new story is wonderful. Story will always win out in this business and that’s one thing we all need to remember.
Some business models are being forced a certain route because people have a short-term view in the current climate, but word-of-mouth and good story will always win out. I really believe in that.
What is the worst part of your job?
I think the worst part of the job is if you’re very passionate about something and no publisher sees it. What’s interesting now, however, is that if all the publishers turn something down, authors feel empowered to self-publish. They didn’t have that opportunity before.
Amanda Hocking, for instance, has made millions of dollars by self-publishing her novels as e-books on Amazon. Although, it’s interesting that her new book deal is with a trade publisher.
One author, Stephen Leather, does it both ways. He actually has a trade publisher, but he also self-publishes.
The key thing is to look for an original voice. And to look for something that you feel could be published today, but could also be published in ten or 20 years’ time; a story that will cross time.
Believe it or not, I love a story that makes me cry. I also love stories that make me feel I’m in jeopardy. A page-turning thriller is brilliant. I’m also quite partial to a whodunit, a big, emotional, sweeping love story, or something that has a real dilemma at its heart, like the new Jojo Moyes book, Me Before You, which is riding high on the Sunday Times Bestseller list. Who would have dreamt up a love story between a quadriplegic and an out-of-work coffee shop employee? And yet it’s captured our hearts.
Melissa Hill, who is one of my international selling Irish authors, writes women’s fiction which always has a twist in the tale; she really keeps you guessing. And now she and her husband are collaborating on crime-thrillers. If you can imagine CSI set in Dublin, that’s what they’ve done.
A lot of people would argue that, with commercial fiction, it’s quite hard to find someone with a truly original voice. What do you mean by that?
I think in the last year, Sister, which one of my colleagues represents, and the number one bestseller at the moment, Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson, which is not represented here, but we are looking after the movie, are original because the structure of the novel is different.
I suppose it’s perhaps too clichéd to say ‘original voice’. Essentially, I’m looking for something that, when you pick it up and start reading it, makes you think: “I haven’t read anything like this before.” That originality can stem from the structure of the novel as much as it can from the voice writing it.
What is the best unsolicited manuscript you’ve ever read? Why was it so good?
I’m going to take the Fifth Amendment on that one because I like to believe that every book I’ve managed to get a publishing deal for is good. I think it would be very hard to pick one out. I’m very proud of all my authors and all of the scripts they’ve sent to me over the years.
Have you ever been tempted to become a writer yourself?
Absolutely not. I could tell you a good story, but I could not write you a good story. I love story, I love entertainment, but I don’t think I would become a writer. I think writing is a real gift.
Maybe one day, who knows? But at the moment, I think I’ll stay on this side and stick to working on the creative process with authors.
Perhaps you could find an excellent ghost writer to write it for you?
If I wanted to tell my story, I’d write it myself. Definitely.
What does it take to be a good literary agent?
In the current climate, that’s a very good question. I feel that all of us, as a community, really need to understand the publishing process, how the author’s role is transforming, and how consumer habits are changing.
I eat and breathe women’s commercial fiction, crime and thriller, and I’m always looking at what the trends are. Who is selling? What made it sell? Was it that cover? Was it that campaign?
I’m like an oracle, a directory of what’s working out there. I shouldn’t say I’m a good literary agent; that is for others to judge. I was shortlisted for agent of the year after only four and a half years on the other side and I am very proud of that.
It is really about understanding the business though. I know that sounds very basic, but you would be surprised. To be good is to move with the times and to really understand the trends; I think that’s essential.
To my knowledge, Curtis Brown is one of the only literary agencies to offer paid internships. Why do you think that is?
Different agencies have their own arrangements, so I don’t want to say that we’re the only one. However, I think that we have a very transparent and informative internship programme.
If you go on our website, you know exactly what you’re getting and you know exactly how to apply. Also, what’s really nice is that two of the six assistants currently working in the book department at Curtis Brown came through our internship programme.
In my three and a half years working here, another intern has gone on to work at Peters Fraser & Dunlop (PFD), and another person is now working as an editorial assistant for Random House.
I believe it’s one of the best internship programmes, and one learns an awful lot. We have a very interactive website, so the interns become very involved in that; some are helping out with the creative writing course we run; and all of the interns get to go to a meeting once a month with all of the primary agents. Consequently, they get to hear what we’re saying about deals and find out more about the market. It’s a great opportunity for people who do get taken on.
What do you look for in an intern?
What we’re looking for is someone who can take the initiative from the word ‘go’. As an agent, you have to be a leader not a follower. We also look for somebody who we feel will be a team player because, although an agent is like a sole trader who works under an umbrella company, we do work as part of a team. I think Curtis Brown works very well because it is a team company.
Do you look for candidates who already have work experience with a literary agency or a publishing house?
Some of the interns who come here have already worked in publishing. And, for some, this is their first internship. Again, it all depends on the application and the interview. We have people with different levels of experience.
In an observational way, not in a negative way, I feel that if somebody is continuing to intern for a long period of time within the industry, it can’t look good on their CV. If they’re not getting a job for whatever reason, maybe they’re just not cut out for it.
I’ve interviewed, I’ve hired and I’ve managed a team of 30 people when I worked in publishing. I know about hiring people, and I suppose I’m just saying this because I think people need direction. You must look at what you’re doing. I know there are fewer jobs so it’s harder to break into the industry, but there are many people who are just simply doing the rounds.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring literary agents, what would it be?
Aspiring literary agents should really know what they want to do and how they’re going to do it. You have to decide which area you want to focus on. What do you love? What books are you reading? What makes you tick and what drives you?
Also, you really need to know how the process works, from acquisition though to publication. What is the life of a book? From the time you read the manuscript, to the time you send it out, to the time it’s taken on. You also need to know what happens at each step of the way throughout that process.
Additionally, it’s really important to understand the economics of the industry, because it is very economically-driven now. You really need to know about all the small details of the contract, from royalties and sub-rights to high discount clauses and export territories.
It’s a business. Years ago, everybody thought: “Oh! I’d love to work in publishing or I’d love to be an agent, or whatever.” It sounds jolly nice, but it’s time to get real.
Do you think there’s a misconception that literary agents just read new manuscripts every day, pick the best ones, and then simply pitch them to publishers?
Yes. That’s the easy part. There’s a lot of emails, phone calls, meetings with publishers, and there’s a lot of angst at the moment because many authors are out of contract across the industry. It’s important that you really understand all aspects of the business. At Curtis Brown we’re very good at informing everybody who works here about that.