Friday, 20 January 2012


A treat for you today. I asked my agent, Charlie Brotherstone of A.M. Heath, a little about his job, the role of the literary agent and the future of publishing.

"What's this shit, Tom?"

Hi Charlie. Welcome. I'm sure no such thing exists, but can you tell us a little about the typical day of a literary agent.
Hi Tom. A day can range from very mundane to really exciting, which is part of the appeal. A publisher could phone up and make you an offer for a book, or you could get stuck looking for a contract which, after many hours you find was never in the file (often the case). A lottery, but at its best great.

What's the most exciting aspect of your job?
Without doubt the best feeling is telling a writer they have a deal and they are going to be published. When you speak to people they don’t realise that a lot of work goes on behind the scenes before a publishing deal is struck. It’s a genuinely great moment between the writer and the agent, and is a hugely satisfying part of the job.

I'm guessing a love of good fiction is the minimum requisite, but how exactly did you become a literary agent?
I didn’t know such a thing existed until I was at university studying English. I did work experience at a very vibrant company and it seemed like an incredible place to work. A forum for ideas as much as a workplace, with inspiring people milling around all the time. I still find that is the case. The intellectual engagement the job offers is a huge appeal and producing good writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, is a great motivator.

Is there one thing above all else you look out for in submissions?
Not really. The submission process is quite straightforward and the guidelines are clear. People often seem to get them wrong, however, with a bizarrely personal cover letter or a book-length synopsis, or writing a novel that is thinnest layered autobiography, with a fictional James for a real life John, etc.

Working together on my book was a wonderfully rewarding period for me: a fresh pair of eyes, sensing your passion for the novel, a new critical awareness. How do you find the editing process, trying to realise a book's potential ahead of submission? Do writers always agree with your proposed changes?
It’s by far the most rewarding aspect of the job, as my earlier answer suggests. Working together on the novel was a fantastic mutual exchange of ideas. Some writers are more responsive, others not, and usually as an agent you have to gauge the right level. Every person and book is different which is a challenge. Getting on with different individuals is a good life skill though, and mostly authors tend to be pretty nice people.

Do new (and established) writers need an agent to achieve mainstream publication?
An agent without doubt helps and 90% or more of authors have one. In terms of editing they can be helpful, as discussed, but in protecting the author’s interests they are indispensable because they have a long history of doing business with publishers. On the whole authors are totally new to the game and would not consider contractual negotiations part of their (artistic!) remit. There are exceptions. Further down the line the agent is a vital middle man checking on the progress of marketing, publicity and editorial departments at the author's publishers. That’s a very difficult thing for an individual author to do without upsetting relations with a publisher. It is expected of an agent, which is why publishers sometimes don't like us very much. 

Do you still find time to read for pleasure?
Yes, but it’s increasingly difficult! I try to split reading on an e-reader for work and physical books for pleasure but the new Kindle is making that tougher.

There's much debate concerning the future of books, the impact the digital age will have on them. How do you see things going in the near to medium future?
It’s a huge question which dominates most publishing seminars and it’s difficult to make predictions. The ratio of ebook sales to physical will continue to increase (not exactly Nostrodamus), but we are in a reactive state to the market. 1.2 million Kindles bought over Christmas can only mean one thing. Economic decline has been deleterious to the industry and has made an already challenging time very difficult indeed. Publishers are more conservative and are paying smaller advances. The next few years are going to be tough, as they will be in other industries. Whether we need government tax breaks to incentivise authors is up for debate. If we can ride the storm hopefully there will be more prosperous times ahead. Books are so much a part of the nation’s culture that it is abhorrent to think of there being anything other than a thriving publishing industry in the UK, and there are plenty of people willing to fight passionately for it.


Jessica said...

Thanks Tom and Charlie for the fab interview.

I love A M Heath - home of George Orwell and Marina Lewycka :)

TOM VOWLER said...

Hi Jessica.
Thanks for stopping by.

chillcat said...

Great photograph. Cool interview. Must be the way to go.

TOM VOWLER said...

Thanks Catherine.