Agent Hunter Q&A

This is a Q&A I did with Agent Hunter, run by the Writers’ Workshop to help aspiring writers find the right agent and get tips on the publishing process.


Q. What books/authors do you love in commercial fiction? (Crime, women’s) Give us some examples and say why you liked these books/authors.

I love Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series – they’re so quick and cunning, and she evokes her landscape with spare but telling detail, whether they’re in the French countryside or on the Italian coast. She also carries the plot with a tight cast of just three or four main characters and a couple to support. It’s masterful. I also love Thomas Harris’s Hannibal series (the original three, not that godawful Hannibal Rising). Harris pulls you along with great twists and a worthy adversary, but you learn about memory palaces and harpsichords along the way, which is somehow just really cool. It sounds as if I only read books about psychopaths, but I’d rather say I’m compelled by characters who operate with impunity.


Q. What books/authors do you love in literary/historical/book group fiction? Examples and reasons, please!

This is tough. I got into publishing because I love literature and so it would be a tempting cop-out to say ‘books that are just really good.’ Why do I read a book when I could be seeing my friends or watching TV? I think really good books speak to us about what it means to be human beyond the everyday – to live, to grow up, to love, to fail, to die. Novels can be about anything on the surface but I think ultimately they need to address those universal concerns, which the best writers do: George Saunders, George Orwell, Cormac McCarthy, Jennifer Egan, Julian Barnes, David Foster Wallace. I don’t think writing needs to be ‘difficult’ to be good. J K Rowling, David Nicholls and Mark Haddon write very different books but they make you invest deeply in their characters, and you have to keep turning pages to find out if they’re going to be okay.


Q. How about sci-fi/horror/fantasy/paranormal/YA dystopian/erotic? What would you be interested in, and what’s a big no?

I guess this isn’t my natural core of interests, but I do like high concepts and speculative fiction. I’d have loved to see a book like The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, about the day the Earth’s rotation mysteriously slowed down (though I thought the idea was better than the execution). Or Under the Skin by Michel Faber, which gets weirder and weirder but in a way that somehow feels very organic – an extension of the world that I know.


Q. On the non-fiction side, are there particular areas that interest you? Does your non-fiction list have a particular slant to it?

I think good non-fiction should strive to improve our understanding of the world around us. It’s a wide brief, and I am as interested in biography (Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère) as in books about economics (Ha Joon Chang) or science (Philip Ball, Jared Diamond, Jim al-Khalili). I particularly love reading accessible books by academics about their field, or by journalists who are investigating an untold story. My current list encompasses hard science, social history, true crime, current affairs and memoir.


Q. And are there any areas of zero interest to you in non-fiction? What would you NOT want to see?

I would say I’m not the right person for royal or military history – those books are published so often and so well that it would be hard to make a lasting contribution.


Q. What (very roughly) is the balance of your list between literary fiction / commercial fiction / non-fiction?

At the moment I have more non-fiction than fiction, but I am building my list, and the difference is that with fiction I am looking for authors who I can back for their whole writing careers, whereas with non-fiction it may be that someone only has one book they want to write – a true story they’ve found or an account of a long research project. Finding novelists is harder, but when you love their writing it will hopefully last a long time – I’m proud to be working on the third novel by my first client, Lisa O’Donnell, at the moment.


Q. What are your biggest peeves in an opening page or opening chapter? And what do you love to see?

I want something to happen. Too often writers see the opening as a period of grace where they need to get all the boring backstory and set up out the way. Kurt Vonnegut said you should ‘start as close to the end as possible.’ If you know about the main character’s family going back four generations, I’m pleased for you – you’ve done your research. But are you telling me because it’s really part of the story, or to prove something else? Imagine someone has picked up your book in a shop (a shop full of books) and has allocated about five seconds to glance at the first page to see if it looks interesting.


Q. Would you take on an author who had self-published? What kind of self-pub sales would make you sit up?

I did this year. I represent Nick Louth, a thriller writer who self-published on the Kindle Direct Platform. He had sold around 50,000 copies in one month (he’s now sold five times that number), and we decided to work together on a traditional UK publication. His book will come out in 2015 with Sphere (part of Little, Brown), and will be published separately in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and, oddly, Serbian.


Q. What single piece of advice would you most want to give writers?

Editing is not a compromise. Editing is saving you embarrassment when the critics get hold of it. Editing is your kind old teacher quietly mentioning that your flies are undone before any of your classmates has noticed.


Q: Which 3 famous people (alive or deceased) would you invite to a dinner party and why?

I should say straight off the bat that these are not necessarily my favourite writers. But which writers would really ‘bring the party’? Milton, for instance, is one of the greatest writers in the English language but also a bit of a killjoy.

I would invite Hemingway, for his anecdotes and his general drinking stamina; Tolstoy, for his sheer barefooted craziness; Angela Carter, who I think would somehow keep the night on track while giving as good as she got. Plus, I would pay a lot of money to see her and Hemingway arguing. The conversation would teeter on the absolute brink of madness and genius.

And then there were five

Yesterday morning, the publishing world woke up to the biggest news since the launch of the Kindle. Two of the “big six” publishers are merging to become Penguin Random House, the world’s largest English language publisher.

Between them, Penguin and Random House have combined revenues of around £2.5bn, which will give them a 25 per cent share of trade publishing in the UK and the US. And when the entire industry is on the brink of seismic change, there is only one thing for the conscientious publishing professional to do: tweet about it.

@stubbleagent Ah well, guys. At least it’s not NewsCorp, hey?

Literary agent Sam Copeland has a point, as there were rumours that Rupert Murdoch’s company, which already owns HarperCollins, was going to attempt an outright buy-out of Penguin for £1 billion. But since “Penguin Random House” and “Random House Penguin” were both incorporated on 26th October, it’s safe to say that NewsCorp was too late.

@samjordison Very sad news about Penguin and Random House. Fucking The Man ruining fucking everything.

Guardian books writer Sam Jordison expresses his dismay at, if I might rephrase, the corporate nature of the takeover.

@misdaisyfrost Please post a congratulatory penguin biscuit to Gail Rebuck at Random House 20 Vauxhaull Bridge Road SW1A

Anonymous publishing insider Miss Daisy Frost begins the inevitable slide from serious discussion to best joke competition, as is customary on Twitter.

@LeeRourke Penguin x Random House = more celebrity authors, bigger 3 for 2 tables and fewer truly literary novels. #endtimes

Author Lee Rourke laments the move in publishing towards “big books” and “prizewinners,” which has decimated the prospects for a literary career author in recent years. As the big publishing companies consolidate further, many see this as the swan song of the “midlist” of authors who could sustain a living from writing literary novels for a gradually building audience, without being pressed to tailor their work for a book club or a prize panel.

@drmabuse Is it possible that E.L. James is single-handedly responsible for publishing conglomeration?

The answer to this is no, of course not—especially since Random House’s parent company, the Bertelsmann Group, has been buying out other publishers since 1977. But, as author @holland_tom pointed out, “It’s estimated that E. L. James boosted Random House’s profits by sthg like 5 per cent this year—giving them the, ahem, whip hand over Penguin.” Random House will have a 53 per cent stake in the new company and Penguin 47 per cent, so a boost in sales this past year may have given them the edge.

@Harkaway Wait! There’s a secret political subtext in the Random Penguin deal! 47% Pearson – 53% Bertelsmann! It’s a giant financial Romney reference!

I suppose it’s possible, but the merger will probably mean massive changes to the back office staff (including redundancies), so it would be a cruel price to pay for a joke.

@benjohncock A strong mega-publisher might be just what the doctor ordered to combat the transmogrifying snake that is Random Penguin #randypenguins

This is a good point from novelist and blogger Ben Johncock. Although many are instinctively afraid of conglomeration, no single publishing company currently has the influence to stand firm—much less dictate terms—when it comes to battling with the new generation of online and digital booksellers.

@DigitalDanHouse A necessary corollary to the formation of uber-publishers must be the emergence of exciting new indies.

Random House digital publisher Dan Franklin (who may soon have to change his name to @DigitalDanPenguinHouse) reminds us that these companies are made up of people who care deeply about books and are keen to protect the industry, as well as to compete.

For some, this merger is the last nail in the coffin, if one were needed, of old world publishing, hammered in by corporate bureaucrats obsessed with the bottom line. Others see it as the stand that publishers have needed to make for some time, creating a paladin to defend their cause against digital bullies like Google, Apple and the arch nemesis of traditional publishing, Amazon.

There’s room for a big company that takes on this role, but publishing needs to remain diverse. Looking at recent prize lists, I can see a place in the ecosystem for the kind of smaller, nimbler publishers willing to take risks on books that don’t fit into an existing paradigm. If it hadn’t been shortlisted for the Booker, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy wouldn’t necessarily look good on a balance sheet. But for me, that sort of book is the reason why anyone bothers to write—or read.

If this new mega publishing company protects its editors’ right to take risks and to publish high quality books whilst holding its own in the digital age, it could win the hearts of authors and publishers alike. In the meantime, the industry is not standing still. We may yet see more consolidation among the big six—or rather, big five—before long.

Amazon: your local library?

glassThe Kindle is everywhere. In the weeks leading up to Christmas last year, Amazon boasted that they were selling over a million per week. The e-commerce giant has been “introducing” them on their homepage for so long that I’m beginning to wonder when might be a polite time to interject that we’ve already met. As I write this piece, my Amazon homepage introduces the Kindle Family: the Kindle, Kindle Touch and Kindle Touch 3G. Other customers are apparently also looking at the Kindle Keyboard 3G with Free 3G + Wi-Fi, the Kindle with Wi-Fi and 6″ E Ink Display, and Veet for Men Hair Removal Gel Crème. Something for everyone, then.

Amazon was founded as a bookseller, but it became more successful than any of its competitors because it removed something previously thought of as crucial to bookselling, which was the bookshop. Instead they posted your book directly from their warehouse, which you could then open like a little present in the comfort of your own home.

For Amazon’s next trick, they removed an element which many regarded as a defining feature of the book, namely the codex itself. With ebook technology available but no one else willing to invest in developing the market, Amazon was like a (very businesslike and non-violent) wolf among sheep. Both heavy investment in the technology of their own-brand Kindle device and its unbeatable retail price gave them a de facto monopoly, particularly in Britain, where the competitive Nook isn’t being sold.

Now, it looks as if they are putting the infrastructure in place to make another seismic shift—from ownership to access. As well as Amazon Cloud Drive which, like Apple’s iCloud, lets you store the files you’ve bought securely online, they have created the Lending Library—a name which evokes nostalgic, homely images. They already have over 100,000 books on their digital shelves, and if you’re part of the scheme you can borrow one a month, with no overdue charges and no need to worry about whether you’ll have to join a three year waiting list to borrow the latest Game of Thrones.

The catch is that, unlike your friendly local library, it is not available for all comers. At the moment you have to be a US customer, and you also have to be subscribed to their Amazon Prime service, which will set you back $79 a year. If you do borrow a book by George RR Martin, he will get a tiny royalty. So you pay a flat subscription rate for access to content, and the owner of the intellectual property gets a smaller royalty than if you had bought it, because you never own the content. The Lending Library is beginning to look like a very familiar revenue model, one that is tremendously lucrative for the owner of the service, and less so for the owners of the content.

Except—and this is why I feel a vague sense of unease every time I land on the Amazon homepage—to qualify for the Lending Library, you have to be a Kindle device owner. At least Spotify have never tried to force you to buy a Spotify mp3 device. If I were the suspicious type, I might start to worry that, with its virtual monopoly on the ebook market, Amazon was trying to funnel my consumer behaviour into ever more proprietorial systems, designed to make owning and sharing harder and more expensive than if, for instance, I just went back to where it all started, and bought a physical book.

No-one has sold more physical or electronic books than Amazon in the past decade. For that, they have done the world a great service. But where musicians have tried to make up for declining record sales by making money from live music, authors have no direct analogue. So if Amazon loves books, I hope it remembers its roots and continues to sell them, because this isn’t quite the replacement for our local libraries that I had envisioned.