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Author/Agent Discussion: Gilly McAllister and Clare Wallace

Gilly McAllister

Following on from Gilly's excellent article offering 10 Steps To Getting A Literary Agent, she was also kind enough to record a fascinating discussion with her own agent, Clare Wallace at Darley Anderson Agency. 

1. What is the ideal client/author like? Particularly in the early days? 

Aside from hugely talented… I suppose they would be open to making editorial revisions, with ideas beyond the one book, they would be determined to succeed and willing to work hard. The ability to be patient or to distract themselves when the book is on submission is also handy because it’s a tough time for a début author and it can take a while. Also, all the authors and illustrators I work with are genuinely lovely.

2. Have you ever regretted offering representation to somebody?

Honestly, that has happened, but if that’s the case it’s a lack of good judgement on my part rather than because someone’s book doesn’t sell immediately (reading between the lines on that one). I’ve fallen in love with a great concept before and I’ve just offered representation too early, where the writer still has a long way to go and perhaps hasn’t been ready. And I’ve ignored an instinct before, or pushed a thought away, that an author’s expectations might not be aligned with mine. 

If either the agent or author is regretting entering into representation, it could just be you’re not a great match. It happens, as it does with all sorts of relationships, and if that’s the case you can try and talk about it and work it out, or you can agree, hopefully amicably, to go separate ways.

3. Do you feel emotionally invested in selling your clients’ books? 

Yes. Absolutely. I shouldn’t be championing the book if I don’t. Until an author is under contract with a publisher, agents are working for free and investing a huge amount of time and energy into something without a guaranteed outcome. Editorially, this often involves working weekends and evenings because office hours are mostly taken up with the administrative side of the business. I don’t think it would be possible to work in this way without caring or being emotionally invested. 

However, of course I will never have the same emotional investment as the writer. I think for agents it gets easier. I remember when I’d just started agenting, selling a manuscript felt like everything – it was the only thing that mattered - I wanted it so much. I was obsessively checking my inbox, I cried before work because I thought every editor was going to pass on a title I loved (they didn’t), and I worried about being able to prove to my colleagues, and myself, that I could spot what editors were looking for. It felt like my career hinged on those first submissions. Over time, you learn to care in a different way, and it’s easier to keep some perspective. This is a luxury agents have that authors don’t. It’s our job to submit titles over and over again, we get practiced at it. And being able to have some emotional distance is a good thing – particularly when it comes to negotiating. I’m a better agent for it.

4. Would you ever drop an author who hadn’t sold? 

No. That alone would never be the reason. That’s just not how I work. I think agents are usually in it for the long-term and if the first book doesn’t sell (which does happen) you just keep going – because you believe in the author and their talent. If you have very different ideas about which path to take next though, it might be better to part ways. It’s not really a case of ‘dropping’ unceremoniously, and more that you don’t feel you can agent an author/illustrator well, or that you might not be the best agent for this author if they want to pursue a particular route. Similarly, authors might ‘drop’ their agent if they don’t feel they’re in agreement about what to try next, or they might feel they’d like a fresh approach to their career – likewise, an agent might suggest an author looks for a fresh approach to their career if they don’t feel they can offer that.

5. Do you ever doubt your own editing suggestions?

Editing suggestions should be just that – suggestions. They’re not prescriptive. And an author should never edit something or change something if they don’t understand why, or see how it could improve or strengthen the narrative. Ideally you would want an author to feel enthused and excited about tackling edits because they feel they will have a stronger novel after making them. That’s not to say they’re not difficult or painful. I don’t expect authors to just make every change I suggest. Identifying that something isn’t working in a manuscript is the first stage, and often authors have fantastic ideas, much much better than mine, about how to solve that something, and sometimes it’s really helpful to discuss different ways to solve the same something, but the final decision should rest with the author. Agents can help to identify where there are issues and help the author address how they might be resolved. We’re not perfect, and everything is subjective. If a book has gone on submission and lots of editors are giving the same feedback, then there is clearly an element that you haven’t accounted for or identified as being problematic – but that can be really helpful too because you know what you need to do to rework before doing a second round of submissions. If an author instinctively feels that the editorial suggestions they’re being given by their agent aren’t helpful, then, again, it might just be a sign you’re not a compatible match.

Clare Wallace

6. What is the hardest part of your job?

Author care, when things don’t go well. When a book has come to the end of its submission. When a publisher doesn’t want to continue with a new contract. When sales aren’t as expected. So, in short, delivering upsetting news to someone you only want the best of things for.

7. What is the best part of your job?

Ahhh, I do really love my job. Telling an author or illustrator that they have an offer, especially for the first time, is pure joy. Celebrating a deal with the author and editor. Watching a manuscript transform into a book and seeing it on the shelves. Seeing careers grow. Reading great reviews. Finding a gem in amongst the submissions. Getting an early enthusiastic response to a submission and watching a buzz start. Negotiating. And just spending time chatting with the authors and illustrators I represent (mostly about books but definitely not only or always). Unsurprisingly, I love books, and I’m lucky enough to work in publishing – there’s a lot of ‘best’ about that.

From the W&A archive: Clare Wallace discusses the role of a literary agent and what she looks for in submissions.

Gilly McAllister is an author with her debut novel to be published by Michael Joseph Penguin next year, lawyer and professional worrier. She is owned by a large ginger tom cat. She tweets from @Billygean