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Publishing Interviews: The Literary Agent

In the second of our publishing interviews series, author Claire Fuller interviews Jane Finigan, agent and partner at Lutyens and Rubinstein literary agency in London. Read on to find out what makes her heart sink when reading a manuscript.

Claire: You’ve been with Lutyens and Rubinstein [L&R] since 2006, and recently you’ve been made a partner. Congratulations! What does your role involve; what’s an average day like for you?

Jane: My role involves working with authors at every stage of their career, from helping to develop and shape a first draft, to negotiating a publishing deal and holding their hand through the publication process and beyond. I’m always looking for new talent and making sure I’m on top of what’s being published at the moment and who’s publishing what – I read all the time and am in regular contact with commissioning editors. It’s very difficult to describe an average day (which is one of the reasons I love my job). Some days will be spent exclusively in the office, communicating on behalf of my authors, going through contracts, pitching a book over the phone to editors. Others will be spent on the hoof, meeting with authors, editors, publicists often at the same time. But whatever my day entails, at least some part of it will be spent reading.

C: What’s the best bit about it, and the worst?

J: Luckily, I love reading. I also love people so always enjoy meeting up with authors and editors to talk about books. The worst part of my job is when I’m selling a book which several editors have offered on and it comes to letting the under-bidders know that I’ve sold it elsewhere. We’re all in this industry because we’re passionate about books and so it can be heart-breaking to lose one.

C: When writers are sending out queries to agents I know they worry excessively about their cover letter and synopsis. How important are these for you?

J: They’re both important. The cover letter because it’s the first sense I get of the author: who they are and whether we might work well together and, if it’s a good letter, it will tell me why they have approached me/L&R specifically. The synopsis because it tells me what the author thinks the book is about and how they see it. I have a slightly upside-down approach to the synopsis though as I don’t read it until after I’ve read the manuscript. This way I can form my personal opinion and vision for the book first and then see whether it agrees with the author’s own!

C: And what makes you excited when you read a submission? Is it usually a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’, or are you sometimes undecided until you meet or talk to the author?

J: I get most excited when I forget that I’m reading a submission and it feels like I’m just devouring a book for pleasure. I can usually tell pretty quickly if it’s not for me and it’s wonderful when it’s a definite ‘yes’, but I am often torn because it’s rare to get that definite yes. A meeting with an author is unlikely to make me change my mind but it can help me get a sense of whether they’re open to working on the manuscript and whether our vision for the book is aligned in a way that makes me want to spend some time developing the book with them.

C: So, with those ones where you’re torn, how do you make up your mind?

J: I’ll take a bit of time to think it over and will often share with colleagues – we’re a small and very collaborative agency and we share manuscripts with each other all the time. If I think the book has enormous potential but for whatever reason isn’t quite there I will usually ask for a meeting with the author and discuss my thoughts and suggestions with them.

C: And what makes your heart sink?

J: My heart sinks when a submission is addressed ‘Dear Sirs’. It implies that the author hasn’t done even the most basic research into our agency.

C: Yes, I can never understand that. Recently I was talking with the editor of a literary journal who told me that a writer had approached her to see if he could submit some work. She encouraged him to, and although they’d been chatting beforehand, and he knew she was a woman, the submission still came through address to ‘Dear Sirs’. Once a writer has got through those hurdles how involved do you get in editing their work before submitting it to an editor, or is each author different?

J: Each author is different. Sometimes there will be a few minor tweaks and sometimes, after sitting down with the author, we’ll attempt a much more drastic make-over. It’s a very tough market at the moment and if I can see a reason why an editor might turn a book down, it makes sense for me to help the author address that problem. But I’m not an editor and I always remind authors that there will be more editorial work to come if/when we get them a publishing deal.

C: How important is your own taste in books for the authors you choose represent?

J: I personally think it’s important because I can get most passionate about books that I really love. Luckily I have very eclectic taste which stretches across fiction and non-fiction.

C: And you must have a close relationship with editors in publishing houses who buy manuscripts from you. How does this work? Are those boozy lunches that the publishing industry was famous for, a thing of the past?

J: Staying in touch with editors is key, it’s one of the reasons authors need agents: to know exactly who is buying what, where and who will be the best pair of hands for a book in any given publishing house. I stay in touch with editors by email and phone although I do always enjoy meeting up in person, particularly if it’s an editor I haven’t met before. Those legendary boozy lunches, though not entirely extinct, are few and far between!

C: Going back a bit, how did you become a literary agent and any advice for someone wanting to become one?

J: I started working as an agent for illustrators when I left university and while I did enjoy a lot about that job, it wasn’t quite the right fit. I’d always loved reading and used to go to the Hay Literary Festival every year. One year I met Felicity Rubinstein there and when she said she was a literary agent (and told me what that actually meant!) something clicked. My first job in publishing was working as the assistant to her and Sarah Lutyens. My advice to anyone wanting to become an agent would be to read everything! Read the bestsellers as well as the classics, read across the different prize lists, form opinions and familiarise yourself with what the different imprints and publishing houses publish. But crucially, be willing to start at the bottom and work your way up. There is so much to learn from being an assistant and you will be remembered and recommended for how dedicated you are, and how willing you are to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in.

C: And one final question: Do you have any time for reading for pleasure? And what books do you love (that you don’t represent)?

J: We have an independent bookshop which I walk through every day and so it’s practically impossible for me to stop myself buying books for pleasure! Some books that I’ve loved reading for pleasure recently are All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout and I’m really enjoying His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet.

Claire Fuller is the author of Our Endless Numbered Days, and forthcoming, Swimming Lessons. Visit her website here

Click here to read the first interview in Claire's publishing series with a literary reader.