Josephine Hayes, literary agent at The Blair Partnership, answers questions about the agenting world, and what she's looking for in writers...
How did you become a literary agent?
During university holidays I undertook some work experience with a neighbour who was a literary agent. It was fun, interesting and varied work and it always stuck with me as a possible career I’d love to know more about. After graduating and following a year’s internship at the British Medical Journal I focused on finding a permanent assistant role at an agency, which luckily I managed to do after gaining a few weeks’ work experience at other agencies.
And following on from the first question….what attracted you most about representing writers of children’s fiction?
I’ve always loved reading, and the potentially unlimited possible adventures found in children’s books has always drawn me back to children’s fiction as I’ve grown up. Having a toddler of my own now has fully immersed me in the world of children’s books again.
Can you talk us through what a typical day looks like for you?
On my journey to work I listen to a podcast or read a manuscript.
At the office I check my emails and make a plan for the day. I’ll also have a quick scan through our agency team inbox to see if any interesting-looking email submissions have come into the agency overnight. I love this “treasure-hunting” side to my job – I’m always hopeful that an excellent piece of fiction is waiting to be discovered.
After that every day is different. I might have an internal meeting or two – we’re lucky to have a fantastic legal team, international publishing team, and dedicated royalties team all in-house who we work with very closely across all our clients; I might meet a prospective author, an existing client, or an editor to discuss a project or new idea; or I’ll go through a new publishing contract or a clients’ marketing and PR plan for their book from their publisher.
I’ll spend the day chopping and changing between replying to emails, preparing proposals and pitches to go out to publishers, and catching up with authors on the phone about their writing and work. On my lunch break I’ll scan through BBC News and other news and social media sites, online magazines, and blogs.
If I have time, I’ll find a quiet corner in the office and get stuck into reading any new work by existing clients to be shaped together for submission to editors, or full manuscripts that we’ve requested from unsolicited submissions made to the agency.
A covering letter should…
Be short, engaging, fairly formal, spell-checked, name-checked, and detail any relevant information such as previous writing experience, published works, awards/prizes long- or short-listed or won. It’s also very interesting to hear what people’s long-term writing ambitions are in a sentence or two.
A synopsis should…
Be no more than a side of A4 ideally, and it should introduce all the major characters and themes, and give away all the twists and turns of the plot – plot-spoilers are absolutely required in a synopsis so we can see exactly how all the action unfolds throughout and is resolved in the end.
The opening chapters of a manuscript should…
Be gripping but clear - i.e. who are the character(s), what do they look like, where are they? - and not too fast-paced. You don’t want to scare readers off with too much confusing information in the first few pages.
In your opinion, when submitting, how many agents should a writer send their work to?
I don’t have a preference as long as a writer is clear in their covering letter whether it’s a multiple submission, or if they’ve only sent it to one or two agencies.
Why is it so important that authors submitting their work follow each agent’s submission guidelines carefully?
We, like many agencies, are fortunate enough to receive sometimes hundreds of submissions a week. We need to be able to dedicate time to reviewing them and to responding to each one. By having detailed guidelines on our website about what we are specifically looking for, the format we’d like it submitted in, and what we’re not looking for, we can save ourselves and the submitting writers time by only receiving and reviewing things we’re 100% on the look-out for, and therefore undertake a more thorough appraisal of writers’ work.
Taking all of the above into account and thinking about the submissions you’ve read over your career, what’s the most common mistake writers make when submitting?
We receive a large number of submissions addressed to the wrong agent/agency!
How hands-on do you work with your authors, editorially?
I like to be really hands-on with authors’ work if they’re looking for creative support in the form of brainstorming ideas, shaping the structure of a story, and editorial input, if their work needs it. There is a fine line between shaping a manuscript to make it the best it can possibly be for submission to publishers, and over-editing, so I try to avoid crossing that line.
Once you have signed a client, and worked with them to make their manuscript the best it can possibly be, could you tell us a little bit more about the process of an agent submitting to editors?
Once an author is happy with the manuscript and synopsis/ses that we’ve worked on together, we pull together high-quality book proposals in-house for each submission we make, before calling and meeting with editors to talk through the work and see if it chimes with what they are currently looking for. We then submit the work and in some cases, set a timeframe which we’d like to hear back from editors by. This ideally, leads to a scenario where a number of publishing houses are interested in acquiring the work and we run and manage an auction on the writer’s behalf.
What would you love to see land in your submissions inbox?
I’d love to find something well-written, adventurous in tone and with heart, set in a richly built world - perhaps with a little bit of magic or humour - ideally John Boyne meets Holly Bourne. A book version of something quirky and adventurous like Netflix’s Stranger Things would be fun to work on!
Good old-fashioned adventure stories take me back to reading The Famous Five throughout my childhood – I’d love to find something that has the potential to become a classic and stand the test of time and be enjoyed by generations of readers for years to come. I also really enjoy anything a bit zany and humourous that makes me laugh out loud in the office.
If you could offer one piece of advice to writers, submitting to agents, what would it be?
Don’t give up! There are so many people trying to make it as writers in the world, and so it's important to remember that not only what individuals write varies so much, but what agents want to see is totally different too. There is always space in the market for new well-written, creative work, so have the strength and self-belief to stay focused on your goal and respect others' work, without comparing your experiences too closely to the successes and near-misses of those around you.