In this interview, Juliet Pickering, literary agent at Blake Friedmann, discusses the role of an agent and what she looks for in her submissions.
Juliet Pickering is an agent at the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency. She studied English Literature at university before working for Waterstones as a fiction buyer. She joined A P Watt in 2003 and become an Associate Agent in 2007. Juliet joined Blake Friedmann in 2013 and her list includes Costa, Commonwealth, Orwell Prize, Sky Arts and Guardian First Book shortlisted authors as well as journalists such as Lucy Mangan and Laurie Penny. Her interests range from literary and well-written commercial fiction to mystery, crime and thrillers. She also represents many non-fiction writers across the board, including memoir, pop culture, social history, feminist and political commentary, cookery and food writing, and all sorts in between.
In short, what does a literary agent do?
We represent our authors and their writing around the world, and are the middle (wo)man between author and publisher. We’ll edit manuscripts to get them into the best shape, then place our books in the hands of the most suitable editors for our writers, and negotiate a competitive set of royalties and advance. We also help build our authors’ careers, steering them through the publishing industry over the course of their books. Alongside us book agents, my colleagues at Blake Friedmann will sell our books in translation overseas, and introduce them to the film and TV worlds. Our end goal is to get your book everywhere possible, being read and seen and listened to, by as many people as possible!
Talk us through a typical working day:
I’ll usually read emails as soon as I wake up, then answer a few over breakfast. En route to work I do more of the same, or read some sample chapters on my Kindle/read a new draft of my authors’ books that they may have just delivered. Once in the office, I catch up with colleagues and we keep each other up to date with submissions overseas, share information such as new covers or latest sales news, and have a general chat about how our authors are doing. There are a LOT of biscuits and cakes that fuel our info-sharing at Blake Friedmann, and we are a very inclusive agency – we all know what’s going on with all of our authors, not just the set that we each represent. It means that when it comes to Fair time, or if we’re meeting editors, we’re always able to recommend our colleagues’ authors as well as our own.
I’ll make some calls – either to catch up with my authors themselves, or to check in with an editor. All sorts of issues can arise along the way to publication, and I’m here to mediate between publisher and author on the rare occasion that something difficult might have come up. I’m also keeping an eye on payments due, and whether we’re expecting any revised versions of our books, which we then might pass on to scouts and overseas/film and TV interests.
Lunch is a great publishing tradition – although not as boozy and decadent as the days of yore! We’ll meet editors and chat over lunch about our progress with our books, hoping to find a project in common. It’s also a lovely excuse to have a good publishing gossip and hear what’s going on, on each side of the publishing fence!
Back to the office and more emails. I can’t emphasise enough how many emails there are! I might work through a contract with our brilliant contracts manager, and make sure the terms match those of the initial deal, as well as our standard terms with that publisher. We often have to negotiate beyond the deal itself, and ironing out a contract can be a long process.
Late afternoon, emails might come in from the US in response to a submission or our Frankfurt follow-up. Usually I’ll remember about 4.50pm that I have something to get in the post, and there’ll be a frantic rush before the postie arrives at 5!
There are quite often evening events to go to – publisher parties during the summer, or a book launch or author event. Terrible wine in plastic cups aside, these are usually good fun and another opportunity to catch up with more publishing folk or see our authors.
Then it’s home to maybe read a new manuscript. Or, if I’m lucky, I’ll have a sneaky read at bedtime of a book that’s completely unrelated to work – but don’t tell anyone.
Physical submissions, or by email?
By email. Save paper, postage and space!
You represent a lot of non-fiction titles (Juliet’s list includes pop culture, social history, feminist and political commentary, cookery and food writing). Should writers in these areas approach the submission process in a different manner?
There are two key differences when submitting non-fiction: submit a proposal to us, rather than the first three chapters, as you do not need to have written the whole book before submission (as with fiction); and experience counts when writing non-fiction (what qualifies you to write this book?).
Roughly how many submissions land in your inbox each week?
I probably receive ten submissions a day, and then maybe one or two passed over from colleagues – so anywhere from 80-100 books per week.
A covering letter should… be professional. Clear, concise, and always more about the book than the writer.
A synopsis should… tell the whole story, and ideally be no longer than 250 words.
The opening chapters of a manuscript should… show not tell. Take us straight into the action, and don’t worry about the back story.
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?
Talking more about themselves than their books.
Any tips on putting together an elevator pitch?
Three sentences: two on the story, and one with the USP for the book; what makes your book different from every other vampire romance?!
One killer piece of advice for authors looking to get published would be… Be patient. When you get there, it will have been worth the wait!