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Advice from Catherine Clarke

Catherine Clarke joined Felicity Bryan as an agent in 2001 having been Publishing Director of the trade books department at OUP for several years. She represents a broad range of writers of serious non-fiction, including biography, memoir, philosophy, and history, as well as literary novelists. She has an award-winning list of writers for children and young adults.

How did you become a literary agent?

I had lunch with Felicity Bryan in spring 2001 and she offered me the job. After 15 years with the same (very eminent) publisher – OUP – I was ready for the great variety of people, projects and publishers that the change would bring.

Are you awash with manuscripts?

Yes! All agents are, I think, so there is always lots to read – both from unknown possible authors (though we take on very few) and – a great pleasure – new books by my existing authors.

Where do you spot new writing talent?

It can be through literary consultancies, some creative writing courses, recommendations from contacts (which are the greatest source), and occasionally from radio and TV programmes.

What characteristics of a new writer impress you?

Talent, professionalism, self-assurance (though not arrogance), having a willingness to listen and respond to feedback positively, putting trust in their agent, and being fun to work with. It’s a bit like marriage; we’re in it for the long haul.

How quickly do you make a decision on a manuscript?

I can usually tell within a page whether I like the writing and think it has potential. Then I will read on to see if the author can sustain all the other ingredients of a good book. Gut instinct is a major factor.

What do you do when you like a manuscript, but it needs work?

I tell the author what I like and what I don’t think is working, and see how she or he responds to constructive criticism. If they are responsive, I will suggest a meeting to discuss it in more detail, and I warn them that it might take a long time and several drafts before it is ready.

What do you do for a writer who is on your books?

I work on making sure that their publisher(s) continue to support and build them; find them new publishers if necessary; keep pushing foreign rights sales and film or TV rights for the backlist as well as frontlist; discuss their new projects with them; and give them moral support in the hard times.

Do publishers play it safe?

Publishers are caught between replicating success – at the risk of missing the wave – and finding the next big thing. Sometimes there is a tension between sales and editorial because of this.

How do you nurture relationships with publishers?

It’s mutual, as publishers are also pretty good at nurturing agents. Coffees, lunches, drinks, parties, book fairs, quick visits to offices, phone calls… they all play a big role in finding out what publishers want. I am also careful and selective about submitting only projects that are likely to interest particular editors, and getting to know the publicity, sales and marketing key people can be crucial, too.

Last book you read?

Kate Atkinson: When Will There Be Good News? Loved it.