Words Words Words

Aside from a million emails and various news headlines (alongside a lot of talking in meetings and on the phone) today I have read:

A draft of my academic friend Carli Coetzee’s fascinating piece on the idea of intimacy and home in South Africa

Half of a novel submitted to me (haven’t decided whether I like it yet)

The editor’s line edits of one of my author’s crime novels

The Australian reviews of my client Derek Miller’s new novel The Girl in Green

Some essays about the Hard Problem of Consciousness

A colleagues reader’s report on a YA novel submitted to me

John Harris’s excellent Guardian long read about whether there is a future for the Left

Guardian article about Augmented Reality and the use of ‘electronic empathy’ to create successful brands.

I’d like now to finish reading Muriel Spark’s delicious Finishing School or finally to write my blog about ‘Title Hell’ but my brain is too full of words. Thats the problem of being an agent trying to write a blog. You read so many words by other people that writing your own becomes extremely difficult but, as they say, where there’s a will there’s a way …

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The Fragility of Ideas

I have carried thoughts about this blog around in my head since Christmas, but haven’t had time to write it because of the pre- and post-London Book Fair rush, and a trip to New York to see US colleagues and editors (and accompany Olivia Laing on her US book tour).

Oh dear, this is already turning into another blog about lack of time …

I was both comforted and kind of depressed to read an interview in Publishing Perspectives with Neilsen consumer insight’s Jo Henry where she says, ‘When we speak to publishers, we know that they’re absolutely maniacally busy. There’s a lot of stuff that could get done better but no one’s got time to do it.’ Neilsen is a company that works for lots of different major businesses. It’s interesting she talks about publishers in particular being ‘maniacally’ busy. It makes me feel less guilty about feelings of being overwhelmed by my job. But at the same time it points up one of the main challenges of an agent’s job: getting publishers to pay detailed attention to things. And when Henry suggests that ‘It would be nice to see publishers just cut their lists in half and really concentrate on the 50 percent they’ve got left to see if they can sell twice as much of them’, I partly agree (because it’s also what I’m trying to do as an agent) and partly feel anxious about the brilliant books that might slip through the net as publishers become ever more ‘focussed’ (or is that ‘narrow’?).

Anyway, back at Christmas – when I was pondering this blog on my bicycle rides home – I was feeling slightly vertiginous about the fantastic sales and reviews of Diana Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh! and other things that matter, and the fact that I kept seeing it in bookshop windows. I realised in retrospect what a great responsibility it had been when Diana handed me a sheaf of typescript and said she thought the essays it contained might be put together to make ‘one last book’. What if I hadn’t agreed with her? What if I hadn’t gone to tea with her in the first place? All those people would have been deprived of the perfect Christmas present, and I would have been deprived of the enormous privilege of becoming Diana’s agent!

It is an amazing feeling to watch books bloom, and to remember the original planting of the seed when you had no idea what – if anything – was going to happen. I had another moment of vertigo in January when Edward Dusinberre’s Beethoven for a Later Age was published to brilliant reviews (including accolade from Philip Roth and Geoff Dyer), and started selling really well for a book about classical music. I remembered the conversation with Edward in an Oxford pub where he said he’d like to write a book one day (he’s a world renowned violinist); the year during which he tried out ideas, and worked on a proposal during a heavy touring schedule (he found airports a good place to write); the rejection letter from a publisher who said, ‘I love to publish books like this but it would be madness [from a sales point of view]. I fear you know that’s true too.’ That was a moment for nerve-holding! The last thing an agent wants is to acquire a reputation for madly thinking that unsaleable books might sell, and wasting publishers’ time with them.

Yes, it would be wonderful to hold major auctions for every book, but in reality all it takes is for one publisher to offer the seed a plot of earth. Philip Gwyn Jones at Scribe was the only editor to offer for Gavin McCrea’s Mrs Engels, and yesterday evening I heard that the novel is one of only three books to be shortlisted for the Desmond Elliot debut novel prize.

In the same way that an author never quite anticipates the magnitude of the journey ahead of them when they start writing a book (and it’s probably lucky that they don’t), I don’t always remember the massive effort it takes to get a book off the ground. (Even books by well known authors, or sure-fire bestsellers take massive effort – it’s the nature of the business.) Or perhaps I deliberately forget. If I thought about it too much, I might never take on a new author.

The inspirational children’s publisher David Fickling once said to me that holding on to belief in the books one believes to be good, through difficult times, is like carrying an ember, cupped in one’s hands, in order to go and light the next fire. I often feel as if I’m carefully carrying around a lot of very fragile things, or rather ‘seeds’. But it’s glorious when they find their patch of earth and flourish.

Next Friday (because I really am going to try to write this more regularly): ‘Title Hell’, and whether I’ve managed to extract myself from the horrible position of looking after several books that haven’t yet found the right title …

What I’m Reading This Week (other than submissions and books I represent)

Non-fiction: Kate Fox’s hilariously funny Watching the English. Because in the lead up to the EU referendum I feel I want to understand my fellow countrymen and -women better. And because at the London Book Fair one of Kate Fox’s many foreign publishers said to me that it was a brilliant example of a book where an expert explains her methodology cleverly and entertainingly to the lay reader, and I wanted to see how it was done.

Fiction: Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. Sorry, Ferrante fever ongoing. It’s so dark, though, that I can only read in small bursts.

Graphic novel: Mary and Bryan Talbot’s The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia. A brilliant visual telling of the story of Louise Michel’s fight for freedom and equality, made all the more poignant for me in that it was partly inspired by my husband Alex Butterworth’s book The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents, in whose pages I first fell in love with Louise Michel. It is so moving to see scenes from Alex’s book illustrated by the Talbot’s – just as I thought of them as I was reading.

Excuses, excuses

When I set up this blog, I envisaged writing it every Friday. Ha ha. Summer holidays, the pre-Frankfurt Book Fair work crunch, the post-Frankfurt Book Fair work crunch … all intervened. And now I should be catching up on reading submissions. When googling recently to find out who someone’s agent was, I came across one of those frightening threads where people discuss ‘whether it is reasonable for an agent to take eight months to get back to you’. It made me feel sick with guilt. The truth is, I quite often take a long time to get back to people – and frequently need nudging to do so. (I’m always happy for authors to nudge me by the way, provided it’s not on a daily basis.) This is not because I’m blasé about what it is like for a writer to be waiting to hear back from agents. It’s just that I don’t have help with reading submissions: everything that comes to the agency specifically addressed to me, I look at myself rather than asking someone else to do an initial filter.

There’s no point in trying to outsource my reading. I know immediately from the submission letter whether it is something I want to read; and – no matter how good a book is – it has to appeal to me in a deeply personal way for me to want to act as its advocate. It’s often very hard, when explaining to an author why I don’t feel I can represent their book, to articulate exactly what it is about it that prevents me, particularly if it’s a very good book. It comes down to those subtle calibrations of taste. And indeed, one of my Christmas holiday tasks is to rewrite the spiel about me that appears on the J&N UK website to try to give more of a sense of the kinds of book I’m interested in. It’s not easy to define the nuances of my interest, but easier than when I first wrote that spiel. It was three and half years ago, when I was just starting out as an agent and didn’t yet have any clients. The character of a ‘list’ forms itself as books and authors are added to it. It has been exciting to me to see how the clients I have come to represent over the past three and a half years do create quite an accurate picture of my taste and interests. Through them I can ‘show not tell’.

Over the summer, when I was reading (and engrossed by) a proof of Lucia Berlin’s posthumous short story collection A Manual for Cleaning Women (sent to me by Kate Harvey at Picador), there was a lot of discussion of whether it was easier to get published as a man rather than as a woman. Kamila Shamsie kicked it off by suggesting a ‘year of publishing women’, a challenge which And Other Stories accepted. Much as I love Shamsie’s novels and And Other Stories’ publishing, I didn’t agree with them a) that it is harder for a woman to get published or b) that a year of women-only publishing would be a good idea. But of course I anxiously counted up how many men and women I’d taken on since I became an agent. I was pleased to see that it was pretty much 50/50.

That’s not to say I haven’t encountered gender bias. I used to feel infuriated as a young editor that agents tended to send me more novels by women than by men, while my male colleagues were picked for the submissions by exciting new male writers. One of the great pleasures of becoming an agent is that I don’t have to contend with that kind of stereotyping, and I’ve taken on lots of male writers. That said, my Frankfurt was dominated by selling two wonderful debut books by hugely talented and impressive young women: Nell Stevens’s Bleaker House, a witty memoir blended with short story collection about trying and failing to write a great novel; and Giorgia Lupi & Stefanie Posavec’s Dear Data: A Friendship in Fifty-Two Postcards, a beautiful visual book exploring their work as data visualisation artists, and particularly a year-long correspondence between the two of them in which they collected data on the daily details of their lives and then sent each other a weekly postcard visualising that data. And then, at the other end of the age range, I’ve had the amazing good fortune to represent 98-year-old Diana Athill’s memoir (published this week), Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter (Granta). It has been massively inspiring to be working with such intelligent and creative women.

Okay, I need to get back to reading submissions now. But before I sign off, another attempt at self-exoneration for delay. It’s not just a question of having time to read a manuscript, it’s a question of having the right time. I try to read the books that are sent to me with close attention and in a spirit of generosity. Yes, I might have half an hour spare, but I might not be able to conjure that state of mind where I am open to the particular world that author wants to transport me to. Books have to wait for their moment. As a publisher, I once took on an Italian novel it had taken me a year to get round to giving the proper attention. But then everything fell into place and I realised it was a book for me. That’s not to say I don’t recognise the need for a swift response if it’s definitely not my ‘thing’ – and I’ll try harder, I promise. As I say, I’m always happy to be nudged – or indeed prodded.

What I’m Reading This Week (other than submissions and books I represent)

Still reading Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism because my husband stole it from me when we were on holiday. I never thought I would like reading economic history so much: he has a brilliantly light, elucidating touch. I have recently enjoyed Andy Beckett’s Promised You A Miracle (about Britain from 1980 to 82) so much, I’ve gone back to his previous book about the seventies When the Lights Went Out. I seem to be on a mission to understand the political background to my childhood and teens. It was a powerful experience to read in Beckett’s book about what was actually happening when events like Greenham Common or the closure of the GLC brushed my childish imagination. On the fiction front, I – like so many others: Elena Ferrante. My daughter has beaten me to volume two. Very nice to be sharing a reading experience with her.

Consensus

A comment on my last post asked me to outline what a literary agent does. It’s not really my intention in writing these entries to make general pronouncements on the publishing trade – more to offer my own personal and partial take on it. There are plenty of places online where discussions of the role of the literary agent can be found. This book chapter by the agent David Smith has always struck me as nicely clear and comprehensive. It was published in 2007, but still holds true. Things are changing fast, but certain things in publishing remain pretty constant: the emotions and ambitions of a writer; their need to have someone fighting their corner. Rereading David’s essay, though, I’m struck by his comment about the agent’s role as editor prior to submission: ‘You may think you’ve perfected it [the manuscript] but it’s quite likely that your agent will suggest revisions. These are not so much aesthetic considerations as responses based on her experience of whatever consensus or prejudice is at large within publishing.’ Gosh. I feel the burden every day of knowing what those consensuses or prejudices are, but sometimes thinking a book doesn’t fit them – and it might be impossible to make it fit them without doing that book damage. Sometimes I feel I shouldn’t offer to represent that book, much as I like it, because it will only lead to unhappiness for me and the author as I try to find a niche for it that isn’t there; other times it feels exciting to challenge the consensus.

 
This week the legendary Knopf editor and rights director Carol Janeway died, very suddenly. It feels impossible that someone who has dominated publishing for so many years should no longer be there to orchestrate and inspire. I have been fortunate enough to have encountered and worked with Carol in many different ways throughout my publishing life, from lowly assistant to agent as I am now. She was always very generous to me, if – I tended to feel – slightly amused by what she rightly saw as my desire to please and emulate her, and to be a player in my own right when she was the biggest player of all. If anyone didn’t fit in a box it was Carol. She was a brilliant editor, translator, rights seller – a kind of agent within a publishing company in her fierce loyalty to authors and her hot-shot deal making. I don’t think she thought about ‘consensus’ when she acquired a book. She went after books that fed her intellectual hunger and her enjoyment of a darned good read; books she thought would make a difference in the world. And they did! And often made buckets of money at the same time. She had a linguistic exuberance that was constantly mashing up sentences and playing with words, another example of her determination never to be the same as anyone else. It made email correspondence with her a joy. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed so much at emails as those I got from Carol. I loved her irreverence. Her generation of publishing is passing. I worry that the consensus is winning, but I’m going to keep hold of her spirit. In the memorable words of one of her emails to me on the subject of cover design: ‘What we do not want, indeed what would sink us, is a nice, conventional, twiddle-de-dee jacket that resembles another mere 37 books out there […] Okay, I’m going to swing for the fences, in the American vernacular. Hang onto your hat…….’

 

Books I’m taking on holiday

Lucia Berlin A Manual For Cleaning Women (short stories by a writer who died in 2004 and is said to be one of the ‘best writers you’ve never heard of’, being published in September by Kate Harvey at Picador who sent me a proof. I’m curious.)

Paul Mason Post-Capitalism (Just out. The first time I’ve pre-ordered something on Amazon.)

Michael Chabon The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (Because I loved Kavalier & Clay but have never read this, and my author, Derek Miller, mentioned he’d recently re-read it so I thought I ought to catch up.)

Inheritance

In the past couple of weeks some big appointments have been announced in the British literary world. Michal Shavit is to become Publishing Director of Cape, Mitzi Angel of Faber. This is fantastic news. Two wonderful editors with really interesting taste. And they are women, which breaks the mould at both places, and gives the lie to Cape being a ‘boys’ club’, something that Dan Franklin was always keen to dispute anyway.

Good news as this is for UK publishing, and for Cape and Faber, spare a thought for the people for whom it will be less good news: the authors who get left editor-less. One of my clients is published by Mitzi and though he was, of course, happy for her, it’s disconcerting to lose the person who was your champion within a publishing house, and your creative partner. An important part of the agent’s role is a) to attempt to set an author up with an editor who you think (hope!) will provide a stable home for some years to come and b) failing that, provide that stable home yourself to smooth the anxious transition from one editor to another.

I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that sometimes the loss of an editor can be disastrous for an author’s career. I’ve seen that happen. The editor who acquires a book generally enters into a symbiotic relationship with it whereby the fortunes of that book/author are intimately linked to their own. The editor who inherits a book from an editor who has left doesn’t feel quite the same symbiosis, however much they like the book. To look at it more positively though, it may well be that the inheriting editor has a lot to prove and therefore works twice as hard at making the book a success – and brings a fresh eye.

I’ve done a lot of inheriting in my time, and I’ve done a fair amount of leaving too. Both need careful management. In fact the role that Michal Shavit is leaving at Harvill Secker she inherited from me when I left to become an agent (and she managed the transition with wonderful tact towards me and my authors), and I inherited it from others before me. Inheritance can bring enormous fortune. If I hadn’t inherited authors at Harvill Secker, I would never have got to have dinners with Umberto Eco, to hang out with Jean-Claude Carrière at Bruce Robinson’s farmhouse or publish Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías (well, the latter was more of a poach from Harvill when I was an editor at Chatto, but that is a more complicated story to save for another blog). But it’s not just about the big names. You don’t have to have acquired a book to fall in love with it. When Jonathan Burnham left Chatto to begin his ascent into American publishing, I inherited a book he had acquired on proposal from the nature writer Roger Deakin. It was Roger’s first book and I think he was very grumpy about losing his editor, but I threw my heart and soul into what became Waterlog – and, as I was saying to my aunt last night, you know a book has become a bit of a classic when it has had that many different cover treatments. Anyway, I’m not sure what the moral of this blog is, except to say to authors who lose the editors: DON’T PANIC. You have your agent, and the incoming editor will be generally be desperate to please you.

What I’m Reading This Week (other than submissions and books I represent)

George Saunders’ short stories – finally. I bought Tenth of December because I thought I needed to know what all the fuss was about. Now, only three stories into the collection, I know. A few days ago a friend came to supper and had a 2011 copy of The New Yorker in her bag with a brilliant Saunders story in it ‘Home’. I see that I will meet ‘Home’ as I get towards the end of Tenth of December. The other story in the 2011 New Yorker was by Jeffrey Eugenides and I recognised it as part of The Marriage Plot. Strange to be transported back to a time when The Marriage Plot wasn’t published and I was desperately trying to acquire it, writing imploring letters to Eugenides’s editor Lynn Nesbit – not knowing that only a few months afterwards she would hire me at Janklow & Nesbit, and – if I had acquired the book – I would have been leaving Jeffrey Eugenides to be inherited by a new UK editor …

Up Close and Personal

When I was an editor, persuading a writer to be published by me depended on her or him liking me, my colleagues, the reputation of the imprint and the amount of money we were offering. It was frustrating if the four elements failed to match up, particularly when I had only moderate control over the other three. But, as an agent, when persuading a writer to be represented by me (which I’ve been attempting to do this week) it’s pretty much down to me alone, since the Janklow & Nesbit part is a no brainer. Damn. No more excuses.

So much of publishing involves laying one’s personal taste down on the line. You just have to be brazen about it and hope others will be convinced. It generally doesn’t work to take on a book that doesn’t speak to you, even though you know it’s saleable. My colleagues and I come up against this frequently: we know a project will ‘sell’ but we can’t, personally, embrace it. We torture ourselves a bit (a lot), then generally let it go and pray the advance it gets won’t be too massive and make us feel ill.

An interesting editorial by Philip Jones in The Bookseller (3 July): ‘The corporatisation of publishing means on-the-record access to senior executives in now more difficult than ever to secure […] I do not lack access, but it is harder to find individuals who are willing to make their private comments public – or those who will do so without first having their views vetted and run through the corporate wash.’

On the subject of speaking one’s mind, an author came up to me at a party the other day to apologise for giving a novelist I represent a bad review – or at least not so much to apologise as to say why she had to do it. It was an awkward moment. I felt fiercely loyal to the novelist in question, but I couldn’t argue with the reviewer’s desire to be frank. It’s important that bad reviews are published so that it is not just one writer scratching the back of another. That said, I do question the decision of newspaper editors to give novelists novels to review on the basis that they have written a book on a similar subject. It may be that those novelists are too steeped in their way of doing things to be entirely clear sighted about the efforts of another writer. I have read two such reviews recently where the reviewers got tetchy with the characters for being unlikeable. The reviewers didn’t seem to take into account that maybe the author had wanted the characters to be in some ways unlikeable in places. And anyway, what’s wrong with unlikeable characters? The reviewers obviously hadn’t enjoyed reading the books, but one had to wonder why that might be. Were they in some ways too close to read generously?

What I’m Reading This Week (other than submissions and books I represent)

I’ve discovered the perfect bedtime reading. Usually I’ve consumed so many words in the day that I can’t bear to read another sentence before going to sleep. But Laura Barber at Granta has transformed bedtime by giving me a copy of Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, a book of short autobiographical essays. Keret lifts self-abnegation to beautiful, hilarious heights. After a day of putting on a brave face, it’s wonderfully comforting to read someone who lays his faults down on the page with such ease and humour. He does the same with the terrors and miseries of global affairs. He manages to be both painfully insightful about them while offering the mechanisms to withstand despair. It’s like the opposite of watching Newsnight. After a dose of Keret all anxieties can be laughed knowingly aside and I can sink into sleep with a smile on my face.

About Time

The theme of this, my first blog as a literary agent, is TIME. Why?

Because enough time has passed after I stopped being an editor at Random House and became an agent with Janklow & Nesbit UK (3 years) for me to feel confident enough in my new identity to talk about it.

Because I want to be able to take a bit of time to express my thoughts about being an agent in a way that I can’t do in the 140 characters of a tweet, but not too much time because I don’t have enough of it for the writing of elegant articles. I want a place to throw down some ad hoc ideas occasionally, and I thought this might be it.

Time is part of the currency of being a literary agent: as well as publishing expertise, it is what one can offer an author – the time to read their work, to think about it, to talk about it, to take care of details in the publishing of it – in a way that others who are pushed for time (often the publishers!) fail to do. So I feel a little nervous about being seen by my clients to be doing something that isn’t directly related to working on their behalf. But hopefully they’ll forgive me.

Because time is flying. Agents think hard about the best time to submit a manuscript to publishers. It’s July and we’re getting into holiday season. I still have two novels that I want to get out to editors before they disappear on their summer holidays. (Or rather, one is a fantastic mash-up of fiction and non-fiction so not exactly a novel, but I’ll write more about that in future.) Help, I should be sending those authors their editorial notes so that they can do the revisions by next week instead of writing this!

Because how one spends one’s time has been one of the challenges of learning to be a literary agent. It was so fantastic to leave the treadmill of a publishing house where I was at the mercy of so many imposed deadlines: January books’ cover copy, February books’ cover briefs, March books to copy editing, April books’ marketing meeting. How wonderful to be able to make my own decisions about how to spend my time: should I trawl magazines for non-fiction ideas or read short story collections in search of interesting fiction writers? But it also introduced a great deal of existential angst. What books should I be spending my time on? I’m getting better at trusting my instincts on that now.

Because I had a great discussion with a busy journalist this morning who said she believed in answering emails immediately to say that, actually, she didn’t have the time to answer properly immediately but would get back soon. If only all journalists believed this. It’s so great to get an answer, even if it is an admission of busyness. I try to follow this principal myself when authors seeking agents send me a submission. I tell them to nudge me if they don’t hear. Finding the time to concentrate on new submissions is so difficult and I’m more than happy to be nudged on more than one occasion. Don’t give up on me: I will try to answer you in the end. (Help, I should be reading some submissions instead of writing this!)

What I’m Reading This Week (other than submissions and books I represent)

Because I’ve spent this week reading a totally extraordinary book in which time plays a crucial role. Philip Gwyn Jones, the publisher of Scribe, gave me Jeremy Gavron’s memoir A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for His Mother. Gavron’s mother Hannah committed suicide in 1965 when he was a toddler. His family hardly spoke about her after that, and he grew up knowing very little about her life. When his older brother died, it galvanised him to seek out information about her, and to try and understand why she took her life. Gradually he uncovers a picture of a woman struggling to fit together all the pieces of her identity as a wife, mother, worker, thinker in an era when breaking out of the mould of what society wanted women to be could send you over the edge. One day I’ll have time to write more about all the ways in which this book moved me, emotionally and intellectually, but for now I’ll just say that I’ve been looking for a book to make sense of my time in life – what it is to be the daughter of a working mother who was educated in the late fifties and early sixties – and this is it. I found some of what I was looking for in Rachel Cooke’s Her Brilliant Career, a book referenced a couple of times by Gavron, but this is much more about my mother’s generation and therefore illuminated so many things about mine. All of you who work in publishing or reviewing, try to get hold of a copy. For those of you who don’t, sadly you’ll have to wait until it’s published in November.