A Week in the Life of a Literary Agency

Andrew Lownie describes part of his working week in a new 'A Week in the Life of a Literary Agency'.

A number of readers have asked if I would write another article about a ‘typical’ week in the agency which I’m happy to do. The first working week of the New Year is less typical than most – no lunches or launches - but a diary of the week’s activities will give some idea of what an agent does. No week is the same but I hope this diary will be helpful in showing the amazing variety of submissions. If there is interest, I can produce such a blog monthly.

Monday January 5th Though I have been working throughout the Christmas period responding to e mails and catching up on reading, today is officially my first in the office .

Submissions in my inbox are as varied as ever and include: an account of the 2007 vintage car rally Peking to Paris; an oral history of three boys growing up in Feltham; a ‘Caribbean-influenced cookbook’; the humorous memoirs of a teacher; a book which “knits personal observation, geology, history and meteorology to properly explore the multi-faceted world of hill exploration”; the memoirs of a medium; a literary gay novel; a novel about the SS; the autobiography of a foetus (“an amusing, light-hearted and surreal account of the whole pregnancy experience told from the baby’s point of view”); a “..diary format covering the 100 men I have dated over 21 years.”; a political thriller set in Switzerland; “an insiders expose of the UK & US mortgage markets”; the memoir of a woman working with disabled Romanian children; a comic novel about the younger brother of Jesus; a book on the friendship of Victoria and Napoleon 111 already published in France; a study of Jamaican track athletes; a guide to “Gender, Sexuality & Touch in the Doctor Patient Relationship” and a request to give a pup a new home. All are looked at and rejected including the pup request.

The post brings more interesting submissions: an Evolution proposal; an application for ‘work shadowing placement’ from a sixth form girl and another from a male Leeds University postgraduate; a Canadian publishing catalogue; a fresh Greek tax form as the first was not authorised by the tax office; a novel set in 8th c Byzantium; a remainder notice from Penguin asking if the author wants to buy stock which I forward; a US royalty statement which I check and forward to the author; two publishing invitations; a French contract which I send on to the author; a television consultancy fee and a signature advance which I process and pay to the authors; a misery memoir; a semi biographical novel based on an 18th courtesan/spy and the memoirs of a psychotherapist and of a drug dealer -two different submissions.

Pitch my list to a new scout acting on behalf of Russian, Czech and Arabic publishers.

A call from an undercover drugs agent offering his memoirs which sound like dynamite and I ask to see proposal.

Several authors have delivered over Christmas. I’ll invoice publishers once the scripts have been accepted and meanwhile start reading the manuscripts myself.

Tuesday January 6th Dozens of overnight e mails including: “a humorous look at the security industry and what really goes on behind the closed doors of that profession”; a “Basic Defense Material for Latinos and South American Businessmen”; “Sicily through plants, flowers, folklore, legends, myths, magic and cures"; a book on Hitler, Stalin and Muhammad; an “erotic psycho-thriller”; a “comprehensive dictionary of English-Arabic idioms supplemented with examples”; an“ environmental adventure novel with mystical elements”; a “fictional biography”; a “business book about Comercial (sic) producing of Mushrooms”, a novel described as Where Eagles Dare meets Darcula (sic); the translation of a 1977 Polish novel and a memoir which “ explores what it is like to be gay in Jamaica as well as what it is like to be an illegal immigrant in the UK”

The post brings a Spanish crime novel published in 1994 but with no covering letter or contact details so it goes straight in the pile of books for Oxfam and a copy of the magazine Landscape & Urban Design- how did I get on their mailing list? Other submissions include a new genre ‘African chick lit’; a 'domestic violence handbook' – presumably aimed at victims rather than practitioners; ‘ How to make a fortune from Odd Socks’; a proposal which “chronicles the fascinating events leading up to the creation of, and the ensuing 128 year history of the New York State Soldiers' and Sailors' Home at Bath, New York”; “a true story about a wannabe rock star who is guided by aliens”; a cleaning manual “using ‘old fashioned’ and predominantly environmentally friendly products (vinegar, lemon juice, bicarbonate etc)” written in Scottish slang; a novel in the “Christian medical thriller category”; something described as the “world's first adult themed coloring book”; a history of U.S. military personal identity tags; a memoir called I’m not Asleep, I’m Resting my Eyebrows; a spoof horror novel entitled Zombie Lesbian Flesh Eaters; a history of Zimbabwe from 1200 AD to the present day; a memoir of busking around Europe by a New York cop and an invitation to visit an online website that sells Brazilian lingerie and greeting cards with the submitter's own poetry on it.

Radio 4’s PM programme ring up. They are doing a programme on biography on the strength of Diana Athill winning the Costa Prize for Biography at 91 and ask if I’ll appear. I agree to do so but hear no more.

Submit to publishers a collection of letters, though unfortunately only one side, from a young British woman to an older American man which give a fascinating insight into the immediate post-war period. Shades of 84 Charing Cross Road and a currently successful book Nella Last’s Peace. The wonderful back story is the letters were lost for over forty years and the writer is still alive in her nineties .

As a favour go through a contract for the friend of an author.

Typed review extracts for website.

Go to the Post Office where I send three spare paperbacks to an author, post a book to an Egyptian publisher, return a contract to my Polish sub agent, pass on a book to author in Russia which Harvill want a jacket quote for and post a self-published memoir to Oxford which has been sent unsolicited .

Start reading a novel set in Sicily during World War Two.

Wednesday January 7th

E mails this morning include: “Calculations in Secondary Chemistry”; a study of the Vedic era of early Indo-Aryans; the memoirs of a Las Vegas cab driver; a story about “an unwanted ink dot who dreams to be a star in the sky”; a history of Detroit; a book offered “ as the replacement for The Ten Commandments”; “Life coaching to the English speaking Muslim Market”; a television sit com; “ a portrayal of Charles Manson through letters he has written and conversation he had with me for the last seventeen years of his life”;” the first life coaching/personal development book of it's kind that is aimed at 9-13 year old girls” ; a book described “as ‘grit-lit’ as opposed to ‘chick-lit’ in that it has spiritual aspirations and dark undertones…”; “My story as a cheerleader and a wrestler”; a guide to the Venomous Animals of Southern Spain and an invitation to a wine and cheese party in Virginia.

Call from a news desk asking if an author will write the obituary of a dying world leader. Have to point out that the author beat the proposed subject to the grave.

Talk to a Sunday paper about selling them serial rights in a controversial book. If I have them on board it will be easier to place the book with publishers.

Agree to give back list e-book rights to a crime novelist’s publisher but only on a two year licence as not clear what will happen in e-book market.

Update website with latest review extracts, sales information, blurbs etc.

Read a fascinating diary by a US pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan. Put it out for a reader’s report and tell the author I’m interested. I know a US agent is keen so I’ll need to move fast.

An editor at Yale University Press comes for tea. She says they are doing more ‘reading books’ ie books with more text and less illustration and expresses interest in a number of authors.

Thursday 8th January The submissions today include : a novel from a fourteen year old girl; a childhood memoir of life in Liverpool 1932-1943; a father's memoir of his 28 year old fireman son killed in an explosion; the memoirs of an antique dealer;“; a novel on Kiraaghi daughter of Osiris; a collection of writings “ based on my "random thoughts" on many different issues”; "a series of 20 non-fictional episodes that took place during the 1960s period of my consulting activities in North Africa and Iraq;"; a mercantile history of the German trading organisation known as the Hansa ; an historical novel in Italian; a novel about a girl working for an advertising agency in Kazakhstan and an author offering “ gothic shenanighans, sexy romps, sci-fi ventures”.

A Reader reports on a self-published teenage novel which I have also read and has had excellent Amazon reviews. Though the market for male teenage fiction can be a lucrative one, neither he nor I feel the writing is strong enough to take this one on. He also feels there is not enough action in the pilot’s diary for it to appeal beyond American specialist military publishers so I turn that down too.

Discuss with an author how his travel book might be refocused after several turn downs. He’s a good writer and I think it’s simply a matter of timing – the market for such books is tough but someone will take it.

Have separated Canadian rights for a book I have just sold and discuss how it might be customized with my Canadian sub-agent.

A life coach offers a guide for women setting up in business, which could be timely, but there are plenty of such guides already and there is nothing special about her approach. Back to the old problem of profile. A book questioning the role work plays in our lives is also pertinent but again don’t feel it says anything particularly fresh or profound. A book entitled How to Talk to Your Polish Builder does have possibilities but is anyone spending money on their houses anymore and haven’t the Polish builders returned to Poland?

Interesting article in the Guardian with predictions on the future of media by ‘leading web thinker’ Clay Shirky arguing that newspapers will increasingly become online operations but glossy magazines will survive as “it’s much better to look at pictures on paper than on the net.” I agree with him that “the big revolution is going to be print on demand” more than e-books which will be popular in educational, travel and reference publishing but will only ever be an element of trade publishing.

Friday 9th January Deal with the e mails which have arrived overnight: a “ non-fiction novel”; a novel “about gang culture in Nigerian Universities”; “The Travelling Embalmer - part travelogue, part behind-the- scenes in a funeral home” and a proposal which promises that “ without question is the biggest breakthrough in (physics) science since Mr. Einstein brought the world E=mc2.”. Other e mail submissions comprise: an invitation from the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotions Bureau; a book on the credit crunch which has been self published; a guide to Chinese idioms; a detective novel featuring South Africa's first gay detective; a book on the training of driving instructors; a self-help book entitled Think Like a Pirate; a proposal which describes itself as the “first science fiction novel about football matches in the Persian language”; a novel about “An Englishman abroad, Eastern Europe, Indochina, kidnapping, 19th Chinese pirates, storms, treasure, sex, no swearing. All topped off with a bit about a dog “ and a biography of the Emperor Akbar.

The post brings several projects:

a cookbook aimed at single men but there are plenty of those already on the market and editors will ask what makes this one different, especially as the author has no profile; the only cook books which seem to sell are those by celebrity chefs tied to a television programme or fashionable restaurant. a memoir of how a man repaid over £50,000 debt in three years with his tips but this is a crowded market and there are plenty of media experts with far greater exposure producing these books already. Probably an article.

“i am writing a book and thinks some good literary writer can help me in getting a good publisher. So can i expect some help from your side.” I don’t bother to even reply.

Another author asks if I will “read the manuscript. it would be nice if i could have your comments. Love..” I’m sure but I’m not a free advisory service even if the author professes to love me.

"I am reliably informed you are the best script agent in perhaps the entire universe." I don’t handle scripts and have to tell her so.

An interesting pitch – "from the fabled Spitfire to the legendary Douglas Bader and Montgomery of Alamein… offers a provocative and revisionist alternative interpretation of each one from the opinion of a well-read, middle-aged, but determinedly "layman" history enthusiast" - but editors like such revisionist books to be written by experts, preferably academics.

An e mail offering a book of 7,000 pages. I ask for them to just send the synopsis.

"I am seeking a literary agent who wishes to represent only high-quality, highly marketable work." Just my sort of author.

Finally, a tempting offer - 'Train as a Plumber for a brighter future'.

Six page analysis from Nielsen on book sales for 2008 arrives by e mail. The average selling price for a book is down but, taking out Harry Potter sales, it shows volume sales up 1.3% and value sales up 0.5%. Fiction sales account for 25% of value sales and 32% of volume sales and declined respectively 1.4% and 1.7%. Adult trade non-fiction accounts for 46% of value sales and 37% of volume sales and dropped 3.2% and 2.9% with biographies and autobiographies down 3.9% and travel down 8.7%. Specialist non-fiction is 11% value and 5% volume sales and the largest product group is management books which had a value growth of 8.8%. Children’s market is 18% of value and 27% of volume sales with growth of 5.3% in value and 3.1% in volume sales.

Manuscript of a 215,000 word book with no e mail address but some US stamps for return postage arrives. It goes straight in the bin.

Author replies to a rejection “Thanks for getting back at me.” I think I know what he means.

Signed copies of an e-book agreement addendum which goes back to publisher.

Enquiry if film rights free in a Foreign Legion memoir and a request to film an author as a ‘talking head’ for a book on human sacrifice. Another company keen to contact a true life crime author. I offer to forward an e mail as I want to monitor what happens.

Author not keen on his paperback cover. I talk to his editor asking if other covers might be considered but she says everyone in the publishing house likes it and feels it will work. Explain that to the author.

Publisher alerts me to a review of an author’s book The British in France in today’s Independent. Though published last year, I’m encouraging the publisher to give a fresh push on publicity as the French Show is on at Olympia.

Read and assess a proposal for a book on King Arthur which I’ve been nurturing for over a year and is now doing well on the Harper Collins website Authonomy. Forward my reader report and my own thoughts.

Submit proposal to two American editors. I have a modest offer but need to push the bidding up.

Meet an author, who is over from Russia and writing a biography of a female foreign correspondent at the British Library, for tea. It’s a book which will have lots of review coverage and modest sales but it’s interesting.

Saturday 10th January Interesting article in Daily Telegraph on prospects for book trade in coming year. Publishers seem upbeat about prospects and it’s clear that , though there have been some flops, celebrity memoirs are still doing well with the memoirs of Paul O’Grady, Dawn French, Michael Parkinson, Julie Walters and the latest instalment in the life of Jordan all selling over 200,000 copies; the top 20 hardback celebrity memoirs have sold 2.6 million copies this year, up 47.1% year-on-year which suggests the blockbuster strategy does work. However, it’s clear that many book buyers are buying second hand rather than new books and certain areas such as misery and text books are on the wane. The predictions for this year are fascinating with some suggesting “we’ll seek comfort between the covers of romances and murder mysteries”, others that there will be a return to the classics and children’s books will do well.

But who really knows what 2009 will bring.

About article author

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Andrew Lownie

Andrew Lownie was born in 1961 and was educated in Britain and America. He read history at Magdalene College, Cambridge where he was President of the Union. He went on to gain an MSc at Edinburgh University and spend a year at the College of Law in London. After a period as a bookseller and jour...More about Andrew Lownie