An outsider's impression of the work of a literary agency

Having recently graduated from the University of Glasgow, and with her first historical novel still very much unwritten, Laura Buchan was looking for direction. Keen to learn more about the role of the literary agent in the publishing world she spent a week with The Andrew Lownie Literary Agency. Here she outlines her first impressions of the agency’s work.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Andrew Lownie sleeps at his desk. As the man who received nearly 20,000 unsolicited proposals last year, it is hard to imagine he finds time to nap. In this current climate, as the newspapers are constantly reminding us, being a graduate is not ideal and for someone with a degree in Scottish Literature and an obsession with castles, finding a job which would allow me to visit ruined peel towers every morning was never going to happen instantly. So when last week, Andrew Lownie offered me work experience ‘from a distance’ I went straight to Laptops Direct to rid my own of its viruses.

In preparation I read Andrew’s article, ‘An Agency Week’ in which he charted a ‘typical’ seven days. By the time I had reached Tuesday afternoon I was feeling fairly exhausted and by Sunday morning, when it seemed he had still not left his desk, I was regretting my arts degree and seriously reconsidering my choice of career.

However, I surrendered my email address and soon found myself on the receiving end of a barrage of emails that would make the complaints department at the News of the World envious as I was linked in to Andrew’s correspondence 414 miles south in Great Smith Street. They were ‘just a sample for last week’ but as number 186 arrived, and my computer threatened to crash, I feared I would be returning to Laptops Direct sooner than expected.

I first had to recover from the shock of discovering that everything seemed to be done by email (only four items of post arrived at Andrew’s office when I visited him the next week) as I subscribe to the fantasy that all authors live in attic rooms and write with a dip ink pen throughout the night pausing only to roar to their long suffering partner below stairs to bring more wine .

And so I followed while editors were nudged, authors prodded, publishers were negotiated with and somehow he managed to find the time to read everything submitted, from a university library murder mystery to the most miserable of misery memoirs. What struck me instantly was the range of roles the literary agent undertakes as accountant, journalist, researcher, marketing director, editor, talent scout, negotiator and often, that of an ombudsman.

What’s most appealing is that you are essentially a filter, who sifts the silt to discover the good books on behalf of the public. Sandwiched between the author and the publishing house, the agent guides the author, helping them develop ideas and protect their interests to create a commercial end product. It is not just the book, but also newspaper serialisation, foreign rights, TV and film. And of course they get to read scores of proposals (many of which should never be allowed to make it onto paper, Kindle, Nook or iPad).

After trawling through my email account (they were now being directed into their own file) I quickly discovered just how eclectic are the submissions that Andrew receives (at all hours of the day) , from the brilliant to the downright bizarre. For someone whose list includes ‘Sugar Daddy Diaries’ and a book which deals with British military failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is clear he does not want to be pigeon holed.

The proposals came from far and wide and in all shapes and sizes (one author even provided a full head shot). One author introduced themselves as his ‘next bestselling author,’ whilst another addressed him as ‘friend.’ (Alexander Pollock Watt would be turning in his grave). One submission even began, ‘Dear Honourable & Respected Literary Agent I earnestly request to be represented by your triumphant Literary Agency to the world’s largest publishers.’

There was a tale of drug store bandits, a law chambers drama, a book on modern fatherhood, self styled ‘motivational’ and ‘inspirational’ memoirs, personal development books, and a ‘diary of a Muslim teen housewife.’ One author proposed a book about the leading ladies who have played Agatha Christie’s Tweed-clad spinster sleuth, Miss Marple while another pitched a biography of an X Factor judge.

Then there was the blog which aspired to be a novel by a woman who had surrendered herself so completely to motherhood that she had taken it upon herself to write about her 5 year old daughter, everyday for a whole year. A 100,000 word ‘romantic mystery’ in which a serial killer attacks residents on ‘Country Club Drive,’ a novel which claimed to be ‘an exploration into the heart of man, the heart of existence…a conversation between humanity and nature told as an ecological philosophical, revolutionary thriller,’ and finally a 53 page proposal for a self help book pitched by a clairvoyant who claimed to have a ‘direct and authentic communication with God and his angles’ and felt it was time for her to ‘heal the world,’ I felt it was time Andrew started charging a reading fee.

As he is forced to turn down roughly 19,885 proposals each year, I realised it would be his responses that would really teach me something. In my ignorance, I would sometimes give a book the thumbs up to find that he had in fact given it the thumbs down. Often perfectly good books were turned down for a variety of reasons; that they were not sufficiently commercial, that he felt he was not the right agent, that there was a competing book or that the author didn’t have a substantial enough profile if they were writing in a particular area. Sometimes the author was simply using the wrong medium, that their book was better suited as a screenplay.

After the week was up, I used what was left of my student loan to subscribe to every publishing house’s newsletter/book trader’s lunchtime news feed and returned home where I found I looked at my shelves of books with a lot more respect, understanding to a greater degree quite how much effort had gone into creating each one of them.