Being a Literary Agent

Juliet headshot

Juliet Mushens is an agent in the UK literary department of The Agency Group where she represents a bestselling list of fiction and non-fiction. She was picked by The Bookseller as a Rising Star in 2012 and was shortlisted for the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize 2013. You can find her contact details on The Agency Group website. If submitting your work, please email her your cover letter and first 3 chapters.

Whenever people ask me what I do and I say ‘I’m a literary agent’, I get one of two responses. 1) How interesting, I/my partner/my mum/my dogsitter is a novelist, can I send you the book? Or 2) What does that actually mean? My answer to 1 is always ‘yes, of course, though it feels vaguely inappropriate to be considering a work written by my gynecologist’ and 2 ‘well, I’m sort of like Jerry Maguire, except instead of Cuba Gooding Jr I represent authors. And I’m an inch taller.’

In simplistic terms, I read submissions from authors, decide who to represent, work with them on their book, and then sell the rights to the book to publishers. But encased within that one straightforward sentence is a hell of a lot of background work.

EDITING: I am very hands-on editorially, and when I take on a new writer, I tend to do at least two rounds of edits before submitting to a publisher. We do at least one, big structural edit, where we address big fundamental issues with the plot, and one smaller line-edit where I pick up inconsistencies and moments that the pace lags, dialogue tweaks, and more pernickety changes. Editing is a dialogue rather than a monologue, and most authors really enjoy the process, as do I.

SELLING THE BOOK: Every time I see an editor I find out what they’re looking for, and pitch them upcoming titles of mine. When I send a book out I call the editor to pitch it again, send them a longer pitch with the manuscript, and let them know my deadline for interest. Sometimes a book can be sold in days, sometimes it takes months. Sometimes one editor offers for the book, sometimes ten do, in which case the book is auctioned between publishing houses and I manage that process.

CONTRACTS: Once I’ve sold the book, I need to work on the contract, negotiating the key terms between the publisher and author: rights, advance, royalties, reversion clauses and everything in between. The contract is then drafted, and approved – a process which can take days, or can take weeks. Some authors have just one contract with one publisher, others have thirty, and it’s my job to process these once they’ve been negotiated and approved, and to ensure that money is arriving promptly for each contract for each author. I also make sure that authors have the appropriate tax forms for each country the book is sold in, which is a lot of paperwork – I went through 110 pages of tax forms today! (And yes, I do want a medal.)

THE BIGGER PICTURE: I don’t just sell the rights to the book to a UK publisher, as far as possible I sell the rights around the world, to foreign publishers who buy the US rights or rights to publish the books in translation. Again, sometimes one editor offers for the book, or sometimes ten do. For The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, for example, at one point there were around 10 auctions taking place at once. I also look at whether I can sell audio rights separately to an audio publisher, or look to have the book optioned for film/TV. The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig was recently optioned by Dreamworks, which is an exciting process for the author.

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER A BOOK IS SOLD? I’m still very present in the process. I often read my client’s work before they deliver their second/third book to a publisher, and offer editorial notes again. I chase payments, and comment on covers, and come along to support my authors at publicity events. I offer my thoughts on cover copy, on scheduling, on marketing plans, and publicity schedules. Sometimes a book is published in the UK before it publishes in other countries, and I’m still working to sell rights in my client’s books around the world: James Oswald, for example, has sold in five further countries since publication. I also negotiate future book deals for my authors – sometimes they want to write a new genre, sometimes they move publisher, and my job is to manage their career in the long-term as well as in the short-term.

EVENTS: I tend to go along to a lot of festivals to support my authors – at World Fantasy Con I have ten authors appearing this year – and I think it is very important to be a friendly face in the audience for them. Twice a year I also attend Book Fairs where I meet with foreign publishers and pitch my titles to them. In April this happens in London, and in October this happens in Frankfurt. I have meetings every half an hour from 9am to 6pm with publishers from around the world. Often, it can be my only chance to see them face to face in a year, so it’s a high-pressured process. I also attend events for unpublished writers to offer an insight into the industry and what I’m looking for. This year I’ve given talks to The Caine Prize, Writer’s Workshop, and later on this year I’ll be speaking to Chester University students, attending the SCBWI conference, and going to the Festival of Writing. Most of these take place on weekends, so being an agent can really be a fulltime job.

EVERYTHING ELSE: I also meet with my authors to bat around ideas for future books, meet prospective clients to talk about publishing ideas, go into publishing houses to get a better sense of commissioning tastes, do a LOT of filing (seriously, TONS), enter contracts into our rights management system, read books for my colleagues in the US to look at UK potential, do elaborate spreadsheets of territories sold and when the money will filter through for an author, chase money, chase tax forms, write pitches for books, prepare for the Book Fair, organize presents for clients on publication day, comment on new ideas for authors, approve special sales deals… etc etc.

READING: Most people think I spend all day at my desk reading submissions, whereas in reality the above jobs take up the vast majority of my time. Most reading of submissions is done in evenings and weekends, and I can get up to 50 a week, which takes a while. I don’t use a reader, so everything that’s sent to me is read by me, although I know pretty quickly if it is something I’m interested in or not. I am always looking for talented writers in every genre and when I find something special, I become incredibly excited by it. Nothing beats that feeling when you read a book and suddenly think ‘this could be the next big thing…’

I love reading and finding exciting new books, and helping my writers go from unpublished authors to being able to find their books in a bookstore, to hopefully one day being household names. It’s that passion and enthusiasm which absolutely drives my day – I love my job, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

You can follow Juliet on Twitter at @mushenska


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