In our second guest post from Abi Fellows, agent at The Good Literary Agency (TGLA), we talk about transferable skills and the realities of being an agent.
When we first started chatting, you mentioned that you came to agenting via bookselling, sales, rights and scouting – I am so envious of the overview you must have of the industry! So, first off, could you tell us a bit about you and your publishing journey?
With pleasure! My journey really started with me working as a barista in a café inside Blackwells Bookshop in Bristol, whilst I was studying at the university there. I made a LOT of coffees for the booksellers and talked a LOT a LOT about books... until I graduated, and the manager suggested it might be good for me to stop making coffees and start working in the Fiction department instead. So it was a case of right place right time.
I worked really hard and soon became a buyer for the shop, and through that I met the wonderful Sales team at Faber who employed me to work as a sales rep for them for the South West of England and Wales and the Midlands.
I loved the books and the people but a) it was too much driving and b) I wanted to move to London to do a Masters. So I left Bristol, went back to bookselling to pay my way through studying again – this time on Charing Cross Road - then started applying for publishing jobs when I graduated.
I started in agenting as an assitant and soon progressed to handling contracts, translation rights and journalism for a lot of high profile writers, learning the craft and also finding my own agenting style.
When I started a family, I found myself wanting to be at home more for a while whilst my kids were small, and I moved into scouting with the wonderful Ros Ramsay. This gave me the flexibilty I needed at that stage in my life, but it was also an amazing way to get to know a lot more about the tastes of the editors working in UK publishing and beyond.
I really loved scouting, but agenting was always in my blood I think and I missed working directly with writers. I’d also been doing voluntary work as a school govenor and this had got me thinking a lot about how much less inclusive publishing is than the schools in SE London that I work with. I want to see a publishing landscape that reflects the diversity that I see in those schools and on the streets. So joining TGLA has given me the chance to take the skills I have and apply them to making that change.
Did it help to have previous publishing experience when you decided to move into agenting?
Yes, I think so. When I first met the agent who I later went on to work with, it was useful that I already had an insight into how a book is first acquired by a publishing house as well as all the stages to publication. It also helped that I had a lot of opinions and read widely. But to this day I still think bookselling was one of the most valuable things I have done. Seeing first hand what makes a book take off and excite customers was invaluable.
That's a really good point - seeing both sides of the coin is so useful. I feel like we could all benefit from switching roles for a week! So, what does a regular day look like for you?
My days are very varied and if an offer comes in for one of my books then that sets off an exciting chain of events. But as a rule I am an early bird and like to do all the heavy-thinking stuff like contract negotiations and editing first thing when I’ve had my coffee. In pre-Covid times, I might then have a lunch or coffee with an editor – the social side of the job is really important for me in terms of keeping up to date with what editors are looking for. These days that is all on Zoom, of course, but these conversations are still invaluable! Afternoons are then for the creative side of my job – writing submission letters and pitches for books that I am working on, talking to clients about their works in progress, and – if I’m lucky – a little bit of reading time too. I never really switch off, ha! But weekends tend to be about reading published books that I haven’t worked on, so that I keep up to date with the market, and because I can’t resist the buzz around new releases.
Can you tell us some of the skills a person will develop while being an agent?
Keen negotiating skills are of course a must. As is tenacity, as we need to be willing to always go the extra mile to find the perfect home for our clients’ work. Diplomacy is very important, as we often have challenging conversations for our clients, and a calm temperament can help too. Organisational skills are also key, as we agents juggle a lot of different things.
What are some of the job’s challenges?
All agents have to do a huge amount of reading, both from existing clients and through looking for potential new clients. Carving out time to do this is important but not always easy.
Potential conflict can be challenging, too, but we’re well practised in respectful negotiations and keeping our clients’ best interests at the forefront of our minds.
Sometimes constructive criticisim is necessary when working with writers, so we have to rise to the challenge of learning how to get the best out of someone’s writing in a way that suits how they work. Interpersonal skills are very important.
Lastly, in your opinion, what qualities make an agent brilliant?
Good taste, enthusiasm, level headedness, determination and being very well read and engaged with the wider culture too. And a willingness to take risks and champion new writers!