A big thank you to literary agent, Andrew Lownie, for speaking at our October event. It was a lively and inspiring event and we’ve had some great feedback from members. If you’d like the recording, join the club and we’ll send it straight to you. Andrew has kindly given us his notes from the event:
I’ve been an agent for the last 25 years having been bookseller, journalist, publisher and written books myself. I was the Director of Curtis Brown until setting up my own agency in 1988. About 90% of my list is non-fiction. I used to sell about 50 books in UK and dozen in US each year but those numbers halved and US income is down 75%. A lot of my books now earn out because publishers are more realistic about advances.
When I first started as an agent I wore a suit every day and received about ten submissions a day. If something was very urgent we used telex or fax. I talked a lot on the phone, went to lots of parties, had long lunches and often sold a book over lunch.
Now I receive over a hundred submissions a day, almost all by e mail, largely communicate by editors by e mail (their phones are usually on ansaphone and they’re in meetings) and books are only sold after a long and involved process. I normally give a month’s deadline to allow the proposal to go through all the various meetings but invariably deadlines are not kept.
Proposals have become more important as they need to convince not just the editorial dept but also sales, publicity, rights, even production . They have to be constructed in such a way that they can be gutted easily by the various people reading them.
More of my time is spent reading and assessing submissions, keeping abreast of the latest developments in publishing – POD, e books, digital down load, territorial splits – , working more closely with publishing depts such as publicity and legal.
It’s taking longer to place books because more boxes need to be ticked by more people. They’re often sales driven so looking for last year’s bestseller and not next year’s and lists much more homogenous – so publishers are looking at what sold well last year and then trying to buy something similar – rather than trying to break the mould with something new.
Huge numbers of books are now largely sold online or through supermarkets which conditions which sort of books are bought – inspirational memoir, brand fiction, crime are all popular as a result.
I sell largely by pitch e mail to about a dozen editors. Depending on responses and if they respond, I will e mail the proposal asking for decision by certain time, laying out rights on offer, suggesting if appropriate they meet author. I rarely auction books as don’t like constraints of rigid rules but everything is sold now on multiple submission.
Depending on responses I may make fresh submissions with a revised proposal or try and bring in other bidders if an offer.
This varies for every single author. With some I’m in contact almost daily, whilst others merely the odd e mail. Some like meetings while others I never meet, some need lots of editorial feedback from me whilst others have strong relationships with their editors. Some are demanding, others easy. Some make lots of money, others cost me by the time I’ve paid for reports and the overheads of opening a file. Those topping the batting list one year may be bottom another. Some authors have been with me for 25 years, others stay for a short time feeling they can do better elsewhere.
Some books have lots of legal questions or royalty statements need closer checking. Some authors complain about everything, others say nothing but their concerns about agent or publisher suddenly erupt. It’s not a business which is always rational because it’s more than a business- though it’s that too – it’s a service where one is dealing with creative, temperamental people who may not always be able to see the full picture.
Publisher/Agent relationship I deal with over a hundred editors but invariably I sell more books to some editors than others because of similar tastes or lists, some easier to deal with, better publishers. Some publishers such as Collins & Penguin are good at selling books but are not always easy to deal with, smaller publishers may make up for lack of marketing clout by imaginative publicity.
I try and stay on good terms with everyone but inevitably there are sometimes fallings out. Publishers feel aggrieved because the author has been moved or they have been criticised. I can be irritated by lack of professionalism – not returning calls, arrogance, poor performance, contracts being cancelled. A bit like all relationships they wax and wane.