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How does a literary agency sell its authors?

Andrew Lownie

How does a literary agency sell its authors? We asked bestselling agent Andrew Lownie.

This is an extract from an article that first appeared in issue 7 of Publishing Talk Magazine.

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There are three elements to selling books to publishers:

  1. an agency needs to have saleable books in the first place
  2. the proposals need to be the best they can be
  3. one needs to know the right editors to approach and not give up too easily.

My agency spends a lot of time and effort on the website, as it’s a crucial tool in presenting the public face of the agency, in attracting potential authors and in selling rights. The website runs to several thousand pages with individual pages for each author – with a photo and link to their own website – and each book with the jacket cover, a précis of the book, review extracts and the rights sold. There are also pages for latest news, current submissions, publishing tips, forthcoming releases, and much more.

Details of what books have been sold, important reviews, short-listings for prizes etc are posted on a daily basis in the news section. These postings are also carried over onto the agency’s Facebook pages and Twitter account which has some 7,000 followers. There are also commissioned articles, such as the popular annual feature ‘What Editors Want’, which tend to be picked up on social media. The result is we receive an enormous number of visits to the website – over 20,000 in January 2015, for example – and, as a consequence, some 500 submissions each week.

From those 20,000 submissions each year, we’ll pick maybe 20 authors.

From those 20,000 submissions each year, we’ll pick maybe 20 authors. This isn’t a simple or cheap process but we take submissions very seriously, from the standpoint of how can we make them work, rather than why we should reject them. Every single submission is read by the agency and a response sent with perhaps two proposals or manuscripts a day sent for further readings by external experts. These reports do not come cheap and constitute the agency’s biggest annual bill. Quite often this development process can go through a dozen readings over a period of years but it’s time well spent as the more polished the proposal, the easier it is to sell.

Once we have our ducks in a row, we need to attract the interest of publishers. Every book is pitched by phone, or more often, a personalised email to a dozen appropriate editors and, if they don’t respond by either declining or calling it in, then they are politely chased. The agency also sends out a newsletter to some 4,000 subscribers, with links through to the website entries, the first weekend of every month, giving agency news for the previous month, details of books sold in all territories, a pitch for all books on current submission, links to articles on the website and links to books to be published that month. Many editors don’t subscribe so it’s individually emailed to them a week later asking if there is anything they would like to call in.

Both my fiction colleague David Haviland and I also make a point of meeting editors, especially the younger ones just starting out, for coffee, drinks or lunch on a regular basis to pitch ideas. It’s important to know and deal with a wide range of editors from every possible publishing house as one never knows where they might end up and what they might buy. It is important, too, to be patient and not give up on editors who never buy from one – I sold my first book to one editor, whom I had known since university, almost thirty years after I first submitted to him. Finally, we make the general trade aware of our books by rights posting or announcing deals on Publishers Marketplace and this is particularly good at bringing in film and US enquiries from companies and editors unknown to us. That current buzzword ‘discoverability’ can also be applied to authors’ books before they are published and our aim, often using scouts, is to ensure as many people in publishing know about our books as early as possible.

The agency tends to submit in waves so that there is always scope to try new publishers in the light of the comments on why the proposal was turned down. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of revising the proposal or building the profile/platform of the author, sometimes it’s a matter of timing and withdrawing the proposal for a future date or new proposal.

Often we will submit 20 times trying to find the right editor and I’ve occasionally sold a book to an editor who’d forgotten they’d already rejected it! With The Girl with No Name: the Incredible True Story of the Girl Raised by Monkeys by Marina Chapman, I persevered for five years of due diligence to make her case and five different ghosts worked on the book but it became an international bestseller sold to seventeen countries including separately to Australia, Canada and US. Daniel Tammet’s autism memoir Born on a Blue Day took as long and was even more successful selling to twenty five countries. I make the analogy to authors that sometimes one needs to kiss a lot of frogs before one meets one’s prince.

Authors don’t just come in on the ‘slush pile’.

Authors don’t just come in on the ‘slush pile’. Both David and I network extensively by speaking and attending writer conferences and events, taking part in Guardian Masterclasses and the London Author Fair, using LinkedIn and Twitter to target interesting authors and approaching writers who have appeared in the media, though we never knowingly approach a writer whom we know to be already represented.

We also suggest projects to authors; a good example is Clare Mulley’s The Spy Who Loved about the SOE agent Christine Granville, now optioned to a Hollywood studio and sold in a range of countries. Recently I put an idea to an author of mine, which he researched with seed money I arranged through a national newspaper, and we now have a book to sell with a serial already tied to it. Naturally, we are always open to finding authors for book ideas put up by editors – especially since those ideas usually tend to be commissioned. Recently an editor said they wanted a teacher’s memoir from an inner city comprehensive and I duly worked through educational columnists to find someone.

I also make a point of approaching agents in other fields whether it is speaker agencies or those managing celebrities or sports stars. They can often do something for my authors and vice versa. Such partnerships have brought the memoirs of such reality stars as Sam Faiers, Kirk Norcross and Nanny Pat of The Only Way is Essex and Spencer Matthews of Made in Chelsea. My own involvement in the Biographers Club and Biographers International Organisation has brought several successful writers to the agency.

Increasingly the agency has taken to ‘establishing’ a book by either selling it in another territory first – we’ve recently done this successfully in the US, Germany, Australia and South Africa – or through the agency imprint Thistle Publishing When, for example, no publisher was interested in Monica Porter’s ‘yummy-grand-mummy’ memoir Raven: My Year of Dating Dangerously, the agency published the book through its own imprint Thistle, sold a serial to the Mail on Sunday for a three-week run and used the interest to attract interest from foreign publishers and film companies.

Thistle, under the management of David Haviland, has now published some two hundred books over the last year – a mixture of agency backlist and frontlist – as well as several Thistle ‘shorts’. A good example is Guardian correspondent Shaun Walker’s Odessa Dreams: The Dark Heart of Ukraine’s Online Marriage Industry, published in conjunction with Amazon Kindle Singles, which is currently number one in Russian travel guides on Amazon! I’ve just signed an audio deal as a result of another Thistle ‘short’ in partnership with Kindle Singles – Katharine Quarmby’s account of her search for her birth father Blood and Water: An Anglo-Iranian Love Story. Indeed, a real focus in recent months, as part of the agency’s mission to develop as many revenue streams as possible for authors, has been to exploit unsold territorial and subsidiary rights in agency books and seek reversion when publishers are not exploiting those rights themselves.

The agency has always been responsive to the market. Having initially specialised in serious non-fiction, especially biography and history, the agency quickly also moved into memoirs, seeing that publishers’ commissioning policy was being shaped by the growing importance of the supermarkets. The result is the agency now represents many of the leading authors of inspirational memoir, including bestselling authors Cathy Glass and Casey Watson, and the success of these authors brings in other authors in the field. Given the importance of ghost writers to work with such authors, the agency developed a strong brand as an agency for ghost writers with their very own themed ‘ghosts’ party every Halloween. The agency now represents over thirty ghost writers who have their own dedicated section on the website. As a result, publishers will often approach the agency looking for ghosts where they have a project in need of some editorial help, and it means the agency can ‘package’ books in-house, linking agency authors with the right ghost giving greater control. Every two months, editors who commission books which require ghost writers, receive a ‘ghost newsletter’.

It isn’t easy selling books and there are no shortcuts to success – it’s taken me 30 years of agenting to get to where I am now – but if one is nimble, responsive, pleasant, prepared to think outside the box, reads proposals and manuscripts diligently, attends events and responds to every email, phone call and letter the deals will come. It’s important to be courteous – but also firm – and to always put the needs of the book first. Agenting requires imagination, flexibility, a thick skin to cope with constant rejection and hard work – both David and I work over 70-hour weeks and rarely take any holiday – but it is rewarding to feel that one has given a life to a writer’s prose and how the lives of both authors and readers can be changed by publication. Even, after over 1,500 deals, I take pleasure in every deal done and in the launching and nurturing of writers’ careers.


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Andrew Lownie

Andrew Lownie, the bestselling literary agent in the world according to Publishers Marketplace, was short-listed for The Bookseller UK literary agent of the year in 2014 and 2015. He has run his own agency, the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency, since 1988 having previously been a director of Curtis Brown and worked as a bookseller, journalist and publisher. He has served on the committee of EnglishPen and in 1997 founded the Biographers Club, a networking organisation for biographers of which he is now President. He is also the author himself of several books, including Stalin's Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess.