I'm at the West Cork Literary Festival this week, teaching a workshop for adults - Writing for Children - and talking to children. At festivals I always make the time to listen to other writers read and also to attend a masterclass or talk about something that interests me.
On Monday I listened to Julia Churchill speak and I was very taken with her honest, direct and open manner. She talked about her role as an agent and what she's looking for in a new writer. She spoke real sense and is a gifted communicator. I took lots of notes so that I could share her words of wisdom with you.
Julia is a children's agent at AM Heath after cutting her literary teeth at Darley Anderson, where she was one of the first readers to discover Cathy Cassidy in the slush pile. She says Cathy's manuscript made her cry and was one of the few manuscripts (along with Sarah Lean's) that needed little or no work before being sent out to editors at publishing houses.
This is how Julia sees her job:
- to spot talent
- to develop talent
- to sell her clients' books
- to create a career for her writers.
It's refreshing that Julia puts so much emphasis on building a career for her writers and not just selling rights. I listened to another agent speak recently and she talked largely about selling rights and not about helping her writers.
Her core 'day job' is taking care of the authors on her books. However 95% of her writers come from unsolicited manuscripts so she reads submissions in the evenings and at weekends.
First she has a quick look at the submissions and sees if there is anything really exciting in there that she needs to act on immediately, before other agents pounce on it. She wants to be the first person on the phone to this kind of author. I was impressed by her competitive nature - this is the kind of agent I'd want representing me - quick, smart and ready for action! If my own agent wasn't such a superwoman, Julia would definitely be on my list.
She said all submissions get read - which is heartening for debut writers. She reads 'Until a point that I want to stop reading' but did point out that this may be at the (bad) covering letter.
She wants 'a voice that transports me'.
She said 'most debuts will need work'. The most common problems are: too much going on - strip out anything that isn't needed.
The market is tough at the moment she explained. There are more agents than ever before, more books out on submission and less books being published. Writers have to appeal to the marketing and sales team as well as editors.
In 2014 A M Heath took on 4 new writers but new agents will take on more writers.
Julia deals with a core group of 25 editors in the various children's publishers. An important part of her job is contracts and getting the best deal for her writers.
How To Find an Agent
Julia explained that this is a marketing job. Finish your book and make it as strong as you can. There are approx 40 children's agencies - look at the Writers and Artists' Yearbook for details - the most up to date one. Find each agency's submission details and follow them. Be professional from the start. Submit to 7/8 agents and take your time. Act on any feedback you get, rewriting your manuscript.
She says the secret of a good covering letter is simplicity and a good book pitch (the paragraph about your book). You can follow up (your submission) politely after 2/3 months.
Do not follow trends - you will be launching into an overcrowded marketplace. A book can take up to 2 years to get to market, the trend may already be over.
What Julia is Looking for in a Book:
A book has to work on all these different levels. A book also needs high stakes - the reader needs to care about the characters.
She said 'Publishers can be heroic. They can take risks.' She cited Sarah Crossan's The Weight of Water as an example of this, a book in verse that went on to win many awards. 'If a book is fabulous, it will sell,' she said.
Chatting to Judi Curtin at the West Cork Literary Festival
If you are looking for a strong, wise children's agent it would be worth seeking her out.
Yours in writing,