If a literary agent ever gets a mention in the press, it is usually to report a huge sum of money extracted from a publisher as part of a glitzy deal for a high-profile author. Sometimes we read an agent’s name in the author’s acknowledgements at the start of a book, and occasionally we read of an agent involved in a feud over a dead author’s estate. Publishers have to deal with agents all the time. But what do they do? Do authors and illustrators need them? Liz Attenborough investigates.
To find out about the book business from the literary agent’s point of view, I spent some time talking to one of the best, Rosemary Sandberg, who became an agent eight years ago after a distinguished publishing career in children’s books.
After eighteen years running the children’s paperback lists at HarperCollins, with five years before that starting the Puffin Club with Kaye Webb, I wondered how Rosemary enjoyed life as an agent. ‘When I was made redundant from HarperCollins in 1991 it took me six months to think about what I might want to do next. I was ready to start something new when I had a call from Ed Victor (a famous trans Atlantic literary agent) asking if I would like to become a children’s book agent in association with him. I spent the first two years working from home, but when Ed moved his office to Bloomsbury he asked if I’d like to join him, and I felt then that I was ready to have an office that was separate from my home.’
Rosemary operates on her own, with no staff and she also calls upon the skills of an experienced senior editor, Jane Fior, to help out on the creative work with authors and illustrators. She occasionally draws on Ed’s long experience: ‘The piece of advice Ed gave me when I started was not to take on everyone I came across straightaway. He stressed the importance of the close relationship between agent and author/illustrator, where mutual trust has to build, and I realised early on that there was a limit to the number of people I could take on, because of the time needed to devote to each client.’
How did she start finding clients? ‘Babette Cole, whom I had worked with before and who had never had an agent, was the first one to call. I was also lucky at the beginning that many publishers recommended me to their authors and illustrators, so I gradually built up a client list of established and new writers and artists, with a very wide range of skills.’
Why have an agent?
Why do authors and illustrators need agents, particularly if they already have a publisher? ‘Many authors and illustrators have a strong relationship with their editors and are quite thrown when their editor changes publisher, so they may then turn to an agent who can provide the stability they want. They can’t always move with their editor because they have all their backlist titles with their original publishers, and they obviously don’t want to jeopardise their continuing sale. Authors and illustrators can feel very isolated, working on their own at home, and I can act as an extra contact, often explaining what’s going on and sometimes even defending publishers when they are accused of not promoting a book, for example, when in fact the illustrator just hasn’t been kept up to date with the work that has happened on the book’s behalf.’
Rosemary is clear that the author/agent relationship can only work if the author has decided that they really want to work with an agent, and wants someone to take on that role in their career. ‘Many also realise that publishers’ editors are under such pressure that they don’t have time for the kind of ongoing one-to-one relationships with authors that they used to have time for.’
Rosemary currently has around 45 clients – roughly two thirds of whom are illustrators, and one third authors – of which seven or eight might be in need of particular attention at any one time. This number also includes a few adult writers of popular non-fiction, such as Jocasta Innes, that Rosemary represents, but for the most part she concentrates on children’s books. Her client list includes illustrators such as Patrick Benson, Jane Ray, Selina Young and Ian Andrew, and writers such as Elizabeth Laird and Pat Moon. She is unusual in that she also represents many American authors and illustrators – such figures as Rosemary Wells, Susan Jeffers, Steven Kellogg. ‘This means that I spend one week every other month in the US, and it gives me a chance to find out what American editors are looking for, what’s hot with booksellers and publishers there, so I can feed that information back to my UK clients in a productive way.’
Her various clients need her skills in a variety of different ways. ‘With several major authors I act a bit like their manager, sorting out a myriad of requests from all over the world – will they visit? Will they change this or that on the cover in Japan? Can they provide an updated biographical note? Who publishes their work in other countries? One of my main tasks with creators new to publishing is to explain what goes on in the industry, and explaining all the clauses in a contract can be a good starting point for all the information and background that’s needed for them to understand the complexities of the business.’
Relationships with publishers
As well as close relationships with her clients, Rosemary has to have close relationships with a number of editors across the publishing houses, both large and small, on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘Publishing depends enormously on good relationships, and my job is often about finding the right illustrator to go with the right author and then find them the right editor in the right publishing house.’ Before entering publishing, Rosemary had worked for an advertising agency and worked briefly as a journalist. ‘The advertising experience has proved immensely useful, knowing how to target and sell, and be focused on what is really achievable.’ A publisher always appreciates an agent who has done some homework, only sending along projects that really might suit their particular list. ‘Getting to know editors well means I get a feel for what they might like, what they think their publishing house can sell well. I have to keep in touch with the whole range of what’s going on everywhere, and what’s doing well or what’s now had its day.’
With the complexities of co-edition publishing on picture books, UK agents sell world rights to the publisher in the text and the illustrations, leaving the publishers’ rights departments to make all the overseas sales necessary to secure big print runs for the books and make them viable. So once a project has found a publisher, Rosemary may not have much to do with it until she gets a copy of the finished book. ‘My work has often happened a very long time before, particularly in working on a project to get it ready to present to publishers, so it’s very exciting to see the book in its finished form.’
Suggesting other avenues
Some of Rosemary’s illustrators are new, but many are already established, with close relationships with their publishers. ‘I can suggest to them other avenues they haven’t thought of, perhaps doing black and white work for other publishers, or maybe some board books for another, that won’t interfere with their colour picture book work for their main publisher. One publisher may not be able to cope with all the things that an illustrator wants to do – and needs to do to get the money to pay the rent. The thing I most want for my clients is a good working relationship with their editor, so that they can work together on the creative side. I busy myself with the administrative side, the contracts and money, and don’t get back involved with a book in progress unless something is going wrong. Then I can act as the intermediary, reassuring where necessary. Some of my authors need a sunshine call each week, but others prefer to be left alone to get on with their work.’ I was surprised to hear that Rosemary telephones Rosemary Wells in America at least twice each week. ‘She’s got so much going on at the moment – her Mother Goose has sold over half a million copies – and she’s a tremendously hard worker.’
I asked Rosemary whether good interpersonal skills is the key to being a good agent. She agrees, but would rate a wide knowledge of how publishing works as an equal number one priority. Next is organisational and administrative skills, and Rosemary’s neat office would attest to her adherence to that. ‘You have to be meticulous when you’re dealing with other people’s money, and it’s important to be on top of things. I have to do an enormous amount of chasing publishers, both in the UK and the US, sometimes just asking them to let the illustrator know what’s happening.’ Rosemary would put career planning and management high on the list of important tasks for an agent, too. ‘It’s sometimes a question of taking dreams and trying to make them a reality, even if it’s going to take many years.’
A cruel business
Rosemary believes it is important for her to be totally realistic with her clients, for instance only leading them to expect an advance from the publisher that is entirely related to the number of copies the publisher can sell. ‘Publishers don’t have treasure chests of money to give away, and are under great pressure themselves to justify everything they spend. Negotiating skills also need to be on the list of any agent, particularly when it comes to film and merchandise contracts. They are a nightmare, but don’t happen very often.’
Rosemary is not taking on any new clients at the moment, but offers this advice to any new authors. ‘It’s important to be incredibly self critical – to stand a chance you have got to produce something better than most of what is already published. The standard is so very high, and only the very best will be published.’
So how would Rosemary sum up life as a literary agent? I want to be able to make the creation of a book a thoroughly happy experience for the writer or illustrator. So besides taking care of the business end of things, I spend much time, together with Jane Fior, in shaping manuscripts, working out concepts, making constructive suggestions – I spend much more time on that side of things than many people realise. I want anything I submit to be something that I would have been happy to see when I was a publisher. In this way, we give every submission the best chance of being taken on, and we try not to waste people’s time. But publishing can be a cruel business, with wonderful books just not making the grade, just not finding the right publisher.’
Rosemary ends on a more cheerful note. ‘If the process has been as enjoyable and creative as possible, then everyone can gain experience and move onwards. It is this partnership with authors and illustrators that I value most. And of course nothing beats the sheer joy of receiving the finished copy of a beautiful book, knowing the hard work, inspiration and commitment that has gone into it.’
Liz Attenborough is Project Director, The National Year of Reading. She was formerly the Publisher, Penguin Children’s Books.