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08 March 2017

‘Every author must be able to sum up their book in a couple of sentences’

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by Jack Hadley From the Agents

The literary agents at Curtis Brown and C+W are a huge part of our creative writing courses. They come in as guest speakers to our London writing courses, bringing a top author or publisher with them, and go online for special Q&A days with our students from all over the world.

This week we caught up with C+W literary agent Sophie Lambert (above), who joined the agency in 2013. Sophie worked as a bookseller and then a fiction buyer for Blackwells and Foyles, before spending three years working at Janklow & Nesbit Associates in New York. She now represents a range of authors including Nathan Filer and Fiona Cummings. Here she gives us some insight into how her early experiences as a buyer shaped her approach to agenting, and offers some tips on how to write a strong cover letter…

How would you describe the role of a literary agent to someone new to the publishing industry?
A literary agent should be an author’s best and most passionate advocate. An agent is often there from the conception of a non-fiction book or a novel, through the initial editorial process, to its sale and publication. It’s a close relationship that’s founded on trust and a shared vision.

You were a buyer at Foyles and Blackwell’s before you moved into agenting – has that early experience been helpful to you as a literary agent?
Having been a buyer for several years before moving into agenting, I was keenly aware of the difficulties that face all new authors trying to ‘break through’. As a buyer I’d be bombarded by publishing sales representatives showing me information about forthcoming new titles. The sheer volume of titles to select from and to support is extraordinary, and you have to make difficult and quick buying decisions. This process made me aware of just how important the look and the pitch of the book are. Every author must be able to sum up the essence of their book in a couple of sentences. Working as a bookseller and a buyer also means that you can hand-sell books that you adore to customers. This is why I always press on authors the importance of forging good relationships with local bookshops – if you find a local champion they can really make a difference.

C&W has a very open submissions policy – have you found many new writers yourself through the ‘talent pool’?
At C&W we actively seek new talent and a significant proportion of these come from unsolicited manuscripts. I always look at my own submissions and, while my priority has to be  my existing clients, I, like most agents, feel the greatest thrill when I stumble across something special that’s popped into my inbox. As an agency we have many international bestselling authors who have been discovered via our ‘talent pool’ as we prefer to call it. My most recent find was Katy Mahood’s wonderful intergenerational love story Entanglement, which I sold at auction to Borough Press just before Christmas.

You have a broad list of fiction and non-fiction authors – what are the kinds of qualities which get you excited in a submission?
I do represent a broad range of fiction and non-fiction authors and it reflects my personal reading taste. The single thing that connects all the books I have sold is that I feel passionately about them. Each one represents a story that deserves to be widely shared. In terms of the submissions which excite me, I think that an author needs to have a very clear sense of the kind of book they want to write and I need to feel hooked from the outset whether that is commercial or experimental fiction, an ideas book or a narrative nonfiction story. It’s fresh stories brilliantly told.

And what’s most likely to put you off?
I do receive tens of submissions each week and some things inevitably turn me off more than others. I never feel very inclined to read a submission when an author rubbishes other books and instead focuses on theirs being the best and potentially most overlooked. There’s plenty of space for more stories, but writers need to love reading themselves!

How important is a good cover letter and synopsis for you?
A good cover letter is more important than a synopsis I think. It’s very difficult writing a synopsis and most authors stumble when attempting to do this, especially for the first time. The cover letter needs to be engaging, concise, intriguing and it definitely needs that two-line hook regardless of the sort of book that is being written about. The synopsis needs to cover the broad shape of the narrative but shouldn’t be pages and pages long. It’s what I turn to if I’ve been suitably swept up in the writing itself so it should really focus on giving a sense of the shape and thrust rather than a blow by blow account.

Any new authors which you represent who readers should be excited about?
There are several new authors I represent who I’m thrilled will be published in the next year or so, these include the aforementioned Katy Mahood, former Curtis Brown Creative student Jenny Quintana’s domestic noir The Day You Disappeared, which is published by Mantle in January, new crime queen Lara Dearman (The Devil’s Claw is being published in November by Orion), stunningly twisty thriller The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton (Headline Wildfire in January) and Guy Gunaratne’s timely and angry depiction of urban life In Our Mad and Furious City, which will be published by Tinder Press next Spring.

Your proudest moment as an agent so far?
My proudest moments as an agent are plentiful – it’s such an honour to represent so many talented authors, but for authors to be singled out and win prizes for their work as was the case with Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, when I’d been there from almost the very beginning, was a joy.

What can a course like the one at CBC offer to authors keen to secure an agent and get published?
I think that the Curtis Brown Creative course affords budding authors time to develop their novels in progress, an invaluable group of fellow writers and published authors to offer feedback and support, talks and guidance from agents, editors and bestselling authors and a fast track to the Curtis Brown and C&W inboxes! Just look at the hit rate and the number of incredible success stories and it’s easy to see why it’s worth the investment.

For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:

Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Sunday 21 January).

Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Sunday 28 January).

For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for: 

Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sunday 4 February).

We are also offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ online courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:

Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).

Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).

Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).


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