Curtis Brown agent Sheila Crowley represents a brilliant list of clients, including the likes of Jojo Moyes, Clare Mackintosh and Santa Montefiore. She was shortlisted for Literary Agent of The Year 2018 by The British Book Awards. She’s incredibly passionate about the authors she represents, and here she offers some of her insights on new publishing trends, and the ‘bumps in the road’ many novelists face both before and after publication.
You started out in your career working in publishing, what was your motivation for switching over to agenting? And has your experience in publishing impacted the way you work as an agent?
My mantra has always been we have no business without authors, and during the early noughties as book retailers (high street, supermarkets and online) became more competitive chasing market shares, I strongly felt at the time, many authors were not at the core of the decisions being made. I wanted to work closer with authors and their key needs by moving from publishing to agenting.
When I first became an agent, I sometimes felt that a publishing professional with a background in editorial might be more suited to the role of agent, but more and more my background in sales and marketing have helped me work closely with publishers in creating bestselling campaigns and strategies for our shared authors. I always had a key sense of the publishing business and how decisions are made, and my style echoes that.
You’ve said in the past that you are looking for novels with an ‘emotional hook’ – do you have a sense that there’s a hunger for these kinds of stories from publishers and readers?
An interesting question as this ‘emotional hook’ which I have loved for many years is now being categorized by publishers and the media as ‘Up Lit’. David Nicholls and Jojo Moyes have been writing like this for over a decade, but suddenly people are saying it’s new. In today’s market we are competing so much with movie/TV content from many sources, plus the uncertain political landscape. Novels with great stories at their heart, including emotional, psychological, topical, literary, diverse will always rise to the top.
Your client Clare Mackintosh became an immediate bestseller with her first novel I Let You Go. And just recently her third novel, Let Me Lie has been a Sunday Times Number 1. What qualities do you think made her novels become successful so fast?
First and foremost Clare is a wonderful writer and raises the bar with each story she writes. She quickly became known as the “queen of the twist” and a very early champion was Judy Finnegan, when Clare was selected for the Richard & Judy Book club for her debut, I Let You Go. Her second novel, I See You was also selected for R&J and both were voted the Readers Winner. There is great emotional depth in Clare’s writing and many readers are lauding the wonderful Murray and Sarah story line in her current bestseller, Let Me Lie.
Before she received her first contract, your client Jojo Moyes wrote several novels that ended up in the ‘bottom drawer’ – and indeed published further novels which didn’t sell well – before finding success and becoming the global phenomenon that she is now. At Curtis Brown Creative, we’ve seen you champion her work across the years, long before she became an international bestseller. What is it about her novels that made you have such faith? And what can new writers learn from this?
I first read Jojo Moyes when I worked at her first publisher and we all knew that we had discovered a wonderful new voice in contemporary fiction. It was exciting for me to champion her in the UK and around the world (with my sales and marketing hat on). Everyone who read Jojo felt what we did but for some reason (mainly the covers) this message did not get across to the consumer.
When I left publishing, I was very fortunate to become Jojo’s agent, and also Santa Montefiore, Sarah Harrison, and Fiona Walker, all of whom I knew as part of their publishing team. I have faith in all of the authors I represent but as we know there are sometimes bumps in the road. One has to keep believing and keep trying new strategies.
What do you think is the most important part of an agent’s job?
To be the best champion for your author’s work and the best business manager for their rights.
What is the first thing you look for when a submission lands in your inbox? And is there anything in particular you think a new author should avoid doing when submitting to an agent?
I am always looking for an interesting narrative voice, and a story with heart. Authors should be themselves when they are submitting and make sure their personality shines through in their submission.
For more advice on submitting your novel to an agent we offer a six-week online course that can help you Edit & Pitch Your Novel.
Sheila is a guest speaker on our upcoming three-month Writing Your Novel course, find out more…
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