This month Helena Fairfax interviews well known literary agent, Carole Blake, about her work and her life.
Welcome, Carole. Please tell us a little about Blake Friedmann.
I founded my agency in July 1977.
For my first 12 years in publishing (straight from school), I worked for 4 different publishers, finally as Marketing Director of Sphere. In three of those jobs I had worked for Edmund Fisher, a charismatic, energetic publisher with whom I had a very volatile relationship, and learned so much. . We used to row, and shout at each other – extraordinary to think back on that now. I’ve never shouted in an office since. No one I know behaves like that now. He taught me so much about
publishing and about management styles. The latter did include some things NOT to do! One January we were having a row and I was in the middle of resigning when I realised he was firing me, saying I could have 3 months notice and I needn’t tell anyone I’d been fired. That infuriated me as much as being fired because I’d worked with him for more than a decade and he clearly didn’t know me. I told my staff immediately, wrote to everyone I was dealing with (I ran the contracts, marketing, publicity and rights departments) and told them to deal with Edmund in the future, and left a week later. I started legal proceedings for wrongful dismissal, and they settled out of court because Thomson, Sphere’s owners at that time, realised quickly that Edmund hadn’t followed legal procedures.
I went to interviews for jobs with other publishing companies but authors I had published were calling me and asking if I was going to start an agency. So I did.
What do enjoy most about your job? And least?
Easily the best is negotiating deals. I love negotiations, or ‘agent fun’ as I think of it. Just as good, is receiving a new manuscript from one of my clients, or in the earlier days, loving a newly-submitted manuscript from a new writer. I recently took a fortnight’s ‘holiday’ (to progress the writing of my very overdue next book) but during that time Sheila O’Flanagan and Elizabeth Chadwick each delivered a new manuscript, so I was in the blissful situation of being able to just spend an entire day reading them, from beginning to end.
The least enjoyable: the admin that comes with an agency that has grown from me alone in 1977 to 20 staff now. In effect, I have several jobs: agent to my authors; MD to the company, HR for my staff. It makes for very long days.
What is it you are looking for when a manuscript lands on your desk? Are there any specific plots or themes you’d like to see?
Voice, confidence in the storytelling. A writer who can keep me enthralled in the world of their story with no jarring moments that throw me outside and make me remember I’m reading. With regard to plots and themes, I’m very open minded. It’s the voice that always draws me in.
Where do you find your new authors, and how?
I’m not actually looking for more clients any more. I cut my client base drastically about 8 years ago because it’s much more satisfying to work in more depth, with fewer authors. I wasn’t planning to take on any more authors at all after that, but I did take on Liz Fenwick and it’s been a lovely relationship. I already knew her (through the RNA conferences and parties) and when she sent me her first manuscript I knew I had to represent her. I had to fight off several other agents who offered her representation! She recently delivered her fourth manuscript, and it’s so very good that I was able to negotiate significantly improved terms for her next UK 2 book contract. Very satisfying: and she’s published in a dozen other languages too. I do still read submissions though: I receive dozens a day and I can’t bear not to. But these days I usually refer good material to my colleagues. Other agents in my company are definitely still adding to their client lists and it’s wonderful to see the clients they take on and the passion with which they represent them to the book trade. When we take meetings at trade fairs, we all talk about the overall client list so it’s exciting to see what my colleagues are representing.
What advice would you give someone submitting to you?
Read the submission guidelines on our website, and the profiles of our agents. There is so much helpful information available on agency websites, and via the RNA, that sending in material in areas that I or we don’t represent is like waving a flag announcing that you can’t be bothered to do research, that you aren’t behaving in a professional manner. And DON’T submit via social media. I say that with feeling, having received a tweet this morning from someone who had followed me 5 minutes before. All he provided was a link to a manuscript. I looked at his Twitter timeline and saw that he had sent the identical message to hundreds of others. Blocked and reported for spam…. Be professional, submitting a manuscript is similar to applying for a job interview after all.
What benefits do you feel an agent can offer an author?
Many and varied. Advice on genre, editorial work, career planning, protection of their rights and exploitation of their work. Marketing advice, social media help, feedback about editors and publishers. Cashflow advice. We scrutinise royalty statements and regularly query publishers about them. We sell other rights – film, TV translations, America. Better terms if they wish to publish their own ebooks. Strong contract boilerplates with publishing houses – we negotiate strongly. Support in many areas. A shoulder to cry on or better yet someone to celebrate with. Lunch, champagne… And although publishers do the formal publicity (or should) my agency and our agents are active on a variety of social media platforms, and we regularly update the news section of our own website.
Romance is the biggest-selling genre in publishing, and yet the one taken least seriously by the mainstream. Why do you think this is? And how do you think romance authors can address the negative perception?
Of course it is the biggest selling genre: romance is, or we wish it to be, part of all of our lives, always. I think the negative attitude to it could be jealousy, simply because it is so popular. It is the biggest selling genre after all, and regularly dominates the bestseller lists in this country and many others. Romance writers are skilled at making their novels easy to read. So that is wrongly judged – by those who have never tried it – as being easy to write. Such nonsense! The genre is also dominated by women writers. There’s a lot of misogyny still around. And of course, it’s easier to sneer at success than to emulate it …
I don’t know what romance writers can do to address the negative perceptions. Ignore them, I’d say, and just go on writing good books and counting your royalties.
What’s your favourite romance novel of all time?
This question has caused me heartache because so many vie for that position … favourites ebb and flow with me depending on my mood. Should I say Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, L P Hartley’s The Go Between, Robert James Waller’s Bridges of Madison County (film better than the book actually, both very sentimental but I loved the story), Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (oh how I cried over that!), L M Alcott’s Jo’s Boys (so much more moving than Little Women with those drippy sisters), Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand … but in the end, if I could only have one, it would have to be Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, the only novel he wrote, before dying during the First World War. I first read it at 19, and have since gone on buying ever fancier print editions, always trading up, because reading it induces such a sense of yearning which has always to be part of a romantic experience for me. And the story is based on one meeting with a woman he fell in love with but could never aspire to marry. Heartbreaking!
Apart from your own authors, which book have you enjoyed most in the past twelve months, and why?
I’ll have to give two examples from this year. I read a lot of non-fiction, and a contrast to the fiction that I work with, and the clear winner here is Cathy Rentzenbrink’s moving memoir THE LAST ACT OF LOVE about her brother who died. I sobbed my way through that and even cried in the middle of asking her a question in public, after she’d given a talk. So embarrassing.
And a crime novel – Clare Mackintosh’s I LET YOU GO. There is a twist of such breathtaking audacity half way through that I had to put the novel down at that point and spend a week thinking my way through it again from the beginning to work out if the twist was believable. It was, and I practically inhaled the rest of it in one sitting.
Both these books are the first published work of the authors. And they are both by friends of mine. But I judge my friends more harshly than people I don’t know, and never let friends know I’m reading their books until I’ve finished just in case I don’t like them. These two have gone on to become bestsellers, quite rightly. I’ve bought several copies of each to give to friends. And am eagerly awaiting the next book by each of them.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Spare time? Ha! Reading my clients’ work eats into a lot of what is laughingly known as ‘spare time’ (see earlier comment about my fortnight at home to write myself!) and of course every moment available is currently spent writing what has become known as ‘mybloodybook’ (sorry Macmillan!). I read a lot of medieval non-fiction, inspired by my client Elizabeth Chadwick and her knowledge of the period.
Other passions are early classical music, Renaissance art, Venice, paper crafts and miniatures. I’m a serious collector of OOAK (one of a kind) hand made miniatures and have several dolls’ houses (one only partially built because I am doing it myself) and a miniature antiquarian bookshop where every one of the hundreds of books can be opened and read. With a magnifying glass. They are all tiny replicas of real antiquarian books. I also have a greenhouse and a conservatory filled with exquisite miniature hand-made plants, with bird boxes outside, and a beehive. And beautiful cabinets full of miniature, mouth-blown, cranberry glass. It’s a bit of an obsession.
If you could describe your working-day in just three words, what would they be?
Varied. Long. Exciting.
Thank you, Carole, for taking time out of your busy schedule to appear on the RNA blog snd thank you, Helena, for asking such interesting questions.
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