Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Ask the Industry Expert: Anne Williams

Today Helena Fairfax puts the spotlight on Anne Williams of the Kate Hordern Literary Agency. 

Thanks very much for joining us, Anne.

Please tell us a little about the Kate Hordern Literary Agency, how long you’ve been with the agency, and how you came to join. 

Kate Hordern founded the agency in 1999, after fourteen years selling rights at publisher Victor Gollancz where, as Foreign Rights Director, she worked with authors such as Terry Pratchett and Nick Hornby. Having worked alongside Kate many years before when we were both in our first publishing jobs at Gollancz, I joined KHLA in 2009, after a career break and over fifteen years as a commissioning editor, first at Michael Joseph, then for thirteen years at Headline. I commissioned and edited a number of Headline’s major commercial fiction authors, including the Sunday Times No. 1 bestsellers Sheila O’Flanagan and Lyn Andrews, top 10 bestseller Faye Kellerman and prize-winning crime writers Barbara Nadel, Manda Scott and Caroline Graham (on whose books the TV series Midsomer Murders was based).   Kate is based in Bristol, whilst I am based in North London.

What do enjoy most about your job? And least?

The best thing is the thrill of discovering a new writer whose work I think I can sell. The worst thing is the endless number of rejections I have to hand out to authors looking for agents. The bar for publication is set so high a writer has to be really exceptional and often also have a really exceptional idea behind their writing to stand a chance of making it to publication and I’m aware I’m dashing hopes on a daily basis.   But occasionally I make someone’s day too.

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?

I am looking for a voice that makes me want to read on, to stay in their world. Genre fiction is all about having a distinctive voice in a recognisable narrative form – being different within a familiar mould. I am specifically looking for good regional saga authors who need to know how to be genuinely poignant and powerful without being hackneyed. Quite a tall order. I think family relationships are sometimes underexplored in these novels – romance plays an important part of course, but the best novels often feature other kinds of relationships too such as those between sisters or mothers and daughters. I’d also like to find a novel that does what Jo Baker’s wonderful LONGBOURN did – tell a classic story from the point of view of a minor character.  She did this beautifully with the PRIDE AND PREJUDICE plot and characters. I’m keen on working class history and also welcome books that show you another way of looking at the familiar. LONGBOURN satisfied on both those counts.

Where do you find your new authors, and how?

Mainly through direct submission, as per our website instructions, but some are referred to me through industry contacts.

What advice would you give someone submitting to you?

Be clear and brief in a cover letter. Let the sample chapters speak for themselves. Make sure your opening is as good as it can be. Find a great title. Suggesting authors you admire and would ideally like to be compared with is helpful. 

What benefits do you feel an agent can offer an author?

As well as the obvious  - giving access to markets an author would struggle to reach themselves, both in the UK and abroad, and improving contract terms, an agent gives an author a context for their journey of publication, helps them to interpret what information the publisher is giving them. They can also shape their work editorially so it is the best it can be before it is handed over to the publisher.

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?

The term romance covers a huge remit, and can be both very precise in terms of what is required, or else very loose – 19th-century literary classics are frequently termed romances. I think the ‘writing by numbers’ image attached to some kinds of romantic fiction has something to do with what you are referring to, as does the historical overpublishing of some sub-genres of it, so-called chick-lit being a case in point. In terms of addressing the negative perception, maybe writers of romance should take themselves a little more seriously – women in particular sometimes downplay what they do, overlaying how they describe their writing with a kind of nervous flippancy. Romantic fiction deals with one of the most important things in life, love, as well as many other issues that, even if lightly handled, are the stuff of everyday existence.

What’s your favourite romance novel of all time?

Well, I love Nancy Mitford’s THE PURSUIT OF LOVE and LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE. Full of wit, glamour and humour but incredibly poignant too.

Apart from your own authors, which book have you enjoyed most in the past twelve months, and why?

I was very impressed by Elena Ferrante’s DAYS OF ABANDONMENT. She writes with a searing directness that is quite disturbing but riveting.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Walk on Hampstead Heath, swim (not on Hampstead Heath).

If you could describe your working-day in just three words, what would they be?

Getting everything done.

Thanks so much for your thoughtful answers, Anne, and for taking the time to introduce yourself and the Kate Hordern Agency to RNA members.

Kate Hordern Literary Agency

I hope you’ve enjoyed Anne’s interview as much as I did. If you have any questions or comments at all, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you!

Helena Fairfax writes contemporary romance. Her latest novel, A Way from Heart to Heart, was published by Accent Press, and is set on the Yorkshire moors, near where she lives. Helena interviews authors and writes about books and writing on her blog at www.helenafairfax.com. You can also find Helena on Twitter, @helenafairfax, and a list of her books on Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/Helena-Fairfax/e/B00DRBYLO0/

Another great interview, Helena, thank you!

The RNA blog is brought to you by,

Elaine Everest & Natalie Kleinman

Would you like to write for the RNA blog? Please contact us on elaineeverest@aol.com


Sophie Weston said...

I'm sure Anne is right about women tending to underplay what they do - not only the work, expertise and research involved in production but also the quality of the outcome. I do it myself. (I don't like braggarts.) But there's nothing wrong with a proper pride in our work.

I'm jolly well going to do better!

Thank you Anne and Helena.

Helena Fairfax said...

I agree, Sophie, and I thought Anne made a good point. I find it hard not to be self-effacing about my writing (it's a British trait as well as a female trait)but being a member of the RNA has been a great help to me in standing tall :)
Thanks for dropping in, and for your comment.

Guernsey Girl said...

When I was a journalist in the late sixties I found myself apologising for being a woman in a man's world. Now I'm proud to be a romance writer - it's the best job I've ever had!

Anonymous said...

I expect it was a tough world in journalism for a woman in those days, Marilyn. Good for you for making a success of it. And I agree - being a romance writer is the best job! Thanks so much for dropping in.