Thanks so much for stepping into the spotlight, Jemima!
Please tell us a little about the David Higham Literary Agency and how you came to be a partof it.
David Higham Associates is one of the most successful and well-respected agencies in the UK. Since its beginnings in 1935, the agency has represented and continues to represent some of the biggest literary names in the business – from Graeme Greene and Dylan Thomas, to Paula Hawkins and Bernard Cornwall. David Higham represents authors of fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, as well as illustrators and script writers for film and TV.
I joined David Higham as an agent in September this year and I’m looking predominantly for commercial and upmarket fiction, as well as some non-fiction. I come from a publishing background and spent the first seven years of my career as an editor, most recently as senior commissioning editor for fiction at Orion Publishing Group.
The role came about rather serendipitously. I’d often thought of agenting as something I’d love to get into, but never thought I’d be able to move across without starting again at the bottom. When Lizzy Kremer, an agent I deeply admired and respected (and who is particularly well known to the RNA), approached me about the role she was looking to fill at David Higham, I quickly realised what an incredible opportunity it was.
So here I am, a couple of months in and really enjoying it. I’ve already taken on a few very exciting new clients and I’m actively growing my list.
What do enjoy most about your job? And least?
I love the variety. I love that one day I can be holed up in my office, totally engrossed in an edit for a new author I’m working with, and the next I can be out and about meeting new people and attending events. It’s a real adrenaline rush when you stumble across a fantastic new writer or a book that’s so brilliant you can’t put it down. That’s a feeling I had a lot as an editor and one I imagine I’ll still have in thirty years’ time!
I don’t think I have a least favourite thing. It’s only been two months so perhaps I’m looking at everything through rose-tinted glasses!
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?Within fiction, I’m looking for women’s fiction that’s fresh, funny and smart, as well as gripping crime, thriller and psychological suspense novels, and upmarket reading group fiction. I also like YA crossover, historical fiction and the more commercial end of speculative fiction and magical realism.
As you can tell, my taste is pretty broad! I’m really drawn to distinctive narrative voices and unusual narrators. I love a high concept and anything with a strong and original hook. I love stories about families and relationships. If you can make me laugh out loud as well as tug on my heartstrings, I’ll be forever yours!
Do you ever find authors outside the slush pile? If so, how?Yes, absolutely! A lot of the larger writing courses and MA programmes (like the Faber Academy or City University) hold readings and produce anthologies of the students’ work. The standard is often very high and it’s not unusual for graduates of these courses to receive a lot of interest from agents. There are also panels and one-on-ones at writing festivals and graduate days. I find these a really great place to meet and chat to prospective authors. It’s less relevant for fiction than it is for non-fiction, but sometimes social media can play a part. It’s a great way to keep on top of emerging trends and to discover and connect with new people.
What advice would you give someone submitting to you?
Take a look at interviews like this or at my profile on the DHA website to see the sort of books I’m looking for and make sure that ties in with what you’re submitting (this goes for any agent you’re looking to submit to). Make sure you’re manuscript is in the best possible shape it can be. When you finish writing, go back and edit it or rework it until you’re completely happy with it. Sending your work off before it’s ready is just shooting yourself in the foot. Also spend some time writing your cover letter and (max. two-page) synopsis. If you’re not sure how to do these, look for guidance online. They are really important and a strong reflection of you and your book.Like most agents, I see an awful lot of submissions and, while I’ll give each one due consideration, I don’t have a huge amount of time to spend on each one. I have to make a decision quite quickly based on a relatively small amount of material, so it’s worth making sure that material is as smart, polished and appealing as it can be.
Do you think these days aspiring romance writers have a better chance of being published if they are planning a series? Are stand-alone novels more likely to be rejected by publishers and agents?I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I do think there’s a certain appetite for series fiction, especially in the very commercial ebook market, but I’m not aware of publishers prizing series fiction over standalone novels in the romance genre. I’d say they have equal footing when it comes to consideration and publishers will be far more focussed on characterisation and plot.
What benefits do you feel an agent can offer an author?
There are lots of benefits! Agents and authors work together as a team (often throughout the author’s entire career) and it’s a nice feeling to know that there’s someone out there who is firmly in your corner and is rooting for you professionally. It’s obviously the agent’s job to manage the financial and contractual side of the author’s career and make sure the author is being published by the best possible publisher with the best possible deal. But beyond that, agents also help manage and direct the author’s career over the years, offer support and guidance and liaise between the author and the publisher when necessary. There are some conversations you don’t necessarily want to have with your publisher (you really hate the cover they’ve suggested, for example) and it definitely helps having a mediator in those situations.
What’s your favourite romance novel of all time?I probably have to be really unoriginal here and say Pride and Prejudice. It was Jane Austen who first fuelled my love of books and Pride and Prejudice is one of the two novels I reread every few years (the other one is To Kill a Mockingbird). In fact, one of my last acquisitions at Orion was a sequel written by debut novelist (and RNA member) Terri Fleming, entitled Perception. It tells the story of the forgotten Bennet sisters, Mary and Kitty. If you loved the original, keep an eye out for it next summer!
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes – I was late to the party with this one, but I absolutely adored it. It was charming, witty and, ultimately, heart-breaking. I watched the film adaption recently on a plane and cried so much an air hostess stopped to check if I was OK. My husband was suitably mortified.
Little Lies by Liane Moriarty – I picked this up from my teetering to-read pile recently and devoured it in one sitting. It’s very cleverly constructed, deeply intriguing and she really brings her characters to life.The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon – if you haven’t read this novel yet, you must. Set in 1976 in a small suburban community, it’s part mystery and part coming-of-age story with a gorgeous child narrator at its heart. The writing is just beautiful.
What do you like to do in your spare time?I’m a real foodie and keen amateur cook, so I love trying new restaurants and throwing dinner parties for friends and family. To combat this, I’m also a runner and, when the weather permits it, I love jogging by the river in Hammersmith. As I get to read so rarely for pleasure I often listen to audiobooks when I run. I’m currently really enjoying the audiobook of Miss You by Kate Eberlen. On quiet evenings in, I love catching up on my latest box-set addiction. I’ve just finished the latest season of Game of Thrones and am now midway through Outlander.
If you could describe your working-day in just three words, what would they be?Varied, inspiring, tea-fuelled.
Thanks so much for your considered answers, Jemima. You've given us all food for thought. (And you've given me some new authors to add to my TBR!)
If you've enjoyed Jemima's interview, or have any questions at all, please let us know in the comments!
Helena Fairfax's engaging contemporary romances have been shortlisted for The Exeter Novel Prize, the Global Ebook Awards and the I Heart Indie Awards. Her latest release is a boxed set of romantic suspense novellas called A Year of Light and Shadows, now available on Amazon and from other e-book retailers.
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