We welcome back Helena Fairfax with the second in her series of interviews with prominent literary agents.
A few weeks ago I attended talk by Andrew Lownie at the Ilkley Literature Festival on the subject of ‘How to Pitch to an Agent.’ You can find details of Andrew Lownie’s excellent and informative talk in my write-up on my blog. Andrew Lownie represents non-fiction at the Andrew Lownie Agency. Afterwards I approached David Haviland, who represents fiction at the agency, and was delighted when he agreed to be interviewed for the RNA.
Thanks for dropping in, David. Please tell us a little about the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency, how long you’ve been with the agency, and how you came to join.
I’ve been a literary agent for almost three years now. Before that I was an author, editor and ghostwriter, producing books for big publishers such as Harper Collins, Penguin, and Little Brown. Andrew Lownie was my agent, and as I became more involved in developing projects within the agency, it felt like a natural move to become an agent myself. The agency comprises just the two of us, with Andrew handling all the non-fiction, while I handle the fiction. Andrew has been the top-selling agent in the world for each of the last four years, and shortlisted for ‘Agent of the Year’ at the British Bookseller Awards for the last three years running, while I haven’t.
What do enjoy most about your job? And least?
The most exciting thing is discovering a brilliant new author in the slush pile, getting further into their manuscript, and finding that it really delivers right to the end. Even selling the book isn’t nearly as much fun as that moment of discovery. And what do I enjoy least? Going through contracts is pretty tedious (but important).
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 cover all genres of adult fiction, so I’m not looking for any particular plot, theme or genre. Instead, I’m looking for storytelling skill. Writing a novel is more of a technical craft than many people imagine, and while most rules can be broken, they can rarely be broken successfully by someone who isn’t already intimately familiar with them. If a writer hasn’t thought carefully about things like tenses, character perspective, and psychic distance (regardless of whether or not they use this particular jargon), it’s usually going to be obvious on the first page, and not in a good way.
Where do you find your new authors, and how?
Most of my authors are debut novelists, who’ve come from the slush pile. I’m also lucky to be part of a major, well-established literary agency, which means authors also come through recommendations and Andrew’s huge network of contacts.
What advice would you give someone submitting to you?
Don’t rush to submit. Instead, take the time to edit and improve the work, over and over again, until your worst enemy couldn’t find a flaw. In the current market, publishers are extremely cautious, particularly when it comes to debut authors, which means that we as agents have to be just as picky. Too often, I’m sent half-decent novels by writers who have obvious talent, but have submitted too soon. In those cases, all I can do is pass.
What benefits do you feel an agent can offer an author?
It is possible to find success as an author through self-publishing, but very rare. For everyone else, an agent is crucial. An agent will develop the book, provide expert advice, reach publishers, improve terms and contracts, develop additional options such as translation, audio, film and television, and much more. I receive lots of submissions from authors who have self-published quite successfully, but who nonetheless recognise that working with an agent can open up many more opportunities.
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?
I’ve always felt that there is an unhealthy snobbery towards genre writing, not just within publishing but within our culture as a whole. On the other hand, the popularity of romance with readers means there are bound to be more second-rate romance novels, purely because so many are produced. My advice to romance writers is to focus on the theme, and the characters’ emotional journeys, not just the plot. A common flaw in romance novels is that the plot twists and turns as it should, with obstacles and break-ups, but this is achieved through coincidences and confusion, rather than meaningful conflict between the characters. What is the real friction between the couple, that means they may not be able to make the relationship work?
What’s your favourite romance novel of all time?
The Remains of the Day.
Apart from your own authors, which book have you enjoyed most in the past twelve months, and why?
My reading is quite eclectic; in recent months I’ve particular enjoyed Blake Morrison’s The Last Weekend, Jesse Armstrong’s Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals, and Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I’ve become a pretty obsessive runner. Running is quite an odd hobby, in that people who aren’t into it think you must be quite mad, which isn’t really true of, say, tennis.
If you could describe your working-day in just three words, what would they be?
Varied, challenging, rewarding, innumerate.
Thanks so much for your thoughtful answers, David. I particularly enjoyed your point about the importance of focusing on the emotional conflict in romance writing – something my reader in the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme taught me very well!
Andrew Lownie Literary Agency
David Haviland Twitter
If you’ve enjoyed David’s interview, or have any questions or comments at all, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.
Helena Fairfax writes contemporary romance novels. Her latest release is a romantic suspense novella called Palace of Deception.
You can find out more on Helena’s website www.helenafairfax.com
Another great interview, Helena, thank you!
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