Friday, April 1, 2016

Ask the Industry Expert: Caroline Sheldon

Today we welcome Helena Fairfax back to the blog with another of her interesting interviews.

Literary agent Caroline Sheldon needs no introduction to many members of the RNA. Caroline is a previous visitor to our blog, and Felicity Trew, her colleague at the agency, took pitches at the RNA conference last year.
It’s a pleasure to welcome you, Caroline. Thanks so much for taking the time to take part in our interview.

Please tell us a little about the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency, how long it’s been established, and how you came to set it up.
I set up the Agency thirty years ago after a twelve year career as an editor. There are now two agents in the business, Felicity Trew and myself.  Our main areas of specialisation are woman’s fiction and children’s books.  We represent about sixty clients and are always on the look-out for exciting opportunities for our writers and for exciting new talent.

What do enjoy most about your job? And least?

Discovering talent; building success; building income; selling an editor an exciting book; selling a book after twenty turn-downs and seeing it go on to success; suggesting a new area of writing for an author that goes on to be successful; suggesting promotional ideas; working at the puzzle that is helping authors come up with great titles for their books; living in the world of authors and publishers.

Accepting advances that don’t amount to a living for an author; getting turn-downs for a project I love.

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’m looking for a book that is well-written. It doesn’t have to be literary, but I need to feel the author is taking the reader on the journey. The author has to have story telling ability and a way with words. A great first sentence always grips attention.  A three line description of the book that interests me is an important factor. And a voice that I feel is special and distinct. Also I love anything that makes me laugh or cry. I absolutely am not looking for specific plots or themes but big story telling is important. Something described as any of the following would make me sit up: a modern Rebecca, an epic family saga, a funny modern romp, an intricate and deeply layered historical novel, a psychological thriller, a weepie, anything with animals. 

Do you ever find authors outside the slush pile? If so, how?
One of the nicest ways to find authors is when another author I represent recommends them to me. Also occasionally a publisher will recommend an author. I always have my antennae out for mentions of upcoming authors in local newspaper or any other media. Both Felicity and I have taken on an author we first met at conferences. Probably a third of new authors we take on come from our submissions – I don’t really like the term slush pile - and two thirds from recommendations or contacts made at conferences or through professional organisations.

What advice would you give someone submitting to you?

Our submission guidelines are on our website – Read them before sending in. The email you send with your submission is your one opportunity to sell your book and yourself as an author to the agency. Approach it as you would a competitive job application – it is much more competitive than any job for which you will apply with odds of about 1 in 3,000. We ask for a three line description of the book at the head of the submission and spend time on this –
maybe practice writing three line descriptions of successful books you have read to build up some experience in how to do a good one. Lay your email out attractively.  Information about the book in one paragraph, information about yourself in another, information about any success you might have had in another. Have you got a great title for your book? Often titles change from that under which it is submitted but good titles do grab attention. Sound professional but not dull. 

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?
Publishers all want to publish authors who will deliver one or occasionally two manuscripts in a year. The holy grail of brand-building is much easier to achieve if the books are in the same genre and aimed at the same audience.  I would hope to get a two or three book contract for an author – but it is generally the consistent delivery of a book with the same market that concerns the publisher rather than that book should be in a specific series. 

What benefits do you feel an agent can offer an author?
Agents are talking to publishers all the time and know what each editor is looking for. The market is unbelievably tough at the moment with editors taking on many fewer books than they did a while ago. An agent I would say was invaluable in finding you the right home for your book and the best financial reward for your work.  And indeed an agent might help you shape your writing to the point where it could find a home. Once the right publisher is found the agent will negotiate the contract with attention to all the minor terms such as high discount as well as the headline advance and royalty. Then the agent will sell the rights they may have maintained on your behalf – for example translation, America or film and television. 

What’s your favourite romance novel of all time?
I’ll put down three – EMMA, GONE WITH THE WIND, ANNA KARENINA (it counts as a romance to me).

Apart from your own authors, which book have you enjoyed the most in the past twelve months, and why?
I’m loving CAPITAL by John Lanchester, publisher by Faber and Faber. It’s the story of a group of people living in a London Road Pepys Road – a banker, a young football star, the family who own the corner shop, an asylum-seeking traffic warden, a cutting edge-artist, an old woman dying of a brain tumour. It’s beautifully written, often very funny and an interesting observation on the world we live in. I felt the same about THE CASUAL VACANCY by JK Rowling which I thought was another wonderful novel of our time. I also loved rereading 1984 and THE HANDMAID’S TALE so my tastes are pretty catholic. I do like heart and warmth in writing. And a good story

What do you like to do in your spare time?
Reading, walking, listening to music, playing tennis, watching tennis, watching horse-racing, eating, drinking, talking to dogs.

If you could describe your working day in just three words, what would they be?
I tried to go for alliteration but failed so I will go for – Busy, Engaging, Tough.

Thank you so much for dropping in, Caroline, and for your thoughtful responses. A modern Rebecca sounds a wonderful idea. Please do let us know if such a novel ever appears in your submissions!

About Helena

Helena Fairfax writes contemporary romance novels, and sometimes branches out into romantic suspense when she’s in the mood for danger. Her latest release is The Scottish Diamond, a contemporary romantic suspense novella set in the wonderfully mysterious and romantic city of Edinburgh. The Scottish Diamond is now available on Amazon.

Thank you, Helena and Caroline, a most interesting insight into the world of a literary agent.

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@juliawildauthor said...

Really enjoyed this, thanks Helena and Caroline. What a great insight into your agent's world.

Francesca Capaldi said...

Thank you Helena and Caroline for an interesting and informative blog post.