Friday, June 10, 2016

Ask the Industry Expert: Literary Agent, Imogen Howson

It's time for another of our agent interviews, and this month Helena Fairfax talks to Imogen Howson. Imogen is a member of the RNA - and a well-known face to many of us! We were delighted to hear of her recent appointment as associate agent with the Kate Nash Literary Agency.
Congratulations on your new post, Immi, and welcome to the RNA blog!

Please tell us a little about the Kate Nash Literary Agency and how you came to join.
helena fairfax, imogen howson
The Kate Nash Literary Agency is a boutique literary agency based near Oxford (close enough to London for meetings with publishers!).
I met Kate at a few RNA events before she opened to applications for an associate agent, and I really liked, one, that her agency is boutique, and, two, that Kate is so author focused.  Most of my work history has been with a small company, and it makes me happy to feel that I have a sense of what’s going on in all its corners. And although working in publishing is about selling books, I love working with authors and seeing them develop—and hopefully helping them develop. Of course, all good agents are interested in working with their authors long-term, not just for one book, but I feel that Kate is particularly author focused, which is a great agency ethos and one that I’m adopting!

 You previously worked as acquiring editor at Samhain. How much editorial work do you envisage doing as an agent? For example, if you came across a novel with a great story that needed a lot of editing, would you accept it and work on it with the author?
This is actually something where I need to be careful to rein myself in!  As an editor, you can plunge into a book elbow-deep and work, paragraph by paragraph, with the author to improve every tiny little nuance and turn of phrase.  But as an editor, you’re working with a very specific idea of what that particular publisher wants, and the reader market they’re aiming for—and that kind of in-depth editing is what you’re being paid to do.  As an agent, I would want to be cautious of over-editing a book.  Partly because it’s pretty exhausting for the poor author to have to go through that twice, and partly because it can’t help but be a subjective process.  I would rather focus on big-picture issues (characterisation, pace, the balance of different plot threads) that will definitely make the book stronger, and then let the eventual editor do the fine-tuning.
What I do tend to do, if I read a book that is basically great but that needs further work to be really great, is ask the author if they’re willing to make revisions.  If they are, then I send maybe a page or so of suggestions for them, and offer to read the book again once the author has revised.  This shows me if they’re capable of revising to a publishable standard, and if they’re willing to.  Which, in turn, shows me whether we’ll work well together!

 Which specific plots or themes would interest you most in women’s fiction/romance?
I like ‘what if?’ themes: What if my husband had had a vasectomy and I found out I was pregnant?  What if I accidentally killed someone?  What if I had to go into the witness protection program?  What if my best friend died and I had to look after her children?  What if I fell in love with my best friend’s grieving widower?  What if my other best friend decided she wanted him and tried to kill me?
I also like big supporting casts: in genre romance and in women’s fiction.  I don’t just want the hero and heroine and a token best friend who acts as matchmaker (or, alternatively, tries to split them up and kill the heroine).  I want fully rounded, believable relationships, good and bad: friends, colleagues, exes, parents, siblings, children.  I have a special weakness for well-drawn sister relationships!
Other things I’d love to see are main characters who don’t come from my own demographic (which is white, straight, cisgender, middle-class…), marriages/engagements of convenience, anything wedding-themed, and stories that touch on issues of mental illness and neurodiversity without being overwhelmed by them.  And twins.  And virgin heroines!

During your career, have you seen certain trends come and go? (eg paranormal romance, family sagas, etc) And – the million dollar question :) – what do you think will be the next big thing?
So far my career has been mostly focused on American trends, because the publisher I worked for was a US-based one.  And yes, absolutely. Paranormal romance was a huge thing up until three or so years ago.  I don’t think it ever took off in the UK in the same way, but we still got the benefit of the US imports.  Twilight, of course, and the Sookie Stackhouse series, that got made into the TV series True Blood.  I wouldn’t like to try to sell a vampire romance to a traditional publisher right now. Although I’m sure they’ll come back around!
Romantic suspense has risen a lot in popularity recently, after having—at least in my experience—flat sales for a long time.  And I’ve been fascinated to see so many books with cartoon-type covers in the Amazon bestseller lists, because, again, up until recently those type of covers didn’t seem to sell at all well.
I can tell you what I’d like to become the next big thing!  I’d like fantasy romance to really take off and catch all the fans of Game of Thrones.  And I’d like to see the resurgence of paranormal romance, but with a fresh new face of some kind, because I’m still not ready to read about more vampires. 
Realistically, suspense/thrillers are doing well right now, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that trend continues for a while—possibly with a new twist.  There’s room for them to get a lot darker, while still keeping the small-world, domestic landscape that made something like The Girl on the Train (and Kate Nash Agency client Sue Fortin’s The Girl Who Lied) so believable and therefore so gripping. 
Now Sylvia Day’s series that began with Bared to You has finished, I wonder if there’s still reader appetite for something similar: a single-couple, multi-book series with a lot of sex and a lot of drama.  Or if, after that and Fifty Shades of Grey, we’re done for the moment?  I do think readers love that kind of continuing, soap opera-like story, though, and I know I’d like to find the next one!

What are you looking forward to most in your new post?
Besides finding the next big thing?  Well, I’m loving reading submissions at the moment.  That moment when you open a new query knowing it could be something fabulous is always exciting.  I’m also looking forward to acquiring my own clients.  I have a little mental wish list of the sort of writers I’d like to represent, and I’m hoping to tick them all off over the next year or so.  I’m also very much looking forward to learning more about publishing contracts.  I have some knowledge of them, but in my previous job I didn’t directly deal with them, and obviously as an agent you do.  Fortunately Kate knows all about them, and I’m learning as fast as I can!

Besides working full time, you are also a writer yourself.  [Imogen writes YA fiction. Her sci fi novel Linked was the winner in the YA category for the RNA’s Romantic Novel of the Year 2014.] How do you manage to fit in your writing around a busy work schedule?
With difficulty!  Well, actually, by having a strict routine and keeping to a daily word count.  If you write 1000 words a day you’ll end with a book, no matter how busy you are.  And it doesn’t have to be 1000 words in one go.  Also, to be honest, I have a very helpful and supportive partner and nearly grown-up children.  That helps as well!

What’s your favourite romance novel of all time?
Cotillion by Georgette Heyer. Hands down, no contest.  There are a lot that are close runners up, though!

Which book have you enjoyed the most in the past twelve months, and why?
I really enjoyed The Originals by Cat Patrick.  It’s a YA about three identical sisters. But they’re not triplets, they’re clones, and the outside world thinks they’re all the same person.  How intriguing is that as a premise? 

What do you like to do in your spare time?
I like to read, go running, bake, drink coffee and wine with friends, eat cheese, buy dangly earrings, and collect Chalet School and Sweet Valley High books.

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

It was lovely getting to know more about you through the RNA blog, Immi. Thanks so much for your thoughtful and interesting replies, and wishing you all the best in your new job!

About Helena:
helena fairfax

Helena Fairfax writes contemporary romance novels, and sometimes branches out into romantic suspense when she’s in the mood for danger. Subscribers to Helena’s newsletter receive a free copy of Palace of Deception, a contemporary romantic suspense novella set in the mysterious and romantic fictional country of Montverrier.

 If you would like to write for the RNA blog, please contact Elaine Everest on


Rosemary Gemmell said...

What a great interview! Loved reading about your exciting new role and all those little snippets about trends in publishing, Imogen.

Elaine Everest said...

Thank you, Immi and Helena. A lovely interview. Good luck with your new career, Immi xx

Janice said...

How wonderfully exciting and so insightful! Best wishes for your fab new job, Imogen! xx

Guernsey Girl said...

Thanks to Imogen and Helena for a really enjoyable interview. Twins and virgin heroines? Sounds like the title of a book!

@juliawildauthor said...

Really enjoyable and informative interview, thank you to Imogen and Helena. And all the very best with your new job, Immi! :-)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting interview. Thank you Immi and Helena for these insights.

Phillipa said...

Immi - thank you for your support with Samhain in the past. I'll never forget you introduing me to the brilliant Linda Ingmanson. My dd also collects Chalet Girl books - and I fear we have given away some SVH so I know where to donate any others!