Your work as a literary agent with Curtis Brown entails not just approaching publishers on behalf of writers but also helping writers assess the commercial viability of their ideas; helping them sell a range of rights related to each book, such as publication rights for various languages and regions of the world, audiobook rights, film rights, etc; and generally helping your writers build their careers. What is one of your favourite parts of your job and why?
Probably the most exciting thing is finding a new voice amongst the unsoliciteds or reading something by one of your existing clients that is almost word perfect – when an author delivers a story that makes you fall in love with their writing all over again. Relating to that is the feeling of excitement when you know that a narrative has far reaching potential – that manuscript that is so hot that it’s burning a hole in your desk. Achieving a good sale for your client is definitely one of the most satisfying parts of the job – particularly if you have put a lot of work into it prior to submission.
What would be your top piece of advice for new novelists about to submit to Curtis Brown, beyond what is in the submission guidelines?
Read, read, read would be my advice. It’s vital that someone writing a novel and I guess that’s what we’re talking about here, is well versed in the genre that they have chosen as their own. You need a benchmark to know whether or not your writing is good enough. If you read those that have received not just sales but critical acclaim, it should become clear.
Curtis Brown has a range of agents who each have their own list of clients, and you would have different judgement or tastes than another agent, like Pippa Masson. How would you describe the kinds of novels you love to discover or that you are best suited to representing as an agent?
It’s hard to specifically define our point of difference, Pippa and I particularly have some overlap. I guess my list reflects my passions and interests – food and lifestyle, history, memoir and some self help on the non-fiction side as well as historical narrative, commercial women’s fiction, sf and fantasy and crossover/young adult. Being a mum I also represent some gorgeous junior fiction and picture books.
Beyond the content of a novel, what do you love to find in a novelist that makes them a good person to represent as an agent?
Content is the most important thing, however, someone who is proactive and prepared to put themselves out there to help promote their work is also an attractive proposition. It’s also helpful for someone to have a clear idea of what they love to write.
Their voice – their skill as storytellers not only in the clever way that they construct their narratives but the way in which their stories are conveyed. All three are born writers. They’ve always written. It’s not something that they ‘decided’ to do, it was something that they ‘had’ to do. That passion comes through not only in the writing but in how they promote it too.
What are some of the most common things aspiring novelists who submit to Curtis Brown do that they probably shouldn’t?
They submit their work too soon, they haven’t read through their submission carefully or they haven’t completed their novel but want a second opinion. We’re not interested in partially completed work. We want to know that a writer has the staying power and ambition to have completed their first novel – and edited it – before submitting to CB. I’m not saying that we won’t rework it with them once we’ve taken something on but we are almost always going to reject something that’s 250,000 words in length….
Honestly, I also think that people put too much pressure on themselves to have their work published, what’s wrong with writing as a hobby? Curtis Brown New York Agent, Ginger Clark, made a very good point when we met recently. She said that people need to change their perception of writing in society. I think that’s true. More should be allowed to just writing for pleasure, for catharsis, to share with their family. Not everyone has to be published and not everyone should be published. In the same way that people play the guitar or paint as a ‘hobby’ but are never world famous artists or musicians – it’s just something that they do because they enjoy it. Why can’t writing viewed in a similar way? I remember reading an article about Margaret Atwood at a dinner. A doctor sat next to her and said that he’d decided to write a novel next year. She responded by saying that she’d decided she was going to become a brain surgeon or something along those lines. World class writing is not something that you choose to do, it’s a talent that you are born with. You can certainly attend creative writing courses and learn how to craft a novel but how you put it together is something that cannot be taught.
You used to work as a literary agent with Curtis Brown UK. How would you describe the Australia & New Zealand novel market in comparison to the UK?
From within it’s much harder in a way because it’s so much smaller, the choice of publishers and publishing houses are more limited – it can make it harder to find a good home for someone’s work that you believe in but for a small market we produce a very high standard of writing. When Australian authors break through locally and internationally they really succeed.
From a more general market perspective – Australian and NZ writers have to compete with the New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller lists and prize winners here – there are only a few who can match international author titles in terms of sheer volume sales. Readers often look to other markets when deciding what to read. I’m not sure how we can change that?
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters and why?
Gosh this is exceptionally hard to answer and impossible really as there are so many brilliant characters across the ages but as a woman those that immediately sprint to mind are probably:
Matilda in Roald Dahl’s novel of the same name for her cleverness and compassion against all odds
Rosalind in As You Like It (Shakespeare) and The Wife of Bath (Chaucer) for their wit and assertion in the patriarchal societies of their times
And Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s simply because when I was a teenager I just wanted to be her. She was so alternative, so cool.
Curtis Brown Australia site: www.curtisbrown.com.au