In case you missed it, on Monday I launched my Inside The Publishing Industry Series with an interview with Lorena Goldsmith, Editor, Literary Consultant and founder of the First Novel Prize. Today I continue the series and talk with Literary Agent Rachel Mann.
Can you tell about a book you have the fondest childhood memory of?
Always so difficult to choose just one, but a book I remember very vividly is Marianne Dreams by psychologist and writer Catherine Storr. It’s a frankly terrifying and uncanny story about an ill, lonely and angry little girl who draws an oppressive house guarded by a circle of stones. Marianne can visit the house in her dreams, but then it becomes a force of its own…this perhaps explains my taste for darkness in kids’ books!
Can you tell me about your journey to becoming a literary agent?
It’s very recent history – I started working in the industry as a bookseller in my teens and then spent seven years working as a children’s commissioning editor at various publishers including Penguin, Random House (pre-merger) and Simon & Schuster. My most recent role before agenting was publishing director at the Roald Dahl Story Company, managing the global publishing list and literary estate rights across adult and children’s. That role no longer really exists, as RDSC are fast becoming more of a licensor, so when it ended I spoke to a few literary agencies about starting a children’s list and was fortunate enough to be taken on by the wonderful Jo Unwin at her growing agency, JULA.
What would you describe as the key characteristics a person needs to become a good literary agent?
Diplomacy, curiosity, tenacity.
Although I’m sure you’re very proud of the work you do, do you make up a new career when you mix socially outside of the literary world for fear of every other person you meet telling your about the book they wrote?
No! There’s always a chance that the person you’re talking to has written something wonderful, or knows someone who has, so as a literary agent I actively do the opposite.
You’ve worked for some of the large publishing houses, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster Uk and have also provided freelance editorial services, what would you say was your biggest, or most fulfilling success in working with an author?
Wow, that’s a difficult question. I’m so proud of so many of the authors I’ve worked with both in-house and out of house…I think my most fulfilling ‘successes’ come when an author has been having a terrible time trying to get something down, and I’ve been able to support them through telling the best version of their story, or even just articulating a specific feeling or idea – whether it’s their first or fifteenth novel.
What is the one thing that you see in a submitted manuscript that immediately turns you off and stops you reading any further?
Usually it’s some form of prejudice that I’m not sure the writer will be able to overcome or that makes me think I don’t want give a platform to their stance, or form a working relationship with them. The most common example is probably objectified female characters written by men, I’m afraid!
As a professional with an interest in children’s fiction, working for the Roald Dahl Story Company must have been like winning the lottery?
It was a wonderful privilege to be looking after stories that are loved by so many, but I’m equally excited by finding new voices and characters for the next generation of readers.
What would you say is your proudest achievement in your literary career?
I’d say holding on to it by following my passion for it – frankly, it’s not easy to forge a career in the arts if you’re not independently wealthy, and editorial in particular demands a lot of time and energy outside of working hours. It’s been worth it, but I’ve had some shaky moments.
What attracted you to JULA as a place to begin your agenting career?
Jo Unwin is known across the industry for her great taste, commitment to her clients, and a really broad and high-quality list, so I was incredibly honoured when Jo asked me to join the team. Her warm, human and unthinkingly inclusive approach has to be, I believe, the future of our industry, and JULA has been a very natural fit for me.
What kind of children’s literary works are you looking for when you join JULA in January?
I’m very open at the moment, as I build my list of clients. Richly told middle grade is, of course, the heartland, but I’m also looking for bold YA, non-fiction and poetry concepts too. International settings, great world-building and social commentary are always high up my list as well as, of course, strong and unique voices. I don’t currently represent picture books.
Do you consider self-publishing work as an effective route for authors to take when trying to get the attention of a literary agent and subsequently obtain a traditional publishing deal? If not then what would you say is still the best route for getting that ever elusive deal?
Whilst self-publishing can be a great way to gain a following in some cases, I strongly believe that the career-long support that an agent brings – in terms of editorial guidance (which is often more rigorous and expert than people imagine), profile- and network-building, and the all-important publisher relationships – is vital in securing a deal. Agents are your champions, and will make both you and your story much more visible than you’d be able to achieve alone, as well as encouraging and bolstering you through difficult patches. (I would say this, of course, but I believed it when I was an editor, too!)
Thank you Rachel for taking the time to talk with me today and I wish you every success when you join JULA in January next year.
If you enjoyed this interview then why not follow my blog where I’ll be posting more interviews and conversations soon. I regularly provide an insight into my own experiences as I publish my debut novel, In The End, an apocalyptic thriller that will leave you breathless, officially released tomorrow!
If you’re an author, or work in the industry and you’ve got an interesting story to tell, drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org