In contrast to this, Michael Alcock Management was only established in 1997, to predominately represent the finest in Non-Fiction.
In 2003, the two agencies agreed to merge to become the Johnson & Alcock Literary Agency.
The combined history and experience of them both now sees them as one of the major literary agencies working in London today.
With over six decades of successful releases, they continue to attract clients within the UK and internationally.
How was your first week as a literary agent in comparison with how you thought it might be? Were you able to bring any experience with you that helped your transition in becoming a literary agent?
I had fairly realistic expectations about being an agent – I’d interned at various agencies/publishers before J&A, and I made a point of trying both small independents and large corporates in both areas. It gave me perspective on the industry and a sense of where I wanted to fit in. I knew early on I wanted to be an agent more than a publisher; and I sensed I was better suited to a smaller agency where I could have autonomy, and didn’t have corporate structure and politics getting in the way.
The first week was mainly terror. After that I got a little bit less terrified every week, and a little bit better at my job. I sold my first book in week six, a horse memoir I was handling for a US publisher. I thought to myself ‘this agenting lark is easy’ – but that’s when the hard work began. And it hasn’t let up since. I still aim to get better at my job every week, and every now and then I’m still capable of terrifying myself. But thankfully, much less often for the latter.
There’s no experience that matters quite like doing the job itself – to start out you need enthusiasm and energy, a willingness to listen, and a respect for the people that make this whole industry tick (i.e. the authors). Everything else you can learn, and if you can find a mentor that’s the best way. It helps to have a good knowledge of literature before you start – it grounds your taste, and there’s not much time to catch up on the Classics once the submissions come flying in.
In your duties at the Association of Authors’ Agents (AAA) what have been the most challenging aspects of the industry that have been discussed and improved?
I’ve enjoyed serving as Secretary of the AAA, and in spite of all the hard work (and terrible pay: i.e. zero) I’m going to miss it when my term ends in January 2015. We have a lot on our plate – defending copyright, fighting for authors’ rights, managing the transition of publishing into the digital age, assessing different revenue streams and funding models that have come into the marketplace. We’re becoming much more active in lobbying around these issues, as they are hugely important to our authors. It’s a voluntary trade association, so the role is more about managing our member agencies (aka herding cats) and talking to other trade organisations than dealing with authors. I do occasionally get phone calls from authors asking for advice, but I have to let them down gently. I’m also not actually anyone’s secretary…as I’ve had to explain more than once.
The industry is changing (when has it not been?) but the fundamentals of agenting remain the same: we exist to serve the best interests of our clients, and without our clients we are nothing. A good agent can help translate the gobbledegook publishers sometimes speak into a language their authors can understand; and vice-versa, we can make a publisher see the author’s perspective and listen to their concerns and suggestions. Every generation in publishing looks back to the generation before as somehow better, easier, more ‘golden’ – and I see so many pieces written by the old guard whining about how much better it used to be. Not me: I love the way things are now. If you’re a young agent (I still just about count as young… I think) and have good taste, good authors, the right attitude, and you’re good at your job you will thrive.
Your have an expressive Twitter username. What is the reaction to it when you meet new contacts at trade fairs and networking events? What are the key aspects of Twitter that makes it so appealing to literary agents?
Ah yes, @literarywhore I’ll take “expressive”, I’ve heard worse. Most people raise an eyebrow, but I see that as a good thing. (Someone suggested @literarypimp would be more appropriate, so (tragically) I have that twitter handle too.) It’s just a bit of fun really, not a statement about me or how I see my place in the world. It seems to get plenty of attention, but then I’m sure plenty are put off by it. There are a gazillion Ed Wilsons in the world, and at least three in publishing, so I have to work harder to make myself stand out. I don’t think anyone has been shocked – if my mother knew what twitter was she would probably be a little disappointed, but that’s par for the course.
Publishing has always been a mixture of business and pleasure, and I think twitter captures that as well as anything. Yes, it’s a powerful way of communicating a message to hundreds, sometimes thousands of people – but equally you have to be worth following! Most of the corporate social media channels are dry and boring, both in publishing and the wider twittersphere (yes, that is a word). My twitter feed is me. Cats, gin, silliness, ludicrous trousers, and rather more cricket in summer than my wife would like. And books. I am passionate about books, and about my authors – I tweet cover reveals and links to interviews/reviews because I’m excited and proud of them, not as part of an integrated marketing strategy. Readers are a clever bunch, they can spot a fake a mile off.
The nature of the publishing industry is such that many literary agents switch agencies during their career. But how important is stability to a literary agent and their clients?
I believe very strongly that stability is the key to any author’s success. At home, in their writing life; and at work, both what they do as a writer and the rest of the time. The days when an author had the same editor throughout their career are sadly long gone – editors move around too much, and publishers are bought/sold/restructured with alarming frequency. I know editors who have gone through four or five publishers in less than a decade – their authors may have followed them the first move, and maybe the second, but the third/fourth/fifth? I rather suspect not.
More and more the point of continuity in an author’s life is their agent. And so it is very important to me that I don’t undermine that. Look at some of the names on our roster: Dick Francis, Beryl Bainbridge, Phil Rickman, James Hamilton-Paterson. They have only ever been with John Johnson (the agency that became J&A). My aim is to still be at J&A in 50 years time, and I want all my authors to be here with me. Partly I got lucky, in that I joined an agency with a tradition of developing staff and maintaining continuity, so I don’t feel I have to leave to progress. But for me, it’s not just stability: it’s about loyalty. I am fiercely loyal to my authors, and will do whatever it is they need me to do. And number one: staying put. Not making their life harder by spreading their contracts across different agencies.
As a Director of the Johnson Alcock Literary Agency how are the new clients discussed and brought into the agency? Do you envisage a time many years from now where you will step away from the agent duties and oversee the key decisions of the agency instead?
We operate autonomously when it comes to new clients, but also collaboratively – the onus is on the individual agents (there are four of us here) to each bring in new clients, and we discuss internally and often give secondary reads on work under consideration, but the final decision is down to the agent themselves. We’re a small agency so it’s usually pretty clear who the right agent is for any given author, and authors are becoming increasingly sophisticated in targeting the right agent in the first place.
As for the latter question, that’s a simple one: never. I chose to work at a smaller agency because I don’t want to deal with the rigmarole that comes with a more corporate workplace. I detest pointless meetings, and come out in hives when I hear the words ‘strategy’ and ‘protocol’. I will happily cross the street to slap a management consultant around the chops. The agency has a clear direction and continues to expand year on year, and I foresee a point where we may need to make some fundamental decisions about expansion (as with any smaller company with ambitions) – but I will never, ever stop being an agent. This is what I do, and what I love: finding authors, working with them, placing them, and watching their careers flourish. We have a culture here of personal accountability, and I represent my authors personally. That isn’t going to change. It’s a business relationship, but also a personal one for me: I love getting to know my authors’ families, I often stay with them, meet their cats/dogs, etc.
You look after the majority of the agency's Estates. What exactly does this entail?
Copyright here in the UK lasts for 70 years from the 31st of December in the year of the author’s death – J&A was founded in 1950s, so pretty much all of our authors are in copyright. It presents a different set of challenges, although the fundamentals of the job remain the same. You can regard an author’s literary estate as a cohesive whole, and that often means selling backlists en masse to publishers. That way the publisher can relaunch across a number of titles and generate interest/momentum that way. [US and international copyright laws are slightly different, but most work in the same basic way.]
They key difference is the decision-making: an author’s literary estate is their ‘property’, and so can be left in their will just like anything else. Sometimes there is a literary executor as well, who makes the decisions but doesn’t necessarily receive any income from the Estate. When it works, it works fine. But when it doesn’t, it is a real mess to untangle. And we have inherited some Estates in a real mess. 70 years is long enough for two, sometimes three generations to be involved – and that can mean ten, fifteen, even twenty beneficiaries. Or sometimes the author leaves their literary estate to a charity, or a University, or an institution. But they still need an agent to handle the day-to-day business.
What are the biggest mistakes you see in your slush pile? Have you ever offered editorial notes in a rejection?
There are so many basic errors we see replicated over and over: submitting without attaching the manuscript, or submitting the wrong draft; anything that involves sending a second email straight after the first. Basic spelling errors, blind copying, sending to multiple agents here – doing all the things we ask you not to do! The submissions guidelines on our website are there for a reason, so follow them. It’s not an arbitrary list, and none of them are complicated. But if you can’t follow simple instructions, you aren’t giving yourself a fair chance.
I say this a lot when I give talks: take it seriously. You are applying for a job when you email me, so take it seriously. Would you apply for a job with a typo in your CV? No. Would you deviate from the requirements as specified in the job description? No. So why do either when you’re sending me your manuscript. Give yourself a fair chance, and I will give you a fair chance. I receive a lot of submissions, sometimes up to a hundred a week, so you need to make sure you’re not an easy ‘no’.
The simple answer for editorial feedback is again, ‘no’ – I don’t physically have time to respond personally to every decline, much as I’d like to. But if someone’s a very near miss, or there’s something I see in there (either good or bad), I’m not afraid to say it. Just don’t expect feedback on a decline. Time is my most valuable commodity, and I have to be realistic about what I can/can’t achieve in a day.
Apart from great writing what other traits do you look for and hope for in a prospective client?
It’s very hard to put a finger on it – I guess I want to be excited. Publishing is all about the transfer of excitement: a book has to be ‘sold’ five times before it gets from author to reader: author to agent, agent to editor, editor to publisher, publisher to retailer, retailer to customer. (This is the simple version – in reality there are probably seven/eight stages.) So the very least I have to feel when I first read a book is pure, buttock-clenching excitement. Stay up all night finishing the book excitement. Rave to everyone you see excitement. Bore your wife SILLY excitement. At some stage I have to take a more rational viewpoint, but early on excitement is the key. Think about the way you approach an agent, and what it is that makes your book exciting. And then find the best way to convey that. Successful writing is all about communication – so communicate!
Once you’ve got a brilliant book, and the perfect pitch, and you’ve followed the submission guidelines flawlessly, you then have to be professional. Don’t be bland and corporate, but be genuine, serious, and show that you are the kind of author I want to represent – for this book, and the one after, and the one after that. I’m into building careers, placing authors with publishers on multibook deals, not one-offs. This is my job, it’s how I pay my mortgage – so I’m taking it seriously. And I need my authors to take it seriously too. One agent I know calls this the ‘Don’t be a Dick’ rule – there are plenty of authors with good books who I haven’t taken on because I suspect that they just might be.
If you could have represented any author who is no longer with us, who would it be and why?
Easy one: Douglas Adams. I love everything about him, the way he wrote, his attitude to life. I have read and listened to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy more times than I can hope to remember, and will continue to do so. He died in 2001 while I was still at University, and I was bereft. Although if he’d still been alive when I got into publishing I would have made a total fool of myself. Probably more than once.
What genres do you represent and how should writers contact you? Do you accept worldwide submissions?
My list is diverse, deliberately so, and reflects my own reading tastes. Looking at just some of my authors’ books published recently : I can see Vikings, radio DJs, cats, nuns, dragons, Ficials, racehorses, feisty heroines aplenty, spaceships, boxers, sheep, Danish footballers, murderous pagans, a crime-fighting vicar, Vulcan bombers, film stars – I could go on! Fiction and non-fiction, illustrated and not. So it’s much easier to tell you what I won’t consider: I’m not currently looking for children’s books, so please don’t send me MG or low-end YA. YA with crossover appeal is fine, but it needs to read up to an adult readership. The slushier end of the women’s fiction market is a mystery to me: please don’t send me saga or romance, and I remain baffled by what is/isn’t good erotica. Maybe I’ll know when I see it!
At the moment I’m having a lot of success with SFF, and those wonderful areas where genre books crossover with crime, thriller, and even literary fiction. Anything unusual, unexpected, quirky (although I’ll probably regret using that word), and written with ambition and verve. I don’t want ordinary, and I don’t want ‘good’ – too many books are turned down by editors for being ‘good’. Grab my attention with something unusual and high concept, pitched in a way that shows your personality, intelligence, and an understanding of how this game works. I go to plenty of conferences, I give regular panels, workshops and talks to Writers’ groups, so I’m not hard to track down. And most of all, DO NOT pitch me your book on twitter.
You can contact me through any of the usual channels: email or postal submissions, guidelines on our website. Happy to consider writers from anywhere in the world – it doesn’t matter where you live/write, as long as you’re good. If you’re in a market that has its own homegrown agents (e.g. the US) make sure there’s a reason you’re submitting to me, but I’ll consider all comers. The bulk of my list is British, or at least UK based, but I also represent Irish, Swiss, Argentine, Welsh, Danish, Indian, Icelandic, Botswana, Maltese, Trinidadian, Armenian, South African, and more than a few Americans and Canadians. Is that “worldwide” enough for you?