As an editorial agency, they work creatively with their clients before submitting to publishers.
After her studies in Dublin Sallyanne Sweeney completed an Mphil in American Literature at Cambridge before joining Watson, Little Ltd in 2008 as a literary agent. After just three years at the agency, she became the Director of the company in 2011.
Sallyanne is also on Twitter, so do follow her by clicking the link at the end of this interview for updates to her submissions policies and writing advice.
Did your university studies in American literature set high standards for the unsolicited US set submissions you request full manuscripts from as an agent? Should these submissions always be written in American English even when the author is not American?
I really enjoyed studying American Literature and looking back, it was a privilege to be able to read texts solely for their literary value rather than with an eye on their commercial potential at the same time, and to follow my interests – I wrote a dissertation on mother-daughter storytelling in Chinese American women's writing, looking at Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan among other wonderful writers. As an agent, I'm still interested in American settings and authors, though usually I'd say an author based in the US would be better served by a local agent. I think authors should write in the English they're most comfortable using and not worry too much about variations on spellings etc, as that will feel most authentic, though this is often addressed during the copy–editing process further down the line. When my (British) author Nelle Davy sent me her manuscript The Legacy of Eden, the sense of place and voice was so strong that I was convinced it was written by an Iowa native.
In the competitive world of publishing how challenging is it to secure the books and clients you crave to represent? It's certainly competitive and I've noticed a change in the attitude of literary agencies towards unsolicited submissions in the years I've been working in publishing – I think that now it's seen as an important talent pool even for very established agents. I always think it's a good idea for authors to meet agents before signing with them, as it's such a personal relationship and trust is so important. When competing with other agents to sign an author up, I find it really useful to be able to convey my passion for their writing, and future career, in person. We're certainly looking to take on authors rather than books, and want a longterm partnership with our clients.
If a rejected submission had potential would you write a personalised rejection later to encourage the writer to resubmit after their rewrite? Yes, absolutely – and I'd hope that the author would resubmit to me. I sent a personalised rejection for the first novel Felicity Everett submitted to me, suggesting editorial changes she might want to make. A year later, she came back to me with The Story of Us, which we sold to Random House. Most agents unfortunately don't have time to send anything other than form rejections, which I know must be so frustrating when you have put your heart and soul into a manuscript. It does mean that if you do get a personalised rejection, however, you're on the right track, and an agent has seen potential in your writing.
Does your slush pile give priority to the writers you meet at festivals, writing retreats or book talks? In the ever-increasing digital world in which we live, how important are these personal face-to-face interactions with writers?
I look at submissions as they come in but will prioritise reading authors I've met at festivals or events, or who are recommended by one of our clients or an editor. It's really the writing that counts though – if I love someone's submission it doesn't matter at all if I've met them or not, and vice versa.
How hard can it be to determine the career longevity of a writer when you sign them? If their fiction books were not generating sufficient sales would you convince them to try non-fiction instead?
We're looking to have a longterm partnership with our authors, so career management is an important part of our job as an agent. I wouldn't suggest an author changes genres if that wasn't something they were comfortable with, but we might discuss a change of direction or perhaps changing their author name for a different type of book (I have one author who writes under different names for children and adults, for example). We also advise authors on building their profiles online and aim to help in the publicity campaign, to ensure their books get as much attention as possible.
When you receive a submission for a children's book do you check the bio to see if the writer has any children? If the author is a parent does it have any significance with publishers in terms of knowing their readership better?
Absolutely not – I always look at an author's bio but I don't think their personal life has any impact on their writing, so I'd advise they stick to professional details; I'd be much more interested if they were a teacher or train driver. David Walliams was a bestselling children's author before he became a parent! So I don't think it's a relevant issue for publishers either.
If you could have represented any author that is no longer with us, who would it be and why?
Roald Dahl – I grew up reading him and he encapsulates the best of children's fiction; his writing is so appealing and on the side of children, funny, yet he doesn't shy away from the darker side of life. The Witches still terrifies me! On the adult fiction side, I'll say F. Scott Fitzgerald as aside from his writing, I'd love to have gone to one of his parties…
Apart from great writing what other attributes do you look for in a prospective client?
Aside from talent, I'm looking for a client who will be a pleasure to work with – professional, hard working and honest. I think any writers with long careers possess all of these attributes. As publishing moves slowly, patience is also a bonus!
What genres are you looking to represent and how should writers contact you? Do you accept international submissions?
As an agency, there's not much we don't represent – we're lucky to have such a wide ranging list. I'm looking for fiction both commercial and literary and always interested in writing set overseas or by international authors (I'm from Dublin so a foreigner myself!). On the children's fiction side, I represent authors from picture books to YA and am growing a small list of picture book illustrators too. In non-fiction, I'm interested in narrative non-fiction, food writing and memoirs. We accept email submissions and details are on our website.