Joining us today for the next instalment in my series of posts on writing and publishing is literary agent Juliet Mushens. She kindly agreed to an interview so we could find out what an agent does, and why you would want to become one.
Juliet Mushens is a fiction and non-fiction agent in the literary department of The Agency Group. She was picked by The Bookseller as a Rising Star in 2012 and is on the shortlist of four of the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize 2013. Please email her your cover letter and first 3 chapters when submitting. You can follow her on twitter at @mushenska
How did you become an agent?
My first job in publishing was in the fiction marketing department of HarperCollins. I loved the books I worked on but I was always drawn to the idea of being really close to the text, getting to work with writers for their whole career and championing them from the start when you pluck them from the slushpile. After 2 years I joined an agency as an assistant and after 8 months of assisting I was made an agent.
It is one of those career defining moments to be given an opportunity like that. I was terrified at the idea of building a list from nothing, and aware that I was still really young and inexperienced, but equally I was hugely excited. I knew I needed to work harder than I ever had before but I knew that the possibilities if I did were huge.
I was lucky in that lots of agents I know were hugely generous in their time and advice when I began - from suggesting editors to submit to, to handholding through an auction. I love that now people sometimes ask me for advice!
What do you like the most about agenting?
I like pretty much everything about it. I love the excitement of discovering something special, getting to work editorially with writers, the fun of seeing a book begin its journey to publication and beyond. I find negotiations exciting too, and coming up with new ideas and signing clients and... Oh everything, really.
What about the downsides?
It is really hard to love a book, work hard on it and not be able to sell it. Or to see a book struggle on publication. I work with people and their dreams and sometimes that can be a lot of pressure. I also have to reject a lot of people and that is always a tough part of the job.
What do you wish that someone had told you when you started agenting?
Trust your gut implicitly.
What was the biggest challenge when you became an agent?
Probably my age. I play that as my strength now, as I'm young and enthusiastic and don't have an unwieldy list. But I remember a very senior editor buying a book from me when I was just starting out and then meeting me for lunch. I thought he was going to cry when he saw me, and he ended up asking me what I'd studied for my GCSEs as he obviously felt we had no common ground. It was awful at the time but hilarious now.
What skills do you think you need to be a good agent?
Every agent is different. But I think charm, patience, a steady hand, a good editorial eye, strong negotiation skills and a strong work ethic. Plus unending supplies of hyperbole. One of my colleagues complimented me on how good I am at pitching in person which I 100% put down to my gap year working in a call centre. And obviously the fact I am from Essex and would probably be just as at home working on a market stall.
What is an average day for you?
There aren't any! I can do a lot in a day: from submitting a book to negotiating contracts, meeting a prospective new client to editorial notes for an existing author, a brainstorm about titles with an author and editor, looking at covers, going to a launch party, talking to unpublished writers. It is such a varied job, which is what makes it fun.
What is your advice to people trying to become an agent?
Read, read, read. Then read some more. Network. Come to industry events. A bit more reading. And don't be put off by the presumption that it is a very snobby and nepotistic industry. I knew no one in publishing when I got my first job. And you would not worry about 'snobby' if you met me. Trust.
Thank you Juliet. I expect everyone to send her loads of submissions now :)