27 Sep Golden Egg Academy interviews literary agent, Ben Illis, Part 1
Ben Illis has very kindly agreed to answer some questions for us about working with agents. Before Ben was an agent, he was an editor, a writer, a photographer, a bookseller, a publisher.
GE: Any tips for finding/working with agents?
BI: Yes, indeed. Most agencies will be listed in the Writers and Artists Yearbook (which reminds me, I must list my own!) and this is a good place to start. Internet searches, writers’ blogs and, of course, talking to academies such as Golden Egg will also yield results, as will talking to other writers and networking through other writers’ associations (such as the SCBWIs), groups and courses. Have a look at the acknowledgements in favourite authors’ books. Most writers thank their agent and this can be a way to get the name of an individual to approach. The key thing to remember is that, while you will of course be flattered to have an agent show interest in your work, the agent is fundamentally working for you, not the other way around. If you don’t have a comfortable and straightforward relationship with your agent, they are probably the wrong agent for you. You should listen to your agent and respect their commercial opinion. This does not mean doing everything they tell you, but it does mean there should be an infrastructure in place between you that allows for frank discussion. If something in your work isn’t working for your agent, it likely won’t work for an editor either, so worth thinking about trying a different approach.
Do also bear in mind that we agents tend not to take on clients who are writing too much in the same area, so as to avoid too much competition on our own lists. If an agent passes on your work, it does not necessarily mean it isn’t up to scratch and may well just mean they are already working on something similar. By the same token, we are NOT a free advice service, so please do respect our decision and appreciate that, frustrating as it is, no does actually mean no!
Lastly, do be sure to check out an agent’s website ahead of approaching them and please do also read their submissions guidelines closely. There is nothing more likely to turn an agent off than an unsolicited submission to our personal email address found through google or linked in, when we have clear guidelines published on our website.
GE: How do you decide who to take on?
BI: As I touched on above, I try not to take on writers who are competing for the same slot on an editorial list, so some of what I take on is dictated by what I feel I don’t yet have covered on my list in terms of genre or approach to a genre. This doesn’t mean I won’t have more than one writer of fantasy or romance on my books, just that I want their approach to each genre to be markedly different. More than anything, I go with my gut. If there is one component of a manuscript I wish to see in place from the off it is voice. For my money, voice is the toughest thing to fix. It can be worked on, of course, but a certain something needs to be there from the beginning.
I also take on writers, not just their first (or seventh) book. I need to feel the writer can build a career; can take criticism; is prepared to make changes where necessary and will listen to my feedback and advice. I want writers who can also defend their own corner in terms of their intent. I need someone who views their work as a work in progress and not as their precious little baby that is fully and perfectly formed already. I also look for writers who are prepared to make that difficult decision and allow a book that hasn’t been successfully placed to be put to one side as we work on a new project that will, hopefully, have more success.
GE: How do you decide which editor to send a MS to?
BI: I meet with editors across the industry on a regular basis, as well as looking at the sorts of books they are publishing and the sort of feedback they have given me – both positive and negative – on previous submissions. I ask them what they are looking for (and then despair when I send it to them only to hear they are now looking for something else!) Some editors have a more conservative taste; some are edgier. Editors, of course, also move and identities of lists will then shift too. Some books will have a broader appeal; others will only ever appeal to a shorter list of editors, but may prove to be totally compelling to any, or all, of this smaller handful of people. It is my job to keep abreast of all this and, once again, to follow my gut as to where to submit first.
GE: So, the eternal question, what are you currently looking for?
BI: A massive international bestseller that will allow me to conquer the world! Seriously, am always interested in books that surprise me and keep me up under the covers with a torch long after bedtime. I love books that teach me about a place, time, person or group of people I knew nothing about. I have strong nostalgic feelings for the many books and writers that I adored as a child and would love to see these areas covered from a more contemporary perspective – step forward Willard Price, Robert Westall, Robert Swindells, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, even. (Yes, I know those last two weren’t actually authors)
I love books that challenge my perceptions and world-view. Give me a writer who can draw characters I will laugh with, cry with and ultimately fall in love with and then is not afraid of being so cruel to them that I want to physically hurl their book across the room in frustration. I would love to find a writer who can do for their YA readership what some of my favourite writers for adults did for theirs. A YA Poisonwood Bible, A Fine Balance, Captain Corelli, Ghostwritten or Property. A book that features a complex and subtly drawn narrative structure would certainly appeal. As would multiple – and distinctive – voices, or a single unsympathetic and/or unreliable voice, in fact,
In terms of genre, I feel we are moving towards real people, real lives. I’d love a YA book that explores gender identity and sexuality with tact and sympathy; or one that humanizes some great political story of our time. I’d love an unusual setting for some good old-fashioned star-crossed lovers to act out a very real and frank romance. I’d dearly love to find an amazing whodunit with an original voice in its detective. I would love to find a good science fiction that is not too far rooted in deep space and is accessible, exciting and credible and as appealing to a female readership as it might be to a male one. Truly funny middle-grade humour, especially for girls, is in fairly short supply just now. As is genuinely exciting adventure, perhaps involving codes, patterns and symbols, as well as a very real threat. Despite the move towards real world settings, I’m always a sucker for a convincingly built epic fantasy, or an original re-working of myth and folkloric legend, a truly disturbing horror, or a genuinely spine-chilling ghost story. That said, the next big thing I discover will likely be something I didn’t even know I was looking for. Go on. Surprise me!
Check out his website: www.the-bia.com