A.M. Heath is a very well-established literary agency, founded in 1919. It is quite a prestigious agency, and represents some rather notable authors (including Orwell!). Despite its impressive reputation, A.M. Heath is also a small and very welcoming company.
Having a 5-week placement at A.M. Heath was an incredibly insightful opportunity. Not only did I witness firsthand how an agency works, but also how agents interact with both publishers and authors. I have finally gotten my act together, and what follows is a small summary of my observations.
The Slush Pile
The dreaded, dreaded slush pile. Sorting through it really gives you an understanding of what to avoid if you ever decide to submit a manuscript. And, to be honest, the high rejection rates suddenly make sense: so many of the submissions are crap.
Unfortunately, I did not discover the next Harry Potter, but I did uncover gems of a different sort, such as submissions which failed to follow the guidelines, or ones containing:
- Spelling mistakes. Especially in the first sentence. Or in the title. Seriously.
- Bizarre, rambling cover letters, filled with irrelevant information or, in the worst cases, random photos of the author’s pets. It made me wonder about the author’s sanity.
- Cover letters detailing how to sell the book, who to sell it to, and anything other than a plot summary and short author bio.
- Stories that switch point of view every 2 pages. It’s something that’s incredibly difficult to write well.
- Stories that have more smut than plot. Especially with female main characters written by male authors. Give me some semblance of a plot, please.
As a matter of fact, generally within the first five chapters, and sometimes less, a manuscript could be rejected.
Researching the backlist of an agency is very helpful for unpublished authors, as it gives them an idea of the agent’s preferences. Submitting to literary agencies which publish work similar to yours will increase your likelihood of getting accepted, although it seems agents will seriously consider all manuscripts of publishable quality, regardless of genre.
However, most agencies stick to only a few genres, possibly because that is what they are reputed for. The backlist is an important source of revenue for established agencies, providing a buffer in case they are unsuccessful when selling new titles. Advances for new titles are—I was surprised to discover—entirely unreliable, as they can range anywhere from £300 to £20,000. Thus the backlist provides a slightly steadier stream of income.
This may explain why new agencies could have difficulty becoming established during the current recession, as they do not have the same cash flow to rely on that established agencies have. Of course, even established agencies cannot rely solely on their backlist, as eventually copyright expires.
A.M. Heath has an entire room dedicated to author contracts, with contracts that date as far back as the 1940s, and are printed on an odd-sized sheet of carbon paper. Personally, however tedious the task, I believe the best option would be to digitize all the contracts, as a lot of the older contracts were hard to read, or torn.
Contract knowledge is crucial for a rights agent or assistant, and authors should endeavour to verse themselves in the basics, as there are a ridiculous amount of boiler-plate clauses and it’s good to know who can or can’t do what where. That way you can know whether all subsidiary rights for your work are being exploited, and thus whether you are making the most money possible! (Yes, it’s all about money at the end of the day. We all have to eat.)
A book I found helpful in this regard was Publishing Law by Hugh Jones & Christopher Benson, which explains everything in layman’s terms. Be warned: law makes for very dull reading!
Network, Network, Network!
The whole industry seems to run on networking. While this may be true for most industries, it seems to be particularly the case with publishing.
A.M. Heath—and I presume this is true of all literary agencies—not only keeps in close touch with their existing contacts, building close relationships with various editors, in order to learn their genre preferences and target them specifically with new titles, but also works hard at expanding their network by attending book fairs, and seminars, and researching publishers. I may post a separate blog rambling about LBF 2009 at some point.
An agent can’t do all the footwork though, and it falls on the unpublished author to network for him or herself as well!
Agents, like publishers, use an incredible amount of paper.
A.M. Heath receives a lot of post of either submissions or promotional copies of books, and the envelopes are reused whenever possible. Non-official documents are often printed on re-used paper, and most submissions—when not requested back—are recycled. As a matter of fact A.M. Heath has won an award for the amount of paper recycled.
However, there were some areas which I thought could use some improvement. A.M. Heath, like a majority of agencies, does not accept email submissions, and any copies of electronic manuscripts are generally printed for reading purposes. Thus, while they recycle all of their paper, A.M. Heath also generates a lot of waste.
Furthermore, whilst publishers are contacted by email, most communication with authors is done by post. It seems incredibly wasteful when an online newsletter or email service could suffice. This may be due to a number of authors being pedantic technophobes, as I was informed that a number of authors didn’t have email addresses.
Simply put, my placement at A.M. Heath was a dynamic and informative experience. I particularly appreciated working at a small company, as it gave me the chance to carry out a variety of tasks as well as observe all aspects of an agency.
It seems to me that publishing is a very interconnected business, and thus the skills required for any job in the industry largely overlap. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to finding more work experience perhaps on the other side of the fence—in a publishing house—so that I can gain a full understanding of the publishing industry as a whole.