Everything You Wanted to Know About Literary Agents
Courtesy: Catherine Cho

So you’ve written a book…now what? We chat with Catherine Cho, a Literary Assistant at Curtis Brown UK, a renowned literary and talent agency headquartered in London. Brush up on the business side of the publishing industry, how lit agents play an integral role in a writer’s career, and what to do once you’ve finished writing your first opus.

Hi Catherine! What is your official title?
My official title is Literary Assistant at Curtis Brown UK. I assist Jonny Geller, and I’m also building my own list in fiction and non-fiction.

What genres or types of books do you specialize in?
My main interests are magical realism and speculative fiction. I’m also drawn to sci-fi and fantasy titles, including YA. I want to find novels that transcend genre, like Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell. I’m looking for a novel that transports you. I look for books that work for both the UK and U.S. markets, but I primarily submit to the UK.

Tell us a bit about what your agency, Curtis Brown, is known for. How is it different from other agencies?
Curtis Brown is the largest agency in Europe and one of the oldest. We represent some iconic authors and estates, from John le Carré, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Daphne du Maurier, and Winnie the Pooh to modern authors like David Mitchell, Jojo Moyes, David Nicholls, and Tracy Chevalier.

I think a real strength is how forward-thinking Curtis Brown is, we’re very serious about translation rights and book-to-film rights, and we have an incredible team. We also have Talent and Television/Film departments, and so we bring projects together.

What are your biggest job responsibilities? Walk us through what you could be working on any given day.
It’s difficult to describe a typical day, but it’s part of what I love most about working in an agency. At any one time, we’re handling requests for our clients, we’re negotiating deals, drafting contracts, reviewing covers, and discussing publicity and marketing plans. The actual reading of submissions and manuscripts usually happens after office hours or on the weekends, I rarely get the chance to read at my desk. We receive anywhere from 100-200 unsolicited queries a week, and of course, client reading comes first, so it always feels like there’s not enough time to do everything. I usually spend Saturdays tucked up in a café  reading my submissions and drinking tea by the potful.

So the big question from most writers is: How do you get an agent?
The best way to get an agent is to have a strong manuscript. I know that it sounds daunting to be one of the many submissions, but I can tell you honestly that if a story is compelling, it will be found. If you can get a referral, that is also a good way to try and skip to the top of the reading list, but it isn’t always guaranteed. Writing awards and anthologies is also a strong place to begin. A writer has one chance to make a strong impression, and an agent is reading on his/her own time, so it’s best to make sure that the cover letter and novel is perfect. You shouldn’t be sending in a first draft and hoping that if an agent sees potential, they’ll read it again.

Why would a writer need an agent?
Writers need agents for the same reason that athletes or actors need agents. An agent is your lobbyist, they’re in your corner, negotiating your deals, making sure that the rights in the work are fully explored (translation, film, audio). A strong agent makes sure that your rights are protected, that you have strong royalties and terms with a publisher. At the end of the day, even though the book industry is a lovely warm place, it is a business and publishers are looking to make money. It is smart to have a professional who is on your side. We are Jerry Maguires for books. An agent is also someone you can trust for editorial advice or even career strategy. Many agents are the first readers of work, and increasingly agents are taking on more of an editorial role.

The most important reason for having an agent is so that as a writer, you can focus on writing. There is a lot of admin that comes with writing (contracts, royalties, publicity queries, etc). If you have an agent, you can worry about the one thing that matters, which is the writing.

 How do you find new talent? What kinds of writers or stories do you like to seek out?
I rely on submissions. I read submissions constantly (and my Saturdays are held for submission reading). I also look at anthologies, and I try to read literary journals. I also try to explore writing online, sometimes Wattpad and Kindle Direct. I’m looking for a strong story. A story that moves me, that transports me. I tend to love magical realism and high concept, but I also look for voice. The feeling I’m looking for is to start reading a novel and immediately diving in and leaving the world as I know it. It’s a magical feeling, and I think that as writers, if you can captivate your reader, create that “word spell”, then that’s what I’m looking for.

Say a writer wants to become a published author and they have a finished manuscript. What are the next steps?
The first step is to write a killer cover letter and synopsis. I always read the cover letter first, and almost always, a strong cover letter with a concise pitch is a good indicator on someone’s writing ability. I also tend to take a quick glance at the synopsis. It’s difficult to make a story fit on one page, but I think that it’s an important skill, and it’s a sign that a writer understands what their book is about.

The second step is to find the right agent. There are so many agents and agencies, so it’s worth doing your research. Try and find agents who represent books that you like or authors you admire. When researching agents, make sure you read what they’re looking for — it’s considered poor form to query the multiple agents at the same agency (unless you’ve let them know), but there are times when I receive a book that’s very clearly not right for me. As a writer, you want to find an agent who is passionate about your writing and your book, and so it’s important to make sure that the target of your pitch is someone who will like the book.

Do you think self-funded and self-published books are a good idea?
I’m all for self-funded and self-published books. I think it’s exciting that with technology, there are so many avenues for storytellers and for writers to share their work. It doesn’t have to be the traditional route or the traditional way, if you’re able to find a readership on Wattpad or through self-publishing (which many do!) then I think that’s empowering.  

How did you fall into this profession?
I feel very lucky to work at a literary agency, I’ve always loved books, and I was a huge bookworm growing up. My parents wanted me to study mathematics or something quantitative, but I loved words. I ended up majoring in English, and then in an attempt to “be practical” (and having no idea what to do with my degree), I went to law school and lived abroad in Hong Kong. I also tried working for a lobbying firm in Washington, DC.

I realized that I liked lobbying, and I liked working on projects, but I wanted to lobby for things I believed in. I took the bus to New York on the weekends, crashed on friends’ couches and met as many people in publishing as I could. I thought I’d try being an editor, but someone said that with my law background, I could try agenting. I was lucky enough to land at Folio Literary Management in New York. I’d never heard of agenting before, I didn’t know it was a career choice, but the moment I started, I knew it was something I loved.

What characteristics make for a great book agent?
A good book agent is someone who is passionate (it is an all-consuming job). A good agent has good taste in books; you have to be able to identify what is a strong story and what is good writing (and you have to have that instinct and rely on it). A good agent is also someone who has strong connections in the industry, someone who understands the importance of contracts and details like addendums and making sure that every right is explored. An agent should also be good at playing mediator, which is a role that they have to navigate often. Basically, as a writer, if you can believe that your agent cares and is out there fighting for you, then that’s a good agent.

If someone were to be interested in book agenting, how would you suggest they break into the business?
Breaking into the business is very competitive. Unfortunately, it’s an industry that expects everyone to start from the bottom, so it’s very rare to get an entry-level role without several internships. (I have been an intern so many times now, and it was slightly disheartening to start as an intern after having held several jobs before and having been to law school.) It’s also difficult because entry-level positions and internships are notoriously poorly paid (I had several odd jobs all throughout my first year of working in publishing in New York, it’s tough and that’s often a barrier to entry.)

Most positions are not advertised, and so if you can get a foot in the door, that’s usually all it takes to know about jobs. People in publishing are very nice, and the way I found my first job was meeting lots of people for coffee. Everyone was so helpful and generous with their time, and it helped me build my own network of contacts.

 How often do you read for fun vs. work?
I try to have a non-work related book to read at all times. I think it’s important to remember what’s out there and to keep developing your taste — a good eye for stories is so important, and it can be easy to forget if you’re not constantly reading.

What are some of your favorite books you’ve read?
In terms of books I’ve read recently: I love reading fantasy novels, Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy is brilliant. I recently read Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation which completely startled me and made me laugh out loud. I’ve been recommending it to everyone. I’m currently reading Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, which is a revelation. I also recently read Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith which was stunning.