Publishing Interviews: The Agency Reader

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This month I’m starting a new interview series with people from the publishing industry. I’ll be asking them exactly what their jobs entail, what they like about them, and what they don’t. I’ll be interviewing editors, agents, designers, publicists, sales people and many others. To kick off, today I’m posting an interview with Susannah Godman, the person who reads all the manuscript submissions received by Lutyens & Rubinstein, a literary agency based in London.

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Claire: What exactly is it you do as a reader for a literary agency?
Susannah: I work at home so all our unsolicited submissions come into an email address.  I log them onto paper for my records (which I type up for the office grid), have a quick look, call anything promising in, highlight anything else that is promising to read first, reject anything completely unsuitable and then they get read and considered in turn.

C: Roughly how many submissions does Lutyens & Rubinstein [L&R] get in a month, say?
S: I’ve never counted them, but well over three hundred…

C: And then you call in the full manuscript from those you like? How many is that? How much of them do you read before you decide whether it’s a yes or a no? What percentage of them get through?
S: Whole manuscripts I’ve called in?  No more than ten probably.  I try and stop as soon as it is a no, sometimes carry on.  Oh, too tiny a percentage to measure I’m afraid.

C: It sounds like a perfect job: to be paid to read. How did you get to do this for a living?
S: I went to work at L&R nearly 20 years ago as office assistant (I was a Waterstone’s Bookseller in Charing Cross Road before that), when I was their only full time employee. With their help I worked my way up to being the Foreign Rights person, and eventually had a few clients of my own too.  All that time I also read the submissions pile, which was a proper tower of paper then, so am quite good at knowing what every agent at L&R would like.

C: What’s your average day like?
S: Sitting at a laptop in the dining room.  I’m part time self-employed now, so try not to spend all day on it, although I do more than my designated hours because I love it and sitting down is nicer than housework.

C: Most things are nicer than house work. Do you actually call the unsolicited manuscripts you get sent a slush pile?
S: I might do…

C: What kind of person do you think you need to be to be a reader?
S: I’m not sure I could read for anyone else, but am well attuned to what the agents at L&R would love.  Usually.

C: What about your own preferences for books you like to read? Do you try to quash them?
S: I don’t really need to.  I like all sorts of things.

C: Do you also see the covering letters and synopsis?
S: Yes, If they’ve sent them in. I try not to look at the synopsis until I’ve read the chapters, but a good letter does make one prick up one’s ears.

C: Interesting. What makes a good letter for you?
S: The sort that makes you quite want to meet its writer:  warmth, lack of bumptiousness, unforced humour if appropriate, about the writer as a person rather than a form letter (I don’t mean screes and screes: all this can come across in a couple of sentences).  Some letters are brilliant but then the book isn’t, which is always a huge disappointment and one just wants to say, gently, Just Be You.  Oh and DO find out who to address your submission to, if you can.

C: What do you love about what you do and what’s not so good?
S: I love reading, and there is such variety coming in, I love it when I find something wonderful and pass it on to the office, and I try to make my rejections bland but kind.  A cross rejectee once responded with ‘Lick my boots, bitch’ but that is mercifully rare, and she apologised a YEAR later, claiming to have been hacked…

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The agency is in the basement of Lutyens & Rubinstein bookshop in London

C: Hah! Sounds unlikely. What about the craziest submission you’ve received?
S: Oh, guided by the spirit of Lady Di, or the actual crazy stuff from people who clearly have mental health issues, which actually is the worst thing about this job because it does make one worry about them.

C: Are there things that put you off a manuscript?
S: Sometimes you can just tell the writer is a wrong’un (sexist, racist, that sort of thing).

C: Do you ever manage to read for pleasure now?
S: Of course, but not as much as when I lived in London and commuted for upwards of two hours a day.  I sort of miss that. Unhelpfully, I recently read an old book about donkeys called People With Long Ears by Robin Borwick, and Miss Mole by E.H Young, and A Big Storm Knocked it Over by Laurie Colwin.

C: Thanks so much Susannah. One final question –  what advice would you give to unpublished writers who are submitting their work?
S: Write a nice, human letter to the right person if you can.  Do multiple submissions rather than one at a time (the beauty of computers, no stamps).  Gently nudge if you’ve waited forever.

To submit a manuscript to Lutyens & Rubinstein, visit their website to find out exactly what they’re looking for and how they’d like to receive it.

Do let me know what you think about this interview and my plans for the series, in the comments below.

Flash fiction: Mrs Jellico

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The teeth grinding and sobbing wake me. It’s disconsolate, broken-hearted, a funeral kind of weeping. I hear it through the wall, and I pull the cord with the red triangle. The nurses’ station buzzer sounds and shoes squeak on linoleum. The crying stops.
‘Where’s the fire, Mrs Jellico,’ the girl asks, although she knows I have no words left.
When she’s plumped my pillow and gone, the noise starts again. Keening, moaning, grinding. I rap on the wall.
The nurse is back, syringe in one hand, eyes kind. ‘Shh,’ she says. ‘Shh, Mrs Jellico. Not long now.’

The crying fades.

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Hear me read: 

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I’m not sure exactly how I got from the photo to this story; perhaps milling = grinding = teeth. Anyway, I got there. This is a Friday Fictioneers story of 100-words inspired by a weekly photo posted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. This week’s photo is provided by Shaktiki Sharma. Click here to join in and write your own story, or here to read other people’s.

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Last week I was asked by Penguin books to provide some tips about writing flash fiction, and they’ve just gone live on the Penguin website. Do take a look. I will be posting this piece on my own website in the future, so if you have any you’d like to add, please comment below here, and I’ll add them to the post, credit you and link to your website.

Bleak Books

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I love bleak books. Novels where only sad things happen, and then they get more miserable. Not the weepy kind of fiction where you know the characters will overcome their troubles at the end of the book, or grisly horror, just pretty relentless grimness. A few days ago Lissa Evans author of Crooked Heart wrote her top 10 bleak books and inspired me to do the same. These aren’t necessarily my favourite books ever, just my favourite really unhappy ones. You can look for our lists on Twitter using #bleakbooks, but here’s mine below.

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Flash Fiction: Once You Sat And Sewed

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I wake with my eyes still closed and hear the squeak of the treadle that you asked me to oil, the hum of the wheel under your hand. I imagine the needle, ticker, ticker, tickering, in and out of the hem; your pursed mouth and concentrated frown. I smile when you swear, almost see the pins falling from your lips, the pricked finger, and the thread snapped.

But your chair is cold when I rise, the machine still. Only the stain of faded blood on the edge of my shirt proves that once you sat and sewed.

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This is a 100-word (or so) piece of flash fiction written as part of the Friday Fictioneers Group, hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. This week the picture is supplied by the wonderful writer Sandra Crook (go and look at her writing – it’s very good). Click here to join in and write your own story, or here to read some more.

Flash Fiction: Now we are the same

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For two nights and a day they bloomed. Filling the world’s skies with light and apparently, sound. We sat on the playground, our faces turned skyward. The greatest firework display on earth our teachers said, their mouths round with each flowery burst. We watched late-night television in the common room, the hands explaining physicists’ and UFO experts’ theories, prophets’ and doctors’ warnings. And the doom-mongers’ threats: don’t watch, the lights will blind.

Too late they learned: it wasn’t the lights, but the noise.  They say the world is disabled; but we sign that now we are all the same: deaf.

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Listen to me read this story:

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This is a 100-word (exactly) flash fiction, part of the Friday Fictioneers group, hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. This week’s picture is supplied by Vijaya Sundaram. Click here to write your own 100-word story, or here to read others inspired by the same picture.

 

Indie Bookshop Love: Bookends

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Earlier this year I was invited to speak at Words by the Water, a fantastic literary festival in Keswick, in the Lake District, England. The bookseller for this event is Bookends, who own two wonderful shops in Carlisle and Keswick, and they invited me to speak at their book club the following evening. I was expecting a dozen or so people to come, but about 30 people turned up in Bookends’ Carlisle shop cafe to ask me questions, or perhaps it was for the crisps and wine. Mr and Mrs Matthews and their daughter Lucy looked after me so well, and I even got a tour of the bookshop by torchlight. It is a wonderful place and they are all so welcoming, I highly recommend it.

Lucy agreed to answer my questions for what will be my final interview with independent bookends2UK bookshops. I’ll be starting a new interview series on my blog later in the year. So watch out for that.

Can you tell me something about the history of Bookends?
My Mum started Bookends as a market stall selling second hand books over 30 years ago. My family’s been selling new books for 25 years now and we’ve recently moved into the same building as our second hand bookshop and café – new books, old books and coffee and cake all under one roof. Continue reading

Flash Fiction: Talk

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I stand under their bedroom window at night and hear them talking:
‘I don’t think she’s ever had a boyfriend,’ she says.
‘No?’ he says.
‘Still a virgin; at her age. Can you imagine?’
‘Not like you then, is she?’ he says, and she shrieks and laughs as if he’s goosed her. They are both silent for a minute or two, and I try not to imagine.
‘Do you think she misses it?’ she says.
‘You can’t miss what you’ve never known,’ he says.
‘But having someone?’
‘No,’ he says. ‘Not her.’
And I turn away, both stronger and sadder.

Listen to me reading it:

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This is a Friday Fictioneers story, hosted by the lovely Rochelle, and inspired by the photo above. This week provided by Janet Webb. Click here to join in and read more.

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A few weeks ago my short story, A Quiet Tidy Man won the Royal Academy & Pin Drop short story award. At the award ceremony the winner was announced by actress, Juliet Stevenson. The recording of the event and her reading my story aloud is now available to listen to. Visit this page, and click through to listen.

Flash Fiction: The SS Ayr

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Cara lay on the bunk, the baby asleep beside her, his arms thrown wide as if surprised to be falling. From far below, in the ship’s hold she felt as much as heard, the melancholic bleat of a cow – the sound travelled through steel, along the gangways, up the posts of her bed and into her skull. Cara wondered if the animals ever stopped missing their calves.

She woke later, with the baby on her chest, both of them tipped against the ship’s hull, the bunk no longer horizontal. The engine wailed, gears shrieking. But no, not the engine. The cows.

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This week I thought it might be fun to also post a recording of me reading my story. (And in the odd way that minds work, I only realised that this story bears the same name as the writer, C.E. Ayr, who gave me the idea to record it, after I’d written and titled my story.)

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This is a Friday Fictioneers very short story inspired by the picture above (this week the image was provided by Jan Wayne Fields). Friday Fictioneers, which is hosted by the lovely Rochelle Wisoff-Fields, is a weekly group, where lots of writers from around the world write a 100-word (or so) story inspired by a picture, post them on their own websites and read each other’s. Click here to join in, or here to read some more stories.