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 a month 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.

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Read my interview with a literary agent
Read my interview with a Publishing Director at Fig Tree / Penguin
Read my interview with an Art Director at Tin House
Read my interview with a Foreign Rights Agent in a literary agency
Read my interview with an Editor at Tin House
Read my interview with a Translator

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Swimming Lessons

My second novel, Swimming Lessons, will be published in January 2017 in the UK, and Canada, and February 2017 in the USA. Click on the country links to pre-order.

29 thoughts on “Publishing Interviews: The Agency Reader

  1. What a great, insightful interview, Claire and Susannah, well over 300 submissions a month wowzers! Wondering at what point Susannah decides they are a no… is there a fixed point, say number of pages, she decides or does it vary?

    So helpful for those, like me, trying to learn more about the publishing industry and all it entails. With that in mind I love the sound of your planned series Claire and will we watching out for the posts. Great stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed this article and a super insight into the way this particular agency works as far as submissions go. Three hundred a month is just … breathtaking. I was wondering if Susannah ever finds the process tedious? You must go for days, weeks even, before finding something to send on! Keep the interviews coming. Always good to keep on the pulse of publishing. Great stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Tedious? No, because one can always hope that today will be the day you find something wonderful. I’ve always loved this element of the literary agency, and count myself lucky to have clung on to it even after leaving the office.

        Like

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  4. Love the idea of this series, really interesting stats in this interview. 300 subs a month for 20 years comes to 72,000 in total yet only ever TEN full requests. That’s just one full every two years, one request per 7,200 read! I’m also a reader, but usually call in around 5 fulls per 100, so proper jaw dropped at that stat!

    Like

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  7. Thank you Claire and Susannah for this insightful interview. As someone writing my debut novel, it has given me a lot of useful information and inspiration to keep going. Perhaps I could be one of those ten that are chosen…! Best wishes, Hannah

    Liked by 1 person

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