Thursday 16 February 2012

Roles in publishing: Bryony Woods, Literary Agent's Assistant

Bryony Woods is obsessed with all things book-related, and is lucky enough to have her ideal job – working in one the UK’s top literary agencies. She started her career working in libraries, where she developed her passion for children’s and YA fiction, before going on to complete an MA in Publishing at UCL. Whilst completing the MA she interned in literary agencies across London, before being offered her current job at the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency in 2010.
As a person who has always loved books and reading, I think I might just have the best job in the world. I am constantly surrounded by books and manuscripts, and I love nothing more than finding a talented new writer with a book that’s crying out to be published.

But although many writer-orientated websites focus on this aspect of the job, looking for new talent is only a small part of what I actually do.

It’s not all glamour and cocktail parties.

While I may occasionally get to go out into the world and hobnob with super-talented authors and editors, the majority of my time is spent taking care of all the little jobs that keep a literary agency ticking over – updating the website, maintaining the databases that keep track of territories and sub-rights deals (such as audio, large print and film deals), chasing payments, sending proof copies to sub-agents etc.

I spend a lot of time reading contracts, checking the language used in various clauses and the percentages stated (e.g. royalties). Agents spend many hours negotiating the finer details of publishing contracts on behalf of their clients, so it’s important to ensure that the contract we send to an author for signing is correct.

Luckily for me, I love contracts almost as much as I love books. And no, I don’t think that’s weird. Honest.

The creative side of my job includes writing blurbs and putting together colourful catalogues of our clients and the titles we represent, as well as making up artists’ portfolios for our illustrator clients. This is especially important in the run up to major industry book fairs such as London or Bologna, where we have lots of meetings with editors who’ll be looking to acquire new authors or titles.

I also deal with some of the permission requests that come to the agency. When a person or company – perhaps an editor compiling an anthology, or a revision guide or website – requests the right to print an extract from a client’s work (most often a poem or short story), I will get out my trusty calculator and negotiate the best possible licence terms and fee.

But my absolute favourite part of the job is finding new, talented writers, and wonderful books that we can help turn into a commercial success. I am constantly on the lookout – whether I’m reading submissions at my desk, meeting new writers at a party, even while I eat and sleep.

Reading submissions (aka the Slush Pile) is a full-time job in itself, and everyone in the office pitches in and does their share of reading on top of their other day-to-day workload. We get thousands – yes, THOUSANDS – of submissions, of all kinds: the good, the bad, the truly weird and sometimes the downright ugly.

But every now and then I come across a voice so powerful that it grabs me and demands to be heard, a character that I just can’t get out of my head, or a page-turner that makes me drop absolutely everything else just so I can finish reading it. That’s when I know I’ve found something really special.

Tips for writers:

I’m often asked for advice on how best to approach an agent. But to be honest, the only thing an agent cares about when looking at your submission is that you’ve written a damn good book.

Other than that, I’d simply advise that you check individual agency guidelines, keep your approach smart and professional, and that you’re passionate about your work. If that passion shines through in your covering letter, an agent is more likely to want to pick up your manuscript and start reading.

The best moment so far:

I’ve tried and failed to pinpoint just one moment since I started this job that stands out as the best. It could be the first time I read a submission and fell head-over-heels in love with it; it could be logging on to Amazon just after a book was published and seeing the first fantastic customer review come in; it could be the excitement when a long-awaited sequel was delivered by a client (or maybe the moment during reading where I realised it was even better than the first book); or it could be the any of the times I’ve entered the office kitchen to discover that someone has brought in a cake. As I say, it’s impossible to choose.

The thing that most surprised me about the job:

The thing that still surprises me is the pace. It’s easy to get the impression from various blogs or websites that all agency employees do is lie around reading manuscripts, eating cake* and drinking champagne**.

But the truth is that most days I barely have time to stop and catch my breath.

Even when I’ve reached the end of my mammoth TO DO list, there are still emails to respond to, phone calls to answer, submissions and manuscripts and reviews to read.

*Ok, I admit it – there is quite a lot of cake.
** There may also be the occasional glass of champagne

Sometimes this job is very stressful, and I constantly find myself wishing that there were more hours in the day.

It’s not a job I could ever leave at the office, and my pile of Books-To-Read is usually taller than I am (and I’m not exactly short).

But aside from the perilous towers of books slowly taking over my flat, I honestly think I have the best job in the world. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.
Slushpile note: submission guidelines for the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency can be found here. And OF COURSE Caroline Sheldon is the best literary agent in the entire world: she sold Slated, as reported here. Oops. I'm giving away my secret identity again, aren't I?


  1. What a wonderful insight into the world of a literary agent's assistant! Thanks for sharing. And...I'm so glad there is at least occasionally cake and champagne! :-)

  2. Great post and thanks Slushies for bringing this to us. Just one question though: who supplies the cakes?

  3. Lovely. Though it does sound like Bryony only answers the phones after the TO-DO list has been completed. There's a room in the agency filled with endlessly ringing phones...

  4. So, Bryony, you're not just sitting there waiting for my manuscript to drop through the letterbox? You deserve the occasional cake and champagne for dealing with contracts, even if you do love them!

  5. What an insightful interview. It's nice to know folks at the agencies are real people. Thanks for telling us about all the work that goes on behind the scenes.

  6. Fascinating post, what a great view into life from the other side of the mirror. Thank you for sharing!

  7. What a great post! It's really interesting to see what happens on the other side! Thanks for posting! Ms (Teri) Anonymous.

  8. Sooo interesting to read about your work and see all those lovely cakes, Bryony. I wonder if compatible cake tastes might help in submission - lemon drizzle is my favourite. Thanks for a fascinating post.


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