“I love the deal. I LOVE the deal. I mean to be an agent you have to love the deal. I love sending out a book and getting those emails 24 hours later saying ‘I loved it! Don’t let someone else buy it.”
It’s a sunny Tuesday morning and I’m chatting with literary agent Nelle Andrew in a coffee shop in Bloomsbury. We are opposite the offices of Peters, Fraser and Dunlop where she works as a primary agent, a ‘hunter-gatherer’ as she puts it, searching out and representing the UK’s brightest writing talent.
She’s sharing the highpoints of her chosen career and she lights up with the strength of her enthusiasm.
“I love that moment when you sign someone you really wanted. You just feel a glow. You realise you are part of something that wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for you. Who will [this writer] potentially influence? What will their experience do to someone else? What could that potentially unleash and alter for the positive? That’s a phenomenal space to be in.”
How did a Black, working class girl come to be in this space? Building a list of Sunday and New York Times bestsellers, brokering six-digit publishing deals, representing writers like Ayisha Malik, Elizabeth Day and Jing-Jing Lee, getting shortlisted for literary agent of the year (2018) by the best in the industry? How did it all begin?
Started From the Bottom
“I didn’t know about agents before I went into publishing.” She admits.
“I was from a lower-working class background, I’d got a scholarship to a private school and I’d had a very good university education but I did not come from the same world that people in publishing seemed to come from.”
She studied at Warwick then completed an MA at Trinity College, Dublin. She moved to London in 2007 with zero funds and accepted whatever jobs the three temping agencies she’d signed with could find for her. When she wasn’t stuffing envelopes or answering phones, she polished and repolished her CV and applied for every publishing position she saw.
Eventually, her persistence paid off. By the time she landed a job with Pan McMillan she’d also lined up internships with Bloomsbury and Atlantic Press. Yet, she kept her foot on the gas. At Pan McMillan she completed an editorial course for editors, took on freelance reading for a literary agent and attended every publishing event she could.
“I was 23, I was broke and I was ambitious. I didn’t have any contacts. I didn’t know anybody in publishing. I didn’t know very much about publishing. Except that I loved books and I loved authors.”
She soon decided that the committee-style, team-consensus approach that operated inside the publishing house was not for her. She wanted a role where she could be more autonomous. When a colleague announced he was leaving Pan McMillan to become a literary agent, she was eager to find out more. He explained that as a literary agent: “You’re basically everything. You are at the front of the coalface of publishing. You are the one who finds everything, you are the one who sells it to the publisher. You live and die by your taste.”
The opportunity to combine her love of editorial and sales was appealing. Even the idea of tying her earnings to her sales, of ‘living and dying by her taste’ enticed her. She began to search for roles in literary agencies.
Andrew remembers attending the interview for an assistant role at Peters, Fraser and Dunlop in a £20 H&M dress. Her interviewer, CEO Caroline Michel, wore Dolce and Gabbana. It symbolised the gulf between their worlds.
“This was someone who was at William Morris, who had run Harper and Vintage and Ted Hughes was the godfather to one of her children.”
She fought off the urge to be intimidated and concentrated on the requirements of the job and how she could meet them. Three interviews and two tests later she won the role.
Every Day Hustling
There are four key prongs to a literary agent’s job, Andrew explains.
- Finding talent.
“When I first started I remember I wrote to every single creative writing course I could think of. I would go up and down [the country] to find and speak to people. I combed the newspapers, I looked at articles that talked about people who were interesting. I emailed them about non-fiction projects. I went to production companies. I did everything I could think of because I had a lot of time and a completely empty list and I had to go and find clients otherwise I couldn’t make any money.”
She now has over 35 author clients. “There’s a level of quality that rules out a lot.”
Andrew also runs the Lucy Cavendish Prize on behalf of PFD. It’s a huge task to filter through 600 entries for a single winner, but it’s another opportunity to spot and sign talent early.
- Nurturing talent
“I work very editorially with my authors. It doesn’t matter to me if something is very raw. If I can see your talent and that you’ve got a good narrative, and you feel amenable to changes – to being collaborative – I’ll absolutely work with you.”
- Securing the right publishing deal
After signing with an author, Andrew will help them edit their manuscript. Then she will pitch her authors to publishers and broker a publishing deal for them.
“It’s so gratifying to work with someone and know that their dreams are about to come true. And that you’re the architect of it. It’s just amazing.”
- Supporting the author
Andrew will keep an eye on what projects her authors have coming up. She’ll help edit new books and craft pitches. She’ll draw up a submission list with the names of editors to approach. Once a book is scheduled to launch she’ll track publicity activities, and marketing schedules, she’ll stay abreast of sales numbers, print run figures, and the quantities stockists are ordering. She’ll communicate with other literary agencies to ensure they’re not cannibalizing each other with similar projects.
“It is like managing a very complex film production,” she says, “actors, directors, producers, settings – everything. And trying to anticipate a problem before there’s a problem.”
The D Word
Over recent years, publishing has been lambasted for its failure to reflect the diversity of the modern UK population. Andrew thinks it is past time the industry was held to account. “If you don’t have representation, then you don’t have reflection.” And reflection is vital in making people feel seen and valued.
When the start up publisher, Knights Of launched a pop-up bookshop in Brixton in 2018, they would tweet regularly about children stepping into the space and staring in wonder at books with covers that featured characters who looked like them. It was an experience children of colour in the UK had never had before. Not with books by UK authors.
That feeling of otherness, of invisibility, is one Andrew grew up with and carried into adulthood. She recounts a story of the morning she was due to present at an important publishing meeting but woke to find her hairdryer had broken.
“I burst into tears at home. My husband, who is white, said: ‘what is wrong with you?’ I said: ‘I can’t go to a meeting like this. I look unkept. I look like a Pickaninny.’ I genuinely was like, ‘I might have to call I sick.’”
Having grown up as the only minority in so many settings, from her private secondary school, to her studies in Warwick and Dublin, then entering the extremely white publishing world, Andrew had grown used to smoothing out the curls in her hair, to blending in with the white people around her. She had internalised the messages that tell Black women their natural curls are messy, unattractive and unprofessional.
“I felt that you had to look a certain way and be a certain way in order to succeed and that meant making your ethnicity comfortable for other people.”
It seems ironic to work in an industry with the power to pull down walls and open up worlds, but instead, to find that industry projecting a narrow, insular version of the world.
“I’m not saying that we need to have exclusive writing for Black people,” Andrew says when I ask how publishing can do better, “I’m saying [publishing] should be what this country is, which is a melting pot! We shouldn’t have to be a subset…Publishing reflects what’s going on in society. And we are not doing our duty. Because we are not reflective of society.”
##### Better Have My Money
It’s not just the books on the shelves that skew to a limited, monochrome palette, it’s the people commissioning, editing, marketing and selling them.
“I’m going to say something that is controversial but which I feel very strongly about,” Andrew says. She straightens in her chair and gives me a serious look.
“I think the reason why people from BAME backgrounds are so underrepresented in publishing is because publishing pays absolute…dog’s crap.”
She warms to her theme.
“If you’re coming from the place that a lot of BAME people come from which is a poor working class background, backgrounds where you’re second generation immigrant, your parents have sacrificed a lot to get you to a certain stage – they didn’t make those sacrifices so you could earn less or the equivalent of what they do. There’s a huge expectation when you think to yourself, I should be a lawyer or a doctor or accountant, I should do something that makes money to fulfil the sacrifices that my parents made for me. That’s the arbiter of success. And that’s weight that people from those backgrounds carry.”
It’s another layer in an ongoing national conversation about privilege in the creative industries and how a variety of moving parts work in concert to restrict access. Jobs that require months of unpaid work, or access to expensive resources, or contacts not available to the average young person all keep the entrance gate narrow. If you have to live in London to work in your field, and salaries start in the low 20s while rents are double or triple, the obstacles can seem insurmountable.
Rise Up and Win
I am surprised when Andrew goes on to add that some of the blame lives with minority communities too.
“I think we as a BAME community need to start thinking about our attitudes. Because if we want to have immersion then we’re going to need to have some insertion and we are going to have to start stepping up into some space and making a place for ourselves instead of waiting for someone to do it for us.”
Her own journey is proof that it’s possible to break into publishing without money or contacts. She would like to see more people from minority communities follow her lead. But she doesn’t suggest it is an easy space to be in.
“I got a spot in a private school where I was one person of colour in a school of 600 girls. So, I grew up being the person who slightly stood out. To come into an industry where you stand out didn’t particularly phase me. But let’s say you don’t. Let’s say you go to a school where it’s very, multi-ethnic and multicultural. And you live in a very multi-ethnic, multicultural space and you’ve only ever known that. Then suddenly you come into a situation where you look like the outsider and you feel like you’re the outsider. What are you gonna do?”
How much change can you bring about as the only minority in a department or in a publishing house? Wouldn’t the temptation be to keep your head down and not stir things up? She acknowledges all of this but the fact is, how else will change happen?
“If you don’t want to someone to come and reach down a hand and save you, you’re gonna have to reach out and save yourself. And you can’t wait for the change to come. You’re gonna have to be the thing that makes the change in the first place.”
As one of only three BAME literary agents in the UK, she also tired of seeing the same faces.
“If one of us leaves, if one of us quits, if one of us stops for any reason whatsoever, there’s no one else coming up the pipe to replace us. It just diminishes. And that to me is very worrying.”
When I ask her if she gets many manuscripts from Black authors, I am surprised again. She doesn’t.
“I found it so disappointing when I became an agent. Because I thought maybe there was this whole underground of BAME or marginalised voices that people just hadn’t discovered.”
Maybe the problem is circular. Maybe it’s down to minority children growing up feeling invisible, not seeing themselves in stories and believing they never would, therefore never aspiring to tell stories. Maybe Black British writers are choosing self-publishing over traditional publishers, as Talia Hibbert did. Whatever the cause, Andrews has a simple message. Submit.
“I’m looking. I’m right here, I’ve got a big, old search light that I’m waving around like crazy.”
It’s been an hour and Andrew’s phone has started to buzz frequently reminding me that she is an incredibly busy woman. I wrap up our conversation with some questions about her own writing. Andrew published her debut novel, The Legacy of Eden, in 2012. She believes she has at least one more book in her, but she feels her true calling is in talent spotting.
“I think we have a purpose and intent in this world and I believe that my purpose and my intent is to find stories. And to help people share those stories in whatever capacity they see fit.”
Amen to that.
Am I naive enough to have thought writers of different skin tones, backgrounds, ages, sexes and sizes … all have stories and styles worthy of a book cover?. I actually seek out the books written by authors that come through despite the shape of their beginnings. I want to read them and for them to inspire me. Works written by people underprivileged or written off as uneducated, or from the wrong side of some unseen divide … daring to show her/his grubby face defiantly grinning on the back of a beautifully presented display; inside a pefect book shop.
On the printed page imagination shines but where it is underpinned with authentic knowledge we require a pair of sunglasses as apposed to a light to read by. Being brave enough to write is one thing, being fearless enough to find or look for an agent is something that at the very least I hoped would have the same level of difficulty for everyone. Other than ‘celebrity, we know that even the poorest of plots, the weakest of tales the most banal autobiography will be published if the name on the cover belongs to a so- called ‘celebrity. Eventually I hope books will be published because of their content and not the bloodline of the author.
Agreed. It would be great to get to a place where your background didn’t matter whether you were publishing a book or being published. That everybody would be equally represented in literature.
Thank you for reading and commenting.
Thank you for waking me up to this.