Last week I went down into London to meet with Imogen Pelham, a literary agent working for Marjacq. Imogen joined Marjacq in 2015, after five years at Aitken
Alexander where she started building her list, which includes Wellcome Prize shortlisted Emily Mayhew, and Costa Short Story Award winner Angela Readman.
Phil: How did you get into publishing?
Imogen: I decided I wanted to be an agent when I was 17, which is kind of weird, but I knew what an agent was because I come from a family who are all in publishing—but no agents. I studied English at UCL and when I was getting to the end of it I decided to apply for as many work experience positions as I could. My first placement was with Aitken Alexander. When I was at my third placement, a job arose back at Aitken Alexander and they invited me for an interview. It was hugely lucky – I started working there about two months after finishing at university. I was there for 5 years.
PB: So when you were 17, what was it that set your heart on becoming an agent?
IP: I always loved English and I always loved reading, and I had some familiarity with publishing, but also I really love Maths.
IP: Really, really love maths. I did Maths A-level as well as English. So that helps with the business side of publishing, understanding royalties, advances, etc. Also, separate to maths, I’m not afraid of contracts. I feel strongly about working editorially with all of my authors, but don’t feel it would be right for me to have that be my sole responsibility.
PB: You mentioned that you come from a family that are all involved in the publishing industry. What areas do they specialise in?
IP: My mum works in publicity, working on author events, interviews, review coverage, etc. My dad was a cover designer and has designed, written and drawn a number of children’s pop up books, and my brother is now a cover designer as well.
PB: Cover designing must be enjoyable work.
IP: It’s really interesting. It’s one of my favourite parts of the process when the editor emails and says we have our first draft for the cover. It’s a bit like Christmas, but just like Christmas and opening your presents, it could go terribly, terribly wrong.
PB: So you can’t turn around and say, ‘Actually, I don’t want this’?
IP: It’s really up to the author – the agent should only weigh-in if the author is unhappy. Luckily, all of my authors have really liked their covers so far.
PB: What advice would you give to students or graduates that want to pursue a career in publishing?
IP: I think work experience is the only way, though I do think agencies and publishers should pay for internships of a significant length of time, and at least pay for subsistence on anything short term. A lot of publishers now do offer internships: Profile immediately come to mind, and HarperCollins run a graduate scheme. It’s like any industry, the key to work experience is to being helpful and friendly, so people will remember you if something pops up. I’ve recommended good interns to publishers and agencies because I want to help them out. So just be nice, and helpful, and really likeable! We all do this as an excuse to talk about books, so you’d need to thrive in that sort of environment. Work experience is a really good test, and well worth doing. Lots of it is really boring. You’ll have to do loads of filing, loads of photocopying. Oh, god, I had to scan so many contracts and file them away. You do other things, like slush pile reading, which is really interesting, and at first you can’t believe you’re being trusted with it. But then it gets really repetitive, so you end up alternating between scanning and slush pile reading to try and keep life interesting.
PB: When I decided to seek out agents and editors for interviews, my first port of call was Twitter, and that’s how I found you. But what struck me when I searched for literary agents, is that there were hardly any men in the list of thirty or forty agents it called up.
**At this point the interview is interrupted by the waitress bringing over our tea, and Imogen insisting that she never normally takes sugar, but only on this occasion because she is feeling under the weather. I’m unsure whether to believe her.
PB: So the majority of agents I could find were female. Would you agree that there are more women in the industry than men, and if so, why?
IP: Publishing is heavily female, though there still seem to be far more men in senior positions than women. I guess there are more women in publishing overall because women read more, generally. So that tends to skew it. I think one of the real problems is that publishing is so white. It’s talked about a lot, but the industry isn’t as diverse as it needs to be in order to get the most interesting books and voices. Agenting is just very female. And perhaps, I mean, this is just an off-the-cuff theory, but there’s quite a lot of looking-after in agenting, lots of psychology. Often you have to try and make a writer feel better when they feel vulnerable. And a lot of it is really, really personal. So perhaps it feels in part like a mothering role.
PB: You didn’t want to say the ‘M’ word. I knew it was coming. It’s an interesting theory. That can be like, the lead headline for the write up: ‘Exclusive: Mothering theory – Imogen Pelham on being a Maternal Literary Agent’.
IP: Oh, no!
PB: We’ll see. Moving on. What’s been the most exciting moment for you in the job so far?
IP: Getting the job. Getting the first deal was amazing. The first book that I sold was ‘Wounded’ by Emily Mayhew, which I sold to Bodley Head. It went on to be shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize. Two weeks later I sold Olivia Glazebrook’s novel to Virago. I thought I had it made, but it hasn’t been quite as smooth sailing since!
PB: Do you have a background in writing at all?
IP: I don’t. I see myself very much as an ‘enabler’. I don’t want to be a writer myself. But I love facilitating others to do that. My brother did Creative Writing at UEA. He’s always been the person who could make things, and he’s now a cover designer. I was always the one to critique things and sort them out. I don’t think I’m made of the right stuff to be a writer. I’m just a massive reader.
PB: Have you ever had any desire to write a book?
IP: No. A lot of people in publishing do have a desire to write a book. I think it can work really well, but it could be tricky if that’s the reason you’ve gone into publishing. But you can meld the two. Bill Clegg is a huge American agent, and a successful writer. His first novel was just on the Booker Prize longlist.
PB: What’s your opinion of Creative Writing courses? Do you feel writing can be taught? And do you notice any difference between submissions that come from those on Creative Writing courses, as opposed to those which don’t?
IP: I think Creative Writing courses are great. They uncover so much talent. I don’t think writing can be taught from scratch, but you can teach huge amounts on a bit of natural talent. I think it’s so useful to make writing better, but I think it would be nearly impossible to go from being a terrible writer to a great writer just by taking a Creative Writing course. Different courses attract different types of writers, and often have completely different flavours. The Faber academy course is slightly more commercial or concept driven. At UEA, it’s much more literary. Having done a Creative Writing course shows that you’re serious about your work, and seeing that on a submission means I would take it more seriously. Courses are by no means necessary, but it shows you have some skill already, and that you’ve spent a lot of time working on your writing, which is great.
PB: What are your top 3 pet hates when receiving submissions?
IP: Arrogance. You just wouldn’t believe some things. There was one submission recently that compared himself to T. S Eliot, Murakami and Nabokov in a blender.
IP: I have no idea what that would look like, and I really don’t want to know. People really often write in their cover letter, “I’m the real deal.” Which I just think is appalling! Although writing is a creative industry, it is still a professional one. When you write to an agent, you’re writing to see whether they would be interested in working with you. The cover letter doesn’t need to be as formal as a job application letter, but it is still a representation of yourself. Just be succinct and polite. Your judgement of yourself doesn’t need to come into it. So yeah, arrogance is one to avoid.
I hate very overcomplicated and long synopses. And if it’s a thriller, you have to tell me the ending. I was reading a submission recently that struck me as something I could be really interested in and potentially want to work with. It wasn’t great and it needed a lot of work but I thought there was really something there. But the writer had left the ending out of the synopsis, so I couldn’t call in the full manuscript because I don’t know what happens. It’s not intriguing, it’s just irritating and annoying. You’ve just got to put it all down. Other examples: spelling my name wrong, spelling the agency’s name wrong, using another agent’s name, CC’ing a tonne of other agents into the email. I’ll just ignore those because it feels like a carpet bomb. Can I say things that I do like?
PB: That’s my next question.
IP: Great! OK… I love a really clear pitch for the book. It doesn’t have to be a thriller. It could be a novel in which nothing much happens at all. Just a really clear one, two or three sentence summary of what the book is and its central conflict or tension. I really like it when people have done a bit of research into authors I represent or things that I like or have said on the agency website or elsewhere that I look for, so I feeling like there’s a reason I’m reading it. To have something tailored to you is really useful. It’s a signifier that something could really be worth working with. Also, I quite like letters and things to be really short. Often I read the first few pages of the book before anything else, so just make it short, to the point, polite and easy.
PB: I’ve been looking forward to asking you this next one. What’s the strangest submission you’ve ever received?
IP: It’s not mine but I always bring this up when people ask. My friend and former colleague received a silver oven glove as part of the submission from an erotica writer because the submission was ‘too hot to handle’.
PB: How did that go down?
IP: I just don’t think people need to be gimmicky. I mean, I still remember that submission three years later, but if the writing’s great then there’s no need to send oven gloves.
PB: I wonder how many oven gloves that person had to buy.
IP: I heard the other week about an agent who got a submission through with a garden gnome for some reason. The agent took the gnome home and his kids smashed it by mistake. When the agent turned down the book, the man asked for his gnome back, and he had to say his children broke it. Gifts are always strange. Food.
IP: Yeah, like teabags and sweets and things. You just don’t trust things that come through the post. Post food: it’s not the best thing. Some of the ideas are really strange. Non-fiction books from people who feel sure they’re an uncovered secret or that they think they have a superpower or something. There are some weird people.
PB: How much time do you dedicate to reading new submissions?
IP: One common misconception about agents is that we sit at our desks and read. We basically never read at work. Most submission reading is done out of the office. I do a few hours on the weekend. I sometimes put submissions on my kindle but I’m not very good at that. So I’d say 3-4 hours a week.
PB: And the rest of your time is spent doing what?
IP: Liaising, contract checking. Mediating. If an author is unhappy with something then I’m the person to advise or protect them. A lot of the time my role is to express the author’s problems and concerns to the publisher. You have to make it your bone that you need to pick on behalf of the author.
PB: Are you a speed reader?
IP: No! Which really upsets me. My reading speed varies so much, and it’s really annoying! Last year I set myself a challenge to read 100 books outside of my work reading. Which I would say is pretty punchy anyway, but particularly considering I had to read all of my author’s manuscripts. This year I’ve just been slower. When reading submissions I always have to think about what’s working and what’s not.
PB: Do you find yourself doing that when you’re reading for leisure?
IP: No. I’m very good at switching it off. Reading with a view to editing naturally takes longer.
PB: So back to your target of 100 books. How many did you get through?
IP: I did 100. At 10pm on New Year’s Eve wearing my coat and my jumpsuit with all my make up done, waiting to go out. I was standing in the hallway reading, thinking “I’ve just got to finish this now! I can’t enjoy New Year’s Eve until it’s done!” But it was a bit of a cheat because I read Zadie Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia which is 80 pages long.
PB: So in that week before you read like 25 books or something?
IP: I was pretty on top of it. The Goldfinch set me back. I had 200 pages to go and I was going on holiday the next day so I stayed up until 4am reading and then woke up again at 5.30am just to finish it before I went on holiday. This year’s challenge I failed at the very first hurdle. I planned on reading one classic which I’d not read – a gap in my reading – per month. The books you feel embarrassed about not having read. I started with Anna Karenina and got halfway through but I’ve never gone back. My plan is now to finish it over Christmas.
PB: That’s a good challenge.
IP: Shall we all do it? In 2016? What gaps do you have?
PB: Ulysses. I can’t face it.
IP: I think that’s OK. I haven’t read Ulysses. I think that’s a gap for most people. What books haven’t you read that most people have?
PB: So many….. Wuthering Heights is a big one.
IP: Oh, that’s a gap! That’s a good gap. Well done. I’m not going to tell you some of my gaps because they’re embarrassing.
PB: Go on.
(Imogen looks around the café to check there’s nobody in publishing within earshot.)
PB: No way? Great gap.
IP: Nineteen-eighty four.
IP: That’s enough!
PB: One more so we have a round 3?
IP: This is really embarrassing. Lord of the Flies.
PB: You should make that a challenge for everyone in publishing to confess what they haven’t read.
IP: I’m not sure how that would go down. I don’t know how I’d feel about it, especially from your aghast reaction. People would be like, “Did you hear that Imogen hasn’t read Nineteen-Eighty Four? What’s she even doing working in publishing? How embarrassing.”
PB: Everyone loses their jobs.
PB: OK, so what are your top 3 favourite books of all time?
Imogen stops to think.
PB: Catch-22, Nineteen-Eighty Four and Lord of the Flies?
IP: No! I’d go with: A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
PB: I’ve not heard of The Secret History.
IP: What?! That’s a gap! Go and read The Secret History.
PB: I’ll make a note. Next question: do you notice trends in submissions?
IP: Right now, loads of psychological thrillers. Before that there was erotica. That wasn’t much fun at all.
PB: Did you read Fifty Shades of Grey?
IP: No! I picked it up in a bookshop once and read a page and then put it straight back down again.
PB: That can be one of your gaps, then.
IP: That doesn’t count as a gap! The rules of the gaps are that Fifty Shades of Grey is not a gap.
PB: It’s up there with Catch-22. It’s a classic. Back to the question. Trends in submissions?
IP: Yeah. I think there obviously are trends, some we notice, but many we don’t, because the themes and topics covered are often things that are significant to our culture at the time. It’s more something we would tend to notice on reflection, years later. I receive mostly literary fiction, so it’s never quite as theme-led as mainstream or other genres.
PB: Does your job involve much travelling? To literary events or festivals?
IP: The main event abroad in the literary calendar is Frankfurt Book Fair in October, but I didn’t go this year as it was very soon after I started at Marjacq. If you work in foreign rights and translations there’s a lot of travel. I talk at a lot of Universities so I do get to go to different places with that. Everyone used to go to Hay-on-Wye, but nowadays it feels like a luxury. I’ve been going to Hay since I was a baby. I think I went to the first one. It’s fantastic. The only problem is finding accommodation as it’s so much bigger now. There’s loads of great events around, and it’s nice to see music festivals including literary tents.
PB: How’s the new job treating you?
IP: It’s really good. Publishing is kind of slow and then suddenly really fast. If you have a super-duper hot book you can turn it around quite quickly.
PB: Oven gloves hot?
IP: Yeah! It’s going really well but I’m still just warming up. It’s great just to have the time to focus on my own list. I’ve had lots of time for submissions and doing more events. I’ve been seeing loads of editors and approaching interesting people that I think have potential to write something in non-fiction. I’m really enjoying the challenge.
It was great speaking with Imogen, and we would all like to thank her for taking the time to speak with us. I’m so glad I did get to complete the interview, as I was days away from sending my submission to her with a pair of oven gloves, three tea bags and a garden gnome included. What a mistake that would have been.