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Agent Harry Illingworth Interview

You’ll recall, last month, I produced a little article about a big event – Fantasy in the Court. Now, being truthful, a lot of that was Harry Illingworth’s wonderful words. I merely sprinkled stardust around it and got a in a few photographs I’d taken.

Harry IllingworthHarry has graciously agreed to dispense more of his wisdom and thoughts on the role, job, occupation and profession that is a Literary Agent. There are a lot of writers out there, me included, who would love to discover the secret to hooking an agent (apparently worms and a fishing line are not the approved method… who knew? Well, apart from the Judge, but we don’t talk about that since the restraining order) and starting the journey to fame, fortune and, most importantly, people reading all those words you so lovingly crafted during those long winter nights (I’d guess long, spliced sentences with too many parenthesised asides are not the way to do it).

Something we skipped last time, and would be remiss if we skipped this time, is a proper introduction. Harry Illingworth studied English Literature and Creative Writing at Northumbria University before moving to London to work in publishing. He completed internships at Michael O’Mara Books, HarperCollins and Pan Macmillan, gaining experience in different departments of the publishing industry. It was during his placement at Macmillan that he met David Headley and he was invited to join the team at Goldsboro Books, where he is currently the Marketing and Communications Manager, and a Literary Agent at the DHH Literary Agency. Harry is actively building his list in the science fiction and fantasy genre and is welcoming submissions!

With all that in mind, I’ll do less of the talking and let Harry do more!

Right, let’s get started with an easy question. You are an agent (literary, not MI5 – as far as I know!), what does that actually mean? What does an agent do for a living?

First and foremost we look after our authors, that’s our number one priority. Anything can happen on a day-to-day basis but we’re on hand to negotiate contracts, smooth out any issues, make sure the publisher are doing their job, chase them for money and all those little jobs in between. We’re also the ones with the contacts, so it’s our job to know who publishes what, who is looking for what, and ultimately send a new book off to the right editor to help you get a book deal.

Agents are ahead of the curve when it comes to up and coming themes and tastes. What kind of books, themes and stories do you see coming down the line in a year or two? Are fantasy tastes changing?

I’m not sure anyone can predict what is going to take off, but there’s certainly still a huge appetite for the darker (grimdark if you want to label it) and epic stuff. Authors like Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence etc. still set the benchmark for lots of other authors to follow and I don’t see the popularity in these kinds of books stopping soon. I would however like to see more of the ‘lighter’ fantasy get some headlines and a bit more of that out and about. Fantasy doesn’t have to be dark and bloody to be successful so hopefully there’s room for lots of epic, but not necessarily dark, SFF to emerge over the next year or two.

And what is it you are looking for at the moment? (Cue lots of those submissions heading your way).

Joe AbercrombieAnd now I go back on what I’ve just said because I do like it dark… Abercrombie and that lot are my favourite authors so I’m always looking for that kind of stuff but as I’ve said above, I’m hoping we’re not only going to see dark fantasy over the next few years so to be honest I’m open to all of it. The more epic it is, the better.

I’m also actively looking for high-concept crime and thrillers/mould-breaking genre fiction too, as this is a trend that has emerged lately, the popularity of this sort of fiction. It can really cross over into mainstream territory so commercial publishers are able to do wonders with the right books. The danger with these books though is the book becomes all about the concept and not the execution, so there’s a balance. High-concept thrillers basically become accessible SF thrillers that are published on commercial lists and find a broader readership more quickly, so as long as it’s accessible, I’m interested. These are thrillers that are in a near future, or a world that is recognisable to our own apart from maybe a little quirk or, ‘the concept’, so have more of a commercial appeal to publishers.

On a side note, I’m also still looking for my own Station Eleven, something in that category. I just love that book and would love to find something similar.

When you’re reading all of those submissions, trawling through the slush pile, what is it you are actually looking for? What type of story, point of view, writing sets fire to your super-agent synapses and makes you request the full manuscript or sign them up there and then?

First up I’m looking at whether the author has followed the submission guidelines. It may sound obvious that you follow the guidelines when you submit, but you’d be amazed at how many people don’t. I then think about whether it’s a good cover letter as if it’s not a good cover letter I’m not inclined to be too hopeful about the book itself. I do find the authors I’ve taken on have all had really strong cover letters and the author knows their book and can express that in the letter. It all comes down to the actual writing though, and I’ll only ever call in the full manuscript based on my enjoyment of the first three chapters.

When writers search the internet for advice on how to create successful query it can be… overwhelming. So, help us out – what makes a good query letter, synopsis?

I think what makes a good query is research beforehand. You’ve written a book, so take care to find out who is writing similar kinds of books. Who can you compare to without saying you’re the next GRRM? Entice the agent but don’t tell the whole story of the book, and also carefully research the agent before you submit. Make sure you are putting your book in front of the right pair of eyes, and it doesn’t hurt to add a personal touch so the agent knows you haven’t just sent it out blindly.

What shouldn’t I…I mean we…erm… *cough*they do in a query/submissions? What are the big no-nos when submitting my, damn it, our, sheesh, their manuscripts to an agent?

Don’t start your letter ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ or ‘Dear Editor’ (yes, I get that a lot)! It’s just lazy and if I get a submission with that or my name spelt wrong, the author is immediately on the back foot and I’m thinking, ‘this book’s probably not going to be any good.’ Agents get so many submissions we have to weed out the strong from the weak quickly, and if that’s the first thing we see, which category do you think that submission is going to fall into? Also do make sure it’s in the format of a standard letter as this is what we ask for and sometimes I get everything from bullet points about the book to advice on how many copies it will sell. Please don’t do this… Finally, follow the agents you are interested in on twitter, but don’t harass them!

*sneaks back from checking Twitter* Synopsis, the bane of many a writer’s life, how useful are they to an agent and how do you write a good one?

I won’t lie, the synopsis is the last thing I look at. I’ll never say yes or no based on a synopsis. You’re right, they are very hard to write, but it’s a good discipline to be able to do so and more important to have one when it gets down to submission time. But at the end of the day I’m interested in your novel not your synopsis so that’s number one in my eyes.

Since self-publishing has very much become a thing, has there been any noticeable change in the sphere of an agents work? I’m thinking of folks like Josiah Bancroft and Jonathan French who got snapped up by an agent through the SPFBO process. Do agents go hunting through the dark, dense and slightly scary forest of self-published books?

If they have time I guess! I personally don’t, but I’m certainly not opposed to finding self-published authors. It’s purely because with all my other reading commitments, I can’t trawl through that space too.

It has been a pretty amazing year for debuts. You represent Anna Stephens and her book Godblind. If you don’t mind, and she doesn’t mind, what drew you to the book and author?

Godblind (cover)You’re right it’s been a fantastic year for debuts, and I’m not biased at all when I say Godblind has been the strongest. 😉

I was intrigued by Godblind from the moment I started reading it (there was a strong cover letter and it was compared to Abercrombie etc. so ticked the first boxes), and carried on after I called in the full manuscript. By the time I was about 3/4 into that novel I had to stop myself calling Anna and offering her representation on the spot. As it was, I called her the moment I finished it and said I wanted to be her agent and we ended up meeting up and chatting before we decided to progress. We got on from the start and I’d already fallen in love with the book so it was an easy process. It’s an important relationship, author and agent, so it’s important to get along with the author and make sure you’re on the same page.

If you could give, and you can, some hard earned pearls of wisdom to authors aspiring to be published, what would they be?

That boring but oh so relevant phrase: never give up. If you really want it, and have got what it takes, it may take some time but you’ll get to where you want to be. Take Anna for example, I know she won’t mind me saying that Godblind went through dozens of re-writes over the years and was rejected 36 (I think this is correct) times by agents before I got it and thought it was the most exciting debut I’d read in years. She never gave up though, and look where that’s got her today. We started working together about 18 months ago and she is now a full time writer and on 25th September is doing the Grim Gathering with you guys and Peter V Brett, Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie and Peter Newman. Not bad going for someone rejected by 36 agents.

Grim Gathering Authors 2017 (banner)

Oh and also, very importantly, I advise you to send me your books – if it’s the right book for me I’ll help you get published! My details can be found on the DHH Literary Agency website and more info about what I represent. [Editor: You can also follow him on Twitter @Harryillers. As long as you don’t harass him. 😉 ]

Thanks, Harry. And good luck with the slush pile! I’m sure I… all the authors out there will be submitting soon. *Where is that manuscript? I know I had here a moment ago… synopsis, synopsis… letter… erm… is this thing still on?*


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