An Interview With… Tom Witcomb

Hi everyone, this afternoon I’m delighted to welcome literary agent Tom Witcomb to my blog. Here, Tom answers my questions on his path to becoming an agent and what he looks for in submissions.

Over to you Tom…

1) Did you see yourself becoming a literary agent after you left school? Did you actually have any other career plans?

Absolutely not! I was going to be in heavy metal bands. I read a lot as a kid – thanks to my mum’s love of crime & thrillers, and my granddad’s for Western novels he used to pick up for 20p in the charity shop at the hospital – and it was always a deep pleasure, but I wasn’t really your typical ‘bookworm’. I love film, music, video games, sports, design, whatever – a bit of everything. But I did love literature, and was ‘good’ at it, so went to Uni to study it (alongside film). It was there I got very ‘serious’ about ‘serious’ literature, and started reading all those books you should read etc. as well as my thrillers and comic books and sci-fi… 

In all honesty, whilst I vaguely understood the basics principle that there was a company somewhere who was printing these books, I’d not really considered the whole team of people dedicated to putting great books into readers’ hands. It wasn’t until I moved to London in my final year (and commuted back out to Uni!), whilst working at a takeaway company (a proto-Deliveroo called Deliverance that many Londoners will know!) that I met someone who asked me what I was doing with my English Lit degree. I had no idea, and so she put me in touch with a friend – Oli Munson (now director at AM Heath) And when I walked through the door it all sort of clicked into place. A three-week placement turned into a six-month internship (I carried on working at the takeaway company ‘til midnight every night!), and I’ve just celebrated my ten-year anniversary at BF.

2) I read that you represent authors of both fiction and non fiction. Does this have any challenges when it comes to both genres? 

Not really. I’m not sure how to elaborate on this answer. A big part of being an agent is knowing editors, and what they’re on the lookout for so looking after fiction and non-fiction clients just means a wider network of pretty awesome people.

3) First and foremost, what do you look for in query letters? 

Spell my name right, and I’m sort of only half-joking. Whilst the author/agent relationship is a particularly special one, there’s an underlying business relationship and an author taking the time to do their research, spell my name right, and absolutely nail why I need to take them on and help get their book into the world is a real bonus. Don’t get me wrong, I can look past spelling errors but come on – it’s right there, you can even just copy and paste! 

Beyond that, I’m just looking for a brief intro, a flutter of intrigue, an exciting short blurb about your book and then I’m getting stuck into the sample.

4) On the other hand, what is your pet peeve about query letters? 

See above! Actually, one of the most annoying things is when people act like they don’t care, the ‘hey, saw you online, thought you’d like this, don’t care if you don’t.’ They come in more often than you’d think. And it just leads me to think ‘then why are you even sending it to me? To anyone?’ It can’t be true, you’ve taken the time to find who I am, what I might like, and to write a fucking book. I see you. To be a success, you’ve got to care, now hang your leather jacket up and stop wearing your sunglasses inside.

5) What are your views on the crime and thriller market currently? Do you feel that there is a sub genre in need of more representation?

Crime and thriller’s always strong, but it feels as though the mass market is saturated and it’s sometimes hard to find an angle for new police procedural, or psych suspense. So I think we’re seeing the ascendance of those brilliant one-line pitch novels like The Chain or The Last and that will continue for a while. I’d love to see more translated crime fiction but we have a problem as a country that our education system hasn’t encouraged people to learn languages so the number of people within the industry who are able to read international crime fiction is low and it’s hard and expensive to translate on spec. I know, though, that we’re missing out on phenomenal writers around the world.

6) Do you have a guilty pleasure genre or novel that you go back to reading? 

I really hate the concept of guilty pleasures as by necessity it suggests there is such a thing as ‘the right stuff’ to enjoy. Listen to John Coltrane and Abba, they’re great, read Dostoevsky and Jilly Cooper, they’re great. It’s fine to not like things, but to feel guilty about liking something? That’s manure.

I don’t think I’ve read a book twice since I was a kid. Who has the time when there’s so much amazing stuff to read! (he says, having seen Jurassic Park 287 times) That said, I’m about to become a dad and am reading His Dark Materials out loud to the bump (yes, doing voices), and reconfirming that they’re the best books in the universe. The second Book of Dust will be published just in time for me to read to baby when it’s here. I’m massively looking forward to sharing books I have loved with my kid.

7) Is there a genre of book that you would never read?

There is stuff that I wouldn’t naturally be drawn to. In general I don’t really like Victoriana, I don’t like steampunk, I don’t like military thrillers, but I’ve also read examples of those that I have liked… so who knows, really. I’m game. If someone told me I should give e.g. Poldark a go, I’d give it a go. My wife got me reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife last year. It’s a book that I’d have passed over, I suppose, but I loved it.

8) What was the last book you read, that wasn’t one of your clients, and did you enjoy it? 

I don’t finish books I don’t like – life’s too short to push through something you’re not enjoying. For what purpose – because someone else thinks you should? No thanks! Same goes for films, telly and wine. The last book I read that I really enjoyed (leaving aside my collection of Collins reference books for mushrooms, butterflies and birds…!) is Lanny by Max Porter which is just phenomenal.

9) Once you leave your desk for the day, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening, what do you do to relax?

I ride my bike. It is one of life’s great joys, and putting the hammer down as you break away uphill is one of life’s great pleasures, even if you’re only pretending you’re in line for the maglia rosa… so that helps blow the cobwebs out. When I get home, I muck around with my dog, Sid, cook some food – my wife and I are both pretty good cooks (if that’s not too self-congratulating) – and watch some TV, or play Playstation which is the king of unwinding but also games these days are just mindblowing in complexity of visuals, interaction and storytelling. I’m also renovating my flat, so far too often the real answer here is that I’m to be found stuck up a ladder or under some floorboards somewhere. On Fridays, I meet my wife and we go for a long walk in the wetlands near our flat, or in Epping Forest, have a pint, cook some food – you can see a pattern emerging. We’ll watch a film, play some music…I’ve recently rediscovered, and introduced Jaime to, painting Warhammer…!?

10) Apologies for the sidetrack – Do you like Rod Stewart, and if so, do you have a favourite song of his?

I like Faces; A Nod Is As Good As A Wink… in particular (Rod’s voice is on point in Love Lives Here), but Rod’s not done anything good since before If You Think I’m Sexy. Alan Parks will hate me for this answer.

Thank you for visiting my blog Tom, it has been a pleasure to interview you.

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