Hi everyone, and today I’m delighted to welcome literary agent Nelle Andrew to the blog. Nelle is a literary agent at the Rachel Mills Literary Agency, and previously worked at Peters, Fraser and Dunlop. She was kind enough to answer a few of my questions on what she looks for in submissions.
Over to you, Nelle…
1) Did you see yourself becoming a literary agent after you left school? Did you actually have any other career plans?
I didn’t know what a literary agent was until I was 23! I decided I was going to be an author and I only got a job in publishing to supplement my income until this great moment was going to arrive. I started off working as a trade publisher and then and only then, did I find out about agents. It was Andrew Kidd, who I worked with, who first told me about them and when he changed careers to become one, I accosted him in his office to find out all I could. I decided an agency would be a better fit and I worked there while writing my book and after I got published. But then in one of life’s little ironies, I discovered I liked agenting more than I liked writing. It was in pursuit of another goal that I ended up finding my true calling.
2) How are you drawn into a submission – is it the covering letter, synopsis or sample writing? What can an author do to leave you wanting more?
The first thing I notice is the pitch in the covering letter…if I don’t respond to it then I don’t read further. That may sound harsh but in a bookshop – when we used to be able to browse there – people pick up books and read the back and if that doesn’t suit them, they put it down. As an agent my first approach with submissions is to think like a consumer and if I can see myself putting it down, I move on very quickly. Then if that works I know from the quality of writing in the sample chapters. If by the first 3 chapters I don’t know what the purpose of the book is, who it is for or what it is trying to connect to, then I know it is not for me.
3) How do you know that you have connected with a manuscript?
I imagine someone else selling it in The bookseller and if I feel sick at the thought, I know it should be mine. At that point I get very very zealous. It’s a weird twisting feeling in my gut like a pull. I can’t begin to describe it but it’s always there without fail.
4) What, currently, are you not looking for? Do you mind if an author blends genres in their writing?
Honestly I am really looking for something fresh and engaging…I don’t really mind what it is, although my taste always leans to that sweet spot of commercial literary fiction – that is quality writing with a strong plot. I really need narrative but I also want to be transported. I want stories about people and life that teaches me something about the world while also making me reevaluate how I think about it. But mostly I am interested in people – their truths, however dark, however uncomfortable, however good.
5) What would make you reject a manuscript, if you have asked to see the completed work?
If it veers off the rails spectacularly, or doesn’t fulfil the promise of its opening chapters. An opening to a manuscript gives one a sense of what the author is going to deliver and if the author doesn’t fulfil that, well then it’s done…I know that sounds vague but actually it’s very simple. Either you are writing for yourself or writing for a reader. The latter fulfils and the former, does not.
6) What are your views on the crime and thriller market? In your opinion, is there any other sub-genre in need of more representation?
Crime and thriller will always abound…I tend not to look at trends. I just want a damn good book. In terms of more representation – write the book you would want to read. If it doesnt exist, then make it exist
7) Is there one book from your childhood that you still read now? If so, why are you still drawn to it? Mine is Goodnight Mister Tom. I first read the novel in Year Six at the age of ten, and the film scared the living daylights out of me. But for me, that was my book that made me want to become a writer – that book was my turning point!
Omg. – I CAPTURE THE CASTLE and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD…they are so insightful and transportive and they tug at the heart in a way that I can never resist. They make me incredibly sad and yet incredibly hopeful and that’s genius right there – to straddle these two paradoxes in the soul.
8) What are your views on book to film or television adaptations? Do you prefer the book or the film versions?
It depends on the book – I much prefer the LOTR movies to the books which – to my mind – are as dry as toast. I feel strongly that differing mediums are meant to do different things and shouldnt be slaves to one another. ROOM is a great book and a great film and while the essence and spirit is the same, it is clever in terms of how much its audience can take depending on the medium because it’s a different experience and it respects the story but also respects the audience.
9) When you leave your desk on a Friday, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening/the weekend, what do you do to relax?
Ha – I work from home on Fridays anyway but I don’t relax. This is what my husband would tell you. I read and eat and hang out with my kid and friends (back in the day when you could do that) but I never switch off…half my mind is always on work. I don’t know why – I just cannot stop. I dont think I am built to stop and much as it grieves my loved ones, I’ve accepted that about myself. I just love what I do.
10) If you had to choose between Rod Stewart and Freddie Mercury, who would you choose and why?
Haha! Random but OBVIOUSLY Freddie…that story is full of pathos and tragedy and I have always always loved an underdog/outsider. The person who does not fit but that difference becomes their strength as well as their downfall. And his pain is everywhere in his music, but told in a paletable way, with a wink and a nod because he knows you cannot take it but he hopes, just for a second, you might really see him and not shy away.
Nelle Andrew joined RML in 2020. She previously worked as an agent at Peters Fraser and Dunlop for eleven years, and prior to that at Macmillan publishers. Nelle represents an array of internationally bestselling and award-winning authors across both fiction and non-fiction. Among those on her list are Sara Collins (winner of the Costa Debut fiction award), Jing-Jing Lee (a longlistee for the Women’s Fiction Prize and Walter Scott prize), Beth Underdown and Cecilia Ekback (HWA Goldsboro Award winners) and six Richard and Judy book club picks such as the bestselling Heidi Perks, Bryony Gordon and Elizabeth Day.
Nelle was a Bookseller Rising Star in 2016 and was shortlisted for Agent of the Year in 2018. Nelle also became a published author in her own right under the name Nelle Davy. She helped to build the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize for Unpublished Authors into one of the most eminent prizes for unpublished voices, and sat on the original board for The Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer’s Award.
Thank you for letting me interview you, Nelle. It has been a pleasure to hear about what you look for.