Hi everyone, and on the blog today I’m delighted to welcome literary agent Hannah Sheppard. Hannah works at D H H Literary Agency and she was kind enough to answer my questions on what she is looking out for in submissions, along with what she has been up to in lockdown.
Over to you, Hannah…
1) How did you first become involved in the publishing industry? Did you always want to be a literary agent when you left school? Did you have any other career plans?
I think it was pretty obvious from very early on that I was going to do something related to the written word. Initially I thought I wanted to be a journalist but mostly because that was a more obvious career option. I didn’t know anyone in publishing and so had no idea what the potential jobs might be so it just didn’t occur to me. But, once I got to know a bit more about what journalism might involve (particularly early on in a career when you weren’t getting to write about what you wanted to write about) I realised it probably wasn’t for me. I think it was while I was at university that it clicked for me that publishing could be an option and I emailed all the publishing companies I could find email addresses for (this was the early days of the internet!) and managed to get work experience at Macmillan Children’s Books. Initially I was applying for marketing experience because I thought editorial would be too competitive and I was interested in how you motivate someone to buy a particular book over all the other options, but while I was doing my work experience, I did a day in editorial and realised that was really where I should be.
It was during a second work experience placement that I found out literary agents existed, but I didn’t really have a grasp on what they might do until I started working as an editorial assistant and it was only after I’d spent ten years in house working my way up to senior commissioning editor that I thought it might be the career for me. I’d realised that the bits of my job I enjoyed most were when I was working directly with authors to bounce ideas and develop projects and that if I went much higher than I was in house then I’d move further away from that…becoming an agent has allowed me to focus on that much more and I love it.
2) You studied at university in Liverpool. What was your degree and your experience of the city like? Are you on the lookout for writers from the North?
I did a degree in English Language and Literature at Liverpool University and I completely fell in love with the arty vibe of the city. We used to go to a monthly open mic night at the Egg Café (best spicy veggie burgers in town) which I loved and I volunteered at News From Nowhere bookshop on Bold Street. I also set up a small press while I was there and our first book was an anthology of work from both students and local creatives…we called it THE LIVER BARDS.
I am definitely on the lookout for writers from the North. I’m really proud of the DHH Literary Agency and our proactive approach to diversifying publishing. In 2018 we travelled to York for a pitching session where each of the five agents at DHH met with hopeful authors to talk about their work and demystify publishing. We saw 110 people between us! And in Dec 2019 the DHH team went up to Liverpool to chat to authors there and I got to show my colleagues a little of the city I love so much.
We’re absolutely planning to do more northern pitching sessions and have a few locations in mind…unfortunately plans are a little on hold at the moment because of Covid19, but do follow the @dhhlitagency twitter account to be first to hear when that is announced.
3) What attracts you to a submission? Is it the cover letter, the synopsis or the sample writing?
I think it’s a combination of a clear pitch and the sample writing. I have to fall in love with the sample but it helps a lot if the author can pitch their novel succinctly, in a way that intrigues me, and with an awareness of the market. The rest of the cover letter is less important than the pitch – but I’m amazed how many cover letters don’t pitch the book at all.
4) Are there any differences between representing authors of both adult and children’s fiction?
Not really. There’s maybe a slightly different career trajectory and sales pattern that it’s worth being aware of, but every author/agent relationship is unique (based on what that author needs) so it’s that which makes the difference rather than that being based on the type of book.
5) Can you describe the feeling of ‘I really want to represent this author’? How do you feel when you offer representation?
It’s definitely a nervous excitement. It’s rare that all the elements align – a book I love, that I can see a clear route to market for and know exactly how I’d pitch it and to which editors along with an author I think I’d work well with…often it’s as much about the book and author as it is about believing I’m the right agent for the project (rejections from agents aren’t always a sign that your book isn’t good…there are so many factors in the decision…there’s a lot of luck when it comes to right book at the right time).
Alongside the thrill of the potential you can see, there’s also a fear that the author might choose to go with someone else (rejection is part of life as an agent too!).
6) What are your views on the fiction market currently across the genres you represent? What would like to see more of, or what do you think hasn’t been done before?
The current Covid situation has definitely made everyone quite cautious. I don’t necessarily know what impact that will have long term…but maybe it wouldn’t be so awful if fewer books were published overall with more attention on making sure each one reached its potential readership.
I’d like to see more daring publishing…less dictated by what has sold before which makes diversifying really difficult and we really need to diversify.
7) 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?
Hmmmm…I don’t really have a desk in the traditional sense…and my hours aren’t that regular either. There is always reading to do, wherever I am. But making time for family and friends is always important – particularly on a Friday night…drinks and dinner with my partner is probably the ultimate switch off from work to mark the beginning of the weekend.
I also love being near the water so wandering down to the beach is a great way to relax (although, often it’s when I step away and stare at the sea for a while that I’ll get a breakthrough idea for an edit).
8) In lockdown, what are you currently reading? Are you going back to old favourites or reading new books?
I’ve really embraced audio books during lockdown in a way I hadn’t before. I struggled to focus on reading early on in lockdown (which is a bit of a disaster work wise) but an audio book on my headphones while out for a walk or a run was a great way to keep on top of books from my TBR that I hadn’t got to yet. I’ve really enjoyed Gillian McAllister’s THE EVIDENCE AGAINST YOU, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER and Talia Hibbert’s TAKE A HINT DANI BROWN this way.
9) In lockdown, what are you currently watching on television? Do you have a favourite drama that you watch religiously?
I love a wide range of television…some real guilty pleasures through to more highbrow stuff. The new series of QUEER EYE dropping during lockdown was a joy – I love the human stories alongside the fabulous styling. I also worked my way through the whole of LINE OF DUTY and HOMELAND which are both shows I’d failed to watch previously. I’m anxiously awaiting the new season of UNFORGOTTEN which I think finished filming just before lockdown…The first season of that was especially good and I’d love to find a crime novel that explored the same cold case psychology of a criminal who thinks they’ve got away with something for decades only for a chance discovery to unravel their entire lives.
GREY’S ANATOMY is probably the drama I watch religiously…although I’m newly obsessed with THIS IS US but I’m struggling to get hold of the new seasons in the UK.
10) If you could only listen to Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury or Brian Johnson (AC/DC), who would you choose and why?
This is almost impossible to answer because I have Rod Stewart associations with my mum and Freddie Mercury associations with my dad so although I like both, choosing one would feel disloyal.
So, although I’m unfamiliar with Brian Johnson and AC/DC I might have to go with that…discovering something new (to me) is always good, right?
Thank you so much for your time today Hannah. It was a real pleasure to interview you.
Hannah Sheppard studied English Literature at the University of Liverpool where she set up a small poetry press in her spare time. She has since spent over a decade working in trade publishing: first at Macmillan Children’s Books and more recently running Headline Publishing Group’s YA and crossover list where she published Tanya Byrne’s critically acclaimed Heart-Shaped Bruise.
She joined the D H H Literary Agency in 2013 because she realised that being an agent gave her more time to do what she loves most – using her editorial experience to help writers develop their ideas for commercial success.
What I’m Looking For:
Hannah represents authors across children’s fiction (from 9+ including teen and YA) and a small number of adult fiction authors (her main interests are thrillers and romance). Hannah does not represent picture books.
She likes stories that push the boundaries, have a strong voice and, often, a dark edge – although she’d love to find a great contemporary romance too.
Follow Hannah on Twitter: @YA_Books
How to submit: Please send your cover letter, first three chapters (or about 10,000 words) and a synopsis all pasted into the body of your email in that order (rather than sent as attachments) to email@example.com and put ‘Query’ and your title in the subject field.