Hi everyone, and on the blog today, I’m delighted to welcome literary agent Julia Silk. Julia is a literary agent at Kingsford Campbell and previously worked at MBA Literary Agency and as an editor for Orion.
Along with a couple of questions about what she’s been up to during lockdown, she was kind enough to answer my burning questions on what she’s on the lookout for in submissions.
Over to you, Julia…
1) How did you first become involved in the publishing industry? Did you always plan to be a literary agent when you left school? Did you have any other career plans?
I first became interested in working in publishing in my final year at university, in the 90s. Then as now it was hugely competitive, and I spent several years working in academic publishing before I landed my first editorial job in a small trade publisher.
I then worked freelance for some bigger publishers alongside that part time job, as well as working in a bookshop two days a week for a couple of years (which was so much fun – I still miss handselling the books I love). I honestly don’t think I was even aware of agenting as a career option when I first started working in publishing – and then it was years before it occurred to me that it was something *I*could do.
But aside from wanting to be a vet aged 12, and then having no clue for the next decade, there was no career other than publishing that I ever considered.
2) You studied a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature. What was your experience like of the course and how has it helped you in your current role?
I’d been in publishing for nearly 10 years, getting shortlisted for editorial commissioning roles in bigger publishers so many times, it became very frustrating. So I looked at all the people who had been hired, and honestly asked myself what they had that I didn’t. And it turned out that was an MA. I have no idea really if that was why they got the jobs over me, but I decided to find out. I actually ended up really loving the MA for its own sake, and, as it happened I then did get a jobwith Orion at the end of that year. In terms of how it has helped in my current role, I think it made me more analytical, and I’m also very good at research, which is definitely a skill I strengthened during my MA.
3) You were an editor at Orion for 15 years. How did being an editor compare now, to being a literary agent?
I chose to make the move from editing to agenting because I was feeling an increasingly strong sense that I was on the wrong ‘side’. Ultimately, no matter how nurturing and sympathetic an editor is, they work for the publisher – they have the publisher’s interests at heart, and rightly so, but I found my sympathies and instincts always lay with whatever was in the best interests of the author, and so I concluded that I probably wasn’t in the right job! I also love the variety, whether it’s working on a project from inception, contract nitty-gritty or strategizing with my authors, I love it all. And I have a short attention span so it suits me to have so many different strands to my daily working life.
4) Where do you start with the submission package? The cover letter, the synopsis or sample writing? What would make you want to request the full manuscript?
A strong concise cover letter that speaks to my interests and tells me an author knows what they have written and has some market awareness will always pique my interest. But the voice is crucial. It can have the greatest hook in the world, but if the writing doesn’t appeal to me then I won’t want to read on. I also don’t tend to read the synopsis unless I’m dithering about asking for the full, as generally I don’t want to spoil the reading experience, especially if it’s a thriller.
5) Can you describe the first initial phone call with a client? How do you feel when you offer representation?
I like it to feel like a natural conversation rather than a two-way interview, but ultimately the aim is to identify whether you share a vision for the project specifically and their writing and future career in general and think you would work well together. And very often there will be more than one agent who wants to work with that person, so I always say that the most important thing is to remember that it’s about who they feel is right for them, according to their priorities. Different agents have different strengths and approaches, so I talk with them about what they are looking for in an agent, and hopefully leave them in a position to make an informed decision. There’s definitely also an element of chemistry. Usually you quite quickly have a sense of whether you’re a good match. And I’ve learned not to be too attached to the outcome when I offer representation, because you can’t win them all.
6) What are your views on the crime/thriller market currently? Across the genre, what would you like to see more of that hasn’t been submitted before to you?
I’m a big crime and thriller reader and I think the genre is becoming more diversified and interesting every year. I like to see a bit of boundary pushing – my client Charlotte Philby is a good example of this, her central characters are flawed and ambiguous and she combines domestic noir and espionage in a way that you rarely see. What I’d also love to see more of is dark humour in the vein of Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer. She pulls off this incredible combination of over the top crazy in concept and elegant restraint in execution that I’m in total awe of. I also love upmarket true crime with something of the author in it –The Fact of a Body and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, for example, are very human investigations into *very* dark corners of the human psyche. I’d love to see something like that, particularly if it’s set somewhere other than the US or UK.
7) When you leave your desk, on a Friday afternoon, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening/the weekend, what do you do to relax?
Pick up my youngest daughter from school then come home and either cook for the evening, try to do some more work or relax with my children. Weekends are mostly taken up with family stuff, seeing friends and trying to cram in some reading. I’ve found this year I’ve had to take up regular exercise in order not implode, so I either run or do yoga (or both) most days and that means I’m actually capable of relaxing for brief periods, rather than being an irascible, jittery mess.
8) During lockdown, what have you been watching on television? Do you have a favourite drama that you watch religiously?
I love watching teen/YA drama with my oldest daughter – we are very into Ackley Bridge at the moment. She is obsessed with Stranger Things, which I introduced her to (all the tweens watch it round here – we’re very sophisticated in Lewisham). And Dead to Me and Schitt’s Creek have also been favourites over the past few months. (Please don’t tell the TV police, though – she’s only 11!) I’ve also been watching Harlots (not with my daughter!); I’m obsessed with Samantha Morton. I love TV – I would watch for hours a dayif I could.
9) During lockdown, what have you been reading? Have you found that your habits have changed?
Apart from the first couple of months of lockdown when I couldn’t focus very well, I don’t think they have changed that much, apart from the fact that I have been buying more hardbacks direct from independent bookshops and small publishers in an attempt to keep the industry afloat. Onehappy result of that was my discovery of the writing of Heidi James, when I bought The Sound Mirror straight from her publisher, connected with her on Twitter, discovered she was unagented and took her on. She is an astounding writer; The Sound Mirror has been my favourite read this year and I am beyond excited to be working with her. I’ve read a bit more non-fiction that I usually do as well – I fell in love with Hadley Freeman’s House of Glass, a memoir of her Jewish family, in which I saw some of my own family history. It’s a wonderful book, full of heart and the result of a decade of research, detective work and huge empathy, and I felt bereft when I’d finished.
10) If you could only listen to Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury or Brian Johnson (AC/DC), who would you choose and why?
Is that a trick question? Errm, Freddie Mercury because my best friend at school and I used to listen to Queen’s Greatest Hits when we were 13 or 14 (it was 1986) and I am sentimental like that. But I do secretly quite like Rod Stewart. My aunt had a thing for him and he reminds me of her. Are you only asking Gen Xers this question? 🙂
Thank you for your time to visit my blog this afternoon Julia. it has been a pleasure interviewing you.
Bio: JULIA SILK was an editor for 15 years, latterly at The Orion Publishing Group, where she worked for nine years. She has an MA in Comparative Literature from UEA and loves to read stories that expose universal truths in new ways. She has broad-ranging taste and welcomes submissions of fiction across the spectrum from commercial to literary, particularly when they feature unpredictable characters making unexpected choices.
Julia is currently particularly keen to see reading group fiction with a strong hook, upmarket crime/thriller and narrative non-fiction/memoir. Please don’t send her children’s, YA, or SFF. She regrets that she is unable to respond to every submission but aims to be in touch within 8-10 weeks if she would like to take your submission further.
Her favourite recent reads include Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, The Dry by Jane Harper and Lullaby by Leila Slimani.