An Interview With… Imogen Pelham

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to introduce Imogen Pelham. Imogen is a literary agent for Marjacq Scripts. As well as chatting all things submissions and what she looks for, Imogen also gives some brilliant advice for writers who aren’t yet published. Read on to find out more.

Over to you, Imogen…

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?

Full disclosure – my parents met in a publishing house, when my mother was a Publicist and my father was the Art Director at Penguin. I spent stretches of my school holidays in Macmillan’s offices, while my mum worked, reading, and at some point her colleagues would keep me busy by giving me YA manuscripts and asking me to let them know what I thought. It was a huge privilege to have insight into an industry which I know is often kept very opaque to so many. I only ever wanted to go into publishing – it was the only thing I knew!

I landed on wanting to be a literary agent aged 17; I liked the idea of working directly with authors on their work editorially and creatively, but that it would also give me the opportunity to be involved in the business side of things. I loved maths andI’ve always been interested in the mechanics of contracts. So I didn’t have any other career plans (though I worked in Art Insurance in my gap year and University holidays, which I really enjoyed).

2) What particular genres of novels stood out to you when you were younger? Do these tastes reflect your current list?

I would read any novel I could get my hands on. For a good few years I was obsessed with Goosebumps and Point Horror, and while I have a couple of authors in a somewhat similar vein (Jo Jakeman who writes brilliantly twisty thrillers, and Kylie Whitehead who does really smart contemporary body horror), it’s a shame I don’t have more!

The more marked difference between then and now is that I never considered I would ever represent non-fiction. To me, non-fiction was just fusty, lengthy biographies of someone long-dead. It was only when I started working in an agency that I realised the multitudes that term “non-fiction” contained and fell in love with it; now my list is about 50% non-fiction.

3) What would you say that you look for in a covering email? What would capture your attention in particular?

The main thing is predictable – a really great pitch. Whether that’s a really clever idea, an interesting protagonist facing a compelling problem, or something incredibly evocative. I think pitches get very associated with thrillers in particular, and authors sometimes veer off the pitch in the submission if they feel like their book isn’t very pitch-friendly. But no matter the novel, there should be some central tension which keeps us reading(even in a literary novel where perhaps, objectively, not that much happens!), and the pitch needs to communicate roughly what that tension is.

Otherwise, the main things are that it needs to be concise, courteous, and clear. Don’t overthink it. As long as the letter doesn’t set off any alarm bells (incredibly high word count; grand claims of author’s own genius; completely incomprehensible), it’s really all about the book.

4) What is it that initially attracts you to a submission? And what is it particularly that makes a submission stand out to you?

When I read a submission, I will very quickly read the email to get an overview, and in particulartrying to pick out the pitch (as mentioned above). In an ideal world that will already pique my interest, so that would hopefully be the first thing to attract me to the book.

I then open the material immediately, and start reading. I cannot overstate how important those first pages are. Again, like the pitch, you want to be setting up some tension or questions from the absolute outset. Regardless of the genre, you need to grab us with those opening pages and keep us reading. Why have you started where you have; is it the best point in time? Are you trying to answer the who/what/where/why for the reader rather than letting them uncover it or have some questions lingering? There’s often too much exposition, or relying on dialogue to explain the situation and recent past to the reader – resist those. Hone every sentence on those first few pages, and make sure every word has impact.

5) Do you have any advice for the unpublished author? How polished would you say their manuscript has to be?

I keep slightly jumping ahead to your following question in my previous answer! As above, the opening pages should be especially polished. But really, if you’re writing fiction, the whole novel should be of a polished standard. Related to your other question, my advice is that the writing of the book isn’t just getting roughly the “right” number of words down, some scenes, a bit of shape. A huge part of the writing is what comes after that, and I think you almost learn more about writing a novel – how to do it, what works and doesn’t work – after having written a first draft.

Other advice is to always be reading other contemporaneous books in a similar genre and to consider how they’re written. What tense and person do they use, where does the principal tension first get introduced, what does the author hide and what do they show and to what effect. I would also recommend trying to read your own work in a different format to how you work on it (so, generally speaking, that means not on a computer screen in a word processing programme). Reading a print-out, or even sending the manuscript to your Kindle to read there, allows for a little distance from it and you can hopefully see much more about what’s working and what’s not with a little more objectivity.

6) As an agent, how has the pandemic affected your job role? Is there anything that you have missed from the day to day routine of being in the office?

In the whole publishing ecosystem, other than authors, agents were the best set up for the sudden pivot to home working. So much of our work is on our own, anyway!

But a huge part of my job is in-person meetings with my authors and prospective authors to discuss their work, and also meeting and catching up with editors to find out what they’re looking for, and then with overseas editors at Book Fairs. It was difficult to go from having such a social rhythm of work to none, and I think it sometimes made it hard to feel like we were all fully abreast of the industry in quite the same detail as we normally would be. On the other hand, the wide adoption of Zoom has normalised virtual meetings with authors and editors further afield, which I think is really helpful for removing some of the London-centricity of the industry.

I’ve really loved working from home, and now use both the office and home to their strengths. It’s great to be able to bounce around ideas and discuss issues in the room with colleagues, but much easier to get a lot more reading done when I’m working from home.

7) In the commercial fiction that you represent, what are you looking for? What kind of novel would you be gripped by? And what would you like to see more of?

As I hinted at before, I would love to find some more brilliant voices in the thriller area, or even veering towards some smart, light horror. I love relatable characters, psychological twists, and contemporary issues. My dream would be to find a British Megan Abbott.

But I’d also love some more really smart women’s fiction, in the vein of Dolly Alderton, Daisy Buchanan, and Bella Mackie.

8) What is your guilty pleasure genre, that you wouldn’t normally admit to reading?

If you’d asked me several years ago, I probably would have said thrillers. I found they were great at getting me out of a reading rut, but I would perhaps not consider them part of my usual diet. But I now read even wider and I try not to consider anything a guilty pleasure. My list is primarily quite literary, and the non-fiction often tends to be relatively serious, so it might be a bit of a surprise that I like reading much more fun things, too!

9) What are you currently watching on television? Do you have a favourite programme that you religiously watch?

I’m currently watching the new seasons of Succession, Insecure, and You, and I can’t wait for the new season of Euphoria. I’ve religiously kept up with all of them across their seasons, and I think those four are a relatively accurate representation of the sorts (and range) of stories that I love most.. And unlike books, television is an area where I definitely still have guilty pleasures, but I’m keeping those ones close to my chest…

10) What is your music taste like? I favour the classics such as Slade, Queen, AC/DC and some standout seventies bands, but what do you like to listen to? And what band/artist would you recommend?

I’ve been listening to less music lately, which is something I want to change in 2022, but I mostly listen to electronic music of various stripes. Some of my favourites are Four Tet, Nils Frahm, andModerat. The album I’ve listened to most recently is Wake Up Calls by Cosmo Sheldrake, which uses recordings of endangered birds. It’s beautiful, and great to work to.

Thank you for your time today, Imogen. It has been a pleasure to interview you.

Bio: Imogen Pelham is a literary agent at Marjacq Scripts where she represents both fiction and non-fiction. Her list includes bestselling author of The Secret Lives of Colour, Kassia St Clair; Wellcome Prize shortlisted, Emily Mayhew; and multi-prizelisted Yara Rodrigues Fowler, as well as notable journalists such as Hattie Crisell, Sam Diss, Jimi Famurewa, and Marie Le Conte. She is interested in literary and upmarket commercial fiction, and a range of non-fiction, including history, memoir, psychology, sociology, culture, and food.

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