An Interview With… Jamie Cowen

Hi everyone, this afternoon I’m delighted to welcome Jamie Cowen to the blog. Jamie is a literary agent at The Ampersand Agency and very kindly answered my questions on what he looks for in submissions and pitching to publishers.

Over to you, Jamie…

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?

Kind of by accident, really. I’d always loved books and reading, but left university with no clear idea of what I wanted to do. Then my mum (who worked in publishing her whole career) walloped me over the head with a copy of The Bookseller when I was attempting to sleep in on a Tuesday, telling me to apply for some jobs, so I did. This resulted in an interview for a job as a Contracts Assistant at HarperCollins, and I didn’t look back.

2) What authors did you grow up reading? Did any of these authors inspire your current list?

All sorts really, but lots of fantasy, horror and SF as a teenager (Tolkien, Stephen King, Iain M. Banks, Asimov, Ursula Le Guin among many others) has I suppose had an effect on the list I’ve built as an agent.

3) What do you look for from a covering email? How concise should the pitch for the manuscript be?

I look for an expression of personality in an email, as well as an ability to write a good letter. Pitches should always be as concise as possible, and make me want to read the sample text.

4) When you open a submission package, what do you turn to first? What captures your attention, the synopsis or the sample writing?

Always the writing. A synopsis is just a tool really, so I always start with the writing, and if that seems exciting, original and of a high standard then I’ll take a look at the synopsis afterwards to see where the story goes.

5) How do you know when you have connected with a manuscript? Is it always love at first read?

You just… know, I think. In the same way as anyone who listens to a new song, or sees a play or a movie and falls for it, so it is with books.

6) How important is a sense of place to you in a submission? Where in the North would you love to see a novel set and why? Where in the South would you love to see a novel set and why?

I think it depends on the story. Some are very much rooted in a place and others aren’t; neither is automatically superior in my view. I’ll admit to not having any deep connection to anywhere in particular in the north of England, but as a Londoner I’d love to see a grimy gangland novel set in Tottenham, or a thriller set around the Brixton Riots, or anything which really digs into a specific part of the city.

7) What do you look for in a character that leaps off the page? When do they start to become real for you?

Voice is the key. Writing a character whose mannerisms, whether internal or spoken, are really characterful and well thought through is obviously not easy, but is always the key to an amazing story.

8) How do you feel when you email an author to request the rest of their manuscript? How do you feel when you offer representation and think ‘I really want to represent this writer!’

Super excited! Those stages, plus the submission process, are some of the most thrilling parts of the job.

9) How do you navigate pitching to publishers? Do you ever get nervous? How do you feel when you let the author know that their book is going to be published?

I’m constantly nervous when pitching books, as I’m always aware of the responsibility on my shoulders. I like to think that the anxiety is a sign that I care about my authors and therefore my pitches of their books, but it doesn’t change the nerves! Nothing in this job really compares to the moment you call an author to tell them that you’ve received an offer for their book. Being able to pass on the news that a client’s writing will be published to the world is just the greatest privilege, and I’ll never get bored of it.

10) What do you enjoy doing away from work? What is a typical weekend for you?

Time with family, playing football, cooking and eating, long walks with the dog, shorter walks with the dog that end in the pub, that sort of thing!

Thank you for your time today Jamie, it has been a pleasure to interview you.

Bio: Jamie Cowen is the Managing Director of The Ampersand Agency. He has worked in publishing for 19 years, including time at HarperCollins and Hachette, before becoming a literary agent in 2013. He represents a diverse list of authors of commercial fiction and non-fiction, as well as handling day to day running of the agency.

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