Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Eli Keren. Eli is an associate literary agent at United Agents, and I was delighted when he agreed to accommodate some time for an interview.
Read on for how he got into the industry, the advice he offers to unpublished authors and what he is on the lookout for in those all important submissions (which are below the Q&A).
Over to you, Eli…
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?
My journey was a weird one. I studied the sciences at university and decided to pivot to the arts quite late in the day. I knew that I needed some kind of qualification in the arts to be competitive for jobs in publishing, but I didn’t want to start from scratch, so I did a masters degree in Creative Writing – the advantage here was that you could do one of those no matter your background, whether you had a relevant first degree or no degree at all, so long as you could write. Two years later and armed with that I secured an internship at Curtis Brown’s in-house creative writing school, Curtis Brown Creative, which was a great position from where I could start figuring out what I wanted my next role to be.
I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to be in agency, but I also knew that a sideways move from another part of the industry would probably get me there faster than only applying for the few agency roles that came up, so I applied for literally every entry-level job that was posted in commercial publishing. I actually got really lucky – after months of applications I only received one job offer, and that was to be assistant to literary agent Sarah Ballard here at United Agents, where I’ve very happily been for six years now and counting! I spent four years as Sarah’s assistant, starting to build my own list of clients towards the end of that time, and am now her associate agent, continuing to build my list while I support her and her clients.
2) Does your research science background help you in your current job role? If so, how?
Definitely, I do work with fiction but a big part of my list is non-fiction, expert-led smart science, social commentary, social history, interesting books that want to change the world for the better. A huge part of what I do is drawing on my scientific background to work with academics, researchers and experts to bring their work to a commercial market. It’s often about getting them out of their academic voice and into their commercial one, or taking their work and making it as accessible as possible.
3) What attracts you to a submission? Is it the cover letter, the synopsis or the sample writing? What are you drawn to first out the three?
The cover letter is always my way in – I skim it when it plops into my inbox and decide whether to drop the submission into my submissions folder and get to it when I can, or keep it in my main inbox and read it ASAP. If if’s a non-fiction proposal that sounds interesting, authoritative and like it will make a positive impact, or if it’s a novel with a hook, premise or overview that makes me wish I could pick it up off a shelf and start reading straight away, it stays in the main inbox.
Either way, I’m looking for something that sounds original, exciting, and worth betting my reputation on. I need to be able to put my name on the line for every one of my clients, because if I’m sending editors a book that’s not up to standard, then next time I send them a book, they’re not going to make reading it a priority, if they read it at all. The bar is high, but it has to be if I want to stay in business!
4) If you have asked to see a full manuscript, what would make you ultimately reject it? Would you offer editorial feedback at all?
If I’ve called a manuscript in it’s because the writing is good and the premise is interesting. If I reject it after that point, it’s usually because the writing didn’t continue to live up to the premise. Maybe the book slowed right down after the opening chapters, maybe the plot ended up not being sustainable over the long term, or maybe I called a book in expecting it to sit firmly in one genre and the writing ended up, later into the book, veering into another, in such a way that made me doubt where I’d place it in the market.
When I pass on a book that I’ve called in, I do always try to explain why, I feel like I owe the author that at least.
5) Can you describe the feeling of ‘I really want to represent this writer’? How do you feel when you offer representation?
Mostly I feel nervous! When I offer representation, I’m asking an author to put their writing career in my hands, and telling them I’m confident I can make a success of it. It’s a lot to offer and a big commitment to make, and ultimately the end result will be out of my hands. I can work my hardest polishing a manuscript or proposal, do my best laying the groundwork with editors and building the buzz in the lead-up to a submission, coordinating with the various teams at UA to give a book the absolute best chance of landing with a splash. But when all that’s done, how a submission lands with the editors is part of the process I don’t have any control over.
Sometimes books sell in huge flashy auctions for eye-watering amounts of money and that’s lovely, but sometimes books don’t sell at all, and that’s part of the job that I have to deal with too. I always hope for the former, and I wouldn’t take a client on if I didn’t think a decent deal was achievable, flashy auction or none, but I need to stay grounded and keep half a thought on the latter. The job isn’t always as glamorous as it can look from the outside.
6) What advice would you give to the unpublished author, and how can they make a submission stand out?
Know your selling points. Are you writing a coming of age novel? Great, there are a million of them out there, tell me what makes yours different. A crime/thriller? Show me the hook, that gripping premise that nobody else has thought of. A vital, world-changing non-fiction? Tell me how you intend to change the world, why it needs to be changed, and why you’re the person to change it. If you can get me excited about your book, then I can see myself getting editors excited about your book.
7) What do you look for in a character that leaps off the page? When do they start to become real for you?
For me, it’s often the voice. The writing I love best has characters that sound so distinctive that, as soon as a few chapters in, I don’t need you to tell me who’s saying what, I can tell who’s speaking by the words and phrases they’re using. That’s what makes people feel real to me. Maybe it’s a leftover from my roots in theatre, but on stage, dialogue has to feel human or the action won’t be believable, and I think the same applies to prose.
8) Once you decide to represent an author, what happens next? How do you find editorial work on a manuscript?
Before I decide to represent someone, I like to make sure we’re on the same page, that our vision for their work is shared. I’ll normally have a call/zoom to talk them through how I’d want to edit their work (if at all) and make sure they’re on board with that. I never want to be editing someone in a direction they don’t want to go in, so if my feedback doesn’t resonate with an author, then I’d want them to tell me and I’d want us to decide that perhaps I’m not the right agent for them, rather than going along with it because they’re so keen to be represented by anyone, and then us clashing down the line.
What I’m saying is, I don’t decide to represent an author, an author and I mutually agree that we’re going to work together. After that comes, usually, the edit! I love getting stuck in, especially with a writer whose work I love and whose craft I respect. Reading a good book should feel like swimming, I should be able to glide through the work – it’s my job to flag anywhere the writing snags, catches and slows me down. I aim to do a big-picture edit first and a line edit later, but I’m a hopeless pedant and usually line edit while I’m doing my big-picture edit too. It’s probably annoying but I like to think the work is better for it eventually.
9) Do you get nervous pitching to publishers? What is this process like for you? How do you feel when you ring an author to say their manuscript will be published?
I’m at my least nervous when I’m pitching to editors, I love it, I think it’s the part of the job I’m probably best at. I don’t represent books that I don’t love, and there’s nothing I like doing more than talking (often unceasingly) about books I love. I don’t usually pitch from notes, I’ll make sure I’ve written down the few key details I want to get across, but I base my written pitch on the verbal pitches I made to editors, rather than writing a pitch and working from that.
I’m at my best when I’m talking – you’re lucky this is a written interview or it could last for hours. The nervousness sets in later, once I’ve pitched to an editor and sent the manuscript over, and then just have to wait for someone to jump on it. And then when they do, every agent will tell you it’s the best part of the job. As a junior agent I work with more debuts than established writers, and there’s nothing better than telling someone who’s always wanted to be a published author that they’re going to be. It makes all the nerves worthwhile.
10) What is a typical weekend for you and what do you enjoy doing away from work?
I moved out of London to find more green spaces. I’m not a fan of city life, the city’s too loud and busy for me, and this is going to sound super dull but I’d rather go home of an evening that go out. I’m a house mouse! I like to read at home or in the park, I like to spend time with my family outdoors.
My ideal weekend is a picnic in the park with my family and friends on one day and absolutely nothing on the other. I have a disability that sometimes means I need a fair bit of rest but I can’t complain because resting is my favourite thing to do so it’s almost convenient that I have to do a lot of it. I also spend more time than is healthy playing video games, which I class as rest and therefore is basically medicinal.
Thank you for your time today Eli, it has been a pleasure to interview you.
Bio: Eli Keren is an associate literary agent at United Agents, whose growing list includes writers of fiction and non-fiction. Originally trained as a research chemist, Eli spends a lot of his time working with experts and academics to bring their areas of expertise to a commercial audience. He has a particular interest in non-fiction that communicates positive ideas effectively as well as LGBT-themed books in both fiction and non-fiction.