Book Broker – An interview with Hannah Sheppard
Agent: Hannah Sheppard
We are an editorially led agency run by passionate book lovers. With a range of experience from book-selling and collecting, in-house editorial, and television, our agents are commercially aware, well-connected, and skilled at helping authors develop their ideas.
Founded by David H Headley in 2008, our agency is dedicated to discovering and nurturing talented authors, whether debut or established, and providing attentive, honest and personalised representation.
Children’s fiction (from 9+ including teen and YA) and a small number of adult fiction authors (Hannah's main interests are thrillers and women’s fiction).
Hannah 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 fifteen years working in trade publishing: first at Macmillan Children’s Books and later 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.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
Beyond a great, marketable hook, brilliant writing, and an immediate voice? Confidence and research. By confidence I don’t mean "this is the best book you’ll ever read, it will make you millions, and you’re an idiot if you turn it down" (which I see occasionally) but it’s clear when people have taken the time to understand the industry and the submission process and are confident of their pitch and its place in the market. This takes time, but there are resources available online, in libraries and through writers’ groups, and it marks people out as professional and being serious about making writing a career. I’m looking to take on authors whom I will work with for many years and I need to know that I can vouch for their professionalism when I place them with a publisher.
2) What is the most common error or flaw you see in query letters?
Not pitching the book. It’s really hard to start reading something without knowing what you’re expecting – is it kids, YA or adult fiction? What genre is it? If I don’t know what you think it is, I can’t be sure you’re getting it right. And I’m too busy trying to figure out what I’m reading to focus on whether I like it or not.
Beyond the very basics of genre/market – hook me in with something about the story; I care much more about that than I do about you at this point (sorry, but I need to fall in love with your book first). A useful sentence to keep in mind is: When A (inciting incident) happens, B (character) must do C (action) otherwise/before D (catastrophe). You might need to play with that to make it fit your book but that covers the basics of what I need to know… who am I rooting for, what’s their problem, and what’s at stake if they fail? Intrigue me; make me care.
It's also really important to follow the agent’s guidelines (they’re there for a reason) and use the agent’s name rather than something like "Dear Agent".
3) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
This probably links back to both of the first questions – if it’s clear from the letter that the author hasn’t done their research and isn’t pitching the book clearly and concisely then the book itself probably isn’t up to scratch.
4) What advice can you give to writers who are submitting their work?
The writing community is so active online and they’re generally a friendly, chatty bunch who are happy to share their wisdom. Join that community to help gather information about the industry and the process. Look for blog posts about cover letters (several authors have shared their successful cover letters in how-I-got-my-agent type blog posts), join Twitter pitch contests to hone your novel pitch for submission and see which version of your pitch gets most interest (also look at other people’s pitches… what works for you, what doesn’t? Are you reacting emotionally? How have they achieved that?). Analyse book cover copy – what has drawn you in? Why? Know your market – read widely, not just the bestsellers. Do you research.
But also make sure your book is ready. Don’t send a first draft. Try to get beta-readers (again – online is a great place to find these, but also writing groups). Have you set it aside for a few weeks and then re-read with a critical eye? Try printing it in a size and font that you’re not used to seeing it in so you can look with fresh eyes. Or read it aloud to yourself. Where is the pace dropping? Where are the plot holes? Where are characters behaving in ways that don’t make sense? Is the narrative drive strong enough – is the story being pushed ahead with a cause and effect structure because of your character’s primary goal?
5) Are there any recent changes or trends in the publishing industry that you think authors should know about?
Publishing is ever-shifting and trying to write to trends is never going to work (partly because by the time you’ve worked out it’s a trend, it’s already too late given how long the publishing process can be). The best-case scenario is that you write something amazing, that only you could have written, and it sets the trend.
6) You've just decided to represent an author and the contract is signed. What steps do you take to prep the manuscript for submission to publishers?
That depends on the manuscript but there’s usually some editorial work that goes in before submission – sometimes this is one big edit, sometimes it might be more. I have authors I’ve sent out and sold very quickly and others who I’ve worked with a lot longer to develop their ideas to the point where they’re publishable. Behind the scenes I’ll also be chatting to potential editors as and when I see them about the authors I’ve taken on so that I can start pulling together my submission list.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
I’ve just read VOX by Christina Dalcher. It’s a very clear, deceptively simple premise combined with a voice that pulls you in – and it all feels so horribly, terrifyingly possible.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
That’s like asking a parent to pick their favourite child! I’m very excited about all of my authors – 2020 is going to be a particularly exciting year though… I have three debut YA projects launching, all with exciting things to say and diverse stories to tell – there’s Darren Charlton’s LGBTQ genre-defying WRANGLESTONE, Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s contemporary exploration of institutional racism ACE OF SPADES and Amy Beashel’s #MeToo novel THE SKY IS MINE. Adam Hamdy will also launch his new, explosive thriller series with BLACK 13 and there’s a debut thriller coming from Amy McLellan about a woman with face blindness, REMEMBER ME. And Abi Elphinstone will be published in the US for the first time which is a lovely milestone.