Book Broker—an interview with Imogen Pelham
Agent: Imogen Pelham
Preferred genres: Literary & upmarket fiction, serious popular non-fiction.
Bio: Imogen Pelham has been a literary agent at Marjacq since 2015, and prior to that was at Aitken Alexander Associates. She represents literary fiction, non-fiction which looks at serious subjects in innovative ways, and some standout commercial fiction.
Her authors include Hattie Crisell, Jimi Famurewa, Marie Le Conte, Chris McQueer, Emily Mayhew, Yara Rodrigues Fowler, and Kassia St Clair.
Her non-fiction list includes history, memoir, medicine, and psychology. She is particularly interested in identity, the arts, and investigative journalism.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
When I open a submission and see a fantastic, clear pitch, it’s really exciting. I just need a couple of sentences which give me a sense of the protagonist or a few main characters, and of where the principal tension is coming from. It’s an art; the best pitch balances so that we know what to expect but also have a lot of questions or a sense of what we need to find out. In a pitch it can also be easy to fall into the trap of going very vague so that it risks sounding like cliché, so if in doubt be specific about your story. Alongside the pitch, how you position your book can really help—whether that’s giving comparisons that succinctly communicate where in the market you think your writing sits, or authors who write similar sorts of stories or in a similar prose style.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
As above, if there’s no real clarity on what the book is and what it’s offering the reader—that applies in both fiction and non-fiction. Really crystallise and be clear on what you want to say, the themes, the tension, the arc. Anyone can write a story, but not anyone can write a novel. It’s also usually clear to me when someone submits to me but they don’t actually read many books (or read in the same area) themselves; make sure you’re reading contemporary books and thinking about the prose, the voice, how they reveal details, and what they hide.
3) What's at the top of your manuscript wish list right now?
I’d love to find a dark, compulsive upmarket novel in the vein of Megan Abbott, Magpie by Elizabeth Day, or Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam. On the non-fiction side, I’d love a serious narrative—whether it’s contemporary investigative journalism (such as Empire of Pain), literary true crime (I loved The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson), or shining a light on an amazing story from history (like The Premonitions Bureau).
4) What do you love most about being an agent, and what do you find the most challenging?
I suspect my answer will be the same as many other agents! My favourite moment is seeing the finished book (or, even better, multiple editions of the same book from publishers around the world) of something which I remember as a submission, or an idea that was discussed in a meeting. Doing the deal itself is always thrilling, but it really feels real once you have the book in your hands. The most challenging is of course the books you love that you don’t end up finding a publisher for. It can be a tough business
5) What typically draws you deep into a manuscript? What common snags are likely to break your narrative immersion?
I’m always drawn in by the known unknowns—when I can tell something’s off, but I don’t know what it is yet, or there’s a detail which doesn’t make sense and I need to keep reading to find out what it is.
On the snags: when the voice feels stilted, and when there’s too much description or exposition at the opening. Also, when there’s too much dialogue. You need your dialogue to feel naturalistic, but you don’t want it to perfectly replicate the boring conversations we actually have with each other in real life. Every line of dialogue needs to be there for a secondary reason, and avoid too much back-and-forth.
6) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?
A more even allocation of resources—particularly across advances. Publishers are always spread-betting and have to fiercely compete for the books they think will break out. But with low advances and highly variable sales outcomes, it makes taking the time needed to write a brilliant book such a huge gamble for the authors that many can’t afford to play. If more writers could afford to write for a living, we’d get better writing, and—crucially—from a wider range of writers, which is what the industry needs.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
I loved Meg Mason’s Sorrow And Bliss. Brutally well-observed with the sparest turn of phrase, it delivers perfectly on its title: by turns hilarious and devastating.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment? (Feel free to include a book-cover image and link)
The second novel by Yara Rodrigues Fowler, there are more things, was published in the UK by Little, Brown last month, and the reaction so far has been thrilling. In its first month in the world, the Sunday Times compared her to Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Bernardine Evaristo, calling it "a serious accomplishment from a talented writer with a gloriously untethered style," and she’s been shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. Her writing is radical and beautiful.