Book Broker – An interview with Isabel Atherton
Agent: Isabel Atherton
Children’s picture books, biography, autobiography, cookery and general fiction. Other areas of interest include history, natural history, humour, popular culture (especially music titles), and arts and crafts.
Established in February 2008 by Isabel Atherton, Creative Authors Limited represents titles with strong commercial potential. Isabel has had wide exposure to the creative industries. In the past 15 years, she has headed up a marketing department for an international company and worked as a health journalist. Isabel has worked for four top London, UK agencies and she is now an independent agent.
All authors are individually handled by Isabel Atherton, and Creative Authors Ltd prides itself on a personal and highly efficient service. Creative Authors Ltd aims to develop first-time writers and take established authors to the next level of their career. With all our authors we aim to establish a lifetime relationship. As a result, we are highly selective and only take on new writers whose work we genuinely love. Creative Authors is a transatlantic agency. We sell directly to the US and UK, cutting out the need for a sub-agent in these territories.
Isabel has also written five children’s picture books including Zombie Cat: The Tale of a Decomposing Kitty, Bad Easter Bunny and Smelly Ghost.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
I am exceptionally picky and only ever take on clients who produce work I love and that I feel I will work well with. With all my clients, I aim for a lifelong partnership, so agent and author/illustrator really need to gel with one another. A good submission includes a well-written cover letter, a synopsis, and a list of comparable titles is always helpful. One of my pet peeves is when a submission is addressed Dear Sir. I’ll pretty much always press delete if someone has addressed me in this way. I feel it shows a lack of care and certainly it’s not a quality I want in someone I represent. I will normally respond to a query if the person addresses me directly and has looked at the agency and familiarised themselves with the clients we represent. Even better if they’ve taken the time to read one of our books!
2) What is the most common error or flaw you see in query letters?
For me it’s the lack of attention to who you are mailing. Also, when a person puts a hundred other agents on the same submission email, that’s a big red flag. It just looks very sloppy. Potential clients need to really nail their query letters. It is the absolute key to making an agent want to read your submission. Craft it, hone it, nail it.
3) What's a typical early warning sign that a manuscript isn't structurally sound?
I think you can often tell from the first paragraph. One common example is the use of bloated, verbose, and clichéd language. Anything with a line like “the sun hung in the sky like an illuminated orange” is an instant turn off.
4) Are you currently open to submissions, and is there anything in particular you are looking for right now?
I’m always looking for great illustrators who can also write. Being able to draw well and write well is a really rare combination of talents.
I’m also into non-fiction at present. I love pop culture and some examples of my books include Fizz: How Soda Shook Up The World by Tristan Donovan, and Professor Kenneth Womack’s two-book biography of Beatles producer Sir George Martin, which has sold extremely well. We also recently inked a deal with Omnibus Press in the UK for John Lennon, 1980, which recounts John Lennon’s last year. I can’t wait to read Ken’s description of 1980s New York!
I really do love music memoirs. I adored Viv Albertine's (from The Slits) memoir Clothes Music Boys. I live in New York City, so I’d welcome a submission on the 1970/80s New York music scene.
I also enjoy working on cookery books. One of my bestselling clients, Zuza Zak, wrote a wonderful cookbook: Polska: New Polish Cooking, which became an instant classic. I’m also looking to work with award-winning restaurants and I am currently working with a Manhattan Michelin-starred restaurant on their book proposal.
5) What advice can you give to writers who are submitting their work? Make sure your manuscript is as polished as possible and really nail your cover letter (see above). Make sure you target it to the right agent. Read up about them. See which authors they represent and the book deals they have been securing for their clients. Be polite, have patience, and understand that an agent is always working on spec – unless they get you a deal, they aren’t getting paid.
6) What do you love most about being an agent, and what do you find the most challenging?
Finding an amazing new client is always exciting. It’s fun to feel rapport build as we work towards getting that all-important book deal. Which leads me to the deal! I love negotiating deals for my clients. Marrying them up with the right publisher is just brilliant fun. I really enjoy the whole submissions process and wondering where a book will land. My current record of placing a book quickly was in 12 hours. One of the biggest publishing houses in the world swooped in and made the author an offer they couldn’t refuse. Normally though it isn’t that fast and you have to coax and chase publishers to get a response on a book proposal. It’s all part of the rich tapestry of being a literary agent.
One of the most challenging parts of being an agent is the overwhelming amount of administration. As the only agent at Creative Authors, I literally do everything – editing, accounts, contract drafting and negotiation, selling foreign rights, promotion, to list some of the many hats I wear. I do think some folks imagine that agents just sit around all day reading and drinking cups of tea. Not the case at all. Some of the work can be obscure. For example, I represent writers and illustrators all over the world, so I need to know how to deal with double taxation issues to make sure that my clients are getting the most out of their deals. As I said, I get to wear many hats in this role.
7) If you disliked a submitted manuscript but thought it could be a bestseller, would you take it on? (A question from one of our Twitter followers.)
No. In all honesty, I would only take on a manuscript which I love. We are a boutique agency and I am lucky I don’t work in a large corporation, where I would have to meet targets or my head would roll. I have the luxury of working on the books I want to and representing the writers and illustrators of my choosing. Being your own boss certainly has its perks.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
I’m really excited about my new client Coll Muir. Coll is a supremely talented children’s picture book writer. His debut picture book is titled Can Cat and Bird Be Friends. It’s about a “prey-and-predator pair and how they may just find that it’s our differences that bring us closer together.” It is publishing in June 2019 with HarperCollins, US.
I am also excited about my client Guojing’s next book. Guojing is the creator of The Only Child, which won the New York Times best-illustrated children's book award. Her follow up picture book Stormy: A Story of Finding a Forever Home is a heart-warming story that's perfect for dog lovers.
The publisher writes: “a woman visits a park and discovers a pup hiding under a bench – scruffy, scared, and alone. With gentle coaxing, the woman tries to befriend the animal. Guojing poignantly explores how trust doesn't always come easily, but how, over time, and with kindness and determination, forever love can grow.” Stormy is out this September and published by Schwartz and Wade (Penguin Random House, US).
Another one my bestselling authors is Ged Adamson, who sees a wonderful new title out this year too: A Fox Found a Box. The publisher writes: “When his radio breaks, a little fox finds that the forest is filled with its own rhythm and music–drip drops and chirp chirps – in this picture book that gently introduces the concept of mindfulness.” That’s out this October, and published by Schwartz and Wade.
Outside of my picture book list, I have a very diverse and eclectic stable of writers. In the past, I have worked on a craft book on how to knit your own alien, true crime, and cookery books. I’ve just sold a film/book tie in on punk feminist icon Lydia Lunch, and I’ve placed a dictionary on gastronomic words. I’m busy working on the terms for a travel memoir. I can’t say more at this point, as it’s still being negotiated, but I am very excited about that one. I’m also proud to be the new US subagent for the Rupert Crew Literary Agency in the UK. I’ve recently placed a wonderful book Sloth Scientist by their award-winning wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas. Being a literary agent is never dull!
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