Book Broker – an interview with Joanna Swainson

Book Broker—an interview with literary agent Joanna Swainson

Agent: Joanna Swainson


Preferred genres: Literary fiction, historical, speculative, crime & thriller. 

 1) What stands out in a good submission?

The first thing we see in a submission is the query letter and as we’re always reading, what stands out are clarity and brevity. If you can succinctly convey a bit about the work being submitted, a bit about you (especially important for non-fiction) and preferably show some knowledge of the market and where the work sits within it, then that’s more or less what I need to know. If the approach is professional and well-written, then I’ll go on to read the chapters in a positive frame of mind.

2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?

Usually if it’s riddled with typos, grammatical errors or an unintended mix of view points and tenses, that tells me that the author hasn’t taken the time to get to grips with their craft. Or in some cases, the writing is fine, but the idea is not original enough, or it feels derivative in some way, or generic. Perhaps the author hasn’t really found their voice yet. Probably all stories have been told to some extent so the aim is to present us with something in an engaging, fresh and new way.

3) What advice can you give to writers who are submitting their work?

I would suggest reading widely in order to get to grips with the business you’re hoping to enter. It is a business after all. So who’s publishing what? Where does your book sit on the bookshelf? Who are your comparison authors? Not necessarily those you write like, but those whose readers will also want to read yours. And make sure to target the relevant agents, or you’re wasting your and their time. Look them up. See who else they represent and what their interests are.

4) How do you weigh the importance of each submission component (query letter, synopsis, writing sample) when determining whether you will ask to read a full manuscript?

For me the writing is the most important aspect of any submission. Even if the query letter is lacking, I’ll always read and make a decision based on the writing itself. I often won’t even look at the synopsis unless I’m interested in the writing in the first place and then want to see where the story’s going. Synopses are hard to write and horrible to read, in that they tend to be quite dry, but it’s still worth spending time to make them as engaging as possible.

5) Approximately how many query letters do you receive per year? Of those, how many will you respond to with a request for a full manuscript? And of those, how many are likely to receive an offer of representation?

Per year, I’m going to say well north of 1,500. Just so many! They even come in on Christmas Day. We ask for the full manuscript straight off the bat, but I’ll probably read beyond the first few chapters in about 15 to 20 cases and perhaps offer representation to a few new authors a year. It depends what comes in and what else is happening. It’s such a tough and competitive market so we can only take on something if it really captures us in some way. We have to have in mind which editors we could send it to as we’re reading and think, ‘I can sell this.’

6) What is the average length of time it takes to place a manuscript with a publisher, and what is your strategy for a client whose manuscript isn't selling?

That’s one of those ‘how long is a piece of string’ questions. I’ve had interest expressed within two hours of submitting something and other things have taken months to sell. It really varies. If a manuscript isn’t selling, then depending on the feedback you’re getting from editors, it might be a case of working on the manuscript further for another round of submissions, or it might simply be going back to the drawing board and starting something new. Authors have to take some pretty hefty knocks but that’s probably a good lesson for when you get published, too—not everyone is going to review favourably. And thank goodness for diversity of opinion!

7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?

Sarah Moss’ GHOST WALL really stood out for me. It hooked me immediately with its undercurrent of unease as some sort of strange ritual or sacrifice involving a girl unfolds on the opening page. She is ‘A body in fear’. I can’t wait to read Moss' next one, SUMMERWATER, which is out later this month.

8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment? 

The Whispering House Hardcover – 6 Aug. 2020 by Elizabeth Brooks

In the interests of fairness, I’ll talk about the author who's most recently been published, and that’s Elizabeth Brooks. Her second novel, THE WHISPERING HOUSE came out from Doubleday in the UK last Thursday. It’s a beguiling, gothic tale of a young woman struggling to come to terms with her sister’s suicide five years previously. Visiting an old country house only a few miles from the tragedy, she finds a portrait of her sister and is drawn into the strange and sinister world of Byrne Hall and its owners, charismatic artist, Cory, and his watchful mother. All is not what it seems! I love Elizabeth’s writing. It’s chock full of brilliant observations, and so atmospheric. It’s out from Tin House in the US next March.

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