United Agents is one of the largest literary agencies in the English-speaking world, which, despite its recent history, has grown its portfolio by adding and thus joining its brand the oldest literary agency in the world, A P Watt, in 2013. United Agents also represents artists from the film and television industries (representing its clients as artists before productions), and some of its most prominent writer-clients include, for example, Julian Barnes. We talked to Alex Stevens, the agent of the translation rights department, who works with all genres in Greece, Finland, Romania, India, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Israel, Turkey, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and science fiction and fantasy genres in Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. We talk about United Agents and what the job of a literary agent is like in contemporary Britain.
— How did you become a literary agent? Obviously, it’s not the kind of profession you hear from your parents since childhood as exemplary, like law or medicine.
— I studied languages, French and Spanish. After finishing my studies in London, I moved to Chile in South America — I did a little work there, but above all, I was figuring out for myself what I wanted to do. I’ve always been a big reader, so I started to talk to people in the book industry and learn how it works. There weren’t many opportunities in the book industry in Chile, because it’s a Spanish-speaking country, and the main players in the Spanish-speaking market are concentrated in Spain, some in Mexico, and Argentina. There were a few small publishers in Chile, so I decided to move back to the UK. London is a big centre for publishing in the English language, but the field of literary agencies is notoriously difficult to break into.
— What did you do to still find yourself inside the closed world of agents?
— It was a time when I was looking for opportunities — sometimes it was unpaid internships and even jobs, a constant search for professional acquaintances. It was a period when I tried to learn as much as I could. It was also when I learned about the field of translation rights work. Furthermore, it’s an interesting and intriguing occupation that’s halfway business between reading and selling. You have to be able to appreciate a book and at the same time imagine and scrutinize what someone else, perhaps even a foreign reader, would see in the text. That’s when I got into United Agents, and I’ve been working here for more than five years now.
— You talk about selling literature that is actually exporting the ideas you present to the agency. Sometimes those ideas may not be your favourite — I guess that’s when the routine begins. What is the work routine of a literary agent?
— As a literary agent, you do need to have a personal connection to the book. Of course, you can see business opportunities and potential readership, but I believe an agent must have a personal relationship and connection with the author and their writing. You have to be passionate when it comes to selling a book to a publisher. In my case with translation rights, the situation is slightly different.
— How is this separation between original rights and translation rights implemented at United Agents?
— We have a group of twelve agents who work directly with authors and deal with their English-language rights to publish in English-speaking countries and any adaptations. My department sells the translation rights of these authors worldwide. As translation agents, we don’t have to choose the authors; rather, we choose the books of the authors we work with.
We don’t have to love every single book we sell, but we do have to understand why someone else abroad might love it.
That is, my department is not the first contact for the author in the agency, but we also work for them.
Agents working in an author-publisher relationship must have a keen interest in a particular author’s writing; otherwise, they simply can’t present it properly.
—Tell us a little about United Agents (UA). You present yourselves as a literary and talent agency and also work with representatives of the creative industries.
— We have very strong film and TV departments and work with directors and actors. The agency was founded in 2009 when lots of agents from another big literary agency, PFD, decided to leave and form their own agency. They merged several spheres of the creative industries. And already in 2013 UA acquired A P Watt, the oldest literary agency in the world. There was a merger and A P Watt authors and agents joined UA. Since then, we have only been growing.
— What does the work of a translation agent look like? Do you initiate the sale yourself, or do people predominantly come to you for the rights?
— Contacting the publishers and presenting books that might potentially interest them is more common to us. Although of course we are often approached by the editors of foreign publishers, most of the contracts are our initiative. We have a regional division and follow publishers there, so we know what to offer them. In some countries, including Ukraine, we work through our subagent Van Lear Agency (Russia) (Representative office unites the regions of Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia — author). If I’m interested in selling a book in Ukraine, I present it to a subagent, who is looking for a Ukrainian publisher who might be interested in it. Another very important thing for us is meeting with the publishers at book fairs, or at least through phone- or video calls. Meeting personally is the only way when you can really understand the publisher’s taste. In a conversation, you understand what kind of book the editor is looking for, and you understand what you can offer.
— Why is private interpersonal contact so significant in the book industry?
— Personal relationships are incredibly influential. These days, when everything is done by email, it’s quite easy to go unnoticed and virtually anonymous. However, if you have a personal connection with a specific editor, and you know their taste, you can get in touch with them and say, «Look, I think this book could be really an appropriate addition to your publishing portfolio» — it becomes much easier and easier to do business. Editors actually expect personalized recommendations, not a list of twenty books that may or may not be suitable. So it’s a mix of literature and business; we have to read a lot of books to understand what people might like. Also, we have to understand that editors don’t publish books for themselves, there is a reader in this system who has to like the book. The editor is constantly thinking about marketing, potential readership, and the publicity of the author…
— You mentioned that an agent has to read a lot. Do you set for yourself a conditional daily limit on the pages you must read?
— It depends. I do almost all my reading during my free time. My son was born eighteen months ago, so before this, I had a lot more time to read. I have to read as many of our authors’ books as I can because it affects my ability to market them properly. At the same time, I try to still be able to read for pleasure and choose books of my own volition. The balance may be tricky sometimes. To answer your question, I try to read at least one book a week. Meanwhile, I read project descriptions, synopses, samples of text (10-30 pages).
— What are the secrets of the literary agent’s profession, other than constant careful reading?
— You have to read as much as you can and as wide as you can. The more you read, the more you develop your own literary taste. Reading gives you an understanding of trends — reading demand is subject to trends, and popular topics may not work in a few years. You also need to understand which books are «selling» and read them to understand what «sells» in each particular genre and makes a particular book popular.
The best agents have their own style and unique perspective on literature. There are a lot of books in the UK, meaning it is very difficult for an author and an agent to get noticed. If you as an agent have a recognizable style, editors know what they can get from you. It’s a matter of focus, as an agent you have to work a lot with yourself. You can’t start with any literature — your list of authors has to make a clear and understandable sense to you, first and foremost. And to reiterate the importance of personal relationship: agents have been talking to the same editors for years, so relationships are what should be developing. If an agent says to an editor, «Trust me, this book is very good for your publisher», an editor who has a productive experience with you will trust you.
— Does an experienced agent immediately understand the potential of a book?
— Yes, definitely, you think immediately about the possible path of the author and the book, film adaptations, and translations. But above all, the quality of the writing weighs. Author agents consult with translation agents because it is also important to understand the specifics of the regions, what works really well in Asia may not suit Europe at all. What’s really difficult is to know the difference between good writing and really great writing. When I read a lot of manuscripts, I would sometimes go back to familiar favourite texts, to books I knew for sure were of great quality. I reminded myself what I really liked about literature, and it helped to refocus on finding a talented text.
— What position do literary agents hold in the British book market today? I remember a long-standing article in the Guardian about how, through agents, some publishers feel they are losing potential star authors. Do you have that discussion, and do you feel a gap between authors, publishers, and editors?
— There is no one way to writing success. Some authors do go into self-publishing — say, Amazon — and become popular there. We talk all the time about whether authors can’t negotiate with publishers on their own — it’s a perfectly valid discussion. But here it all comes down to the physical volume of manuscripts. Editors in the UK are drowning in manuscripts. Most major UK publishers refuse to accept manuscripts directly from authors, not because the texts are bad, but because there isn’t enough time. An editor will read your draft once, so an effort should be made. But the agent works as a filter; he or she reads, selects, discusses, edits, and prepares a commercial proposal for the publisher. You can be a good author with a great idea, but you do not know how to present it. An experienced agent will do that for you.
I see two main functions of literary agents: filtering and working with the text and presenting it, which give the author the highest chance of being published.
— What is the percentage that literary agents receive? When do they get paid for their work?
— One part of an agent’s job is to negotiate the most favourable contract for the author with the publisher. The industry standard is 15%, which a literary agency gets on every sale of rights to a work. For sales of translation rights, the percentage is usually a little higher at 20%.
15% is the price the literary agency receives from each sale of rights to the work.
— Does UA work with debutantes?
— We’re a quite big literary agency that combines agents with very different tastes. It is the greatest thing for me. So we have all genres represented, and we have very different authors. We have big-name agents who work with very well-known writers, but we also have younger agents who look for future stars. It’s a special feeling in our work, to start working with an author, you know right away that he or she is super talented and will have an amazing career. It’s exciting to be right at the beginning. We recently worked with Caleb Azum Nelson’s «Open Water»; it was published a couple of months ago and was very well received by critics and readers, and besides, has already received some accolades. Younger agents are always keeping a close eye on young writers, literary festivals, and magazines.
— Do agencies take into account trends and reader discussions? I mean, for example, cancel culture, which is criticized primarily in its own context by Joan Rowling, or a recent interview with Kazuo Ishiguro in which he expresses fear about the intellectual courage of young authors to write about what they really want to say.
— I think some older authors in this debate may be projecting their own fears onto younger ones. Young authors who grow up in this environment understand that people sensitivity is on the rise. A different kind of writing is emerging, but I don’t think it’s writing out of fear. It’s frustrating that as a writer, you only want to think about writing and its quality. But the world works differently, and much of the work today is publicity. If a book is not publicized, no matter how good it is, it’s not likely to get to its reader. Some books are easier to publicize than others. This also frustrates our agents, because sometimes we find ourselves in these situations: a book relevant to today’s market is written by a middle-aged man with two mediocre books already published. If the same book were written by an author with a more interesting personal profile, it would be easier to sell.
— Lastly, what do you like most about being a literary agent at UA?
— I love the variety of books in our agency. I love discovering styles and genres that come as surprises to me. As a translation agent, I sometimes read books that I would be unlikely to pick up on a shelf in a bookstore — and enjoy the unexpected a lot.
With the support of British Council Ukraine
Author: Bohdana Neborak
Translation: Victoria Pushyna