Zeitgeist founders: agency gives more transparency and focus to work on the book
Zeitgeist is an international literary agency founded in 2006 by Benython Oldfield and Sharon Galant. With offices in Brussels and Sydney, the agency works with more than fifty authors, whose texts are translated into dozens of languages, becoming series, film adaptations and theatrical productions. Sharon and Benaython have only two employees on the staff and are convinced that a global network is the most important thing for a modern literary agency. How they create such a network and how they recommend Ukrainian authors to search for international agents – read in our conversation.
Sharon, for years you’ve been working in book distribution, and Benython has been working for publishing companies. How did you decide to found a literary agency?
Sharon: Our story is a bit unusual. We met in China in 2007. Benython was on a business trip to establish closer market links between Australia and China, he had been working for many years for Random House in Australia. I lived with my family in China and worked in an English-language bookshop chain. We met at a party, started talking, realized that we have a similar passion for literature and a similar view that international publishers publish the wrong Chinese authors. And we decided to try moonlighting – this is the work you do after your main job. We started with the idea of introducing several Chinese authors to show publishers: there are other stories from China, more local ones. A few months later, Benython returned to Australia, my family and I spent time in China, and we returned to Brussels. By that time, we had already sold a few books and realized: wow, it works! We can do agency work! We are still working with authors from Asia as well as Australians.
At first, I thought that having headquarters in Brussels was not very interesting, but today I think otherwise. I am near London and Paris, I can easily get to various fairs. Belgium is not the publishing capital of the world, but it is a good base. We decided to focus on those areas where we sell really well: Australia, Great Britain, France and some smaller countries, such as the Nordic region and the Baltic States. We realized that we could not cover the whole world: we need to know the publishers and the local market well. Furthermore, we also have about 15 subagents around the world representing our names.
Why did you decide to make a creative agency, rather than just a literary one, and cover additional sectors of the creative industries?
Benython: Writing books is typically not a very lucrative business if the author does not belong to some very famous writers. So, we decided to cover other sectors of the creative industries where we can sell rights. This is about prolonging the lifespan of what is written, which is quite a complex and important process for the author. Most authors must have some work other than writing.
Professional writers in Australia earn on average 16,000 Australian dollars, it’s about 10,000 American dollars. Only 5% of writers earn really well.
What is the structure of Zeitgeist? After all, there are only three of you – how do you manage to work with so many authors?
Sharon: The answer is short: we never sleep! We really work hard.
Benython: I also have a part-time assistant. I think our approach is based on focusing. We need to make very balanced decisions about what to invest our time in. We need to remember that we are doing business, not charity.
I see two important factors of how we choose a project: it has to be commercially promising and / or culturally important. You have to spend many years to be able to distinguish such projects.
Sharon: It’s very easy to get distracted by small projects and lose focus. We need to be focused and selective.
Benython: Every morning I start my day with at least ten submissions from writers. I look at them very quickly and decide whether to ask for a manuscript. My decision must be very quick.
Tell us about your payment model. How much does Zeitgeist receive from the contract?
Sharon: We make money when a publisher signs a contract for a book. Before that, we sign a contract with the author, in which we clarify all the obligations. The percentage is from 10 to 20% of the contract. When we sell text directly to the publisher, it’s usually 15%, when we use a subagent it’s 20% because we share the profits with it, and in very rare cases it’s 10%.
How do you focus on projects that are important to Zeitgeist?
Sharon: We have editorial meetings when someone who believes in a project has to convince others that the project is worthwhile. We believe that book publishing is a kind of love chain, where each link must convince the next one. The author convinces the agent, the agent convinces the publisher and editor, the publisher convinces his marketing and sales departments of marketing, sales, and then – bookshops, bloggers and influencers. If you have no passion for the project, it simply gets lost in this chain. At our level, we feel the need to explain why we love the project we took. We are encouraged by the fact that we do not receive payment until we sign a contract with the publisher. We invest many hours of work in each project before we start earning.
Benython: About two years pass from the moment you receive the first e-mail from the author to the moment you see his book on the shelf.
Sharon: At the beginning of the agency, we received a lot of submissions by e-mail. But now most new authors come to us through the recommendations of colleagues. We understood that submissions by e-mail are of lower quality, though we are still reviewing them.
What does a good submission to your agency look like? Who are you paying attention to?
Sharon: It’s easier to say what we don’t want to see, there are a lot of red flags.
Benython: The submission should be very simple and unpretentious. I want to see clarity in the submission. We are also interested in something that has not appeared in the literature before in the context of storytelling. I was recently approached by the author of a memoir on the topic of music. There are a lot of such memoirs written by men in the music industry, so the fact that the lyrics were written by a woman has already touched me.
Sharon: The submission has to be fresh. Quite often we get letters from the people, who have already been published, they show us a huge previous history of their previous projects, and it can be impressive. But if the proposed project is not relevant and fresh, we can not take it. I’m not saying that the author should be young and the manuscript should be a debut.
As agents we do not want to feel like the last lifebuoy, the last agency, whom the author contacts. With practice we start to feel it in submission rather quickly.
Benython: The author must have realistic expectations of his project, that is, to understand how the book works in the market.
Sharon: Yes, the author does not have to realize this himself, but if he does not agree with our explanations of the processes it is a red flag for me.
Benython: Our market in Australia is quite small, that’s only 25 million people. I always think of literature that can travel to other markets, and I try to choose exactly this type. The most important thing is history, we look for texts from people with different experiences and life situations.
You are talking about a certain relevance of literature, that is Zeitgeist that is in your name.
Sharon: Our name is a German word from Hegel’s philosophy. It literally means “spirit of the times.” We see it as something modern, day-to-day, relevant.
It is clear that focus makes it possible to make money with a literary agency. And how is this feature reflected in your authors and their texts?
Benython: When a publisher gets the rights to translate a text, it is not necessarily useful to the author. It is never entirely clear how the text is actually promoted, with whom it is negotiated.
The power of our agency is that it gives much more transparency and focus in the work with a book.
The publisher can have hundreds of titles in the portfolio, but our agency is actively working with about ten books at a time.
Sharon: We work with Haska Shyyan, so I understand the Ukrainian context. Most Ukrainian authors give the rights to the publisher, and the publisher instead goes to fairs and sells the rights. He may do it or not. But if a Ukrainian author gives a Ukrainian publisher only the rights to publish and has an international agent, then the agent works. We have to do this because we don’t get paid if there are no sales.
But not many Ukrainian authors have literary agents abroad because the question is how to find them and persuade them to cooperate.
Sharon: This is a problem with the author’s profile. For example, in France the situation is similar. It all starts with teaching the authors that they are allowed to keep their rights. The second is the levers of influence. How much influence do you have to discuss the contract? If this is the second or third book, and the previous ones sold well, then there is every reason to keep more rights to yourself. I would advise Ukrainian authors to look for an agent before they turn to a Ukrainian publisher.
Yes, but this option seems incredibly difficult for Ukraine, since there are language barriers, in addition to the ability to present themselves.
Sharon: Yes, that’s true, there is a special problem with Ukraine: not many people read Ukrainian, so it is difficult to find an agent who speaks this language. It is easier to find a Polish-speaking or Russian-speaking agent… But let me give you an example of Haska. Speaking about her novel Behind the Back, I first represented Fabula publishing house because they had translation rights. We saw Haska’s great potential and decided to present her next novel, which she just started writing, as well. But now we keep an eye on it. Why did we believe? Because we read a large fragment of the previous novel, translated into French, we know her style. We worked with Chinese authors the same way.
Benython: It is very useful to have a good English synopsis, a translation of one chapter and abbreviated descriptions of all the following. This gives an overview of the book.
Sharon: Yes, in the beginning, no one needs the whole translation, fragments are important. In many countries, institutions similar to the Ukrainian Institute of Books issue grants for the translation of fragments. This would be very useful for Ukrainian literature as well.
Can you give any advice for debutants on how to successfully present themselves to the agent you dream of working with?
Sharon: Let’s say we’re working with historical prose writer Annabel Ebbs. Her books have already been sold in 16 countries, one of the books will is going to be adapted as a TV series. The author contacted us 7 years ago and sent a synopsis and manuscript. We liked it and we started working. But what is most important – her email and package of documents were clear. She didn’t bombard us with dozens of letters and understood that agents needed time. Then I promised that we would answer in about 4 weeks, and that’s how we started working together. Send a single package of documents – and be patient.
Benython: Book publishing is a very slow industry. None of us makes a living until the manuscript goes on sale. Therefore, it is essential to maintain a good tone and politeness, not to be aggressive. You need to understand that the agent and the author make a relationship, a team. And respect is vital for this. The agent does not work for the author, the author and the agent work together.
Sharon: We also value openness and honesty. It is normal if the author tries to build a relationship with different agencies, but if we ask about it – tell us.
It is also important to be not so much modest as realistic – do not try to sell yourself too much.
Benython: You also shouldn’t use illustrations, funny fonts, weird design and unedited text with mistakes. Your submission to the agent should be about literature.
Tell us about stakeholder networks: subagents, bookkeepers, influencers and all the more common players in the publishing market with whom you interact. Why is it important to work with them all?
Benython: I think that’s the only way to feel confident as an agent. When the book is finally published, there is still so much work to be done to make it a success.
Sharon: And more importantly, publishers are looking at other countries. If you managed to sell the book in two countries, then in the third they may think: “Oh, I wonder, it needs to be translated.”
One international sale leads to another one.
It’s such a positive rolling snowball. There is a turning point in working with each book. For example, we are working with Holly Ringland’s book “Lost Flowers of Alice Hart”, which will be a series on Amazon and has been sold in 31 countries. She made her debut in Australia, Benython offered this book to HarperCollins, but then things went awry.
Do all your books have an international history? Which books are best translated?
Sharon: To be honest, some are only sold in one country, but they are successful there. However, more than 50% of our books have this international history. On average, this is 8-9 translations of each title.
Benython: The world is more open to translations of fiction than nonfiction. Each country has its own specialists in a certain field of nonfiction, you have your own paternity specialist in Ukraine, and we have our own in Australia. And even if we take books on capitalism or war, there are also national experts immersed in contexts. Mostly nonfiction does not translate as well as literary texts, except for really well-known names.
What are trends in agency work today?
Benython: We feel important in the context of protecting authors. This is our daily work. I consider publishing to be a fairly honest business, but the author must understand that without an agent, his agreement with the publisher will not be as mutually beneficial as it could be. Publishers may not like agents because their involvement raises the price of the contract, but keep in mind that this is a multibillion-dollar industry, especially in the English-speaking world. When I talk about mutual benefit, I mean not only the money but also the marketing and publicity that the book will receive after publication.
Sharon: We select authors as a filter, we edit the work. When we send a manuscript to a potential publisher, we also prepare a presentation of the author and the text, which will give an impression of the potential of the work, these materials can be used by the marketing department.
Benython: In fact, many publishers value agents because we can explain a lot to authors. Large publishers may simply not have time for this.
Sharon: For example, publishers often have to approve the cover, but the authors don’t like the cover! As agents, we explain that publishers know their market, make a cover to increase book sales, and so on. We know our authors and have time to communicate with them.
Author: Bohdana Neborak
Translated by Anna Tokaryk