10 June 2019

Cathryn Summerhayes: ‘If you want to be a career writer you need to think like one’

Cathryn Summerhayes, Curtis Brown Agent
by Curtis Brown 120 Curtis Brown 120, From the Agents

Welcome to the next in our series of Curtis Brown 120 blog posts, these blogs include exclusive interviews with authors, agents and publishers; writing tips; industry insights – and much more besides.

This week we spoke to Curtis Brown’s very own Cathryn Summerhayes. Cathryn was recently crowned Literary Agent of the Year at the British Book Awards, a well deserved title for an agent who represents a variety of fantastic clients including Dr Adam Kay, Naomi Wood, Kirsty Logan, Lucy Foley and Sir Ranulph Fiennes. We asked her about agenting, her tips for debut writers and more …

You started your career as an intern at Curtis Brown before moving to WME. You returned to Curtis Brown as an agent in 2016 with an eclectic list of bestselling and award-winning novelists. Can you tell us a bit about why you wanted to become an agent?
I originally wanted to work as a stage manager and moved to London to work at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith but it wasn’t for me and I ended up temping at Colman Getty who did PR and events for the literary world – I ended up running the Booker Prize, SJ Prize etc and whilst I loved the party side of it I really felt I wanted to be with books and authors at the start of the journey right through to the end, rather than just doing the glamorous bits.  I met a LOT of people in the business and basically said ‘where do you think I would be best suited in publishing’ and other than publicity a lot of people asked if I had thought about agenting.  I hadn’t so I thought I would try the internship at CB and see what it was like – and I fell in love with the job and haven’t looked back.

What is the best thing about being a literary agent?
Working with authors on every aspect of their writing life is just so interesting and eclectic.  The best thing of all, changing an author’s life by getting them amazing deals for something they have worked on for a LONG time and watching that deal turn into a successful publication.  It happens far less than most people think!

Congratulations on recently winning Literary Agent of the Year at the British Book Awards 2019! What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
Well going up on stage in front of hundreds of my friends and colleagues and some of the world’s greatest authors – and getting a hug from Lauren Laverne then being able to thank everyone who helped me get a Nibbie has to go down as pretty unbeatable. It was incredibly overwhelming to be rewarded for doing something that you love.  The ongoing success of Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt is a constant source of joy and amazement for me – it has now spent 60 weeks in the top 10 with 40 of those at number one – and those books only happen once or twice in a career – I am trying to enjoy every minute of it.  And Adam has just delivered the new book, Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas and it just as wonderful and emotional as the first book, so he has a long career ahead of him.

What do you think are some of the common misconceptions people have about literary agents?
That we are in it for the money! Anyone who actually spends time in a literary agency will know that a)we work BLOODY Hard b)we do it because we love books and writing and writers.  Also, that we do the deal and walk away – the contemporary literary agent has to invest in every aspect of a writer’s life and a book’s publication – more often than not we are steering the ship because there are so many changes of personnel at publishing houses.  We have to provide a constant creative relationship and that is challenging and time consuming but absolutely key.  For me, the funniest misconception is that we have these luxury lifestyles and long lunches every day.  At Hay this year an editor said to me, ‘why the hell are you staying in a campervan? You’re agent of the year!’ – and the fact is, it’s what I want to do, just like I want to use my lunchtimes for exercise not fine dining.  The uniqueness of each agent is what makes it such an exciting career and what gives authors such great choices.

Which books are you most excited about this year? 
I am super excited about the paperback of Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party which has already been a big success in hardback – there’s a lot more news to come on that one and I have high hopes for it, which matters, because Lucy has worked incredibly hard to get here – 4 books into her career and her first big hit.  The new book has delivered too and it is FABULOUS.  Naomi Wood’s follow up to Mrs Hemmingway, The Hiding Game is a wonderfully haunting, clever, twisty novel set in Germany and at the Bauhaus – Naomi is a wonderful writer. Three Women by Lisa Taddeo is the most mesmerisingly brilliant work of investigative journalism that has already garnered passionate quotes from Gillian Anderson, Dolly Alderton and Dave Eggers and will have everyone talking by the end of the Summer and Konnie Huq’s hilarious and smart middle grade series Cookie launches in August and already has a cover quote from David Walliams and is going to mark the start of a huge writing career for Konnie.  Oh there are SO MANY… I hate leaving anyone out.

What are you looking for from a debut author? What is on your Wishlist?
To crystallise what I’m looking for is SO SO hard because I probably have some of the most eclectic tastes of any agent at CB – I do everything!  But the writing HAS to deliver, concept is no longer enough – every page has to sing with smart language, clever ideas and uniqueness of voice.  I am currently selling an Israeli feminist thriller, a memoir about raising a disabled child, a ghost story and a reading group novel about a failed terrorist attack in London and the aftermath… so there’s nothing I won’t consider… but I know pretty early on in the reading if I’m going to jump on it.

Do you have any advice for writers about to pitch their novels to agents for the first time?
Hone your pitch.  If you can’t describe what your book is, someone reading it won’t know what it is.  I use an experiment with writers where I get them to pitch their favourite book and then their own book and you’d be amazed how well they do with someone else’s writing and how badly they pitch their own!  Also, you have to send what you believe is absolutely the best version of your manuscript or proposal so never send it to an agent before you have edited it many times and had lots of external readers.  Treat it like a job application.  If you want to be a career writer you need to think like one.

Find out about the Curtis Brown First Novel Prize.

Read more Curtis Brown 120 here.

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