07 March 2019

Emma Herdman: ‘Be aware of the market but not led by it’

Emma Herdman
by Curtis Brown 120 Curtis Brown 120

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’re talking to Emma Herdman, editorial director across Hodder Fiction and Sceptre – and former member of the Curtis Brown Book Department! Prior to her foray into agenting she was a fiction buyer at Waterstones.

What was the first book you commissioned?
Just before I left agenting I’d taken on Fran Cooper, a stunning writer whose debut novel These Dividing Walls was a contemporary, Paris-set ensemble piece that took place over one hot, stifling summer. Sentence by sentence the writing was so precise and striking, building to create a portrait of the city through the lives of characters living together in apartments in one building. So, no prizes for guessing what the first book I commissioned when I joined Hodder was!

What’s your favourite debut novel?
This is such a hard question, so I’ll go with an older one: Jill, by Philip Larkin. I can’t quite work out why, but I’ve read it again and again and even though I know what’s coming I always get that sense of dread – ‘don’t do it, John! They’ll find out!’ – that makes it utterly compelling, even though at its heart it’s quite a simple character study.

If you could tell your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t pretend to like something just because you think you should (and conversely, don’t pretend not to like something you do – I apologise to Harry, Hermione and Ron for ever pretending I thought they were ‘lame’.)

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Be aware of the market but not led by it. Write what you feel excited about  – you’re going to be spending a lot of time working on and talking about it. It’s also useful – once you’ve got the stage where you’ve finished and are editing or querying – to hone your one sentence pitch. So when someone asks what it’s about you can succinctly and enticingly tell them!

Which book do you always recommend to others?
Hmmm, it depends who (yes, this is just an excuse to say more than one): Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, The Business by Iain Banks and The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham.

What is your pet hate in submissions?
Covering letters that are dense, essay-length synopses rather than pitches. Make me excited to open the document rather than giving me a blow-by-blow description of the plot.

Who is your favourite fictional hero/heroine?
Another hard one. I think I’d say Lyra Belacqua/Silvertongue for pure re-readablilty (new word).

What was the last book you read?
The Lost Man by Jane Harper, which I read in one day – I am in awe of her. She just gets it so right every time (in my opinion). Given that we’re all reading so many manuscripts for work (last year I got about 275 submissions – roughly 5 a week), I love it when you find an author whose books you can guarantee you’ll love, and read quickly.

What book is totally overrated in your view?
I’m really trying to think of anything specific but instead I might just say: a long book doesn’t make it a worthy book.

What’s your guilty reading pleasure?
The books people are always surprised that I love are the Ken Follet doorstoppers (yes, I do realise that this is at odds with my answer to the question above, but Ken uses every page! They zip along! I will defend these to the end.) I really think if I’d read these instead of going to history lessons I would have learnt more about European history at a young age.

What is your prediction for the next publishing trend?
I don’t think it’s anything new, but I’ve been seeing a lot of novels that are character-led – like Eleanor Oliphant, Convenience Store Woman or a debut I just published, When All is Said. They’re so hard to do well but when they work they fly.

What are you looking for in a debut?
A compelling read that I’ve learnt something from by the end (yes, this is intentionally vague!).

Find out more about Curtis Brown 120 here.

If you’re writing a novel, check out the creative-writing courses – online or in London – currently open for applications or enrolment at Curtis Brown Creative.

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