A literary agent at Curtis Brown, Karolina Sutton (above) represents a wide range of novelists – from Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami to Emma Healey, Harriet Lane and former Curtis Brown Creative student Tim Glencross. She is a regular visitor to CBC and will be visiting students on our creative writing courses on 9 January with her client the debut author Imogen Hermes Gowar. Here, she tells us how she became an agent, what drives her choice of clients and why she likes writers who aren’t afraid to disagree with her.
I became an agent through a kind of apprenticeship system
When I was 22 and straight out of university, I was in an advertising job I really didn’t like because I wasn’t very good at it. I was desperate to get out and take any position – however junior. Someone told me the American agency ICM were setting up a London office and were looking for an assistant. So I sent in my application and my CV, but I didn’t hear anything until I think I got a phone call quite late at night, saying ‘Oh, unfortunately, your application slipped under my bed and I only just found it but we’d love to interview you – are you around tomorrow morning?’ So I turned up for the interview and got the job. I’ve never looked back. Most agents start as assistants.
I didn’t know what a literary agent did
I ended up working for two agents: a film agent who specialised in selling film rights to books and a literary agent. Even though I studied English Literature and I’d always read books, I’d had no thoughts of becoming a literary agent. It wasn’t a job I knew existed. When I was a teenager I fantasised about being a writer but I grew out of that when it became apparent I couldn’t write. Many readers confuse appreciation of books with ability to write. The two can go hand in hand, but in most cases they don’t. Just like me, you can be a sophisticated reader and a terrible writer. When I learned what being a literary agent involved, I knew I’d discovered my vocation.
There’s a distinction between what agents love to read and what they’re good at representing
When you’re starting out, it can take you a few years to realise that the books you love to read aren’t necessarily the books you should be representing. There can be an overlap between what you grew up reading and what you’re good at selling, but you can also surprise yourself, discovering new genres and ways of writing. You slowly find out what you’re really good at – what you’re good at reading, what you’re good at evaluating, then what you’re good at selling.
I like taking unusual ideas and bringing them to the mainstream
I know what I want now – and that’s well-written books of intelligence, ambition and consequence. Books with potential to have a cultural impact. Good writing is the driver for me and the first thing I look for when I’m considering taking on a client. But I’m also looking for manuscripts that are slightly offbeat – original fiction and non-fiction that stands out and takes pride in its point of difference. Having said that, I like books that, with a bit of publishing imagination, can reach a wide readership. Helping writers find an audience is an aspect of my job I both enjoy and take seriously. There’s nothing more gratifying than helping amplify a truly unique voice or idea, so it not only reaches the mainstream but also shapes and changes it through the sheer force of its originality.
I’m interested in writers who are serious about writing and about their career
I love working with writers who are independently minded and ambitious for their prose, their storytelling and ideas. If a writer is looking for something short-term and perhaps trend-based, then I’m unlikely to be the best agent for them.
Humour rarely works in a submission letter
I love brevity. I like to see a short, sincere submission letter, which sets out a writer’s ambition and describes the book. I’m not looking for gimmicks. In a way, the more straightforward the letter is, the better. I like it when writers have thought about what to say and have found a short and articulate description for what they’re doing. I like sincerity or clever understatement, but I don’t like self-deprecation. In a submission letter, humour will often fall flat. Writing is a serious business. Be proud of your work. Even if your work is very funny, your letter doesn’t have to be.
I’m not a gate-keeper
When I take on a writer or when we meet for the first time, I pitch to them. I outline what I would like to do for them as an agent and how I would position them. And if my vision for their work isn’t consistent with their self-image or ambition, then clearly I won’t be the right person. The relationship is meant to be a partnership with shared goals. Rushed decision-making isn’t what’s needed. You should always sit down and have a considered conversation.
I like authors who know when to follow editorial advice and when to tune it out
I love writers with a strong creative vision and for whom the process of writing is trying to bring that vision to life. I always look for good writing, voice and originality, but good judgement is also part of the process. For me, it’s about helping writers realise their idea then reach their potential. I love it when authors aren’t afraid to disagree with me when it comes to notes and edits. That kind of admirable self-confidence doesn’t come from arrogance but from creative instinct, ambition and deep understanding of one’s art.
For more writing advice enrol now on one of our 6-week online courses designed for people at different stages of the novel-writing journey: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel.
Or, take a look at all of the creative-writing courses which we currently have an offer.