Welcome to the one hundred and seventy-eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers, agents and publishers, and more. Today’s is with agent (of novelist Michelle Paver and more) and Radio Litopia host Peter Cox. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Peter. Can you please briefly explain the structure of your agency and how many authors you represent.
Peter: Very small number of authors. I only represent authors I feel passionate about. The business model is quite different to other agencies – we have a small number of clients and work like mad for them. Most other agencies have bags of clients and wouldn’t miss one or two if they dropped off the edge of the earth.
Morgen: Knowing you as I do (all will be explained later), I get the impression you’d work like mad regardless. 🙂 Do you write yourself? If so does this help with deciding which authors to take on?
Peter: Used to. Have written or co-written about two dozen books. I retained and then got rid of three agents before I realized that the quality of service I was looking for in a literary agent didn’t really exist. Sadly, many authors are quite naive about this and usually think themselves lucky just to have an agent represent them!
Morgen: I think many are although some I’ve spoken to have seen sense and have either secured a good one or are going it alone and managing pretty well. The $64,000 question: out of all the submissions you receive, what makes an author / book stand out for all the right reasons?
Peter: It’s not an entirely logical process. A confident submission containing effective writing with recognizably commercial potential will do it… very rare, unfortunately.
Morgen: A needle in a slushstack. 🙂 And then, without naming names, what makes an author / book proposal stand out for all the wrong reasons?
Peter: There are an infinite number of way not to succeed! I could talk to you all day and night about this. Let’s just move on.
Morgen: I’d be happy to (I’m of the ‘talk for England’ ilk) but perhaps it’s wise to keep going… Do you represent particular genres or it all dependent upon the author and their writing? What would you suggest an author do with a cross-genre piece of writing?
Peter: I’ve become very familiar with the YA genre in recent years, but will actively consider any genre.
Morgen: Ooh great… and Pete’s address is… er, OK back to the interview… Is there a genre that you haven’t represented and would like to?
Morgen: I had three agents say the same thing to me at Winchester in July. In fact Judith Murdoch (who was supposed to be scary but was lovely… OK, a little scary) looked at me and said “you’re a crime writer, you need to write crime”. She must have seen my dark side. 🙂 Is there a genre that sells better than others or that you represent but can’t get enough of?
Peter: More innovative YA would be nice!
Morgen: OK innovative YA authors reading this… that’s your cue! 🙂 How can an author submit to you?
Peter: The usual ways, but mostly my advice is to join Litopia and go through the houses there first. That submission you think is ready to go probably isn’t and could be improved a lot by this process.
Morgen: I found that with submitting mine, having returned to them sometime later I saw they had more holes than Emmental (one of my favourite cheeses). Can you suggest some do’s and don’t’s when submitting to you.
Peter: Don’t come round in person! If you ignore that, then please don’t come round wearing a nuclear & biological warfare protection suit (Noddy suit) as someone did a few years ago. Opening the door to that is genuinely terrifying. But basically, if you come round in person, we will assume you’re a crazy person and call security, so don’t.
Morgen: (OK, noted) 🙂 Who was the first author you represented / the first book published?
Peter: Michelle Paver’s first book, Without Charity. Still in print, selling nicely!
Morgen: I have her ‘Spirit Walker’, ‘Soul Eater’, and ‘Fever Hill’ but like SO many of my other books they’re in the ‘to be read’ pile. 😦 Maybe after Christmas when I’m a lady of pleasure. 🙂 Do you advocate writing competitions, do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Peter: They do help with status a little bit, and certainly can help with a writer’s confidence, so yes. But make sure they’re genuine competitions, not traps for the gullible.
Morgen: Absolutely, if the ‘prize’ is you buying an anthology you’re in you may want to think twice (or if it costs £10 to enter but the prize money is £25). Have any of your authors won or been shortlisted in any competitions?
Peter: Yep, Michelle won the Guardian prize last year, and is chair of the judges this year.
Morgen: Ah yes, I heard that podcast… yay! 🙂 What do you feel about an author writing under a pseudonym? Do you think they make a difference to their profile? And would you recommend an author writing under different names for different genres?
Peter: The only people this really matters to are publishers. So sometimes it’s a good idea.
Morgen: Great answer (says she you uses one). 🙂 I ask this question of the authors and publishers I interview and feel it’s just as relevant but apologies for asking: do you think an agent is vital to an author’s success?
Peter: No, not at all. I succeeded in selling several millions books in spite of my then agent, not because of him.
Morgen: Several m… <coughs> wow!
Peter: These days, agents have to prove they can add real value.
Morgen: They do and although I think most authors, deep down (some deeper than others) would love one, a lot of the authors I’ve come across are feeling that they’d have more say than perhaps a few years ago which can only be a good thing for us authors. 🙂 As you mentioned earlier, you take on a tiny percentage of the authors who contact you, do you have any tips on an author securing an agent?
Peter: I’m writing a book about this at the moment – check on Litopia for an update.
Morgen: Ooh great. 🙂 Now for, in theory, a simple question: what’s your opinion of eBooks, do your authors’ books sell in that format and do you read them?
Peter: I’ve just written a column for the Bookseller about this. It’ll be on Litopia soon. Basically, I’ve been an e-booker for some thirteen years now, so I’m not exactly new to them.
Morgen: I interviewed crime novelist Stephen Booth recently and apparently he was one of the early ones too… and I went to see Peter James talk at one of my (sort of) local libraries and so was he. I’m so late to this party. 🙂
Peter: They’re great for some things, awful for others. By themselves, they will not save publishing, as many currently think. There is a lot of unreality about e-books at the moment.
Morgen: A lot of talk on LinkedIn (and elsewhere) is about the amount of bad (free and otherwise) eBooks out there but I maintain that good reviews will highlight the class from the crud. Whilst a lot of people say (and worry) that eBooks are going to kill pBooks (as paperbacks are now being called) a lot of the authors I’ve interviewed say either that they don’t read them or do but pBooks (or hBooks :)) are still the mainstay of their fiction (and non-fiction presumably) fodder. Going off at a tangent for a minute (feel free to reign me back in as I do tend to wander), poetry and short stories are, in my opinion anyway, the two most hard done by genres… what do you see as the future for them? Do you think the eBook revolution will help given that eBooks seem to be getting shorter?
Peter: Yes, definitely. Also, it’s about creative marketing. Publishers need to get with the plan on this, there’s lots of potential here.
Morgen: Yay, another correct answer (as a short story author). 🙂 Apart from your authors’ books, what do you like to read? Any authors (including those you’ve represented) that you’d like to recommend?
Peter: Impossible question!
Morgen: OK, that’s another “let’s move on” question then. 🙂 Is there a plot that’s written about too often?
Peter: Most thrillers I see are variations on an end-of-the-world theme involving nuclear weapons or bioterrorism. I’m bored with bombs and bacteria.
Morgen: I’m not because I don’t read them. Give me a murder any day. 🙂 Do you have to do a lot of editing to the books your (represented) authors send you or is the writing usually more or less fully-formed?
Peter: I do what is necessary to support each author individually.
Morgen: Does it matter to you what point of view your authors’ books are written in? What’s your opinion of second person?
Peter: Second would be a bit weird for the whole manuscript, although a talented author could do it.
Morgen: I have Jay McInerney’s ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ which I’ve picked up / put down loads of times. I adore second person but even I struggle with that… I like dark but that’s just… well, grubby. But it’s second person so I kind of let it off. 🙂
Peter: If you notice point of view, it’s probably not working.
Morgen: Oh, not thought of it but yes, it makes sense. Have you had any surprising feedback about any of your authors’ published works?
Peter: There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of people who have had their lives touched by my authors’ works… that’s one of the most satisfying things about this job. I love seeing readers’ feedback.
Morgen: I’ve just had my first review for one of my shorts on Smashwords and although it was middling (3/5: apparently not enough detail – someone else (on You Write On) said that it had too much!) I really don’t mind as it’s still lovely knowing that people are out there reading what I’ve written. Now what was I saying about wandering off? Is there book you’ve represented that particularly sticks in your head for any reason?
Peter: They are all my darlings.
Morgen: Very diplomatic… and of course the only answer I should have expected. 🙂 What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Peter: Keep breathing.
Morgen: I plan (hope) to. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Peter: Great promise. You have to believe.
Morgen: Absolutely. What do you think the future holds for an agent / your agency?
Peter: We will take over the world. I cannot see for the life of me why any author would want to be represented by any other agency. Our way of doing things is certainly the future of agenting.
Morgen: Please don’t blame me if your slushpile increases after this. 🙂 Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you could recommend?
Peter: Litopia has taken ten years or more of my life, and has been a labour of love offered to writers everywhere. It’s all there, take advantage of it – www.litopia.com.
Morgen: Please do folks, I can’t stress how brilliant it is (and join us in the chatroom 6.30pm – 9pm every Sunday night UK time… Peter James was last week’s guest and Mark Billingham a few weeks before that (and Ellen Feldman and…) 🙂 Given that more emphasis these days is put on the author to market their published works or indeed themselves as a ‘brand’, how involved are you generally with your authors post-publication?
Peter: Far more than any other agency. We’ve been running fan communities for our authors’ readers for over seven years now!
Morgen: Wow. I must admit that however much I rave about Litopia (I do, believe me) I’m the world’s worst (OK, well maybe Northamptonshire’s worst) at going on the site outside of Sunday evenings (note for the New Year). Apart from your website, how do you market yourselves? Are your authors involved in marketing for you / themselves?
Peter: Only indirectly. An acknowledgement in each book is nice.
Morgen: 🙂 You’re UK-based, do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your authors and their books?
Peter: I was commuting to New York a week a month for a long time, and I know that scene very well. London / NY is really the axis of English-language publishing.
Morgen: You have @Litopia and @AgentPete Twitter profiles, what do you think of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and more business-related such as LinkedIn? Do you think they’re invaluable or too time-consuming?
Peter: Maybe, but be pragmatic. Your readers really don’t care about your trips to the supermarket. Each author / readership is different and requires careful strategic thinking.
Morgen: Absolutely. Sometimes I think my output is too writing-related but then I look at some of the others… I know you from Radio Litopia, which I only discovered via an iTunes podcast search autumn 2010, when and how did Litopia come about? Was there a particular motivation to start something so involving for free, presumably it’s evolved a great deal since the ‘early days’?
Peter: Writing is a very solitary business, and I wanted to construct a friendly community where writers could come together, through the magic of the internet, for some good company and mutual support. It’s been very satisfying to see it mature.
Morgen: I bet. I’ve only been involved for a year and it’s the highlight of my weekend. You have author guests on Sunday evening’s (8pm UK time) Litopia After Dark, is there an author you’ve not had on the show yet that you’d love to be involved?
Peter: Stephen King.
Morgen: Well, Stephen if you’re reading this… 🙂 You have regular sidekicks (Dave, Donna, Ali…) how did you get to know them?
Peter: All through Litopia. It’s an open door – people suggest themselves, and we take it from there.
Morgen: And it’s great for anyone in the chatroom to ring in during Open House (6.30pm Sundays)… I have a few times so got to hear myself on the podcast later. 🙂 Oh, I’ve just Tweeted and Facebooked that I’m posting this tomorrow and Joseph V Sultana says “hi”… oh and Lae Monie wants to know where. 🙂 Whilst most of the programme is writing-related, conversations often go off-track, is there a topic that’s not yet been discussed that you’d love to talk about?
Peter: Politics are discouraged inside Litopia itself, but not on Radio Litopia. That’s because the potential for personal bad feeling is much higher inside a forum. On the air, it’s only me and a few others who might take offence. I guess some listeners might, too! But they can always make their views known through the chatroom. I’d like to see more writers becoming more political, small “p”. Writing is the lifeblood of our culture, and believe me, it’s under attack right now. Writers need to hang together and use their not inconsiderable talents to defend our culture. The dark ages are never far away.
Morgen: Discussing politics without ‘painkillers’ (a regularly chatroomer who seems to have gone awol) doesn’t seem quite the same although I have noticed recently that jack martin has taken up the mantle. Then of course there’s always the crazily-clever issiel. Litopia programmes are recorded and released as podcasts, as well as other podcast episodes such as Donna’s ‘The Debriefer’, what impact do these have on spreading Litopia’s existence and that of your agency? Do authors submit their books to you because of Litopia?
Peter: Rather the opposite, really. I think many people used to join Litopia in order to find me there… now, they join because it’s a great place for them to be.
Morgen: Absolutely. 🙂 The majority (albeit a slim one; 65%?) of Litopia’s listeners are from the US, do you think this is just because it’s a large country? Other than geography, do you find a difference between the listeners?
Peter: I think it’s just because the (English-speaking) net is very US-focused. But we also need to do more promotion inside the UK.
Morgen: I mentioned the second (panel) show After Dark earlier, but Open House precedes it. Open House is more chatroom-involved with writing-related games and puzzles (and as I said sometimes members of the chatroom Skyping or phoning in); do you have a favourite game? Is there anything memorable that’s happened during one of these shows (and/or After Dark)?
Peter: We try to make something memorable happen each week on LAD. Author interviews can be awfully dull.
Morgen: Present company excepted hopefully. 🙂
Peter: I try to both challenge and our guests and to give them a safe space to reveal the private people they are: getting under the surface of a writers is not always very easy, it’s as if they decide to reveal so much in their books, but not to go any further. We do push things quite a bit. No-one has walked out yet!
Morgen: I really like the new mini-quizzes you give the authors… and loved the episode (with Ellen?) where you’d asked one of the ladies 5 questions then chatted and then went to the other author… Theresa? (maybe the other way round)… assumed she’d be getting the same questions but then you floored her by asking completely different ones… maybe it’s that us author have thick skins from all our rejections. I love both shows and now they’re back-to-back on a Sunday it’s just great. Open House is perhaps the more frivolous of the two because of the games and then we get to be serious for an hour with LAD.
Peter: The chatroom on Open House is simply a place of genius. I’m both awestruck and usually doubled up with hysteria… they are very funny, very creative people. It’s the high spot of my weekend.
Morgen: Me too, and I love creating the things you throw at us. And I’m still on a high from winning Ellen’s book by the way (a tip when entering title comps folks, feature the name of the author’s book!)… thank you for going with Ellen’s choice. 🙂 There’s much more to the Litopia website than the radio arm, such as the colony, guest bloggers, given that you only have so much ‘spare’ time, how involved in that are you? Do you have a moderating overseer, as you have with Jamie and the @Litopia Twitter profile?
Peter: We’ve just taken on our first Community Manager. This is a huge leap for us, and obviously one that has costs attached to it. It’s a big experiment, I hope we can make it work. The Colony is so extensive now that I simply can’t continue to subsidize it myself – we have to find a way to make it break even.
Morgen: There is a donation button on the site folks (I found it easily and it’s in dollars so not at all painful :)). Are you involved in anything else writing-related?
Peter: Litopia is enough! But I do give talks at conferences and things like that.
Morgen: Oh yes, I remember you mentioned on one of the Open Houses that you were due to be a panellist talking about the state of publishing. I’d love to have been there. What do you do when you’re not working?
Peter: I go to the theatre quite a lot, maybe twice a week. We home-educated our kids, which also takes time, although mostly over now. I’d like to encourage more parents to do that, if they can.
Morgen: We have a lovely old theatre in Northampton called The Royal, small, dark, red velvet, it’s great. 🙂 Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Peter: This is the best job I’ve ever had. Working in publishing is a real privilege.
Morgen: That’s how I feel sitting at the other end of the table. 🙂 Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Peter: Who did that caricature of you – it’s great!
Morgen: Oh thanks. It was a local guy actually called Adrian Teal. He’s easily Googleable. He’s very prolific in a variety of magazines (many political and celebrity caricatures) and I walk past his studio on my way to / from work so called in one day with some photos. Thank you so much AgentPete… ’til Open House on Sunday. 🙂
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
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