Name: Donald Winchester
Agency: Watson, Little Ltd
What was your first job in the industry, which led directly or indirectly to your current agent role? My first job was as a temp in Penguin editorial, assisting two non-fiction editors. It came as a result of a couple of placements of standard work experience in Viking/Michael Joseph and Penguin Press. I was paid a pittance, as is usual at that level, but it was useful and illuminating and led to many good things.
There’s no specific agent qualifications, so what would you say best qualifies you to do your job & allows you to do it well? An agent’s job is manifold. It is, in my view, first a foremost a job of fostering, managing, and maintaining relationships – between myself and my clients as well as editors – which makes interpersonal skills paramount in importance. There is also an enormous amount of industry knowledge that is crucial – I remember this whenever I’m asked to explain a royalty statement – and must be learned and updated regularly. Kindness is a thoroughly underrated quality. There are the basic computer and office skills, of course, and a good telephone and social manner are also invaluable. Beyond all this, there is a kind of steel and confidence, based in wisdom and good practice, which in my view sets an agent apart.
What routine, if any, do you look to start each working day with? It begins moments after I leave the house. My commute is relatively lengthy, and invaluable for reading – especially in the morning, when my head is clearer and I find myself more receptive to new ideas and fresh voices. I load manuscripts and sample chapters on my ereader and curl up on the tube in the least uncomfortable way and least obtrusive space to read them. When I get to the office, I like a coffee (and, on special occasions, a yogurt) whilst ploughing through my inbox.
Lift the lid as best you can, and describe a typical working day? It begins as per the previous question – then is mostly dominated by a mix of email, phone conversations, and meetings (with editors, clients, or potential clients). My schedule is determined mostly by the timing of meetings. The tasks vary – editing, reading, contract negotiation, and sometimes just reminding my writers how excellent they are.
I try to make a point of leaving the office at least once a day, to clear the head – and I also notice how many things I remember once I tear my attention away from the screen.
I try to dedicate my evening commute to more general reading – with the aim of familiarising myself with recent releases and current successes – but can’t always, as my clients’ needs come first so you’ll often find me reading, evaluating, and editing on the tube home.
What do you feel a client and agent should expect of each other in the course of a fruitful working relationship day-to-day? Every relationship is different, and is determined by the client’s needs and, to a lesser extent, an agent’s methods. I use the generalised term ‘relationship’ with reason, because what should be expected by both agent and client are, at base, the same as in any other sphere – trust, communication, honesty, diligence, etc.
Is there a typical process that sees a first enquiry turn into a working client relationship? In general terms, yes. There are two usual procedures, depending on the nature of the client. Many come through our submissions process (whether they have come to us via their own research or recommendation), in which case we read the sample material and, if we are intrigued, ask to see more. Then, all being well, we’ll try to arrange a meeting to talk about what an agent/client relationship might mean for them. In other instances, we make the first approach (especially in the case of potential clients with an existent platform), after which the process is broadly the same.
What is the best way to approach you, or any agent, with a view to representation? Is there one part of an approach that makes you think this client is or isn’t for me? Generally and ideally speaking, we want to work with excellent writers who are a pleasure to deal with. That’s the impression a good submission should endeavour to give.
Our website has extensive advice and guidelines on how to submit to us. It astounds me how many aspiring writers either don’t read or ignore this. The point of making guidelines is to streamline the process so that we can (as effectively as possible) evaluate potential manuscripts with the least distraction. Some try contacting using alternate routes – LinkedIn, Twitter, even my personal email – which doesn’t help an applicant’s cause. It’s annoying, if anything. It’s also good to see an author who has done their research – the internet is a mine of useful information about agents, their clients, and the publishing market – and it does frustrate me to see people who submit without having done so.
It’s worth saying that we look at everything that comes in.
Is there any part of your day-to-day work that manifests itself in evenings & weekends? Well, yes. I wish it weren’t the case, but it’s so busy that often reading, editing, and checking email bleeds into the weekend. And then there are numerous events, prize givings, and other social occasions in the evenings which are enjoyable and important in (more or less) equal measure.
What one piece of advice would you give to a writer just starting out? Self-evaluate everything, then act on it. Also, read more than you write. (I know that’s two.)
What one piece of advice would you give to your younger self? Follow instructions more carefully (still working on this, as evidenced by previous point).
Favourite film? Paper Moon, a wonderfully charming classic set in the Depression and featuring superb performances from Madeline Kahn and Tatum O’Neal.
Favourite TV program (currently or all-time)? Mad Men. Or the first season and a half of Twin Peaks.
Favourite book? Richard Yates – Revolutionary Road. Remembering reading the opening chapter of this for the first time still chills me.
Favourite director? Roman Polanski.
Favourite writer? It changes regularly – but for now, Graham Greene.
Favourite actor (male or female)? Carey Mulligan.