Name: Joanna Swainson
Agency: Hardman & Swainson
What was your first job in the industry, which led directly or indirectly to your current agent role? My very first job was way back when I was a student and I spent a couple of holidays on reception at Boxtree, now an imprint of Macmillan. This was my introduction to the business of publishing. I sat at the front desk very aware of all the activity going on behind me but it was hard to equate that job with the books I loved to read – especially when Ricky from Neighbours walked through the door one day (the imprint has a tradition of publishing TV tie-ins).
There’s no specific agent qualifications, so what would you say best qualifies you to do your job & allows you to do it well? A passion for books, writing and ideas, but also for the business of publishing so that we are open to its constantly changing landscape and able to exploit the myriad opportunities for our authors. Also determination, diligence and being ambitious on our authors’ behalf (in addition to their own ambition). Common sense is a pre-requisite and a degree of empathy can help in supporting authors who all invest so much of themselves in their books.
What routine, if any, do you look to start each working day with? On a normal day before I do anything else at all, sometimes even before I’ve made a cup of tea, I’m reading submissions. (Don’t worry, by the third or fourth, I’ll remember to make that cup of tea.) We get so many that I don’t feel like my working day can properly begin until I’ve got a few under my belt. So if you’ve submitted to me and you get an email from me at 7.47am don’t be surprised.
Lift the lid as best you can, and describe a typical working day? Although there are things we typically do, day to day varies a lot. I start each day with a to do list which is continually shrinking as items get crossed off and growing as new things are added. On an ‘office’ day I tend to spend most mornings fielding emails between me and authors, between me and editors, between me and various others involved in publishing. Our job doesn’t end when we’ve struck the deal – thereafter we can be involved in anything and everything in the ongoing process of getting the book published from blurbs to covers to marketing etc. We’re sounding boards for our authors. We broker communication between publisher and author as appropriate. The aim is to oil the wheels of the process, all the while keeping our authors’ best interests at heart. There’s also general admin, so I check our bank accounts every day and chase payments where necessary. We have a database for all our contracts, author and payment information which is only as good as the data it contains, so there’s a lot of updating that. Then there’s the website and Facebook and Twitter. At a certain point I like to remove myself from the computer and do some reading – either of full manuscripts I’ve requested or current authors’ work, or editing – we work closely with authors editorially. We’re out and about a lot, too, meeting editors, scouts, authors. There’s a lot of talking books, which suits me down to the ground. And all the while we’re keeping our eye out for new clients and for opportunities for our existing ones.
What do you feel a client and agent should expect of each other in the course of a fruitful working relationship day-to-day? Honesty and openness, first and foremost. A big part of our job is managing authors’ expectations and passing on our experience of how things can pan out from first pitching a work to publication and beyond. By the same token, I learn a lot from my authors, too. Good communication is key to a good working relationship.
Is there a typical process that sees a first enquiry turn into a working client relationship? It’s a pretty straightforward process: potential client submits, you read, you like, you contact the potential client, you read more, you love, you’ll meet up or talk to them to get a feel for who they are, how they work and what they’re about. If all goes well after that you ask to sign them up. Curve balls can be thrown in at any point of the process (for example, potential client hasn’t finished the book, potential client has ten other agents vying to sign them) but that’s the straightforward version.
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? A thoughtful, considered and professional approach always works best for me. First impressions are very important. People think they’ll stand out by being whacky or shouty or ‘different’ in some way, but what stands out for me is having confidence in your submission, an awareness of the market you’re writing for and allowing your personality to show without being overbearing. It’s a good idea to check submission guidelines and follow them (they vary from agency to agency). So if it says, please use the submissions@ email address, don’t submit to joanna@. If it says we don’t represent picture books, don’t send us picture books. Etc.
Is there any part of your day-to-day work that manifests itself in evenings & weekends? There are lots of events that take place in the evenings, from book launches to industry meetings, to readings from creative writing students, to parties. Some weekends are taken up with conferences, doing panels, literary festivals, that sort of thing. If not, the reading is always there and I can’t think of a single weekend passing where I haven’t done anything at all connected with the job. (Today’s a Sunday!) In all of this, I try to read books ‘outside’ the job too.
What one piece of advice would you give to a writer just starting out? Read as much as you can in every genre, not just the genre you want to write and read actively, as a writer. What is it about something that makes you want to turn the page?
What one piece of advice would you give to your younger self? Think things through a bit more before jumping in – the choices you make can cast very long shadows!
Disclaimer: I would probably select differently on a different day.
Favourite film? Blade Runner.
Favourite TV program (currently or all-time)? I’ve watched Wolf Hall (on my laptop with noise-cancelling headphones) several times, so I suppose that says something.
Favourite book? Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier is one I go back to often.
Favourite director? Roman Polanski.
Favourite writer? Ali Smith.
Favourite actor (male or female)? Leo di Caprio (specifically in The Departed).