Name: Federica Leonardis.
Agency: Martin Leonardis Literary Management.
What was your first job in the industry, which led directly or indirectly to your current agent role? At the beginning of my career in publishing I did a lot of work experience in various literary agencies (Johnson & Alcock, Andrew Nurnberg Associates, AM Heath, the then ICM). Poorly paid internships have a very bad reputation but I found mine to be invaluable. The longest was at ANA where I met Daniela Petracco, who became my mentor. It was through Daniela that I heard about the opening at Ed Victor Ltd for a Foreign Rights assistant. That was my very first job in publishing. I was at EVL for four years and I had a fantastic time with my then boss, Morag O’Brien. We got on so well and I learnt so much from her and from Ed that I probably stayed longer than would have been wise for my career progression. My end goal was always to become an agent but foreign rights was an excellent introduction.
There’s no specific agent qualifications, so what would you say best qualifies you to do your job & allows you to do it well? Agenting is made up of various skills and to do it well you need to be sufficiently good at as many of those skills as you can. So over the years I tried to develop as many as I could. The most important (in my opinion) are contracts skills, negotiation skills and social skills. Obviously you have to love and know books and be interested in people, but I think that’s obvious, isn’t it? Otherwise what am I doing? But my real passion is to get the best out of writers, to nurture their talent, to see them flourish, to grow their confidence and to see them fulfilled because of that, to see the a-ha moment when something I said triggered in their brain the solution to crack their book wide open.
What routine, if any, do you look to start each working day with? I wake up early. I have coffee while I read either a book or the news, then I go out for a morning walk and by 8.30 I’m ready to start working.
Lift the lid as best you can, and describe a typical working day? It depends on what I have going on. My priority is what brings money to existing clients, so deals or contracts pending, submissions to editors and rounding them up for an answer. Writing notes to authors who are working on their books or proposals is also quite high on my priority list. Once that’s done, what’s left of the day is filled with looking for new ideas and new clients and because I run my own business a good chunk of time is dedicated to paperwork, the website, various bits and pieces of bureaucracy, etc. In the afternoon when energy levels are lower I keep an eye on social media, catch up with general and industry related news, respond to emails, and generally take care of the networking side of things. Because I work mostly from home and no longer have a commute (precious reading time) to divide my working day, I try to be strict and allocate a couple of hours to my reading in the evening. Otherwise I get distracted, I end up working late, and reading ends up not happening at all.
What do you feel a client and agent should expect of each other in the course of a fruitful working relationship day-to-day? The pillars of a relationship between author and agent are trust and respect. Every relationship will reflect the different personalities and temperaments. Each author requires a different level of attention and care, each agent has his or her own style, and each style attracts a certain type of author. There are as many ways of being an agent as there are agents but trust and respect have to be present for the relationship to work. Each has to trust that the other is taking the relationship seriously and each has to respect the work of the other.
Is there a typical process that sees a first enquiry turn into a working client relationship? My typical process is fairly standard regardless of where the inquiry is coming from. If I’m reading a partial of a novel the first question is “Do I want to know what happens next?” If the answer is yes, I’ll ask for the rest of the manuscript. Once I’ve read the entire novel if it’s fiction, or the proposal if it’s non/fiction, the next question is “Do I think the author has something interesting to say and do they say it in an interesting way?” If the answer is yes, I will request a meeting with the author. During the meeting the most important question is “Do I think we could work together? Are they polite? How would they take criticism and suggestions?” The aim is to build a long term relationship with authors beyond the specific book, so what they want from their writing career, and what they expect from their agent and from a relationship with their agent, are important questions.
The last two aspects are more delicate but quite important in modern publishing. One is the writer’s platform. This can be as simple as a digital presence and the ability and willingness to engage on social media for fiction writers, or it can be more complex for non-fiction authors and encompass all aspects of their platform. “Are they comfortable promoting themselves? Do they already have a following?” A positive answer to the latter question is more important for non-fiction authors but it’s always useful information for an agent looking to build a successful strategy.
The final aspect I consider is how the author present themselves. I’m not talking about their physical beauty but whether they’ve made an effort with their appearance. “Are they clean? Well groomed?” This is also important because it’s a sign they take this meeting seriously, which in turn means that they take their career seriously. I’m aware of how unfair this may seem, but in a very visual era this is an element to consider.
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 polite and simple email is always the best way. It doesn’t have to be formal and it’s OK to be nervous but I really appreciate it when writers are, or try to be, themselves; it’s not a guarantee that I will offer representation but that way we both find out quickly whether we can work together or not. Big no-nos are a confrontational or overfamiliar tone, calling me on the phone, or a submission that makes it obvious that the writer hasn’t read the submission guidelines.
Is there any part of your day-to-day work that manifests itself in evenings & weekends? Many. It’s the same for most agents but running my own agency means that I rarely stop thinking about it and that my work day spills into evenings and weekends. This is not to say that I’m always working, more that a part of my brain is always there.
Most of my “work” reading happens outside working hours, in the early mornings and in the evenings. Social events also happen in the evenings. Although it doesn’t sound like work, it’s a very important part of the industry in general.
I’m quite interested in personal development so a chunk of my weekend reading is dedicated to subjects like negotiation or business management or any aspect that I think will help me to be a better agent for my clients.
And finally, thinking time. This is an aspect of the job that isn’t often talked about. Sometimes I stare into space and it seems I’m not doing anything but actually I might be pondering a contractual issue or meditating on a strategy for a client. Thinking time is precious and happens mostly outside working hours. Does that count?
What one piece of advice would you give to a writer just starting out? Same advice I would give to an agent starting out. Develop a growth mindset. Our brain is plastic. We learn, we adapt, we change and we grow. Every draft, every paragraph, every piece of writing read or written is an opportunity to improve, to learn what didn’t work, to be an even better writer.
What one piece of advice would you give to your younger self? Read better.
Favourite film? “When Harry Met Sally”.
Favourite TV program (currently or all-time)? “Friends” and the BBC adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice”.
Favourite book? I can’t pick one but the following books have shaped who I am: Oscar Wilde’s “The Portrait of Dorian Gray”, Javier Marias’ “Tomorrow in the Battle Think of Me”, Mordecai Richler’s “Barney’s Version” (possibly all-time favourite), Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” and Colm Tóibín’s “Brooklyn”.
Favourite director? Oliver Stone if I had to pick only one.
Favourite writer? I haven’t read a book by Jane Austen that I didn’t like.
Favourite actor (male or female)? Robert Downey Jr since I was 16.