With best selling authors
such as Lee Child, Martina Cole, John Connolly, Leslie Pearse,
Sheila Quigley and Alex Barclay on the books, you can understand
why Darley Anderson Literary Agency is a prime target for
aspiring novelists worldwide. Founded in 1988, the agency
has a reputation for discovering new talent and turning
that talent into big-time money. Always on the look out
for new authors, Darley takes a little time out from his
gruelling schedule of book launches, publishing pitches
and literary lunches to talk about the business of taking
care of business.
The Darley Anderson Literary
Hello, Darley. Firstly
can you tell me in one sentence how you would describe the
Darley Anderson Literary Agency?
Yes. We’re very focussed,
very successful, 100% commercial, friendly and—unlike some
agencies—not literary snobs. Our slogan is: Our authors
mean business. The publishing world is constantly changing
Changes in the publishing world
Can you tell us something
about what you feel has been the high points and the low
points over the past twenty years or so?
Well, there have been several
key moments—or periods—that are especially significant.
Firstly, publishing started
to change in the 1980s when independent owner/publishers
(such as William Heinemann and Secker & Warburg) became
divisions of the conglomerates. I was in the business before
this happened, and it’s like BC and AD. Today, most young
people in the publishing industry have no knowledge or understanding
of the “pre-conglomerate” days. But what has happened is
that the individuality of the independent owners has gone.
Modern publishing and personalities are almost a contradiction
We’re in a much more corporate
age. That was the major change. Then there was the abolition
of the net book agreement; i.e. the retail price agreement.
That occurred back in mid-1990s and has led inexorably to
the increasing dominance of the large retailer over the
publisher. Increasingly, the retailers call the shots, and
publishers have been sucked into this new order.
And it’s very profitable
for the shops because the publishers take all the risk and
pay for everything. They vie constantly for sales slots
and shelf space—which, for example, is around £25,000 for
a WHSmith Book of the Week promotion. I don’t see that changing.
On the other hand, the
marketing of books has become much better. It’s unquestionably
more professional and dynamic, and the retailers have played
a positive part in this. So it’s not all bad.
It’s said that everyone
has at least one novel in them. With that in mind, what
percentage of manuscripts received at your agency have,
in your opinion, any realistic prospect of seeing a printing
press outside of a vanity publishing house?
Well, we get approximately
1200 proposals a month, which is more than most agencies.
If you take 1200 and multiply that by 12, you end up with
14,400 submissions. I personally might take on just 2 writers
a year. The agency at large might take on around 5. And
of the two I accept, the big question is; Are they going
to be around and successful in 10 years?
When I take on a writer,
it isn’t simply because I like them and their work. I have
to take a 10 year view. I’m interested in their long term
careers. A lot of aspiring writers have potential, but the
real question is how many of them have that extra
something, such as Harry Potter creator J K Rowling.
There are more hopeful
writers today than ever before. Many of them are simply
dreamers. But there are many good writers too with a future.
And there are also many agents and editors trying very hard
to find that new talent. Good writing isn’t enough. You
have to have a great story. If you haven’t, then readers
have a huge number of alternative books out there to choose
First novels that get a
plug on shows like Richard and Judy usually sell a lot of
copies. But the R & J effect soon diminishes. Building a
career where all your books are successful is much harder
and takes longer.
Common writing errors
Can you tell us what
is the most common mistake would-be novelists make—and,
if possible, what remedies you might suggest to deal with
The commonest error is
that when authors write a novel, they don’t give sufficient
thought to the market place. They tend to finish their manuscript
and send off the first draft. I understand why they do it.
They’re often desperate. But they should never send off
their first draft. It almost always needs reworking before
sending. That’s the real difference between the amateur
and professional. It’s being aware of the market that you’re
writing for and structuring your story to suit—and developing
the quality of the novel by writing a number of drafts.
Is there such a thing
as literary agent “burn out”? And if so, how is it that
you’re still at the top of your game after 20 years?
Well, I personally love
the industry and have never felt my enthusiasm waning, so
from direct experience I can’t speak of “burn out”. One
of the people I take inspiration from is Manchester United
football club manager, Alex Fergusson, who’s still at the
top of his game after so many years. To be a successful
literary agent, you must love books and doing deals. I’m
interested in great story telling, and interested in authors
whose books will sell a lot of copies and will give a lot
of pleasure to readers. For my part, I get a good commission
and the satisfaction of working with such authors to build
careers. I love it.
Top literary agencies
Outside of your own
agency, would you care to comment on who you feel are the
top two literary agencies in the business, and why?
Talent spotting new writers
You’re often credited
as being a good talent spotter. If it isn’t too cynical
a question, does there come a point when an agent, or for
that matter an editor or publisher, can turn almost any
writer into the next big thing simply by force of reputation?
No. Absolutely not. About
two and half years ago I took on Lee Weeks, a new unknown
female crime novelist. I worked with her on her first manuscript,
a serial-killer book set in Hong Kong entitled: The Trophy
Taker. It was gripping and thrilling. A commercial page
turner. I sent it out to all the major publishers, and they
all turned it down flat. So much for my reputation and judgement.
I had to scrabble around for a publisher for Lee, and finally
got a deal with a start-up imprint – Avon, which is part
of Harper Collins. The book has since been really successful
and the paperback got to number 30 on the top 50 bestseller
lists. And her next one The Trafficked will do even better.
Missed publishing opportunities
Are there any successful
books that you’ve turned down that you now wish you hadn’t?
And if so, can you recall the reason why you declined representation?
No, nothing springs to
Acceptance and rejection
It’s said that literary
agents sometimes decide on the merits of a novel within
the first few paragraphs. Is this true with respect to your
own literary antenna? Or you do occasionally, or even often,
wrestle with a manuscript before committing yourself one
way or the other?
You can certainly get a
good clue to the worth of a novel even from the submissions
letter. And sometimes you start reading a manuscript and
you think “mmmm”. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the
writer will sustain your interest, however. And I usually
discover that pretty quickly. Other times, it takes a little
longer to form a conclusion.
For better or worse,
literary agents are, it seems, here to stay. But in your
opinion, have agents really helped and expanded the publishing
market? Or have they—by following well trodden formulas—merely
helped funnel would-be original thinking authors into convenient
marketing genres to the detriment of real talent?
Well, there are a great
number of literary agents out there that cover the whole
spectrum of the book industry which is generally profitable—except
perhaps for areas such as religion, poetry and academia.
Everything else is well covered, with agents who specialise
in celebrity books, or popular culture, or popular fiction.
The only really strict formula for publishing is in the
romance category. The commercial sector, however, thinks
in terms of genre, which isn’t the same as formula. When
I first started, publishers were more rigid about genre
than today. I think there is more flexibility for new ideas
and styles and original thinking.
Would it be kinder for
a literary agent to simply tell a hopeless writer that he
or she is hopeless? Or do you believe that anyone can make
it to the top, or at least get on the ladder of success?
No, I don’t think everyone
can get published. It’s a tough industry, and to get to
the top requires a very special person. As I said, only
a few have that extra something. It’s the same in any industry.
Even getting published in a small way requires a lot of
talent and perseverance. Most people simply don’t have either.
The influence of television
Has television influenced
the way modern novels are constructed? And if so, has it
been a good or bad thing? Television has had
a definite influence, but I’m not sure that many book authors
have understood this. Because of TV, the modern novel has
to have more pace and dramatic incident. Soaps operas, for
instance, seem almost to have a melodramatic incident every
30 seconds or so, whereas many modern novelists—notably
British novelists—still go 20 pages without anything dramatic
happening. Of course, characters still have to be deep and
challenging. But pace is essential. There once was a view
was that TV was going to kill books. But it hasn’t happened.
TV has simply helped to change what the novel has to do
as far as pace is concerned. It’s worth writers keeping
this in mind.
Lee Child, Martina Cole and other
Is it true that a great
story, well-told (within reasonable subjective criteria)
will eventually find a publisher? Or is it instead a hard
fact that there will always be wonderful manuscripts destined
to rot in the bottom draw?
I feel that very good modern
writers are more likely than ever to find a publisher—as
long as they have perseverance. If you give up easily, your
writing career will falter. Lee Child is one of my most
successful writers, and from the start he worked out what
would work commercially and structured his writing to take
advantage of that. He’s both pacy and a story teller; the
important qualities for a commercial writer. Literary agents
and editors can help technically.
But story telling is everything.
If I gave Martina Cole, another of my mega-selling authors,
a piece of paper and a pen, she could write the outlines
for 5 novels in almost as many minutes. I certainly couldn’t
do that. Martina, incidentally, left school at just 14.
She’s currently the number one hardback adult fiction writer
in the UK. The only person who’s challenging her is Terry
Having said that a great
story on its own is not enough to guarantee commercial success.
Writers need to create great characters above all. Think
James Bond, Harry Potter and all the great characters in
Shakespeare and Dickens et al.
The appeal of writing novels
Given that writing novels
is such hard work, and often very lonely work, what do you
feel is the appeal for so many would-be authors—aside from
the unlikely prospect of striking it rich?
Some people just have a
need in them to write, or tell stories. It’s always been
that way. Lesley Pearse, one of my very successful authors,
writes big epic sagas. If you told Lesley that the publishing
business is closing down, she’s certainly not going to starve.
But she would find it difficult to live without writing.
It’s a need. A passion. Catherine Cookson was still writing
into her seventies and eighties even when she was a sick
woman. She had no interest then in the money she was making,
but she simply couldn’t not write. Others see writing as
the way out of their dull jobs or professions. We see this
a lot in submissions.
Writing is hard. Life
is short. Postage is expensive. With this in mind, is it
still reasonable that many literary agencies, such as your
own, still refuse to accept email submissions? And if so,
You’re really asking the
wrong guy here. I’m simply not very technically minded,
so I’m not experienced in downloading manuscripts from emails
and personally forwarding them on to our agency readers.
Instead, we tend to ask for hard copy. Things might change
now that a new generation of readers is coming on the market.
It’s going to be increasingly part of the reading experience.
But print books will continue, I’m sure of that.
Edit YouTube videos
Meanwhile, here are
some of my You Tube videos that might be of interest to you.
Hope you enjoy them.
Mr Edit. Let's talk about dialogue
Mr Edit. Pitching fiction to a literary
Mr Edit. 5 Minute Fiction Fix.
Mr Edit. Let's talk about tautology.
Preditors & Editors.
Here's where you can check out the credentials of literary agents and
publishers. A must for any writer.
Creative Helps. Helpful
resource for the creative community. Articles, links and tips.
Nick Daws' Writing Blog.
Lots of useful posts on all aspects of writing, both for print and online,
plus a guest post for anyone who wants to make a contribution. Check it