Fiction & Drama

Hannah Weatherill: My trip to New York and behind the scenes at agent-editor meetings

26/11/2019

Many UK literary agencies work with sub-agents on the ground in New York to sell US rights for their authors, but we’re one of the few agencies to sell to editors there directly. That means it’s really important for us to keep abreast of trends in US publishing, as well as finding out what individual editors are looking to acquire.

And so, in early November I crossed the Atlantic for a jam-packed week of meetings with editors from the biggest publishing houses. These are largely the same as the largest UK publishers – Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan and Simon & Schuster make up “The Big Five” – but I also had time to squeeze in some independent publishers in too. This took me all around Manhattan, from Broadway down to Wall Street. Sadly, Macmillan have recently moved out of the iconic Flatiron building, but I enjoyed looking around their swanky new offices – complete with a secret room behind a bookshelf!

Meetings with editors have a broadly uniform structure. If we haven’t met or spoken by phone before, I start by asking what kind of thing they commission. Individual remits can be narrow or wide – it varies according to the strategy of the publisher and the needs of the editorial team – so some editors just focus on genres such as crime or romance, and some buy a huge range of books according to their taste. I also always ask whether they’ve acquired anything recently, or offered on anything that eventually went to a different publisher, because that really helps me to spot patterns and get a feel for their taste when often it can be quite difficult to describe. For example, I met the editor of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, which has been a huge bestseller, and caused disappointment for many other editors when it was pre-empted overnight. I use this knowledge to tell them about our fiction list here at Northbank and pitch them a couple of novels that I think would be a good fit for them. Pitching in person really helps me to gauge their reaction, and also allows me to show how passionate I am about our authors, so they’ll be excited to see the manuscripts hit their inboxes. Finally, I also ask them if they have any pet peeves – things they might not include in their general spiel but that make them more likely to turn novels down straight away. This is such a personal thing, but it’s really useful for me to know if an editor hates books about dogs, for example, so I won’t submit any dog-related novels to them.

It’s important to remember, though, that editors aren’t only driven by taste – publishing is a business, and editors have to convince members of the sales and other teams that the book is commercially viable before they are able to make an offer. As agents, we’re looking for great writers who have written novels we think we’re able to sell, so it’s useful to hear what is working in their market. For example, historical novels set in the 19th and early 20th centuries are working well in the US, especially if they’re based on real-life figures, and readers are hungry for feel-good novels. I also heard many times that novels have to feel new, exciting and authentic – it’s a crowded market, so it shouldn’t feel like a paint-by-numbers story. Instead, it should feel special and different – like the author is the only one who could have written that book in that way.

The trip flew by, and I boarded the plane back to London with a bag full of proofs of upcoming books kindly gifted by the editors I met. I’m looking forward to sending fantastic new novels their way, and doing lucrative deals for our wonderful Northbank Talent authors.

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