Today I’m delighted to welcome Laura Macdougall, Literary Agent with United Agents and the first winner of the RNA’s newly created INCLUSION award.
Hello and welcome, Laura. Many congratulations on winning the 2019 RNA’s Industry Award for Inclusion, presented at the RNA’s winter party in November, not a little to do with the fact that I gather most of your own authors at United Agents are LGBTQ+ writers. Is this something that just happened or did you set out to make it happen?
As someone who identifies as LGBTQ+ and wants to read books where I feel represented, I was conscious of the fact that publishing could be doing so much more to publish a range of titles that deal with LGBTQ+ issues and are written by LGBTQ+ authors. I didn’t want my list to be exclusively LGBTQ+, although the first couple of authors I signed when I started out as an agent were LGBTQ+ writers – CN Lester, author of TRANS LIKE ME, and Kaite Welsh, author of the ‘Sarah Gilchrist’ historical crime series – but I did want to be open about the fact that I am LGBTQ+ – and therefore a safe space for writers who might feel nervous sharing their work – and that I was actively seeking to represent writers across the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Luckily, many brilliant LGBTQ+ writers have since submitted to me in the past four years and my list is now about 2/3rds LGBTQ+ writers. I wouldn’t have won this award without these brilliant writers on my books.
Talking of which, I must wish you further congratulations in that one of your authors won the Katie Fforde Debut Romantic Novel Award category in the RNA’s Romantic Novel of the Year Awards. for 2019.
Thank you! Yes, it was fantastic that Joe Heap won last year for THE RULES OF SEEING, and Ruth Hogan was nominated for THE KEEPER OF LOST THINGS the year before. The RNA is such a wonderful, supportive group of readers and writers, and it’s lovely for me and the authors I represent to be honoured and welcomed by them. We’ve also enjoyed having authors in the Sunday Times Top Ten bestsellers as well as a number shortlisted for other awards.
And in terms of budding authors, how hard is it to get noticed as a newish writer and how important do you think things like competitions are in the journey to recognition and sales?
I don’t think anyone would deny that it’s a competitive world out there! But we all have to keep faith that the best books will find a way to publication and will then find their readers. I have discovered authors through things like short story and essay prizes, but I don’t think an author should constantly submit to prizes in the hope of finding an agent. You should write the book you want to write, make it as good as it can be, and then research the agents you think might be right for your book. You might get lucky first time, but if not, keep trying.
We had an interesting session during this year’s RNA Annual Conference, in which an expert panel listened to a succession of first pages of manuscripts submitted (anonymously) by delegates. The panel then came to an immediate judgment as to whether it was a YES or a NO. What makes you say YES, or at least want you to read on?
I start by reading the email sent to me by a prospective author! That usually gives me a pretty good indication, depending on how they present themselves and their book. It also demonstrates whether they can follow submission guidelines. Then I’ll read their synopsis, and then I’ll look at the opening pages of their novel. In my previous job, our submission guidelines were only the first five pages (whereas now I ask for three chapters), and you really can tell on five pages. It’s much like you picking up a book in Waterstones, reading the back cover copy and then flicking through the opening pages. So yes, the beginning of a book really does have to work hard. Every genre is different, so there’s no hard-and-fast rule for what makes me want to read on, but I will be more likely to ask for more material if it’s well written (for the genre), intriguing and has that extra something that makes me think, ‘I’ll just read one more page…’
I notice you personally invite a wide range of both fiction and non-fiction submissions, including crime, historical fiction, graphic novels, science and memoir. How do you divide your time between all these categories, or does it simply depend on the submissions that come in? And to what extent does romance in all its variety fit in?
I’m an eclectic reader, so I represent an eclectic group of writers; that’s one of the many things I love about being an agent. I don’t really think of it as dividing my time, I think of it as representing fabulous books that I want to read and that I want to get as many other people reading as possible! Fiction generally depends on the submissions that come to me directly, whereas non-fiction is generally me having an idea and then trying to find the best person to write that book. So I look for gaps in the market, and also for stories I want to read but don’t see being published.
As for romance, it’s something I would like to receive a lot more of, but for whatever reason I don’t get that many romance novels in my Inbox. Please send me your next epic love story and your next romantic comedy!
We often ask agents and publishers what they consider to be the next ‘big thing’. What do you hope to see more of in 2020?
I’m very keen to see more love stories, and ones across genres. I’m looking for novels that are doing something new with a love story, whether that’s structurally, or in terms of the time period, or the characters. I’d love a great LGBTQ+ romance. I’d also like to find some more funny books. Comedy is very hard to pull off, and it would be great to find a writer who can.
Do you look for anything in an author apart from a brilliant book? (such as social media presence)
Things like social media followings help, as does an interesting career or backstory or anything else that could help in terms of publicity, but the most fundamental thing is the book. I generally like to meet prospective authors in person, before offering them representation, as it’s a two-way process and can be a very intense working relationship, so I want us both to feel confident we’re making the right decision for us, and for the book. An author should feel they’re signing with someone who genuinely loves their book, will fight for them and their career, and who has their best interests at heart.
Perhaps I could finish by asking you a little about yourself. What do you like to read? Have you ever tried your hand at writing? What’s your proudest achievement? Or anything else you’d like to tell us.
I try to read a little bit of everything, both books by authors I love, but also so that I can keep track of books that are selling particularly well. I love historical fiction and historical crime. I also enjoy literary fiction and book club/up-lit fiction. I think there’s been some truly excellent non-fiction publishing recently, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of the medical memoirs and books on social sciences. My Pinterest and Instagram accounts will demonstrate that my reading is incredibly varied.
As for writing, I am very happy representing those who are brilliant enough to be able to write a book, and I do not expect to be writing one myself!
As for achievements, there’s nothing better than being able to tell an author that their book will be published, and then when it is finally out and you see readers discovering it for themselves.
Thank you for talking with us today, Laura. For more about Laura and her work, and how to submit those wonderful epic or comedy romances, see:
Laura was talking with Susan Leona Fisher (http://www.SLFisherAuthor.co.uk)