Ask An Industry Expert: Alice Lutyens
19 November 2021
Today I’m delighted to welcome Alice Lutyens, Literary Agent with Curtis Brown.
Hello and welcome, Alice. Perhaps you could begin by introducing yourself and telling us something of your career path into your current role?
Hello! Thank you for having me. I joined CB in 2003 as a fresh duckling out of university. I was a photocopier (pretty much), but I was so flipping chuffed to be here, it didn’t matter! I then moved and side stepped and danced from rung to rung—assistant to Jonny Geller, assistant to Jonathan Lloyd, overseeing some estates, and starting up the audio division. At the same time I started to take on some authors. My first big success was The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer. Three years ago, I expanded the audio department and headed up the podcast and audio department. Now I am a book agent primarily, and still run the podcast and audio division on the side.
What are the main changes you’ve experienced in the industry in the period you’ve been in it? I guess one would be the growing importance of audiobooks.
Ha! My goodness, the change in audio…wow. In 2005, when I started selling rights proactively, it was about piles of cassettes in ugly boxes from the library. I remember vividly when this small and rather bossy company called Audible came along. And now—look at them and us! Audio has climbed a steep, steep curve, to the point where for many books audio sales overtake book sales of some titles. It makes publishing look like a tortoise by comparison.
Are you looking for any particular genre at present?
Oooooh…I am quite reluctant to be tied down so specifically by genre. For me, it is about really good writing. That transcends genre, and all those categorisations of literary / commercial / book club blah blah blah. It has to be a good story (or good topic for non-fiction) and fabulous writing. Having said that, my beady eye is particularly keen on ‘feel good’ stuff right now. I want to be lifted, not dragged down.
I think many readers would agree with that after the past couple of years. Talking of feel good factor, and this being an RNA interview, I must ask you about Romance! How important is it as a genre for your company and for you personally in the authors on your list?
I think the above sort of answers this. I mean, who does not LOVE a romance? But I want romance because it is part of a beautifully told story, where I really care about the characters. I don’t want Romance for the sake of Romance. So many of the books I represent have a romance at the core, and that is only a good thing. I think Curtis Brown feels the same. Look at Jojo Moyes ME BEFORE YOU. Is there a more romantic book out there?!
You’ll probably be aware that the RNA has run a New Writers’ Scheme for many years and in fact you’re speaking to a product of it! Therefore I was delighted to learn that Curtis Brown runs its own Creative Writing School, which has recently passed its 10th anniversary. Could you tell us more about it and how it nurtures new writers to publication?
Curtis Brown Creative’s teaching approach is practical and positive—they help aspiring authors write the book they want to write rather than trying to push them in a direction that is not their own, while demystifying the publishing industry at the same time (something they are uniquely placed to do as the only creative writing school affiliated to a major literary agency). Many of the alumni of their selective courses have gone on to sign with agents and to get deals with publishers, with over 140 major publishing deals for their alumni and counting.
Sounds highly effective—and I believe it also offers some specialist courses?
Yes—additionally CBC offer a range of genre-based short online courses—including a brand new one on Writing a Romance Novel, with Jenny Colgan, which is open for enrolment now and runs next in late October.
We are also working hard every day on our diversity and inclusion understanding and proactive action. One of the steps we are really proud of is that CBC runs a nine-month fully funded mentoring programme for under-represented writers which provides expert tuition and guidance from published authors and agents. It runs 3 times a year, and 5 mentees are picked each time.
Could you say a little more about how to apply for these various courses?
Not to be lazy, but https://www.curtisbrowncreative.co.uk/ is going to be a lot more helpful than my clumsy re-hash!
Can I take us on to submissions? CB requests a cover letter, synopsis and opening sample of a work for consideration. Any advice on how to make yourself stand out from the rest?
Cover letter: get your facts right—the agent’s name, what they do, who they represent, why you have chosen THEM. Nothing generic please!
Synopsis: I don’t know an author who likes doing these…but they are key. Don’t try and re-tell the whole plot in shorthand. Just tell us what it is (genre); who is in it; and a very brief oversight of the story. No longer than 1 side of A4 maximum, ideally much shorter. Personally I don’t like to see the ending revealed—it makes me less desperate to read the book! But this is my own personal taste. What you want me to go away thinking is—I have got to read that book. Think of a blurb on the back of a book. It should resemble that, while also telling us where the book sits on the bookshelves and who wants to read it. If you were inspired by a film or event or book, tell us.
Do you look for anything in an author apart from a brilliant book?
I am always interested in experience: writing courses, writing degrees, publications, prize long or short lists etc. But mainly for me it is all about the writing. Age, race, gender, political motivations—that doesn’t matter to me in context of the manuscript I am reading, unless the book is directly based on experience of one or all the above.
What do you yourself read for leisure (assuming you get any!) and can you tell us the last published book you read which you really enjoyed and why?
I read everything and anything, as long as it is a flipping good read (just like my list)! The last 3 books I read are: STILL LIFE Life by Sarah Winman; MAGPIE by Elizabeth Day; an BILLY SUMMERS by Stephen King.
Goodness I enjoyed each of them so much. Still Life provided me with a place of calm in my busy day. It is a beautifully told story of ordinary yet beautiful people, set in Minnesota and Italy from the 30s to 70s or so. Magpie is a really clever upmarket thriller that turned my assumptions right on their head! Billy Summers/WOW! I have never been so touched by a ‘baddie’—again, this is an example of turning our assumptions and preconceptions upside down and shaking them, until we see something entirely different.
What is your typical working day like?
‘Working’…like most of us, my life has merged and blended and muddled into a hybrid of home-kids-work-admin-work-read. I get up at 6am to take the children to the bus, then I exercise so I don’t kill someone or go mad, then I read a manuscript for 45 minutes, then I answer 40 or 50 emails and realise that while I answered those emails another 50 came in! I will do many countless, small, yet so important little tasks each day, from asking an editor when we might see the proofs for a new book; to emailing an author to ask if they might blurb for a wonderful new debut; to meeting an author to discuss edits and what’s next for their career; to writing a long report on a debut manuscript that I hope to sell; to dealing with Acast over sponsorship revenue for a podcast; to attending agents meetings to discuss new contract templates…then home to deworm the dog and change the fuse on the lamp and make supper for the kids. I mean, what IS a ‘typical working day’? I think that is a rather outdated concept these days. Especially for women!
Sounds like you get few moments to yourself but I guess you rarely get bored! What’s the best/worst part of your job/ the funniest/most embarrassing thing that’s happened at work?
Best part – discovering a talent, and getting that amazing tingle. The most embarrassing is when I was courting a hugely talented writer hoping to lure her to me, and we arranged to meet for lunch. I FORGOT. I STOOD HER UP. Worse. Moment. Ever. (She forgave me, phew).
I shall not ask whether you keep an electronic diary instead of a paper one! Thank you very much for fitting us into your busy schedule, Alice. It’s been so interesting to hear from you.
For more about Alice see:
Alice was talking with Susan Leona Fisher (www.SLFisherAuthor.co.uk)