Ask An Industry Expert: Juliet Pickering
21 September 2021
Today I’m delighted to welcome Juliet Pickering, Literary Agent with Blake Friedmann Literary Agency and a Director of the Books Department.
Hello and welcome, Juliet. Perhaps you could begin by introducing yourself and telling us something of your career path into your current role?
Hello! Thank you very much for asking me onto the RNA Blog.
I’m an agent at Blake Friedmann, where I’ve been since 2013. I began my agenting career at the world’s first ever literary agency, A P Watt, after being a bookseller at Waterstones. I represent around 50 authors across a wide range of fiction and non-fiction; what most of those books have in common is that they feature contemporary stories, with lots going on underneath the surface that might be driven by a bigger issue or conversation.
On the fiction side, I work with authors of romantic fiction (Sue Moorcroft and Annie Robertson) through ‘book club’ (Bolu Babalola and Jendella Benson) and literary fiction (Janice Galloway and Michael Donkor).
I notice you don’t refer to the often used term ‘commercial fiction’?
I always think that ‘commercial fiction’ is an unhelpful term, especially for writers trying to figure out what their book is: surely we’d wish that every book is commercially viable, and by publishing it we’re making it so! But in the traditional sense we might assume that ‘commercial’ fiction encompasses the books that have the higher sales potential. Currently, that might imply that we can get those books into retail spaces such as supermarkets, alongside the more usual bookshops.
It can happen that I read a submission and think it’d be made more commercial with a few tweaks to the story – but I don’t force edits on authors unless they agree with them. The job of the agent is largely to read a new book and think about how it’s going to best make an impact, and how to sharpen up the manuscript with its readers in mind. So, I would hope that we make every book we work with more ‘commercial’ in the sense that we are preparing it for an industry keen to publish wonderful and bestselling books.
You mentioned ‘book club’ authors. I’m sure loads of writers out there would love to be nominated by the Richard and Judy Club. How does a title become a ‘book club’ book?
There’s a mysterious magic to being picked by popular book clubs such as Richard & Judy, and I’m sure if we knew the trick we’d all be employing it! But, in the first instance, publishers put forward books for consideration and then the club decides their selection.
And with regard to your non-fiction clients, how does your workload balance out between that and fiction writers? Is it like relating to two different worlds, dealing with different styles of writing and different publishing houses, or is there an overlap?
Interesting question! I love representing fiction and non-fiction, because I can move across cookery, romance, memoir, politics, family stories, campaigning books and more. I initially set out to represent fiction, but soon found that dazzling novels don’t pop into your inbox every hour so, while you’re waiting for the fiction, as an agent you can be proactive on the non-fiction side. When I started building a list of authors, I took myself to the bakery down the road from the agency I used to work for, and asked if they’d be interested in doing a cookbook. I also emailed journalists and bloggers, after reading their work and thinking there was something bigger there that deserved a whole book. Non-fiction is also quicker to take to publishers usually, as you’re editing a proposal (a chapter plan and a couple of sample chapters) together with the author rather than a whole book, and editors know much more quickly once that proposal is submitted to them by me, whether an idea is for them – a good non-fiction proposal should pitch an idea that stands out from the first few lines.
There is some overlap too: there are some fantastic editors who publish both fiction and narrative non-fiction, such as memoir (this is much more common in the US publishing industry than the UK); and some of my authors write both – like Kerry Hudson, who started her career with two incredible novels, and then wrote a bestselling memoir, LOWBORN.
Congratulations on having three BFLA authors shortlisted for the RNA’s Romantic Novel Awards 2021. What store do you set by literary competitions?
Thank you! We were delighted to have Elizabeth Chadwick, Sue Moorcroft and Kate Thompson shortlisted this year, and the Awards are always great fun! Literary competitions are a real boost to authors, and much-deserved recognition for their hard work. Let’s celebrate our authors’ achievements! Prizes can also be a great boon to our efforts when selling our authors’ books overseas: we pass on the prize news as a nudge to editors considering our books around the world, and it shows them that we’re not the only ones to think our authors are the best.
How important is Romance for BFLA and for you personally in the authors on your list?
I think it’s very important, and even more so after the last year – we’ve seen a real rise in the appetite for joyful love stories. We represent some of the best romantic writers out there and are extremely proud to do so (continuing the precedent set by Carole Blake), and I, personally, love a good romance.
Romantic fiction has really evolved since I first started working in publishing (in 2003) and has changed to reflect modern attitudes and conversations; I’m really pleased that we’re now representing and publishing fresh, original romance stories that feature women (and men) with real-life issues and complications. For example, Annie Robertson’s THE GUESTHOUSE AT LOBSTER BAY isn’t just a gorgeous story of setting up a guesthouse on the beautiful Scottish coastline and falling for the delicious boat-builder next door, but about overcoming trauma to follow your ambitions, and finding that life isn’t going to hand you an easy win. I’m really keen to keep adding to my list of romantic writers, and also to find more stories in the vein of Bolu Babalola’s upcoming novel HONEY & SPICE, which is a campus-set romcom that’s not only really funny and sexy, but also about the power of female friendships. Love comes in many forms, and there’s room for more than just romantic love in commercial fiction.
I note that the Agency is currently open for submissions and those submitting fiction must send a full synopsis and the first three chapters. Any advice on how to produce a gripping synopsis, how to make yourself stand out from the rest and what the opening page of the m/s needs to demonstrate to make you want to turn the page?
Gosh, there’s a lot to answer there! I’ll do my best…
Firstly, I’d say it’s much more useful to write a great blurb for your cover letter, rather than worrying overly about the synopsis. I think the cover letter is the top priority – if you can pitch your book well in the cover letter, you’re halfway there! We have fuller recommendations on writing a good cover letter on our website, but it should focus on your novel (which sounds obvious, but plenty of writers barely mention their story!) and the blurb should be central – to be clear, a blurb here is the kind of pitchy, intriguing paragraph you find on the back of a book jacket, or on its website listing (eg for Sue Moorcroft’s UNDER THE ITALIAN SUN, here)
The synopsis doesn’t have to be gripping as much as it’s a very practical tool for us, as agents, to get a sense of your entire novel. We don’t tend to use a synopsis much beyond your submission – I write shorter, pithier pitches when submitting to editors – so when writing your synopsis tell us the main narrative arc of your story from beginning to end: what is the journey of discovery, who are the main characters involved, and what are the big events along the way? Include the ending, even if it’s a spoiler – we don’t mind!
There are – honestly – no hard and fast rules as to how to perfect the opening pages of your three chapters. My personal preference is for something to be happening more or less immediately, ie don’t spend pages scene-setting but jump straight into a scenario that involves the main character/s and tells me about who they are via their words and actions, and not just their thoughts. I’m a big fan of effective dialogue; lots of writers are understandably wary of it, but a few lines of well-written dialogue can effectively cover the same information as pages of description/back story, and tells us so much about how a character is feeling without the novelist having to explain. I also admire writers who don’t try to cram lots of back story into the first pages; I always prefer to be present with the character in the moment, and their history can unfold later on, if necessary.
As for how to make yourself stand out: this is a very dull answer, but your book will do that for you! The best you can do as the author is to be polite, professional, keep your cover letter concise, make it clear that you’ve done your research and are writing to that agent because they represent a particular author or a couple of particular books – and a couple of comparative titles are so helpful for us, too. Some of the standout submission letters I’ve received have pitched their book beautifully, and in a way that immediately got me excited, e.g. “I’d describe my novel as When Harry Met Sally meets THE FLATSHARE” (sadly, I’ve not had that novel but I would love it!).
So is there in particular theme or setting you’d like to receive in a submission at present?
I don’t like to be overly prescriptive about themes or settings in submissions—I like to be surprised!—but I’m not alone in wishing I could escape to somewhere sunny and beachy right now, I’m sure, so I’d love some coastal settings whether here in the UK or abroad.
In terms of themes, I’m always looking for women that read as real—with common dilemmas. I love a good friendship in a novel, and I’m a bit weary of reading ex-partners that are nasty, vengeful or vindictive—it makes no sense to me that the main character had any relationship with them previously if they’re awful!
I’d love to read some middle-aged characters finding new love, and second or third chances at life more broadly. And I’d adore more Nora Ephron-type romantic comedies (I love her films, and HEARTBURN is one of my favourite novels.
Plenty for aspiring authors to consider there! Do you look for anything in an author apart from a brilliant book? (such as social media presence)
First and foremost, I look for a personal as well as professional connection: I always meet my authors before officially signing them up (at least, if Covid allows!), and will act on gut instinct. The relationship between author and agent will hopefully last a very long time, so you must both believe that you will like, trust and respect each other. I will discuss editorial feedback to make sure that an author feels comfortable with my suggestions, and we that we might see eye-to-eye on edits. I also discuss next books and get a sense of where an author wants their career to head over the longer term – we don’t take on an author for just one book, at Blake Friedmann, it’s a goal to take on authors with plenty of books ahead of them!
It can be very helpful to work with an author who is even a little bit savvy – or willing to learn – about social media. The last 18 months have taught us the importance of spreading the word about our books online, and it doesn’t look like the influence of social media is going to be diminishing any time soon – even if the platforms change and evolve. Having said that, I’m sympathetic to authors who find social media an uncomfortable pursuit, so it’s not a dealbreaker!
Diversity and inclusion are high on the agenda for the RNA, as for many other organisations. I wonder how the Agency’s selection of books and authors reflects these principles?
I hope this question is best answered by going onto our website and looking both at who we represent, and who we (the Blake Friedmann team) are! Our principles are something we try to act on every single day, and we aim to consistently push for better both at the agency and around the industry.
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 LOVE reading for leisure (of course!), but nowadays – and as parent to a toddler! – I tend to listen to podcasts in the evenings and save up the really enticing novels for holidays. Having said that, I have a real mix of books on the go at the moment: I’m enjoying HAPPY ALL THE TIME by Laurie Colwin, a funny, spiky novel about marriage. We’re reading a 1950s crime novel for Blake Friedmann Book Club, A RAGE IN HARLEM by Chester Himes. And I’m really looking forward to reading EARLY MORNING RISER by Katherine Heiny, when I take a week off next month.
Thank you for finding time to talk with us, Juliet, and all good wishes with both work and your young family.
For more about BFLA and Juliet’s role, see:
Blake Friedmann: http://blakefriedmann.co.uk/
Juliet’s agent page: http://blakefriedmann.co.uk/juliet-pickering
Juliet was talking with Susan Leona Fisher (website: www.SLFisherAuthor.co.uk)