Romantic Novelists' Association

Ask An Industry Expert: Marina De Pass

8 January 2021

It’s a great pleasure to welcome literary agent Marina de Pass of The Soho Agency to the RNA blog today.

@Andrew Hayes-Watkins

Welcome, Marina, and thanks so much for taking the time to speak to us.

Please tell us a little about the The Soho Agency, how long it’s been established, and how you became involved in it.
The Soho Agency was founded in 2019, bringing together two leading agencies with long-term reputations: the literary agency LAW (Lucas Alexander Whitley) and TV and digital agency Factual Management. Theatrical agent Helen Mumby also joined us at the beginning of last year, so we are working in all areas of international literary, theatrical and media representation.

I started working at the agency in 2016, but I have worked in publishing for longer. I started my career in the editorial departments of HarperCollins and Little, Brown. It was an invaluable introduction to and education in the publishing process – among other things, I learned about the editorial process, how the best stories work, books as a business and all the things editors have to consider before taking a book forward. However much I enjoyed working for a book publisher, I soon realised that I was most interested in the human part of the job. I loved meeting and working closely with the authors themselves and, crucially, my interest was instinctively in line with their interest, not the publisher’s – I knew I had to make the switch to agenting and have never looked back.

I adore working at The Soho Agency, which has a stellar existing client list that includes award-winning and global #1 bestselling writers including Sophie Kinsella and Kate Mosse, Sunday Times bestsellers Veronica Henry and Lindsey Kelk, along with former Children’s Laureates Lauren Child and Chris Riddell, to name a few. It is a real privilege to work closely with so many talented authors and creatives on a daily basis – I can honestly say there is never a dull day.

What genres do you represent?
I am building a list of upmarket commercial and accessible literary fiction – from twisty crime and thrillers to smart rom-coms and big, sweeping love stories to historical fiction – and a smaller list of narrative non-fiction, and am actively looking to take on clients in these areas. But I am also open to being surprised – sometimes the books I love most are those I don’t realise I’m looking for.

What is it you are looking for when a manuscript lands on your desk? Are there any specific plots or themes you’d like to see?
This is a great question, but the answer is tricky to put into words. As a general rule, I love books that contain relatable female characters, romantic chemistry that leaps off the page, plot twists you don’t see coming, a feminist thread, a-ha moments, and even though I am not looking for straight sci-fi or fantasy, I have a soft spot for books that have a mythical or magical edge. However, above all, I want books to provoke genuine emotional reactions. So if a book can make me smile, laugh out loud, gasp or cry, I’m hooked.

In the end, knowing I could be the right agent for a writer and their book comes down to gut feeling. One of the agency’s directors, Araminta Whitley, who I work closely with, once described it to me as ‘the shimmer’. I think this captures it brilliantly – when I’m reading something I really connect with, the words literally shimmer on the page and I feel a jolt of excitement. This might come from any number of things – an affinity for an author’s writing style, a deep love for a character, feeling tangible, electrifying chemistry between the main characters. It’s thrilling when it happens – truly. It’s a highlight of this job and is the signal I need to know that I have to talk to the author ASAP.

Book fairs, workshops and signings have been cancelled since the lockdown first started. What effect has the covid pandemic had on your work as an agent? And how has it affected authors looking for a publishing deal?
It would be dishonest to say there haven’t been challenges, but I feel lucky that my day-to-day is mostly business as normal, albeit from home and now peppered with many (perhaps too many!) Zoom meetings. I am looking forward to the day that we can ditch the webcams, return to the office and meet with clients and publishers in real-life – crossing fingers for later this year. But authors looking for publishing deals shouldn’t lose hope as there continue to be lots of opportunities. We are actively looking for new writers, reading manuscripts, taking on clients, doing deals and launching new projects. 2021 can only get brighter.

Under normal circumstances – and in a normal year! – do you ever find authors outside the slush pile? If so, how?
Yes, this does happen. My client list is actually a mix of authors who have approached me via our submissions portal, authors whose work I’ve read and loved in writing anthologies or writing competitions, recommendations from editors and consultants in the industry and introductions from current agency clients. In a normal year, I would be out and about a lot more meeting writers at writing festivals or at pitch and networking events, but we have still continued to take part in these this year, just the online versions!

What advice would you give someone submitting to you?
It does really makes a difference if I feel someone researched me and what I’m looking for, and then personalised their submission because they feel their novel might be a good fit. For me, the cover letter is especially important and what I read first – present your book and yourself in the most straightforward way you can. And don’t agonise about the synopsis – I know these are tricky to write!

What’s your favourite romance novel of all time?
Either The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, Where Rainbows End by Cecelia Ahern or One Day by David Nicholls. It’s too close to call.

Apart from your own authors, which book have you enjoyed the most in the past twelve months, and why?
I especially loved In Five Years by Rebecca Serle, which got me out of my reading slump during the first lockdown. I read it in two sittings; it’s clever, compulsive and involving – a love story, but not the one you are expecting.

If you could describe your working-day in just three words, what would they be?
Interesting, creative, unpredictable.

Thank you very much for your thoughtful answers, Marina. It’s been lovely meeting you. Wishing you and the agency all the best for the coming year.

If you’d like to submit to Marina at The Soho Agency, you can find submission details here on their website:
You can find Marina on Twitter @marinadepass

Marina was talking to Helena Fairfax (