Ask An Industry Expert: Robbie Guillory
26 March 2021
Today I’m delighted to welcome Robbie Guillory, Junior Literary Agent with the Kate Nash Agency.
Hello and welcome, Robbie. Perhaps you could begin by introducing yourself and telling us something of your career path into your current role?
Hello, thanks for having me! I’m originally from North Norfolk, but went to Glasgow for uni fifteen years ago and never left! I worked as a butler for a few years before being lucky enough to get a job, in 2013, with a small Glasgow-based publisher called Freight. I always envied agents, the way that they look after authors’ careers rather than focussing on the individual books, and so when I got the offer to join the Kate Nash Literary Agency I jumped at it.
My own first publication back in 2014 was an Edwardian romance which began and ended with a scene portrayed through the eyes of the butler. I imagine you might have viewed it with a critical eye, given one of your earlier ‘positions’! Anything you can share from that time and are below-stairs portrayals like Downton Abbey more fiction than truth?
Oh, well the thing about butlers (and I hope yours was no exception!) is that our discretion is cast in iron. Things have changed a lot for the profession since the end of the second world war, and for many of the houses I worked in I was the only member of staff, though often there was a cook and occasionally a gardener. It is the strangest of things though, because you’re present the whole time, but have to think of yourself as furniture – there to be seen and used, but not to take part. All the time you’re trying to anticipate the needs of your bosses, trying to work out what they will do next, so that they never have to ask for anything. That’s tricky, but rewarding when done right! I can imagine a fully-staffed house must have been quite something! I would have loved to experience it… for a bit, anyway.
The Kate Nash Agency deals with a range of literary genres. In the current tension of the pandemic, is it easier to place, say, a thriller about combatting a world plague, or a feel-good HEA romance? In other words, do you think these strange times are affecting reader, hence publishing, choices?
This is such a good question. These are strange times indeed, and as a result there isn’t really a clear path for publishers to follow. I think publishers are trying to play to their strengths more and maybe take fewer risks, so that means those with a strong crime list might be doubling up on thrillers. In terms of the overall balance, I would say that feel-goods are doing better. I’ve not heard of anyone wanting a pandemic novel just yet, though.
And how important is Romance for your company and for you personally in the authors on your list?
Alongside crime, romance is the bread-and-butter of our agency. Kate Nash has absolutely bottomless knowledge on the genre, and knows the editors really well too. I’m newer to the genre, but the brilliant thing about our agency is that we work collaboratively so I get to tap into Kate’s knowledge. Romance is an area that I have come to love, and I’ve taken on some absolutely fantastic authors writing across the genre, from historicals to rom-coms.
I note that the Agency is currently receiving a higher than usual number of submissions, which makes it increasingly challenging to stand out from the crowd. 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?
We have never had so many submissions, it is true. What this means is that it is all the more important to get the details right. Read our submissions guidelines carefully, and show in your covering letter that you have done some research to decide that we’re the right agency for you. An impersonal, bcc’d submission stands out like a sore thumb.
We like to read the sample before the synopsis, so make sure that those first few pages are reading beautifully. I like to be given some sort of conflict in the opening pages. This doesn’t have to be obvious – a person being in a situation they don’t [feel they] belong is conflict – but I want to have a reason for wanting to find out more.
Ask a hundred different agents and you’ll probably get a hundred different answers regarding synopses, but I like them to contain all the spoilers. I read the sample to see if you can write, I read the synopsis to see if there’s an engaging plot behind the writing.
A neat way of contrasting the functions of the two. Do you look for anything in an author apart from a brilliant book? (such as social media presence)
I’m what can probably be described as a reluctant social media user, so it isn’t something that affects my decision making. If an author has a big profile that’s wonderful, but it is their writing that matters. If an author has a successful publishing history that can help – whether self-published or traditionally published. Aside from a brilliant book, author and agent need to be a good match, and I meet with all prospective authors before signing with this in mind.
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?
Such an important issue and is something that we, along with most other agencies, are trying to do better at addressing. We’re actively looking for ways to approach people from diverse backgrounds, rather than waiting for them to come to us, as that can often be a barrier in itself. Last year we talked to the Scottish BAME Writers Network, and also started our #BookCamp mentorship scheme to provide support to debut novelists. Being an agency that doesn’t have a central office, we were already aware of the versatility of being able to hold events online, and this is something that we want to do more of. Travel can be a barrier for a number of reasons, and can make access to literary agents almost impossible for people with disabilities, childcare responsibilities, low incomes and the like.
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’m quite omnivorous in my reading. I love curling up with an historical, fantasy or science fiction novel, especially during lockdown! I’ve got a strong interest in our natural environment, so read a fair bit of nature-based nonfiction too. At university I picked up a love for Russian and French literature (both homes of sweeping 19th century romances). I’ve got a seven-month-old baby, so my leisure reading time is a little limited at the moment, but I recently finished My Sister the Serial Killer – every bit as good as people have been saying.
Given your degree in literature, might you turn your hand to writing a novel yourself. If you ever did, what genre would it most likely be?
Oh, I wish I could write a novel! But I don’t think I have the sticking power. I am absolutely in awe of authors. No, I’m far better at the editorial side of things. I think that what my degree taught me was that I love talking about books, dissecting plots, seeing what makes characters tick.
What is your typical working day like?
I try to get my emails out of the way early, so I’ll sit down at about 8:30 and go through what came in the previous day, creating a to-do list as I go (or, inevitably, adding to the list of the day before). If I can get to reading by ten o clock, then I’m happy, but generally it will be 11am before I can start. Depending on what is on my slate, that might be a first draft of a contracted author’s next book, a final look through a manuscript I’m about to send out on submission to editors, or a read of an unsigned author’s manuscript. I’ll stop for lunch with my family at 12, and then try to get outside with my daughter for half an hour before getting back to it. I’ll read till about three or four. The final part of the day will be spent getting submissions read – writing pitches, putting together lists of editors, that sort of thing. It is honestly the best job in the world.
What in particular is the best part?
Hands-down the best part of the job is being able to call an author and tell them an offer has come in from a publisher. Nothing beats that. But I also love that I can live in Glasgow, an hour from lochs and hills aplenty, work from home and watch my daughter grow, and do a job that probably twenty years ago just couldn’t have been done outside London.
Thank you for finding the time to talk with us, Robbie, and very best wishes in your work and for your growing family.
For more on the Kate Nash Literary Agency and to contact Robbie see:
Robbie was talking with Susan Leona Fisher: (Website: http://www.SLFisherAuthor.co.uk)