Meet the Agents: An interview with Sally HollowayHarry Bingham
This is an interview with literary agent Sally Holloway. Before becoming an agent, Sally commissioned and edited a wide range of authors, from film stars and politicians to academics and journalists, for Penguin, Headline, Virgin and Fourth Estate. She is interested in a broad range of non-fiction, especially on subjects with international appeal. The link to Sally’s Agent Hunter is here and the Felicity Bryan Associates page is here!
Q. What books/authors do you love in commercial fiction? (Crime, women’s) Give us some examples and say why you liked these books/authors.
Not my area of professional expertise but for pleasure I like reading crime fiction and psychological thrillers, and some of the Scandi stuff. I also admire Robert Harris enormously – he carries off the very difficult feat of writing page-turning novels on everything from City ‘quants’ to arcane Roman politics. His novels are commercial yet very well written and impeccably researched.
Q. What books/authors do you love in literary/historical/book group fiction? Examples and reasons, please!
My favourite writer is Kazuo Ishiguro – a very spare writer for whom what’s not said is more important than what is said. I loved Stoner, too, for a similar reason – very spare, understated writing.
Q. How about sci-fi/horror/fantasy/paranormal/YA dystopian/erotic? What would you be interested in, and what’s a big no?
Not interested in any of this!
Q. On the non-fiction side, are there particular areas that interest you? Does your non-fiction list have a particular slant to it?
My list has a strong slant towards ‘Big Ideas’, economics, business, popular science, history (both macro and micro) and – weirdly, since I have no great personal interest in it – sport!
Q. And are there any areas of zero interest to you in non-fiction? What would you NOT want to see?
I don’t really understand mind, body and spirit stuff. Most memoir is terrible, though there are a few honourable exceptions to this. Travel writing is very tough to sell.
Q. What (very roughly) is the balance of your list between literary fiction / commercial fiction / non-fiction?
Almost exclusively non-fiction
Q. Is there anything in particular you’d love to see at the moment?
Anything with a strong idea behind it that is both original and well written. The author is also probably already an expert in their field. I’m prepared to be interested in anything as long as it fulfils those criteria. One of my tick list questions is ‘Could anyone else have written this book?’ and if the answer is ‘no’ for whatever reason, then that’s a good start. I’d love to find an intelligent true crime writer who can write really well.
Q. What’s your biggest turn-off in a covering letter? What would you really hope to see?
Overfamiliarity or, by contrast, pomposity. Ridiculous self-aggrandising comparisons to established writers. I also have an irrational dislike of the word ‘peruse’.
On the other hand, I really want to establish quickly that the author knows what they’re talking about, genuinely wants to and is capable of writing for the general reader (we get a lot of academics approaching us who fulfil neither of these criteria) and has thought it through. Also, that they have done their research on similar books, the market etc.
Q. What are your biggest peeves in an opening page or opening chapter? And what do you love to see?
I want it to grab me from the outset. I don’t really care how that’s done. If I’m bored by the opening pages or they’re not getting to the point, I’m not going to read any further.
Q. Do you have any unpredictable loves?
I like finding out about worlds about which I know nothing, so if a writer can take me by the metaphorical hand and transport me into that world, whether it’s historical or geographical, or indeed a world of ideas, then they’ve got me.
Q. Would you take on an author who had self-published? What kind of self-pub sales would make you sit up?
Only if I feel they have more books in them. I see a lot of self-published business books which often aren’t at all bad, but I frequently feel that that is going to be that author’s one and only book. It’s not to do with sales (unless we’re talking hundreds of thousands!), it’s about potential.
Q. What single piece of advice would you most want to give writers?
Do your research.
Q. How many submissions do you see annually? And how many of those submissions will end up on your list?
I don’t see everything that comes on to our slush pile – it is filtered before I see it – but I look at several hundred submissions a year, of which I take on 2 or 3. What’s more, I know almost instantly which ones I’m seriously interested in.
Q. Do you look for social media and online presence? Do you care?
Depends on the type of book. Business books it’s pretty essential unless you’re already an established author; history and science it matters a lot less. Only do it if you enjoy it and choose just one platform to concentrate your efforts on.
Q. When people are pitching the concept for a book to you, what do you find is the most common failing?
They haven’t thought it through and/or it lacks substance. They should think to themselves: Is this a book-length idea? If so, can it be broken up into 8-10 chapters and what are they? If they can’t do that, then they should stop right there.
Q: What character (from any book) would you be and why?
Dorothea from Middlemarch. I read Middlemarch when I was 18 and I really empathized with her then in a way I haven’t really done with any character in a novel since, though I’ve enjoy reading about plenty of them.
Q: Which 3 famous people (alive or deceased) would you invite to a dinner party and why?
Three of the greatest politicians of the twentieth century, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. I’d like to know what they’re really like and whether they’d get on with each other!