Meet the Agents: An Interview with Philippa Milnes-SmithHarry Bingham
This is an interview with Literary Agent Philippa Milnes-Smith of Lucas Alexander Whitley (LAW agency).
She’s looking for exciting writing for all ages, both commercial and literary, particularly work that translates well into film, television and other media.
Her best job before heading up LAW was running Penguin Children’s Books; her worst was cleaning industrial deep-fat fryers in a motorway service station. She won’t say which prepared her most effectively for agenting, but will admit to owning a paperweight emblazoned with the words: Diplomacy – the art of letting someone have it your way. Printable adjectives her authors have used to describe her range from ‘enthusiastic’ and ‘exciting’ to ‘outwardly respectable.’ She’s a past president of the Association of Author’s Agents. The LAW twitter feed is here and Philippa’s Agent Hunter page can be found here!
What Authors and Books do you like?
I really enjoy innovative approaches to narrative, which may include text and illustration (take a look at OLIVER AND THE SEAWIGS by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre or MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN by Ransom Riggs as something a little different again). DANGER IS EVERYWHERE by David O’Doherty and Chris Judge I’d highlight as an inspired work of illustrated narrative for the 8-12 age range that is developing as a series and a brand with live events, YouTube content and audio. We love to get behind this kind of project. I think as digital publishing for the YA and children’s market develops even more there are going to be really interesting opportunities for new ways of storytelling but I don’t think that’s confined to digital. There are plenty of different and exciting ways to make a mark in print books too. Beautiful illustrated books for children and young adults – or really readers of all ages – such as THE SLEEPER AND THE SPINDLE by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell are classics and fabulous objects to experience time and time again.
I can never resist really good ghost stories, though I know how difficult they are to write. The challenge is always building up the suspense, bit by bit without ever losing the reader, and then really delivering at the end. THE WOMAN IN BLACK by Susan Hill is an obvious example of a ‘classic’ ghost story by a contemporary writer which really works (though it’s written for adults, of course) and it’s no accident that it’s also been such a successful long-running stage play and now a film franchise so I’m always on the lookout for something that could do this for a children’s, YA or family audience. I think I do also like dark and gothic generally and I love to see how exceptional creative people can play in this territory. I represent Chris Riddell, whose Costa prize-winner GOTH GIRL has been a best-seller and has been sold in 15 languages, Chris Priestley, whose UNCLE MONTAGUE’S TALES OF TERROR has also been a hit internationally (Charlie Higson named it as one of his Top Ten Horror titles) and Robin Jarvis. It would be fun to see something modern and different in this area.
I also love fantasy with great new ideas and great new worlds to explore. I rep a number of fantasy authors and series including the New York Times best-sellers THE EDGE CHRONICLES by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell and RANGER’S APPRENTICE by John Flanagan as well as Philip Reeve (MORTAL ENGINES). I’d like to find in my submissions pile the commercial best-sellers for today and the classics of tomorrow. And I don’t believe those are always mutually exclusive.
I’m always look for strong debuts, different and distinctive voices and something that’s going to surprise me. It’s not always just the debut author that is surprising either. I still remember vividly reading ARTEMIS FOWL by Eoin Colfer for the first time. And AFTER TOMORROW by Gillian Cross and THE KNIFE THAT KILLED ME by Anthony McGowan. And THE JOLLY POSTMAN by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. And WOLF HALL (if we digress for a moment into adult fiction). These are books that make you sit up and take notice. I’ve represented some great new US debuts recently for the UK, such as AMY EWING and MELISSA GREY and now would really like some more UK debut authors to challenge the US voices in the best-seller lists. Or maybe there are other English language writers based elsewhere in Europe who will step forward? I have a few Irish clients and would love to have more. And I’d really like a list that reflected much more the cultural diversity I see around me.
I also love writers who are maybe experts in a different field and have a particular knowledge, insight or expertise bringing that to into imaginative and exciting storytelling as Andy McNab does with military and covert ops in his adult and YA novels. Or writers who just bring very different lives and experiences to their writing.
The books I loved as a child are, perhaps, too many to mention. And I’m still reading children’s books in my job and keep finding new ones I wish I had read as a child. I’ll mention just a few that come instantly to mind today. THE SUBTLE KNIFE Philip Pullman I CAPTURE THE CASTLE Dodie Smith DRAGONRISE Kathryn Cave THE GASHLYCRUM TINIES Edward Gorey THE KING MUST DIE Mary Renault THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE Avi MORRIS’S DISAPPEARING BAG Rosemary Wells.
What are your other loves and passions?
There’s no reason anyone would know it but I did Latin A Level and a classical background course as part of my English degree, so I love classics and mythology. I loved KEEPER by Mal Peet even though I have no interest in football. I nearly bought a picture book in Bologna, when I was a Publisher at Penguin Children’s Books, called Arlene Sardine which would not have suited the Puffin list but I loved its wacky and unusual choice of subject. I am always open to less conventional ideas with the potential to make quirky best-sellers.
We’re definitely keen to take on the right self-published authors in YA who have made or are making their mark online. We’ve been working with self-published authors for a couple of years now and had some real best-seller success working in creative partnership with them. Eventually, when e-readers are more available to younger children or a regular part of both their school and recreational life it may be that there are more opportunities in this area for authors writing for the pre-teen age range. But we are not there yet, so I’m sticking with YA on this one for the time being. Clearly, the bigger and better the sales success, the greater the potential platform for an author for further development. But the speed of sales growth an author has achieved as a self-published author is also important as it’s the sign of a growth audience. What we are looking for first and foremost are authors who are really connecting with their readers (sorry this isn’t really a ‘random’ like but it’s probably not clear from just looking at our website etc).
Do you have any other useful tips and information for prospective authors?
Tips: I have done an article for the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. It includes various tips on making approaches to agents generally and a copy of the book is a handy reference anyway. There is also one dedicated to children’s books as well called (unsurprisingly) the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.
But I’d also like to suggest something else. The army have something they call ‘The 7 Ps’which they say are used for ‘training for life-or-death situations’: Proper planning and preparation prevents piss poor performance. Go for the same principle when you are writing your manuscript or planning your approach to an agent.
We have a specific Submissions section on the LAW website, but I think what I’d personally stress to any author is that you should make an effort with every aspect of your submission, whether it is the email, the covering letter, or the synopsis/outline as well as the manuscript. If these are dull, why will they motivate anyone to pick up the manuscript or sample chapters? Use them as the chance to get across your personality and your individual talent and show how you can engage the reader. This doesn’t mean you need to go on at length. Often the best approaches are very short but they instantly make the connection on a one-to-one level.
The most common failings in pitching are, perhaps, though not necessarily in order: 1) Not really having a clear idea of what the pitch is or not being able to communicate it clearly. Try getting across your idea variously in one sentence, one paragraph and one page. It’s a great exercise and helps crystallise your ideas and words. 2) Not giving enough thought to the reader or audience 3) Not doing any obvious research in terms of the audience or competition. Your project on angels really isn’t ‘original’ if there are a hundred similar concepts showing on Amazon. 4) Over-pitching to the level of absurdity – “It’s Frozen meets Wimpy Kid meets Lord of the Rings” or “I believe I am the next J K Rowling” will always be a turn-off. 5) Not engaging the reader – the pitch itself should signal the excitement of the final manuscript/project. 6) Not getting the title right – the title needs to enhance rather than undercut the pitch.
The biggest turn offs in a covering letter include: 1) Irrelevant content 2) Impersonal approach (it’s clearly going to every agent at the same time) 3) Self-aggrandisement 4) Calling me “Mr Philippa”.
I think the opening of a book has to be immediately arresting. It doesn’t matter if it is a picture book or YA fiction. The words and/or pictures have to cast some form of enchantment. Reading the submissions pile, many of the writers seem to think it’s fine if you take a few pages or couple of chapters to warm to your task and then get into the writing properly. But you need to establish your world and characters and narrative voice from the outset with authority. And keep revising your work until this is right. If it’s the front cover that makes you pick a book up and then the cover copy that makes you open it, it’s the first page that really seals the deal with the reader in a competitive market. However your progress on pitching to publishers and agents is going, think about how you might develop yourself as an author. There are writing courses such as Avon and Faber Writing Academy; there are MAs in creative writing, such as Bath Spa; there are local writing groups and there are, of course, many online writing groups and communities.