How to find a good literary agent, with Charlotte Colwill
26 April, 2023
In this episode, hosts Theo Brun and Julia Kelly sit down with Charlotte Colwill, co-founder of the independent literary agency Colwill & Peddle, to discuss how both aspiring and established authors can find the right literary agent for them.
Charlotte brings a wealth of experience to the conversation, having worked in bookselling before transitioning to the world of literary representation, where she currently represents authors of fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature.
Listeners can expect to learn about the role of a literary agent and what makes a strong pitch, as well as hearing anecdotes and examples from her own experiences working with authors and publishers.
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[00:00:00] Theo Brun: Hello and welcome to episode two of The History Quill Podcast, brought to you by The History Quill, the home for historical fiction writers. My name is Theodore Brun and I’m here with my co-host Julia Kelly. Hi Julia. How are you?
[00:00:28] Julia Kelly: I’m a little stressed, I’ll be honest.
[00:00:32] Theo Brun: Are you, why are you stressed? I think I know where you’re stressed, but you tell us.
[00:00:36] Julia Kelly: I think you, you have a good guess. So I, I am in the middle of writing a book right now, and I am in the dreaded middle, which I. I know myself, I know my process. This happens every time I go out of the gate really fast and really excited. And then I get to the middle point of the book about maybe 35,000 words in, and it’s just everything slows down and it grinds.
And I’m in the middle of that right now, and I’m deploying every trick in my book to try to get myself out of that and get myself to my favorite part, which is the downhill slide to the end of the book. But it’s gonna be a little bit of time before I get there, I think. So. That’s what’s, that’s what’s going on with me.
Are you having better luck right now with your writing?
[00:01:18] Theo Brun: I feel for you. For the particular, the, the actual book I’m on, I, I literally went through that sticky patch for mu well, almost months. It was quite painful. I have to admit, I am so happily. I did dig my way after that and I’m now at the stage of a rewrite, but yesterday I got the, the dreaded email that from my editor that says, This isn’t a hasling email, but when are you gonna have this thing handed in?
I’m like, okay, yes, need to do some early mornings. But yeah. Other than that, I think things are looking pretty good. And you’ve got a launch coming out, haven’t you? Next week. We’re excited about that for you.
[00:01:57] Julia Kelly: I do. So that’s also adding to the stress a little bit. So at the time of our recording, I have a book coming out. In a few days, which is great. You know, I’m prepared. This is, you know, I’ve done this before, so I have a good sense of, you know, what I need to do well beforehand to get things into a good place and make my life as easy as possible.
But it’s a bit like, The stress of your moving house and you know, your moving house and you know you’re going to have to pack and, you know, moving days coming, but you can’t actually do it until the day. and so that is, that’s where I am right now. I’m in this weird holding pattern, so I, I’m both trying to dig myself out of a sticky manuscript and I’m also waiting for a book to come out, which feels like a very strange limbo, but it’s, it’s one, it’s a good limbo to have. Let’s put it that way.
[00:02:43] Theo Brun: So last week we had, or last month, I should say Madeline Martin, bestselling historical fiction, novelist of Second World War, novels. This week, Who are we gonna be talking to?
[00:02:56] Julia Kelly: We are speaking to Charlotte Colwill, who is a literary agent. She has, set up her agency relatively recently, with a partner, and she’s offering us a lot of insight into her perspective on the business, which is a little unique because of her background. and hopefully giving people some help as they, maybe look for their own agent.
[00:03:19] Theo Brun: Excellent. Well, I’m sure we are gonna learn a lot. And, without any further ado, should we get Charlotte on the line?
[00:03:27] Julia Kelly: Let’s do it.
[00:03:34] Theo Brun: Okay, well, welcome Charlotte Colwill. lovely to have you with us on The History Quil Podcast. And I, I don’t wanna steal your thunder by sort of introducing you beyond saying you are a literary agent. you’ve recently set up a new literary agency, with Kay Peddle called Colwill and Peddle. Aside from that, do you. Just sort of tell us a little bit about yourself, your background in the kind of jungle of the publishing industry and how you’ve got to where you are now.
[00:04:05] Charlotte Colwill: Yeah, sure. I’m from Twickenham, but I, yeah, I got into books. I did a master’s in. A very long time ago, and through that I did, I studied book selling, a book selling in the recession specifically, and how bookshops were coping. And that led to a job at Daunt Books, and I worked there as a bookseller for three years.
And then I kind of, went around a few different bookshops in London and Australia. And my last book, selling gig was running the children’s department and being a children’s buyer at Foyles in Charing Cross Road, which I loved dear. I loved all of my book selling jobs, and then I kind of always wanted to go into Agenting as soon as I found out what it.
Going back to the beginning of the process and coming at it from a more like customer focused, reader focused point of view, I felt was very useful. We often would see books come into the bookshop, which felt like they had not had a bookseller anywhere near them, and that were kind of unsellable. So I think it’s a really valuable perspective.
And yeah, and then I set up, I, I worked for Tibor Jones who represent Wilber. which is how I got some of my earlier sort of historical fiction, adventure fiction clients. And, then I worked briefly for Jo Unwin at Jo Unwin Literary Agency, which was a great education. And then, yeah, during the pandemic I had met Kay and our tastes kind of aligned and complimented each other.
She does non-fiction. I, I like focus on fiction and children’s. So yeah, we set up on our own in September and it’s gone pretty well. So,
[00:05:45] Julia Kelly: Wonderful. Well, I am so curious to hear about how your experience and, especially having that customer focus to your potential clients, what are you looking for when you are, are looking for potential clients or when somebody approaches you and says, you know, I’m interested in representation,
[00:06:02] Charlotte Colwill: Yeah. well, I think like the way that that is informed by being a book seller is that, you know, we often, like most commonly would get both. This is children and adults, get people asking, you know, what is new? What have you read recently that’s completely different that you’ve never seen before? You know, it was those kinds of questions rather than, I just read x, can you give me something very similar to X?
which I think is the way publishing can operate. Sometimes something is a huge success and then they like to copy it over and over again until everyone’s lost enthusiasm for it. So I think in that sense, I’m always looking for submissions that bring something brand new to the market that I would be able to put in the hands of a reader and say, you’ve never heard anything like this either.
The story or the setting is something completely unique. And I think that is generally, yeah, what I look for and, and how I then sell that book to publishers. And yeah, it, it tends to be effective.
[00:07:04] Theo Brun: That’s really interesting because, because I, I sort of, I suppose there’s a balance. There isn’t, isn’t there, between the novelty and the uniqueness and like people wanting to know that they’re gonna like it and have that sort of security of the, of this is something at least somewhat familiar, but how I, I, I was interested to know that how your experience as a book seller, you know, coming into agency, how.
That has sort of affected your perspective as an agent? Like do you see things as a book seller that make certain choices as an agent? Like this is a no-brainer that for, as you just said, like this just would not sell in a bookstore. And I, and my own personal experience with that is, is. Almost by accident writing a book that was sort of in crossing two genres.
And then when I actually stood in a book shop and I was like, is it historical fiction or is it fantasy? Hang on, this is a problem. And, so I I, you know, I wonder if you could sort of talk a little around, you know, how, how that experience now influences, your, your current current b.
[00:08:06] Charlotte Colwill: well, yeah, I mean, you definitely do. You always would sometimes get books that you weren’t sure where to shelve them, which is a practical problem for a book seller. But I wouldn’t say that should put people off as so. Writing those kinds of books because we’ll, we’ll find somewhere to put it. And the point is, is if that’s right for the story and if you are doing something interesting and like formally different.
I’m trying to think. There was a book that I was fighting over with. Maybe it’s Miss Peregrine with the, the sci-fi section and like that’s kind of a good problem for a book, an author to have if like different book sellers are fighting to put it on their shelves, you know, cuz it doesn’t fit in a box, but it’s really formally interesting and that can be a selling point.
So yeah, I wouldn’t worry too much about that. But in terms of. As a book seller, like turned agent. I see. You were always thinking of the conversation that you would be having with a customer and how you would, you know, I guess enthusiasm is a key aspect of it. You know, the, the way I talk about books to editors when I’m selling it to them is very similar to the way I would talk to customers.
It’s kind of just spectrums of, of selling and, and just enthusiasm is as effective with customers as it is with editors.
[00:09:25] Julia Kelly: Yeah. I’m, I’m curious, kind of tying all of this in and when it comes to, looking at at clients who you may potentially represent, what are you looking for in a. Terms of the right fit between you and a client.
[00:09:38] Charlotte Colwill: Yeah. What am I looking for? I think certainly I’m quite a story focused agent, so I I maybe not one for more kind of like literary experimental novels or, you know, novels that are more kind of like atmospheric and quiet. I’m, I’m quite, I need a good plot and a good story like voices. I know everyone says this, but voice is very important.
because it’s one of those things where like if the voice is strong enough, And unique enough and either like makes me laugh or I just stays with me. Then the other things matter less. You know, you, I don’t need a, a big twist, or I don’t actually need a very structured story. I will just wanna stay with the voice.
So like those things are very important. But I mean, especially with history, the thing I love about history, those stories and especially, and also those characters. I think like the thing that draws me to history, historical novels are usually characters, either characters that are real and you are giving a different spin or characters that you have imagined and you’ve put them in real situations.
Both of those are just like always such perfect setups for good novels. I think if you can get the combination. So, yeah, I would say that a kind of a story, an exciting new premise and a strong voice would be my most looked for elements.
[00:11:03] Theo Brun: Does it, it sounds like the, the sort of time period parti, particularly thinking about historical fiction, the time period is not. You know, you have sort of sweet spots, down the chronological line as it were. Is that something that you’re less worried about or do you think, oh, I dunno. No one ever buys, I dunno what I mean.
People talk about the English Civil War, no one ever buys the English Civil War, but for example, but is it. You know, is that something that sort of factors into your thinking and also how, how sort of, trustworthy is, like what’s hot now or what’s popular now with someone who’s like trying to aim into a hotspot, let’s say, but, you know, are they behind the curve or, you know, the time lag, I suppose, between where the market moves makes things tricky.
So how, how do you sort of think about that from the agent’s perspective?
[00:11:55] Charlotte Colwill: Yeah, I mean, definitely it’s a very dangerous game trying to predict trends and certainly trying to write a whole novel into those trends because by the time you finished and by the time it’s published, who knows? And I think, I mean, the thing with, the good thing with historical fiction is that, you know, it’s, it’s as opposed to maybe like political fiction is that those.
Time periods are not going anywhere and they’re not changing. So you can kind of play around with them and I mean, there are certain time periods that I think are underwritten and that can, you can make an asset of that, like the English of a war. I mean, I, I don’t, I think it’s not that people aren’t interested in it, they maybe just don’t know a lot about it.
It’s not really. But if you can find a way in, I mean, it’s, it’s full of some of the most fascinating human stories that we’ve ever had in this country. So if you can find a way in, you know, you can create a space in the market for it. I kind of like to think like, just because no one has cracked it, yeah.
It doesn’t mean that you can’t be the one to crack it. And once you are, you are the first one. You know, you can start a trend as well as following it. And in fact, it’s better to start a trend than follow it. I. And then, you know, it’s, there’s a sort of accepted wisdom that. Time periods are overwritten, for example, the Second World War.
But at the same time, I think again, there are still so many fascinating stories within that time period imagined. And, you know, there’s so many things you could do with it, you know, I know it’s not a book, but you know, I kind of loved in oh, the Quinton Tarantino film that I’ve now forgotten the name of.
That was in the Second World War, where he just like killed Hitler.
[00:13:34] Theo Brun: Inglorious Basterds. Yes. Yeah.
[00:13:36] Charlotte Colwill: Inglorious Basterds. When he just kills Hitler, cuz why not? It’s fiction. You know? Let’s just have that kind of end that way. There’s so many different things you can still do with it. And so I think. You know, when I say I want to see something unique, there’s different ways of being unique.
It doesn’t have to be a unique setting. It can be a unique take, or it can be a unique character or a unique way of writing into that space. I guess the key thing would be that you are very passionate about that time period, that you’ve done your research and that you’ve got a good story to tell. And I love historical fiction that makes some things that may seem kind of dry and academic, really accessible and exciting.
Like, you know, Q by Luther Blit is all about, you know, the reformation and kind of this can like goes through a lot of the sects from the reformation, which sects that is S E C T and, I think that that’s very, you know, that could have been very dry, but it’s not. It’s absolutely thrilling. So, yeah, I think that that kind of challenge really will excite me if someone’s taken that on.
[00:14:45] Julia Kelly: When it comes to working with a client who says, I have this great idea. It’s different, it’s unique, and I think we can find a place for it in the market. And you agree. How much do you, how much time do you then spend working. Editorially on that idea or on that manuscript, if it’s a full manuscript, are you kind of getting in the weeds or is it more sort of big picture?
I’m really here to sort of guide you through the process and find you the right publisher who’s then going to work, you know, an editor will work with you. Then what’s, what’s your style when it comes to that type of, stage of, of the publishing process?
[00:15:20] Charlotte Colwill: Yeah, I think I am quite editorially led because we are smaller, you know, we’re a smaller agency. We don’t have a huge. Clients we prefer to, you know, take on fewer clients and then work really closely with them. So some of the things that we take on, Might be slightly less polished than what some of the bigger agents would take on.
And that’s just a case of they don’t have the time, that we have or that we want to dedicate at this point in our careers. So sometimes I can spend a long time, if I kind of see something there in terms of the writing, in terms of like a shared vision or an idea, then I will take the time. And also because I, you know, I, I want to take on clients who will write lots of books for me.
You know, it’s the beginning of their career and I understand that. So, you know, sometimes as well, it might not be the first book that we work together on that gets picked up by a publisher. It might be the second, it might be the third, but I’m kind of, If they are, I’m here for the long term. And in terms of, I mean, it’s both big picture stuff and more granular edits, I think in publishing nowadays, you know, editors are so busy.
If I think I’m busy, I mean I talk to some of my editor friends and it’s crazy, their workload. So the reality is you need to be bringing them a very polished product and they still will want to work on it and put their stamp on. To some extent, but you do need to be, and it’s such a congestive marketplace for so, so for both of those reasons, I would expect to be doing like 2, 3, 4 passes at a manuscript with a writer before sending it out because it gives them the best chance of getting picked up and the it working within the reality of what an editor’s workload is as.
[00:17:07] Theo Brun: So do you see, it sounds like you see the agent role as a sort of, you know, you’re kind of in partnership. With your authors to help them develop their career and, sort of, yeah, kind of grow with them or help them, show them paths to grow, from where they are currently. I, I had a, I had a question, which was sort of, if you were. And author. You thought you had a, you had a manuscript. You’re, you’re, you are looking to break into the, the game as it were and you’re sort of looking for an agent. Do you have a view about whether you’re trying to, it, it’s what are the pros and cons of finding an agent that will effectively make you a little fish in a big pond?
It’s like big brand name agency or what you’ve done, I guess get some experience there, but set up your own. Sort of smaller startup agency. And what are the advantages of maybe coming in with, with a smaller outfit that you can then grow with as a, as an author, you know, what do you have? What’s your view on that?
[00:18:08] Charlotte Colwill: I think it’s more about, I mean, you know, authors will take a view and if they get offers from multiple agencies, there will be pros and cons. You know, the, if you go with the big. The big guys, they, they’ll have pros, you know, they have in-house rights teams and you know, various things. And there will be cons as well.
Like they will have less time maybe to give you, they have a lot of clients. So, and then, yeah, with us, I think. Yeah, you, you’ll get more of our attention and, the setup might be different in terms of how we sell your rights. Although I should say that in terms of right sales, you won’t ever suffer financially because the, if we work with co-agent, for example, the cut comes from arca, never from your cup.
So the financial arrangements should be pretty uniform across the board. And I think it’s more important if I was an author, which I am not, but it would be more about having that. Right, being the right person. So someone that really understands your writing, your vision is enthusiastic because you know, you have to work so closely on the book, together, and you have to really believe in that person’s advice.
you have to share the same tastes. I think those kinds of things in order for building a lasting relationship because, you know, small. Agencies will grow as well. So you’ll probably find yourself working in a medium or large agency eventually, but it’s more about being able to have that relationship with an agent.
And, you know, I, it does happen like also do leave agents go to other places, but it’s actually quite rare. And I think if you can get it right, it’s, it’s much better for everyone if you can have that long, productive relationship with your.
[00:19:51] Julia Kelly: I love all this conversation about sort of longevity and the whole career as opposed to just sort of one moment in somebody’s career. I’m curious, we’ve talked a lot about the beginning stages of an author’s career when they’re first working with you, but I’m curious about sort of an author who maybe has either been traditionally published or independently published and they’re, they’re looking at sort of making a next.
Step and what you as an agent can kind of say to them about how working with an agent and, and focusing on that long-term career can kind of help them move up in their publishing journey, whatever that looks like for them.
[00:20:26] Charlotte Colwill: Yeah, I mean, and that is kind of a, a, a time at which people might change agents or just like their agent may have retired, they find themselves needing a new agent. Like those kinds of things can be quite a good reset. I do have a couple of writers, who are more experienced have been published before, and it’s a ki it’s a kind of a bit of a reset because I won’t have the same.
Views as necessarily as their old agent, but also their career might just naturally be at a point where it needs a bit of a refresh, where it needs a bit of, you know, and it’s just about strategizing, I guess, with that author and taking the strengths that they had, the things that they’re known for, the things that have they’ve been successful at, and adapting it to the new marketplace.
And I think a new agent who. Maybe, you know, it tends to be if you’re a new agent, you are more familiar with some of the newer editors, for example, rather than having those older established relationships with older editors. So it’s, I think it can be like a fresh pair of eyes in so many ways. And yeah, it can really like revive your career.
It can make, you know, it’s obviously a bit more complicated. You’re dealing with someone at a different stage of their career and they have already been through these experiences, but I guess as long as everyone is open-minded and understanding, then I think so in my experience, those relationships can be really productive.
[00:21:51] Theo Brun: I notice on your website that you, both, you and Kay, expressed that transparency of the industry, particularly for new authors who are kind of coming in and approaching this kind of the behemoth or the, the, it’s probably the wrong metaphor, the, the forest of this world. How they make sense of that and should say transparency is something that you, you think is important and wish to promote.
How, why do you think it’s important and how do you gonstead about promoting it?
[00:22:20] Charlotte Colwill: I mean, I think it’s about, it’s just about finding the best writers and making those connections so that, you know, for too long and, and obviously reams have now and written on like the lack of diversity in publishing. But from our point of view, the first step for that is that making sure that the people that want to write that aren’t necessarily from the same backgrounds and savvy about the process.
Do actually get access if they want it. And a lot of writers don’t even know what literary agents are. And now that they’re almost completely vital for getting traditionally published, that just needs to change. And actually we’ve made that important to us and we wanted to get that message out. But the Association of Authors agents to refer to them have been doing a lot of work behind the scenes.
And some of that’s kind of starting to happen this year in terms of. You know, opening up access and letting people know about literary agents and letting more people know about how to access and how to submit to them. So hopefully those things will start to change throughout the industry as well.
[00:23:32] Julia Kelly: Makes a lot of sense with what you’ve talked about, kind of looking for, things that are not necessarily like every book that’s come before it, you know, 10 publishing his tendency to say it’s the next. X, you know, look for something different and something unique. Are there sort of some barriers that you look to help authors through?
just a couple of examples I can think of. you know, people who’ve never really been in the industry before, don’t know anybody in the industry. Being asked for things like, you know, a marketing plan or, you know, social media platforms to be well established before they’re really going out to market with publishing.
Is that, is that an area that you’ve had to address with clients and, and with potential editors?
[00:24:17] Charlotte Colwill: It is definitely the kind of thing that some is important to some publishers and editors, and I can like see why, you know, it’s tough for books and it’s tough. There’s a lot, there’s so much out there. So I can understand why they would want a platform, but I. I’m not the agent that like cares about those things primarily, mainly because of my own inability to use those platforms.
so I think for me, I don’t really think about it to be honest. When people are coming to me, I’m not gonna be, you know, if you are. If you came to writing through having a huge Instagram following, or a TikTok following, which I have no shade to you, I’m probably not the agent for you because I don’t really know how that works.
And there are agents that know very well how that works and can really maximize that. You know, like for you. But for me, I’ve got most of my, some of my clients don’t have any social media whatsoever, and that might be a little bit of a handicap sometimes for us when we go out to market. But then that’s fine.
We’ll find the, the, we’ll find the editors for whom that’s less important, and we’ll find the publishers who want to work with you in other ways to build your brand. So, yes. No, I’m a bit like social media phobic and, but don’t take my word for it. Some, you know, some people are able to use it really well and effectively to reach readers and yeah, I think, and there’s certain areas that it’s more important than others.
So I know, like from my colleagues’ experience that things like Kari and lifestyle, it’s extremely important and hard to do those things without those platforms now. But I think that, With fiction and children’s. Hopefully it’s the stories speaking for themselves, and that’s kind of what I will continue to sort of push.
[00:26:09] Theo Brun: Yeah, I dunno whether it’s my experience, but I feel like, I guess because of the sheer number of people in the market and, and also the, the whole sort of other domain. As it were of self-publishing where you’re not going the agent route, you’re not going the, through the publisher. that being an author is not just about writing books suddenly, or this was my experience anyway.
You get sort of, you get through the gate and you go, whoa, here I am on the field of players. It were, and then you realize, hang on, I’ve gotta be like, I’ve gotta understand how to make a website. I’ve gotta be a marketer. Now I’ve gotta build a social platform. I’ve gotta learn how to. Books, you know, notwithstanding your, you know, you said you’re not that interested in that side, but from the author’s side it feels like if you don’t do that, no one else is gonna do it for you kind of thing.
So, so my question was, you know, if you were a new author or, or like an aspiring author, you’ve got a manuscript more or less ready, is it ever too soon to start educating yourself about this other aspect of the profession as.
[00:27:12] Charlotte Colwill: No, I didn’t think so. I mean, I think if it’s something that you will enjoy. Then you should definitely do it and it will definitely help you. I don’t think that you should necessarily, if you hate it, spend hours of your time trying to get to grips with it because as well, if you hate it, it kind of is obvious and the that kind of engagement won’t really work for you.
So I think if it’s something that you’re slightly interested in or you think you might enjoy, and it can be just a really good way to connect with other writers, I know. A lot of my authors don’t just use it for publicity, but also just to kind of be out there swimming in the pool with other writers so it can have those benefits.
And in terms of like writers being that they need to do it, I think my, where I come at it from is making sure that they have the, the, the. Yeah, the publishers, I’m selling their work to have a really great marketing and publicity team, and that they’re gonna get behind us and if they expect us to do things that they’re gonna help us with that, that they’re gonna, you know, give us social media training or they’re gonna, you know, support them in ways.
I think that can be that, from my point of view is, is the way. It’s ma, I mean, it’s part of all, everything you do as an agent is making sure your author is as supported as possible by their publisher, and that is part of it for me as well. So that’s kind of where I would put my focus.
[00:28:32] Julia Kelly: So I apologize for doing this to you cause I’m sure you’re asked this all the time, but could you tell us a little bit about what’s on your wishlist, what you’d love to see land in your submissions box?
[00:28:43] Charlotte Colwill: ooh, what would I love to see land in my submissions box. I think, yeah, in terms of. Do in terms of historical fiction is probably the most appropriate place to start. Yeah, I, I mean, any kind of fresh sort of perspectives, like very commercial, I think, well either very commercial of the Bernard Cornwall type that just is, you get completely lost in it and that yeah, you get told a familiar story in a different.
I think, you know, there’s, there’s, I’m looking for sort of new ways to tackle kind of popular themes. So at the moment obviously’s, lots of Greek myth retellings, but I’m sure, like, I just feel like there must be myths from all over the world that are just as interesting that we are not hearing about. I’d love to find something like that.
I mean, I’m a medievalist, I’m a massive war of the Roses fire and I can never get enough of any of that. And yeah, and then I kind of, I also wonder if we can go even further back, you know, there’s so much interesting stuff about sort of pre Roman, Anglo-Saxon, you know, stuff like that. That could be, and it could be really interesting formally as well.
Cause we don’t necessarily. How those people spoke to each other and interacted. So yeah, something brand new, basically a as brand new as you can be in the space of historical fiction, I suppose, if that makes any sense at all.
[00:30:08] Theo Brun: That’s quite a lot of scope there, I would say. Well, I mean, thank you so much for your time. I wonder, you know, do you want to just say where, how people can find you online and what’s next for the agency? I guess if there, if, if that’s an appropriate question.
[00:30:29] Charlotte Colwill: Yeah, so, well, we have a website and that’s, we’re gonna try and we try and post kind of like blog posts about the industry and things, if they’re helpful and, how to like make your submissions stand out and things like that. And that’s, Calwell and pet.com. we have got an agency Instagram arisa, but it will come as no surprise that I don’t really do those.
but we’ve got, like, that’s where we talk about our authors and can try and give a sense of our taste and things like that. And then my submissions email is submissions at Calwell and Pedal. at the moment my submissions are closed because I’m, I’m slightly over. But I should be opening them again in spring, so like probably end of April, and we’ll announce that on all of our socials and on the website itself as well.
[00:31:17] Theo Brun: Fantastic. Thank you very much. Thank you, Charlotte,
[00:31:21] Charlotte Colwill: Thank you very much.
[00:31:22] Julia Kelly: Thank you.
[00:31:29] Theo Brun: Well, that was fantastic. I really enjoyed hearing Charlotte talking about the, the kind of insights into the industry. Some of it I expected and some of it I really didn’t, so I’m looking forward to dissecting it with you, Julie, in just a moment.
[00:31:42] Julia Kelly: Yeah, I think that’s gonna be a, a great, a great conversation to kind of digest and think about for a long time, for, for everybody listening. But in the meantime, before we do that, I wanted to remind you to visit the history quill.com. Slash two where you can access a range of resources. Related to this episode, you can also join our email list to receive new podcast episodes and more content for history fiction writers.
You will find the link in the description, or you can enter it into your browser.
[00:32:09] Theo Brun: That’s right, and you’ll be able to. All the tools you need to help put what you’ve just heard and hopefully maybe you’re gonna hear into action. Okay, so where should we start?
[00:32:21] Julia Kelly: There’s so much to talk about, and I, I’m so glad that she talked about things like, you know, transparency and longevity of careers and her experience as a book seller. What, what do you wanna jump in with first? I, I think maybe just talking about her unique perspective.
[00:32:37] Theo Brun: Yeah, I think, I think the question for me is often the balance between, you know, the pure storyteller view of like, it’s all about the story. It’s this great original idea with no. Thought about, is this gonna sell in your mind at all, whatsoever, versus like, I just wanna feed the beast, the commercial beast, and, you know, are you gonna be able to sell an A to an agent B to a publisher?
And then c to all the, all the lovely readers out there. And she seemed to kind of marry those two approaches. She, she started off talking about the commercial aspect and like whether you can sell within an actual bookstore, but. She was kind of driven by, is this basically a good story that engages me and kind of cap captivates me?
[00:33:21] Julia Kelly: Yeah, I, I, it made me think of, a time where I was talking to a friend. I was still working a day job and writing at the same time, and I was talking to a friend from work and she said, well, you know, doesn’t, doesn’t have an, to think about the business side of it stifle all your creativity. And I, and I just kind of, it made me stop and think, you know, no, because the.
Perfect scenario for me and every writer’s different, but the perfect scenario for me is finding something that I really love, I feel really passionately about, that feels very, you know, new and very fresh, but also has that, you know, commercial, marketability. Cuz my, my end goal is to see my, my book published.
And again, you know, everybody’s. Everybody’s going to be different, right? Everybody’s coming into this, this process with different goals and you know, some people want to write a book for the sake of writing a book, but some people do want to see it, you know, in bookstores, and if that’s what you’re trying to do, finding an agent that has a similar vision to you, I think is really important in terms of getting the right fit and making sure that you’re both coming in the process from the same direct.
[00:34:22] Theo Brun: Yeah, I think that’s right. And also like generally one, one gets more than y, hopefully one idea. So there is that. Well, I think we talked about it last, last time, was that idea of how do you evaluate. Several ideas to decide which is worth pouring your time and investment. I mean, it takes a lot of sort of blood, sweat, and tears to write a novel.
So you wanna know that there are gonna be readers out there and it’s kind of, it is deflating, you know, there’s no two, two ways about it. If, like, you’ve, you’ve, you’ve written something that you think is great and, and the numbers are not there, that you wish that were there. So, so why not aim at something that, that kind of marries both.
Uh, what I’d like, just sort of moving on to a d. Point that she made was, I’ve often, well at the stage where, where looking a, a few years ago I was at that point where you are, you’ve got a manuscript and you’re trying to get in. There were some voices out there that like, to your point, if you haven’t got the social platform, if you haven’t got the numbers already, if you dunno what, how to market this book, then we’re not interested.
Nice. That can be a little bit intimidating. So I thought it was quite nice that she obviously. Personally wasn’t that interested in platform building as it were. but she also said that that wasn’t a necessity for the, the authors that she was prepared to look at. So I thought that was kind of a, a, a point of encouragement for, for anyone out out there who, who’s aspiring to get into the industry.
[00:35:48] Julia Kelly: Yeah, and I think the idea of using those platforms in positive ways when you haven’t been published yet to learn, to grow, to connect with other writers and sort. Sometimes, sometimes learning from your fellow authors is one of the best ways to understand what’s gonna work for you in terms of that platform building side of it.
And that can kind of be coming along organically while you’re doing what I think’s the most important work, which is writing a really great book that then can turn into a really great book that hopefully sells, with the right agent, with the right editor. so kind of bringing those two things together, it’s, it’s a.
Long journey, I think for a lot of us, and it’s a whole career that you’re looking at, not just one snapshot in time. And I, I really liked her focus on, you know, looking at how you would build a career with her, and with her agency over, you know, over the course of your career rather than just, you know, a year or a project or, you know, a trilogy of books, for instance.
that this is really a, a long-term thing, that she looks.
[00:36:53] Theo Brun: Yeah, and it’s, it’s quite, it was quite reassuring I felt when sh she. She obviously sort of puts a lot of her own thought into the manuscript. So, so if you, if you get to a point where you’d be taken on by her, she was gonna give you a lot of, he help in terms of actually really polishing this book. We’ll bring it to the best place that it could, could be in.
What else did she, she talk about, she was talking about transparency. Wasn’t shean like trying to reach new readers. I think that’s, that’s definitely a, again, it’s. You know, I remember my, my route in and, and was kind of through a friend who was an already an author and I remember she said at the stage, you are at what you need is a manuscript and contacts.
And of course, you know, to have contacts is itself a sort of relatively exclusive thing, you know, I knew her, so that was helpful. She could share her contacts with me, but often people are just starting way. Back, even from that position. And, and it’s nice to know that there is, that, that the industry is kind of reaching out as well as, you trying to wrestle your way in.
[00:37:58] Julia Kelly: Yeah, I think so. I, I had the experience of not knowing anybody in publishing, having this book and kind of not really know. What to do about it. And this was in the days when they used to publish. They probably still do publish the big compendiums of like every agent who is openly looking for queries that year.
in the United States, I think it’s called the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents. And I went through and I flagged everybody for my relevant genre. And my family will laugh at this, but I power ranked all of the agents and I basically went through and called emailed people and it’s a long process and, you know, learning to do even that required a lot of sort of reading and education and all of those things.
So once you’re connected with an agent and once you have somebody to help guide you through some of that publishing is, is one of those funny businesses. You know, I’ve, I’ve done a number of books here and there’s still new stuff that comes up, and I still turn to my agent sometimes and I say, I’ve never heard of this before.
Like, what is, what is this term? Or what are we doing? What’s this approach we’re taking? So having somebody there to help demystify it for you is really key. But also making sure that that. You know, editors and agents are reaching out externally to make sure that, you know, they’re opening up pathways for people, I think is, is vital as well, especially with all the conversation that’s been happening.
And hopefully efforts as well to increase diversity in publishing across a whole number of of areas.
[00:39:21] Theo Brun: Yeah, sure. I was wondering as you, as you were talking, like what your experience was in getting an agent. Like was it hard, was it that sort of scatter gun approach and, and quite a hard graph to get one? Or how did it work for you?
[00:39:35] Julia Kelly: So I still have the file folder of all my rejections, and I should go through one day and. All of my rejections, because what I did was I, again, I power ranked people and my, my agent was, was in my top three. So that was, that was good. I was working on the, the right path. little did I know, but I basically went through and I sent out, I prepared and sent out five.
Queries to sort of the people who I thought, I think these are the best fit for me in terms of, you know, what they’re talking about. The type of, I, I was looking for people who were looking at long-term careers. That’s always been really important to me because it took about 10 years for it to happen, but I wanted to quit my day job and, and rightful time.
That was my goal, and so I wanted to make sure I. Reaching out to people who I thought would be taking that into consideration. So I sent out the first five queries quickly, got rejections from a few people, and just basically every time I get a rejection, I’d send out a new batch of queries. If there were any revised and repeat requests, I kind of filed those away.
Most of them for me though, were, were just straight rejections. but the ones who did say yes, fortunately were my, were my top two. one of whom, again is my agent now. It was, you know, in the days where everything was done on physical paper. so I had to, you know, package up my little, query bundle with my first a hundred pages that she had requested, send that off to her, and then she requested the full manuscript.
And so it was a bit of a process to get there, but it was one that, you know, again, I’m sure if I look at some of those, some of the query versus the agent I was querying, I’d see, oh, okay, you know this, if it was a very swift rejection, like they. Really aren’t representing that anymore or you know, they’ve got that on their list and they’re looking for other things.
So I tried to think of it as. Personal as much as possible. And some days it was easier than others. But again, you know, I’m a big proponent of, if you’re looking for an agent, finding the right fit is so important. So it’s not necessarily about getting an agent, it’s about getting the right agent for you because ultimately you are hiring them and you are paying them ultimately when, when you do sell a publishing contract.
And I think that’s, I think that’s important to remember.
[00:41:49] Theo Brun: Yeah. Did you have to, in that process, did you have to do some rewriting of the manuscript itself? That first manuscript, or, or was in that first sort of trance? You got a, you got a yes.
[00:41:59] Julia Kelly: I got a yes, I was lucky. now that book never sold, so the subsequent process of trying to get the book sold. It did go through rewrites and it did go through, you know, maybe if I focus on this aspect of it, it will be the right fit for an editor. And I just got rejection after rejection. So I, I always tell that story to people who ask about sort of, I’m really serious about, about trying to get published, what should I know?
And it took me four or five years, I think, to actually go from being agented to being published. And then from then it. A different story in my career sort of went in different directions, but it definitely took time and, and it took some rewriting and it took some frustration. But I think my, my big thing is always keep, you know, keeping the faith and just trusting that this is something that you want to, you want to do.
Did you have a, you said you had a, a contact and a friend.
[00:42:51] Theo Brun: Yeah, it sound well, it sounds like the, yeah, that that was a sort of starting point, even for the idea. And actually, weirdly, I had a kind. I had a con, a very good contact, a New York agent before I’d even really put the idea down on paper. So it, so I sent him, I think it was, it was a very lengthy, like overly lengthy synopsis, which he then made positive noises.
There was no commitment there. But he, he was like, well, you know, this sounds like it’s gonna be good. And that was enough sort of encouragement for me to go, all right, you know, writing fiction, what does that look like? And then start writing this enormous book. But he, but then at the sort of other end of the writing process, like having.
Something ready? I suppose there was definitely a kind of progression towards a yes and you know, I’d get some cold. No, I definitely had a conscious thought that you don’t want to kind of burn all your bridges at once if it’s not good enough. You don’t want to have sent, found every agent in the market that you can think of and sent out that query or whatever.
Because then you, they’re not gonna look at it again. So it was like you pushing it out in tranches and the first, I think I got some sort of interest, but interest in the idea, but not, and then they’d see the, see the first few chapters and go, Hmm. Less interested now. so I, I’d type that, I was like, right, okay, I’ve gotta work on the, the beginning.
So there was, there was quite a lot of. But actually what was nice was that the agents people were basically very kind. I mean, yeah, fine, you got some flat out rejections, but those that were sort of intrigued by the idea would, would give you, you know, more than just one shot. And there were a couple that gave me two or three and then said, no.
And, and then ultimately what I realized I had to do was sort of go in and seriously rewrite this manuscript, but one of the ones who was kind of had me on the simmer as it were, once I’d done that, gone back, given it to him, he was like, I mean, it literally was overnight I think he sort of got back to me and said, quit.
Yes. You know, I want you. So I think there’s. It was a real experience of like, these are the gatekeepers of the industry. Just my own personal experience when I got my own work was of a standard. It got let through into the next stage as it were. So that was quite an interesting lesson for me, I think, and I, I’d say to our listeners, I guess just a lot of it is about perseverance from you.
I think people are looking for that next big thing. So there’s a lot of sort of favor. There’s a kind of favorable attitude on the receiving end. They want to, they want you to be the next great thing or next big discovery. So, you know, be encouraged by that. But, but at the same time, don’t be discouraged by the fact that you don’t get it first time, or you have to, you know, it’s quite a journey to get to the point that someone’s actually gonna say yes.
[00:45:39] Julia Kelly: Well, I think that. That’s given us a lot to think about and hopefully, some good insight for everybody who has listened.
[00:45:45] Theo Brun: Absolutely. I think the message is be encouraged and, and, keep going. Keep trying. so thanks again to our guests, Charlotte Colwell, for that brilliant conversation. And that concludes this episode of the History Quil podcast. If you’ve enjoyed today’s show and wanna find out more about the topics discussed, head over to thehistory quill.com/2.
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[00:46:21] Julia Kelly: And of course, wherever you’re listening to this podcast, make sure you like, subscribe, and leave a comment or review. Thanks so much for listening, and we will see you next time.
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