April 20, 2013 by Jennifer Williams
I’m sure you’ve seen me talking about how amazing my agent is, right? Greatest agent in the known ‘verse, FACT. Well, if you’ve ever wanted to know what she looks for in a book, read on.
The Importance of Being Subjective
Juliet Mushens is a fiction and non-fiction agent in the literary department of The Agency Group. She was picked by The Bookseller as a Rising Star in 2012 and is on the shortlist of four of the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize 2013. Please email her your cover letter and first 3 chapters when submitting.
It has been a very busy fortnight. News broke recently of epic fantasy THE COPPER PROMISE by Jen being snapped up by John Wordsworth at Headline. Then, last week, Jessie Burton’s literary historical fiction debut THE MINIATURIST was bought for 6 figures in the UK and US, and in 14 other territories and counting. At London Book Fair I had the joy of foreign publishers sitting down and saying, ‘oh, YOU are Juliet Mushens!’ (the ‘I did not realise you were 12’ is mostly unsaid. Mostly.) and then, with a quizzical face, ‘your list is very… Diverse.’ Yeah. There is that.
Writers often get frustrated when we talk about it being a subjective industry, but with a job built on passionate advocacy it will always be this way. And that passion for all kinds of genres is what lends itself to my broad (but picky) list.
My standard line in any conference when I explain my list is: ‘jack of all trades, master of none!’ and then ‘except diet books. I don’t do them because I think they’re immoral.’ Many agents have a particular area of specialism – children’s fiction and YA, crime and thriller, literary fiction… But take a look at my list and you will see recipe books jostling alongside horror; epic fantasy rubbing shoulders with literary fiction; memoir passionately snogging YA. I have always had very diverse reading taste and my list reflects that. But take a look beneath the broad title categories I represent and you will see a lot of the following:
+ Strong women. Actually scratch that, just normal women. Women with agency, women with humour, women who have-sex-or-don’t because they want to and that is okay. Women who are funny, and clever, and sometimes-pretty and sometimes-not. Women who feel real, even if they are battling a dragon or confronting Anubis.
+ Genre bending. I like books that push you out of your comfort zone. I love supernatural thrillers, historical crime, literary YA. Books that are brave and different and exciting.
+ Books that make you cry. I love to cry. Sometimes, in a stressful week, the sight of a sad-looking puppy can reduce me to tears. And the books I love are no different. My hysteria is a sign that the characters feel real and the writer is deft and talented. It is a sign that I have truly bought into the book and invested in it.
+ Dialogue. I like it sparky, clever, realistic. I love witty exchanges, heartfelt declarations, playful use of language. Read it aloud, read it with a friend. Make it sound real.
+ Books With Issues. Books which make you confront uncomfortable truths or prejudices or questions. Not in an overt way necessarily, but beneath the surface there is rebellion, and questioning of the status quo. Be it in a non-fiction book on economics, or a literary novel set in South Africa.
+ Books that match my interests. I’m not saying for sure that a book about a leopard-clad lindy-hopping feminist superhero who saves Tom Hardy from a shark would definitely lead to representation (I lie: it would) but books that feature things I am passionate about definitely capture my imagination. Hence the recipe books. The inspirational memoirs. The historical fiction.
+ Black humour. As we learned from Singin’ in the Rain: Make ‘Em Laugh. I like books which find humour even in the darkest of situations. You can see that in the vast majority of the books which I represent. From crime scene witticisms to barbed comments between friends, I like a book that raises a smile.
Does your book feature one or more of the above? Chances are I’ll like it. But above and beyond that I am also particularly looking for: A Good Book. Seriously, nothing more scientific than that. Something with great prose and a page-turning story. It can feature aliens, dragons, monks, detectives, whatever. Just make it smart and immersive, and hopefully it will appeal to me. Go on: try it. – Juliet Mushens