Faith O’Grady: a day in the life of a literary agent
In the first of a series on how publishing works, Sarah Bannan talks to a top Irish agent about what her job entails, what drives and what frustrates her
Faith O’Grady: “There is nothing better than letting an author know that they have an exciting offer from a publisher”
In March of this year, my first novel was published. There was a launch. There were interviews, readings, signings and festivals. People asked me lots of questions about how I wrote it, why I wrote it, what it meant, when I found the time. And what it was like to find out it would be published.
(It was wonderful. Life-changing.)
The questions people asked me were usually just about me, or just about the writing, but every answer I gave inevitably involved a long list of names – names of people who helped me along the way.
From the moment I signed with my agent (the glorious Sarah Williams), I have learned and learned and learned about the book industry. (And this an industry I thought I knew pretty well already.)
I have learned that agents work seven days a week and in every time zone; that editors hardly ever have the chance to read during the day; that booksellers still hand-sell based on their constant reading; that there are dozens of people putting thousands of hours into each and every book that hits the shelves.
Over the next number of weeks, I’ll be asking a range of people from the book industry to tell me about how they work and what makes up a day in their working lives. The answers, I think, are interesting, humbling and inspiring.
When a book goes into the world, it has an army of support. And it’s probably time to acknowledge the (sometimes) hidden work of that army.
Interview: Faith O’Grady, literary agent
What made you want to be an agent?
From an early age I was intrigued by authors and the world of publishing. I was a bit of a book worm as a child and would read anything I could get my hands on. Apart from being an active member of the Puffin club and local library, I used to write to lots of writers: I remember being incredibly excited when I got a letter from my favourite children’s author, Noel Streatfeild. My mother also wrote one children’s book, and the twice-yearly royalties were always welcomed. I think this love of books and curiosity about the book world led me to becoming an agent. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing one of the authors’ books in print. I really have enormous respect and admiration for what writers do.
You represent so many wonderful – and varied – authors, including Paul Howard (aka Ross O’Carroll Kelly), Christine Dwyer Hickey, Róisín Ingle, David O’Doherty and Sheena Wilkinson. How do you know you want to work with an author?
The work definitely comes first: I take on a writer because I am really excited about their work and want to find the right publisher for the book. I always like to meet prospective authors as well so that we can both make sure we get on and have the same vision for their work.
I get asked a lot (as every agent and editor does), what I am looking for in a submission. For me, it is a combination of factors. I am usually struck first of all by the narrative voice. If it is confident and intriguing, this tends to spark my interest, and then hopefully the story which unfolds is strong and original, and the reader is taken on a powerful emotional journey. It’s fantastic when there are some laughs along the way as well.
On a typical day, when and where does your reading happen?
I usually read in the evening when I can stretch out on my sofa and read in peace.
These days, when work reaches a publisher it is very, very polished. How much editing do you do with your authors?
It depends on the work. Occasionally, a book comes in fully formed and very little work is needed. A lot of the time, the novel will need to be polished a bit more before it is ready to show to publishers, and I will make suggestions based on my own thoughts and those of my readers.
Okay, what’s the first thing you do when you get into the office?
Check and respond to emails – this could include setting up a meeting with an editor to discuss a new writer; a negotiation about a contract with a publisher; a discussion about an option for a book with a film production company; an invitation to a prospective author to send in more of their work because I like what I have read; a request for a media appearance for one of our authors; a foreign rights offer from a co-agent; a look at new email submissions to see if there is anything exciting there.
What usually happens on your lunch break?
I might meet an author or publisher or prospective client for lunch or coffee. Otherwise, I try to catch up on reading at lunchtime.
And what’s the last thing you do before you leave?
I check my diary to see what is planned for the next day, and I usually collect some submissions to read at home.
What’s the most satisfying part of your job?
There is nothing better than letting an author know that they have an exciting offer from a publisher.
And what’s the most frustrating?
The short shelf life of some books these days because there are so many books being published.
Given that you’re selling rights all over the world, is it hard to leave your job in the office?
I think everyone is much more pressured these days because of smartphones. It’s very tempting to respond to emails at 3am if you are an insomniac!
What are the projects you’re most excited about right now?
I am proud of all the books with which I have been involved, and I love working with a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction. When it comes to upcoming fiction, I am particularly excited about a novel by Irish writer and oncologist Austin Duffy whose debut novel, This Living and Immortal Thing (Granta Books) comes out next February. I have been very cautious about taking on new writers of fiction in recent times, but I knew instantly that I wanted to represent this book. William Boyd recently sent in a quote for the book which I think captures its essence: “A tremendous, strange and beguiling novel that has a bearing on all our lives. Droll, disturbing and surreptitiously profound.”
Faith O’Grady is one of Ireland’s leading literary agents and established the literary department of the Lisa Richards Agency in Dublin in 1998
Sarah Bannan is the author of Weightless (Bloomsbury Circus)