The million-dollar question; How do we pick our authors?
Posted on 03/12/2020 in
Perhaps the most commonly asked question in our profession: how do we pick our new clients? On what grounds do we choose the projects we represent?
Well, as with any complex question there are several answers, but some overarching traits can be found in most of our projects and authorships. In this case I am talking about fiction and narrative nonfiction, as the process looks a little different for our children’s and illustrated non-fiction teams.
Since the bulk of what we do is represent our authors in the arena of translation rights, at least one aspect of the manuscript must appeal to the foreign editors. It can be the topic or issue, the genre—be it crime, literary fiction with a certain Swedish angle, non-fiction with a cutting-edge international topic—or the execution or writing style. A book can be as likely to work abroad because it is ‘super Swedish’ (the exotism of Scandinavian titles is an evergreen!) as if it is written in a more broadly universal manner. What is a given is that it needs something that makes it stand out, and that something is whatever we think foreign editors will be looking to add to their lists. Remember, the editors we pitch to have their pick of manuscripts and projects from every corner of the world, so the projects we submit to them must stand out in the crowd.
There’s a publisher for every genre and editors in other countries tend to know exactly what they are looking for, be it commercial women’s fiction (often called feelgood in Sweden), crime, suspense, upmarket fiction, narrative non-fiction or a gripping memoir. A book doesn’t have to be considered of ”high quality” (whatever that is!) to make it internationally, it just has to be great within its genre. And believe us when we say that there are a multitude of genres out there in other countries that we don’t even have in Scandinavia! The difference between a crime novel, suspense, domestic thriller or procedural for example is vast. Who even knew, right?
Passion and personal taste
Never underestimate a passionate ambassador! Sometimes our agents fall in love with a project that on the surface doesn’t seem like the obvious choice for representation, but personal tastes should be taken into account too. When we read something we just love, even if the rest of the team doesn’t share that feeling, we often take it on to at least give it a try abroad or for film and TV. The sheer passion of a highly enthusiastic agent talking about a project can sometimes get editors to pick it up because they too feel the project has something a little extra. In the fiction team we say we are allowed one pure passion project a year, it’s good for everybody to work on something we love for the sake of it sometimes and where the result of the submission matters less. Otherwise we are very good at reading with our ‘work glasses’ on, so that a book that isn’t to our own personal taste might still be our biggest title of the year, as we know exactly how to pitch it and get the best deals.
The dark horse or Thinking ahead
One of our most important tasks as agents is to know our international markets. We need to know what the individual editors at the different publishers in any given country will be looking to add to their lists in the coming seasons, so that we can be on the lookout for that kind of book when we read Swedish manuscripts. This sometimes means that we need to foresee what editors are likely to be interested in in more than a year’s time or even a couple of years, to look into the crystal ball of publishing and pick a book that will be right at the right time. It can sometimes seem odd to our colleagues in editorial or marketing in Sweden when we decide to put all our efforts into one particular book or author when that book is not necessarily a lead title in the home market. That happens when we have a feeling that that particular manuscript picks up on something (a theme, style, genre or issue) that might be bigger or more popular in other countries that in Sweden, or will be by the time we get to presenting the book. A few years ago that was true of the psychological suspense genre (huge in the US and the UK especially) and lately it’s been often true of certain types of narrative non-fiction where other countries have a longer tradition of that genre than Sweden. Patrik Svensson’s The Gospel of Eels is the perfect example of that, a book I just knew would be huge abroad way before it was even fully written. When we decided to pull out all the stops for that projects and commission a full translation into English to help us sell the book, we were still almost a year away from our international submission and even months away from the author actually having finished writing the book. That’s a perfect example of when we needed to use all our skills in foreseeing that the editors would respond well to our submission a year in advance. I love when our predictions turn out to be true!
Experience and skill
I’ve been an agent for almost 15 years and worked in publishing for even longer. Me and the rest of the team have decades of combined experience. What I’ve noticed is that as we continue to work in this industry, our intuition for what will work and not, for when and how something should be pitched, or what project to highlight over another, just increases. All that experience, all those manuscripts, the hundreds, perhaps thousands of deals and negotiations, they all add up to a pretty reliable gut feeling. Sometimes we can’t even quite put words on why we believe in a certain project, or perhaps believe in something a little less—that’s when I think our intuition is at work, the sum of all that experience. So yeah, trusting our gut feeling is something we do almost daily!
Though it’s last, it is definitely not least. Timing can be everything: never mind how amazing a book is, if it’s submitted internationally at the wrong time or in the wrong season it might not at all catch the eye of the editors. This is also true for certain genres: they might be doing really well in the Swedish market, but the interest abroad might not be there at all, or not at that particular time at least. Fashions and interests change, in publishing as in everything, and it is our job to know what will or won’t work in other countries. All we can do is plan meticulously ahead as much as we can and hope our plans all fall into place. This is why we always need our authors to deliver their manuscripts on time and be sure to write the other material we need by the deadline we’ve agreed. But we wouldn’t expect anything less than timely delivery from our stellar authors, of course! 😊
After having said all this, what kind of manuscripts are we looking for then? For the fiction and narrative non-fiction part of our list we are looking for exciting, opinionated and interesting manuscripts in most genres (especially crime, suspense, literary or upmarket fiction and for me personally, genre-bending fiction) written in any of the Nordic languages.
If you have a manuscript you may already have signed with a publisher in your home market, or where you are just considering your options, drop us a line with a short presentation and the manuscript attached, and we will get back to you. It may take a few months, but we do read and respond to all submissions that come to us fitting that criteria. Our authors do not have to be affiliated with Bonnier in any way.
Our colleagues in children’s and illustrated non-fiction currently do not consider authors outside of the Swedish Bonnier Publishing Group.
Thank you for reading this far, and happy writing!
Literary agent, fiction and non-fiction