David is an agent at the Andrew Lownie Agency, he is also a writer, editor, and ghost-writer, with bestselling books to his name.
The Andrew Lownie Literary Agency Ltd, founded in 1988, is now one of the UK’s leading boutique literary agencies with some two hundred non-fiction and fiction authors and is actively building its fiction list. David is looking for fiction in all genres, and vivid, dramatic stories will always get his attention. He is particularly interested in crime, thrillers, mysteries and adventure stories.
When did you come into agenting? What did you do before? And why agenting?
I became an agent four years ago, after about ten years as a freelance editor and writer, working in film, television, and theatre as well as publishing. In that time, I wrote a number of books, some under my own name, and some as a ghost-writer. Andrew Lownie was my agent for those books, and when Andrew was looking to expand the (non-fiction) agency into fiction, he asked me to join him.
I love cinematic, immersive novels, with lots of twists, suspense, and drama. I tend to be much more interested in an engaging story than in clever prose, so my tastes are fairly commercial. I also love funny books, and it seems to me that there’s not nearly enough humour in much contemporary fiction. A few of my writers are trying to remedy this, including the Emmy-winning comedy writer David Quantick, whose credits include Veep, The Thick of It and Brass Eye.
Have you ever opened a new manuscript, read a single page, and thought ‘I’m going to end up making an offer on this’?
No. Lots of people are capable of writing a cracking first page, but only a few can develop this into a gripping novel, with a plot that consistently satisfies.
What’s your pet peeve on covering letters?
I don’t have a pet peeve – feel free to misspell my name, or write ‘Dear Mrs. Haviland’, I really don’t care. To be honest, I don’t pay much attention to cover letters at all. The first thing I read (and usually the last) is the sample material, and in my view, it’s the only part of the submission that matters.
Tell us how you like writers to submit work to you. And how you’d like them not to submit work.
I ask for the first three chapters of the novel, and a one-page synopsis, preferably as Word file attachments, by email. Please don’t send zipped files, or download links, or flash drives, or anything else that looks like it might conceal a computer virus, but otherwise I’m not too fussy.
Where do most of your authors come from? The slush pile? Personal recommendation? Or what?
Most of my authors have come from the slush pile, plus a few of Andrew Lownie’s non-fiction authors who’ve gone on to write novels, such as Patrick Dillon, whose retelling of the Odyssey, Ithaca, I sold last year.
Do you need good personal chemistry with your authors?
Obviously, it helps, but the truthful answer is ‘no’. Writing tends to attract highly intelligent, introverted control freaks, because that’s pretty much the job description – who else would choose to spend six months locked away from human company, making up stories in their own intricate, perfectly formed worlds? So some writers can be a little eccentric, but that’s fine, as long as they’re reasonably receptive to constructive feedback. However, when writers resist making any changes at all, that’s when we usually have to part ways.
What’s the most important part of your job? Is it editing/shaping the manuscript? Selling the manuscript? Or supervising the publication process?
In my view, the most important part of my job is editing and shaping the manuscript, as that’s where I think I can make a real contribution. Once the MS is in good shape, getting it in the hands of the right editors should be a relatively simple task.
If you had one bit of advice to give to new writers, what would it be?
My advice would be to write a few short stories and try out different styles, voices, and genres, before starting your first novel. The worst part of my job is when someone submits a huge labour of love, sometimes as much as 300,000 words, but it’s obvious within a few paragraphs that they haven’t taken the time to learn the craft, so the work to which they’ve devoted several years gets rejected within a few minutes. I do think most people are capable of learning to write well, but it’s not easy, and you have to take the time to evaluate and improve your skills.
Have you enjoyed reading more since becoming an agent? Or are there times it feels like a chore?
Reading can become a chore when you spend much of your working day reading and editing. My solution is that when I’m reading for pleasure, I only read things I’m really enjoying. I don’t feel any obligation to persevere with books I find difficult or dull, and I’ll often give up after a chapter or two.
The grim stats: how many submissions do you get per week (or year)? And how many new authors do you take on?
I get about 150 submissions per week, and I take on 5-10 new authors per year. So roughly one author in every thousand gets taken on.
What Unique Selling Points do you have as an agent or agency?
The agency’s USP is not me but my boss, Andrew Lownie, who has consistently been one of the world’s top-selling non-fiction agents for many years, often outselling much larger agencies despite being (until I joined) a one-man-band. There are now just the two of us, and the advantage of being a boutique agency is that we can offer a greater level of personal care and attention.
Do you like your authors to tweet & blog & Facebook … or do you really not care?
It is very helpful if authors have an effective social media profile, but not crucial. It certainly makes them more attractive to publishers and makes a big difference in the marketing and promotion of their books. But social media isn’t for everyone, so I think it needs to be entered into wholeheartedly or not at all.
Which is most important: the editor, the publisher or the advance?
If you weren’t an agent, what else would you be?
I’ve always liked the idea of being a postman – doing my rounds in the morning, getting lots of fresh air and exercise, and then spending the afternoon writing my latest novel. William Faulkner and Anthony Trollope were postmen, so perhaps there’s something in the idea. …