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Meet the agents: Laura Macdougall
Laura Macdougall has a Classics degree from Oxford. She started her publishing career as an editor at Hodder & Stoughton, commissioning historical, crime and debut literary novels.
She worked with internationally bestselling authors such as Stephen King and David Nicholls and set up Hodder’s historical fiction community. She was a judge on the 2014 Green Carnation Prize, which celebrates the best of LGBT writing. She joined United Agents in the summer of 2017.
When did you come into agenting? What did you do before? And why agenting?
I was an agent at Tibor Jones and, before that, I worked in the Fiction department at Hodder & Stoughton for five years, starting out as an editorial assistant before going on to commission books for the list. I left to become an agent, because I wanted to work on a wide variety of books, both fiction and non-fiction, and because I wanted to work with authors right from the very beginning of their careers, hopefully for many years and with many books!
Tell us how you like writers to submit work to you. And how you’d like them not to submit work.
I find it very difficult to understand why people spell either my name or the agency’s name wrong, when it’s clearly spelled correctly on our website and on all our social media profiles. It’s really not difficult to check these sorts of things. I also don’t like it when people address query letters really casually, such as ‘Hi’, or ‘Hey, Laura’. I think Dear [Agent / Agency Name] is the only way these letters should be addressed, unless you already know the agent in question. I also think it’s really important to follow strict submission guidelines. Every agency is individual and has different requirements. We only ask for the first five pages of a novel, but often receive submissions from authors where they say that five pages just isn’t enough, so they’ve sent us fifty, or the whole manuscript. This doesn’t really make us want to offer them representation.
I appreciate it can be difficult to step back and judge your own work, but I would urge every author to try and put themselves in our position. Given the volume of submissions we receive, of course it’s important to stand out, but not for the wrong reasons (i.e. for not following very straightforward submission guidelines)! I like people to be themselves. If they can make me laugh, that’s good, though it’s not appropriate for every book – but also to be polite. They need to include a one-page synopsis that reads well – some synopses are quite dry and convoluted and immediately put me off. I also quite like it if authors make it clear they’ve done their research and can demonstrate why they think we would be a good fit, and why they’re submitting to me.
Do you need good personal chemistry with your authors?
I think if you have good personal chemistry with an author it can be a real bonus, but it’s certainly not a necessity. I do like to meet my authors in person if possible, before offering them representation, just to check that we can at least have a conversation over lunch or coffee together, and of course that they’re happy being represented by me and by Tibor Jones. It should be a mutual decision, and sometimes meeting in person can help. But it’s such an international job and one that takes place mostly via email that I think being passionate about the author’s book is the most important. If you get on like a house on fire, that’s an added extra!
Have you enjoyed reading more since becoming an agent? Or are there times it feels like a chore?
I actually read slightly less for work since becoming an agent, probably because our submission guidelines only allow authors to send in the first five pages of their books. When I was an editor, and receiving full manuscripts from agents every week, that left much less time to read for pleasure. Although I think all reading for pleasure sometimes feels like it’s still work, as there’s always a certain amount of pressure to make sure you’re reading what is being published so you can keep up with current trends, bestsellers, prize-winners and those well-reviewed books.
Where do most of your authors come from? The slushpile? Personal recommendation? Or what?
It really varies how many submissions we get each week / month / year. Some submissions are directed straight to me and others go to the agency’s enquiries inbox, but I deal with all of them. I can say, however, that in the summer of 2016 I turned down 1,000 submissions from the so-called ‘slush pile’ and only took on one author, though I didn’t take on other authors during this time who came via personal recommendations. As I’m still quite a new agent, I only represent about twenty-five writers. Of those, I found seven in the slush pile. I have quite a few friends who either work in the publishing industry or who are writers themselves, and they have been wonderful in recommending authors to me. I think I’ve signed around three authors this way. The rest of my list is made up of non-fiction writers whom I’ve approached after having an idea for a book, and other novelists I met outside of publishing or who wanted to move agents.
Do you like your authors to tweet, blog, use Facebook … or do you really not care?
This varies from author to author. I never put pressure on an author to create social media accounts for themselves. To some people, things like Twitter and Instagram and blogging come naturally, but others prefer just to focus on the writing. There’s nothing worse than Googling an author and being directed to their website or Twitter account only to find they haven’t updated them in three years. I’d much rather authors created accounts if they enjoyed it and if they planned to use them regularly, rather than having a website because they feel obligated only for it to quickly become obsolete.