Author-turned-literary agent Nelle Andrew (writing under the name Nelle Davy) is a 2016 Bookseller Rising Star, representing Sunday and New York Times bestsellers, and many award-winning novelists with Peter Fraser + Dunlop.
We sat down with Nelle for a frank interview about her reading preferences and her personal experiences within the publishing industry, from both the author’s and agent’s perspective.
What books and authors do you love in commercial fiction, and why?
I have only recently come to understand how great commercial fiction can be, having been a real literary snob for years (blame my Master’s). But then, as an agent you realise that beautiful writing means nothing without a strong plot and characterisation, and also that some novelists like Wilkie Collins would have been considered very commercial in their day. The book which utterly changed my opinion was JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You– it was so much more clever and unexpected than I anticipated, and the characters left me sobbing on Hampstead Heath. That was a genius piece of writing, even if technically it wasn’t going to win prizes.
Also, I discovered Tana French and Sophie Hannah for crime, and learnt that the labels we put on commercial or literary books really don’t matter. What matters is being moved and affected, and that can happen in any book. Now I don’t put labels on books in the same way anymore. I don’t enjoy the populist throw-away fiction you can find in overly commercial fiction, but good writing is good writing anywhere, regardless of the label you decide to place on it.
What books and authors do you love in literary, historical, or book group fiction?
The best version of all three is The Secret History. That was a novel which even now I remember the first time I read it. Beautiful writing meets unbelievable plot meets fantastic characterisation. It is a tour de force and while I always loathe to name my favourite novel of all time, this would be in my top 3. If I found a book like that now, I would give up agenting because after such a feat nothing would be as good to me. I also loved The Help because it was heartfelt and utterly original, and more recently The Farm for its shockingly simple premise, which gave so much room for drama and tension. I stayed up all night reading it.
Fingersmith is still, to my mind, the best example of how to do a twist that takes your breath away. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is also a book I love to foist on people, because it is funny and smart, but also the way it plays with interviews and letters makes the novel such a wonderful reading experience.
The Rosie Project is up there with The Pursuit of Love for being one of only 5 novels in which I have laughed out loud. To be honest, I could go on and on and on with titles published over the last 500 years that made me fall in love over and over. But they all have one thing in common: they all have magic in them and the nature of magic is it cannot be explained or even repeated, only stared at with shock and delighted awe.
How about sci-fi, horror, fantasy, paranormal, YA, dystopian, erotic? What would you be interested in, and what’s a big no?
Sci-fi and horror are a no – also fantasy for the sake of it, too. But I love stories with fantastical elements. We all grew up on fairy tales and magic so for me I still look for it in stories even now. Dystopia has had its day and anyone writing it should stop right now because it’s not going to sell until there’s enough breathing space in the market. Erotic is also a no – I wouldn’t know what to do with it. YA, I love; I can only sell or fall for books I read and it’s not that I dismiss genres but in the buffet of literature I prefer to go foraging somewhere else.
On the non-fiction side, are there particular areas that interest you? Does your non-fiction list have a particular slant to it?
My non-fiction slant is for people who, like me, don’t read non-fiction. It must speak to me, introduce me to a new world, a new idea, or make me look at my life and feel less alone in its troubles. The Wrong Knickers came from the latter because I was sick of people saying how amazing your twenties are while the older generations lamented about why we hadn’t emulated their golden footsteps. I wanted something which told the truth and I loved the book for that.
My favourite non-fiction is still In Cold Blood and because of that I always look for a strong narrative with storytelling properties in my non-fiction. I want to feel as if I am reading a novel or being given amazing insight. I judge it more harshly and expect more because I am not used to reading it – a bit like your expectations in the theatre rather than when you pop to the cinema.
And are there any areas of zero interest to you in non-fiction? What would you not want to see?
I am sorry to say this but too many people think their general life experience makes amazing non-fiction and honestly it doesn’t. Unless it has phenomenal writing, I personally just find it boring. I also don’t want anything generic. I want magic. Every time.
What is the balance of your list between literary fiction/commercial fiction/non-fiction?
My list is very literary/commercial fiction weighted compared to non-fiction. I was made an agent to bring in fiction so non-fiction makes up a very small percentage of my list. Fiction is my heart and home.
You’re relatively unusual amongst agents in being an author yourself. What is it like working with agents and publishers from both perspectives?
I became an author before I became an agent because it was always a goal of mine. I was a slushpile author, so it taught me a great deal about what it’s like from the author’s side and sometimes how unfairly or dismissively they are treated. It made me so much kinder as an agent than I may have been because I really know what it’s like to be messed around as slush pile authors sometimes are.
I had amazing experiences and not so amazing experiences and I learned three important things: that you need to be honest with yourself about what you want and what your expectations are; that being published is the best feeling in the world and that patience is key, but perseverance is more important.
I think sometimes we can see things from one side and forget we are on the same team, and that’s what I took into my role as an agent, to find someone to be on my author’s team to help them achieve their goals.
Are there any submissions you’d love to see at the moment?
I would love to see submissions with a heartfelt story that really moves me, really affects me. It doesn’t have to be sad or melodramatic, just transport me and give me emotion, give me a reason to really care.
Or, on the other side, a really clever crime thriller where the writing is still very taught but the plot makes me feel like I am on a mental roller coaster or a slow creeping chill that builds to toothache proportions. I want a really good story and a great character to root for. I suppose I treat novels like doors to a party – I open one and a good hostess will make me want to stay.
What I do not want is this: I am so tired of female characters who quite frankly are crazy dysfunctional nut jobs. I think the whole ‘complicated hot mess’ character is just annoying to me now. I finish the book and feel such a wave of irritation at these people who just cannot get their act together.
So, I would like to see a character who is indeed flawed but still a good person. I would like someone I could take this journey with into their story and root for them. I still want peril, I still want substance, but I want to leave the novel and think ‘I wish you well,’ not ‘You need intensive therapy, and now so do I for being in your head for the last 400 pages.’
What’s your biggest turn-off in a covering letter? What would you really hope to see?
Well, I think authors make the mistake of thinking that because their novel is such a personal thing, that they need to be overly personal in their letters. Some letters I read and think, ‘I don’t know you, have never met you and yet you’re telling me your wife left you, or cracking self-conscious jokes that just feel cringeworthy.’
It’s important to remember that at this stage you want us to read the book, so keep it light, keep it simple, talk about the plot and what the hook is and anything relevant. Don’t be self-deprecating, but neither should you sell yourself as the next Dan Brown because really what evidence do you have to confirm that you’re the next multi-million bestselling author when no one in the industry has read your novel or given you their feedback.
Likewise, you have some authors who obviously find the whole submission process awkward because they ‘just want to write and don’t want to do the self-promotion thing’, to which I say, you can write but then don’t seek to get published because publishing now involves huge swathes of promotion for the novel and the author. So, if you make the choice to seek us out, do so wholeheartedly and humbly.
What are your biggest peeves in an opening page or opening chapter? And what do you love to see?
Typos. If people cannot be bothered to proofread their own work, I think it just isn’t that important to them. People who send me chapter 1, chapter 15 and then chapter 20 – I just think, really? How am I meant to judge this? Small font and no spacing – not a pleasing reading experience.
What I love is clean, fluid, evenly spaced writing. Size 12, no nonsense font. The package is simple because it is the writing which will blow you away.
Do you have any unpredictable loves?
I like to be surprised, I like daring and I like risk. I think I have always had a thing for an unreliable narrator and I have always adored a story with strong female characters. I love a novel with catharsis.
Would you take on an author who had self-published? What kind of self-published sales would make you sit up?
I don’t know honestly – I debate a lot within myself about this. On one hand I cannot deny that success has been found from self-published authors, but on another … maybe because as an author myself I felt if my book wasn’t taken on that meant it needed work and I needed to go away and do that, not proceed regardless. And so because of that I wonder sometimes if self-publishing stops authors from really examining the issues in their novels editorially and making it stronger. So I am still in two minds about it. It’s something I watch from the side-lines and change my mind about every week.
What single piece of advice would you most want to give writers?
Hmmm, so many. Okay, to condense it down to one and this is the most important one, believe in yourself because you will be rejected a lot. You may then get an agent and be rejected by publishers. You may then get published and be rejected by reviewers or the public or both. Rejection is part of the package, it is the price for your goals. So the only way to deal with it is to believe that this is the right path for you, that even though it may hurt, even though you may get tired and want to give up, you are right to continue because it will happen eventually. Jessica Tandy won an Oscar at 80, there’s always time for the wonderful to occur. Believe in yourself because if you don’t, no one else will.
How many submissions do you see annually? And how many of those submissions will end up on your list?
Too many to count and about 5 end up on my list.
Do you look for social media and online presence? Do you care?
Nope and nope. It’s all down to the writing. I once had an author who wouldn’t even give me her photograph for our website. I then sold her novel in 16 countries.
When people are pitching the concept for a book to you, what do you find is the most common failing?
They try to say too much and make it so dry rather than like the back of an actual book. Condense it down to a paragraph. If you can’t, perhaps you don’t have a real handle on what the novel is yet. There’s a short précis and a longer one and anyone can condense a novel or story into a few lines. Here’s an example:
Anna Karenina tells two stories: Anna, a married woman has a volatile affair which tears her family apart, at the same time as Leon, a young graduate struggles to find his place in society. In their dual narratives they explore the ramifications of 19thcentury Russian society as the traditional and the new struggle together for balance at a terrible cost.
If I can do it for Tolstoy, you can do it for yourself!
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