Penny Holroyde worked for Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency Ltd. before launching her own agency with Claire Cartey: Holroyde Cartey launched in 2015 and represents a quality list of award-winning and best-selling authors and illustrators primarily in publishing, but also in licensing, and film and television across the world.
When did you come into agenting? What did you do before? And why agenting?
I came into agenting seven years ago. Prior to that, I was working in the USA as Director of Rights and Licensing for Candlewick Press. As I had worked for Candlewick’s sister company in the UK, Walker Books, I was quite often asked to comment very early on whether a project would have worldwide appeal and I think it’s helpful to have that hat on as an agent. More than that though, in my previous job, authors would call for help when they couldn’t understand their royalty statements or if a film producer had been in touch. As more and more authors got representation, that side of my job got less frequent and I realised that being at the coal face was a place I could be very happy, and I am.
Have you ever opened a new manuscript, read a single page, and thought ‘I’m going to end up making an offer on this’?
What was it about that page which excited you? Yes, I have. I started reading the manuscript at my desk and knew I had to get away from the phone and email and read it all. It was the writing and voice. Stunning. I went to a café and devoured it. When I finished, I mopped up my tears, stroked the manuscript and swore I would make the author mine.
What’s your pet peeve on covering letters?
‘Dear Sir/Madam’ or ‘Hi there’ usually gets me heading for the delete button. We are (we think!) open and welcoming on our website, and provide a picture and an email address. Unless one of us needs a makeover badly, I think it’s quite clear there are no ‘Sirs’ working here. It bothers me when authors don’t bother.
Where do most of your authors come from? The slushpile? Personal recommendation? Or what?
As you get more established as an agent, authors come via recommendations from other authors and from acknowledgements pages. Publisher recommendations have also brought me some good talent.
Do you need good personal chemistry with your authors?
I think you need a certain transparency with your authors. It’s a very close relationship so there certainly needs to be a lot of trust and the author needs to feel safe in telling me exactly what they think about something, but I don’t think that needs to extend to going on holiday with each other!
Do you get involved in shaping an author’s career?
I like to give advice about new directions and of course I feed back to authors when publishers are asking for projects in certain areas of the market, but at the end of the day, it’s the author’s call.
If you had one bit of advice to give to new writers, what would it be?
Read more books and join a very critical writers’ group.
Are ebooks going to bring about fundamental changes to the publishing industry? What would you say if one of your authors wanted to e-publish their next book, cutting out conventional publishers altogether?
I think most published authors would prefer to be published by their publisher, and if an author suggested direct to digital, I might suspect there was a problem with the relationship; but it could also be that there was something about the project that better suited it to e-publication.
Have you enjoyed reading more since becoming an agent? Or are there times it feels like a chore?
Before becoming an agent, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to read Richard and Judy selections, for example, but they were so powerful in the first place I thought I can’t really work as an agent and say ‘no, I haven’t read We Need to Talk About Kevin’, and also because I read almost exclusively books for young people for work, I’ve started to read a lot of crime in my spare time, i.e. something that I would never, ever take on in the course of my job.
The grim stats: how many submissions do you get per week (or year)? And how many new authors do you take on?
At Caroline Sheldon, we got over 10,000 submissions a year, which can feel quite onerous, but we work hard to respond to everyone. I’ve had a bit of a bumper 12 months and taken on about five new authors but the year before that, it might only have been one.
Do you like your authors to tweet, blog, use Facebook … or do you not care?
It’s important to publishers that authors are active in the digital space, but I have also had publishers rap my knuckles for what authors are saying there. I’m careful to tell authors exactly when something is safe to tweet or blog – if we’ve just done a film deal, for example, we wouldn’t want the producer’s press release scooped by the author’s tweet.
Do you secretly have a book in you? And if so, tell us more …