Meet the agents: Susan Armstrong

Susan Armstrong is an agent Conville & Walsh. Susan joined Conville & Walsh in 2005 after working at Macmillan.

As an agent, she is particularly interested in debut literary fiction, accessible fantasy and science fiction, and high quality commercial memoirs of unusual experiences or unique childhoods. She enjoys novels that blend genres, are unusual in setting or circumstance and that have unexpected twists. Conville & Walsh is a leading international literary agency.

What sort of books do you love?

I love novels that are compulsive reads, where the characters reach so deep that when I have to break from reading I find myself worrying about what will become of them. Elements of the unusual, whether it be the setting (e.g. a lighthouse, underground, a fantasy land) or the plot (e.g. a girl turning to glass, an unthinkable moral dilemma, a retelling of The Odyssey in Teesside) always spark my interest as you can’t beat escapism. Essentially, I love beautiful writing, twists, emotional pulls, unforgettable characters and a big pay-off. A few titles I adore are: The Secret History, Cloud Atlas, Under the Skin, Frankenstein.

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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. The author had only written three chapters of the book when he submitted it to me and I just happened to take a quick look before it went to our wonderful reader, David Llewelyn. I read the first page and was hooked. I met the author and offered him representation, something I’d never normally do without having read the full manuscript first but those opening chapters were unlike anything I’d read before and he had a clear plan as to where the story was going so I was convinced. What was it that got me so excited? The uniqueness of the voice, the concept and the prose.

What’s your pet peeve on covering letters?

Authors who haven’t done their research (at least look at an agency’s website) and submit to completely the wrong agent for their work. Also, it never looks good when another agent, who’s rejected the book, is quoted on the cover letter.

Of the authors who are not on your list, who would you most love to represent?

Hilary Mantel, David Mitchell, Michel Faber, Robin Hobb, Jon McGregor.

Are you most drawn to beautiful writing? Or a wonderful plot? Or a stunning premise? Or what?

All of them.

Tell us how you like writers to submit work to you. And how you’d like them not to submit work.

I like it when it’s apparent why an author has chosen me to submit to, that they’ve done their research. And I like to know what sort of book it is, a few strong lines about the book that shows why it’s unique and intriguing, and then any relevant information about the author. The first three chapters or 50 pages with a synopsis to be sent along with their introductory letter. I’m happy to receive this by email or in the post.

Where do most of your authors come from? The slush pile? Personal recommendation? Or what?

I like to focus on a small list and those authors come from the Talent Pool (née Slush Pile), recommendation, and what we call Outreach, which involves things like giving talks, attending readings, going out and finding authors online, etc.

Do you need good personal chemistry with your authors?

Good chemistry is important, but you’ve also got to have the same vision for an author’s career and mutual respect.

What’s the most important part of your job? Is it editing/shaping the manuscript? Selling the manuscript? Or supervising the publication process?

All of these things. Once you’re done with one you focus on the next. I do a lot of editing with my authors before I send it out and then once it’s ready it’s just as important to know who to send it to and how to present it to them in a light that will not only engage them as an editor but also show them how it might be presented to their sales team. Once this part is all done and dusted then I help guide and support my author through publication and ensure everything is done to give the book its best chance at success.

If you had one bit of advice to give to new writers, what would it be?

If an author wants to have a long-term career and earn a living out of writing I’d say this: sit down and think about what would make your novel stand out from the crowd just from the pitch alone, i.e. rather than taking paragraphs to describe the book as “a coming of age about guilt and betrayal … etc., etc.”, think of two lines that sum up your novel that couldn’t be used to describe any other novel out there (as much as this is possible). For example, Ali Shaw’s first novel The Girl with Glass Feet is a love story about a girl who’s turning to glass. The title alone is the pitch, and what other novels do you know with that story-line?

The grim stats: how many submissions do you get per week (or year)? And how many new authors do you take on?

We get between 100-150 a week. I take on one, maybe two, a year from the Talent Pool.

Do you like your authors to tweet, blog, use Facebook … or do you really not care?

It helps if an author has an online profile, without doubt, but I wouldn’t not take someone on if they didn’t.

If you weren’t an agent, what else would you be?

Probably a very confused person.

Do you secretly have a book in you? And if so, tell us more …

I can’t write for fudge.

Slushpile Live

Real agents, real writers, real decisions