Good morning, everyone!
In this week’s Spotlight On, we’re joined by Helen Lane, a Junior Agent at The Booker Albert Literary Agency.
In addition to supporting authors as an agent and an editor, Helen is a querying author herself. She enjoys reading and representing fantasy (adult and YA), sci-fi, horror, paranormal romance, thriller and adventure. Authors represented by Helen include Camri Kohler (Peachy, published April 2023) and K. C. Harper (Marked for Grace, published March 2023).
“Imagine browsing a bookstore. There are books you’ll pick up and consider, and ones that are not for you. And when you read the ones you’ve chosen, there are books that you thought you’d love and don’t, and ones that surprise you in the best way possible.”
Hi Helen, thanks for speaking with us today!
What brought you to agenting?
I came the long way around. I started off as a writer, then interned for several agencies for a few years, and finally started at The Booker Albert Agency as a Junior Agent (which is where I am now).
What does the day in the life of an agent look like for you?
Busy. I work as an agent, an editor, and a writer. All of this is juggled around being a wife, and mum to three kids and a stupid (but lovely) spaniel. I rarely switch off from working, it’s just my focus that changes. I never have the same two days in a row as an agent though. Some days you are looking at manuscripts, others dealing with contracts or finances. You can be talking to editors, sometimes pitching your clients’ work or talking about a project that’s sold and looking at cover designs or edits or marketing plans. Putting together submission lists (which is easy for one client but gets really complicated when you are juggling many different clients at different stages of submission). Other times it’s just talking to your clients, working through edits, book ideas, plotting, and sometimes just being a reassuring voice when they need it. And queries. I can’t forget the queries.
When you’re reading a query letter, what are some things you like and dislike seeing?
I’m not particularly fussy with query letters. They do need to be professional and courteous. They need to provide enough information about the story to interest me. But I actually don’t always read them. For me, the pages are the most important thing and I’ll return to the query if I am interested in the writing. That said, I love it when writers put in content warnings. It tells me that they have considered their reader and I appreciate that.
Some agents love synopses, others don’t. What do you think of them, and are there any things you look for in a synopsis?
I tend not to read them, and I don’t request them as part of the query package. I will only ask for one if I am interested in a project. Even then, it’s rare as I don’t like spoilers.
Is there anything an author can do in the first few pages of their manuscript that will really grab your attention? Anything you don’t enjoy as much?
I will always give writers who ask for my editing services the standard advice for querying and writing in the industry. For me though, there’s nothing I look for beyond good writing. But for me to request and then offer, it will come down to a connection. Imagine browsing a bookstore. There are books you’ll pick up and consider, and ones that are not for you. And when you read the ones you’ve chosen, there are books that you thought you’d love and don’t, and ones that surprise you in the best way possible. This is why manuscript wish lists are so difficult. I can list the types of books I’m often drawn to, but in the end it’s all about voice and execution.
However, my tastes are broad and always changing, and there are very few things I really don’t like. My anti manuscript wish list would be cheating and abuse though. But even that’s a difficult line to draw because I represent books with both of these things in it. As a general rule though, I don’t want to read about those subjects.
Many authors have concerns about submissions etiquette: how long should they wait before sending a follow-up email; when is it appropriate to send an update or resubmit, etc. Do you have any guidance to help authors navigate the querying process?
Generally, just follow querying guidelines and be polite and professional. If an agent is closed to queries, assuming you are the exception and emailing your query every few weeks will only get your email deleted. Outside of that, I think most agents are pretty easy going (unless stated or proven otherwise). For me, I will ALWAYS respond (unless you’ve snuck into my emails or Twitter to be rude). If I haven’t responded, I haven’t got your query, it’s that simple.
I would suggest that 3 months is a good time to send a follow up email. Resubmitting is fine, but only if you’ve made changes to your manuscript. Otherwise, if I’ve passed, it’s because it wasn’t a good fit for me.
You’re fairly active on Twitter, where you talk about reading, writing and agenting. How (if at all) does social media influence your work with books, and do you have any comments on how authors can make good use of platforms like Twitter?
Funnily enough, I’ve actually just taken a Twitter hiatus. But the advantage of Twitter is being able to talk to writers. To learn what they need from the process and apply it to my work. For example, based on writer feedback I now try to make querying more accessible by not asking additional questions on the submission forms, not requiring a synopsis, not asking for any personalisation, and not asking for comparison texts.
As a reader, Twitter lets me discover new books and authors that I might not have heard of otherwise. It’s also great for community and I have found many friends through Twitter.
Overall, (for traditional publishing) I’m not sure how much Twitter can help in selling books. Yes, engagement and retweeting your progress and updates is great for visibility, but it’s the publishers who can really make a difference to book sales. I always tell my clients to have a presence and do what they can, but not to stress about it. An author should not be responsible for the success or failure of a traditionally published book, and the pressure to think otherwise is usually detrimental to them.
Are there any books you’ve enjoyed recently?
This is a dangerous question, but here we go:
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir; the entire InCryptid series and Middlegame series by Seanan McGuire; The Atlas Six series by Olivie Blake; the Stormblood series by Jeremy Szal; Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo; This is How You Lose the Time War by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar; the Skyward series by Brandon Sanderson; and the Clown in a Cornfield series by Adam Cesare.
I seem to be going through a sci fi (mostly space opera) and contemporary fantasy/paranormal romance phase in my personal reading. I’m sure that will switch again soon, as I read a lot. End of last year I was obsessed with ghost stories.
Outside the world of books, do you have any hobbies or passions you’d like to share?
I love the theatre and travelling. And I have a spaniel who requires A LOT of walks and attention.
Any last pieces of advice for authors in the querying process?
Honestly, to remember that it is hard for everyone and that you are not alone. And rejections are usually subjective and have nothing to do with the quality of your work. I’ve passed on projects that other agents have picked up a few weeks later, and the same the other way around. Sadly, there’s a lot of luck and timing with getting published (at every stage). I’m a querying author myself so I understand the frustration, but I also know that things can change in a moment, and you never know what is around the corner for you. So don’t lose faith (unless writing is making you unhappy, and then you have permission to stop!)
The full interview will be posted to Helen’s AgentMatch profile.
If you’re struggling with your query letter and synopsis, do check out our free resources on our website. We have lots of info to help you on your way. Or, better still, if you’re a member with us, our lovely Writers Support team will be happy to offer you a free query letter review!