SPOTLIGHT FEATURE: Robbie Guillory from Underline Literary Agency

SPOTLIGHT FEATURE: Robbie Guillory from Underline Literary Agency

This interview was originally posted on July 5th 2022.

Robbie Guillory is a literary agent at Underline Literary Agency, which he founded after years of experience as a freelance editor and as an agent at the Kate Nash Literary Agency. He represents mostly adult fiction, including crime and thriller, historical romance, sci-fi, fantasy and speculative fiction. He also represents some adult non-fiction, especially memoir.

Some of the authors Robbie represents include Philip Miller (The Goldenacre, published June 2022), Neil Lancaster (The DS Max Craigie series), Joma West (Face, coming August 2022), Kate Galley (The Second Chance Holiday Club, coming December 2022) and Cailean Steed (HOME, coming January 2023).

Robbie is active on Twitter where you can learn more about what he and his authors are up to. He also does Agent One-to-One sessions with Jericho Writers, so don’t miss out on a chance to get his feedback on your work by booking your session here.

Check out some highlights from our interview with Robbie below.

Robbie Guillory

“As agents, we advocate for authors. We can’t do anything without their say-so, which means it’s important to be as transparent and open with them as possible.”

Hello Robbie, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today! We would love to know more about how you became an agent, what your role entails, what you’re looking for in submissions, and advice for querying authors.

Q. What brought you to agenting?

My love of books started from a very young age, and from the age of about 16, I knew I wanted to work in books. I wasn’t ever interested in writing them myself, but I was fascinated by the way books were put together. At university, I started poetry journals, and then after I graduated, I did some freelance editorial work for Harper Collins.

I got my first big break working at a publisher in Glasgow called Freight Books, which published crime, literary fiction and illustrated non-fiction until it went into liquidation in 2017. After that, I did some more freelancing while I tried to work out what I wanted to do. I was feeling quite jaded with the publishing industry and was looking for a way that I could support authors more in the long term: being there for their entire career, not just for one book at a time.

I got some more freelancing work through another agent I know, Lina Langlee, who was at the Kate Nash Literary Agency at the time. I did a set of 1-2-1s with them in Edinburgh and Kate liked what I was doing so she asked if I wanted to come on board. I worked as an agent with Kate Nash for a while, and then I left in 2021 to start my own agency. It was something that I’d always wanted to do and it seemed like the perfect time – I had enough authors under contract to have a bit of a name for myself, but I still had room in my list for more.

Q. How have you found the experience of starting your own agency?

For me, the big benefit of having my own agency is that I can have a list that really reflects my personality. I have more freedom to go into the weird spaces that I like in fantasy, for example. It also allows me to innovate, which is great because I’m always looking for new ways to make myself as available as possible to my authors. I’ve started using scheduling platforms so my authors can book meetings with me as far in advance or as soon as they like, and that’s been working well.

It’s a massive risk financially but I have a really supportive partner who has given me this time to see if I can grow the agency, and the first six months have been pretty good! One of our authors, Neil Lancaster, was recently longlisted for Bloody Scotland’s McIlvanney Prize, and Helen Yendall was recently listed for the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Joan Hessayon Award, so yes, it’s been a nice couple of weeks.

Q. What’s at the top of your fiction wish-list?

I’m looking for more stand-alone crime at the moment. Ideally, it would have a plausible premise, a really gripping plot, and well-developed characters with unique flaws. I have a couple of authors writing police procedurals and I think that’s probably enough for now, since I’m aiming to avoid having too many competing authors. I’d love to see crime written from a different perspective – take Philip Miller, for example, who writes from the perspective of a journalist in his novel The Goldenacre. I’m also looking for crossover in the crime genre; a sci-fi thriller or fantasy-crime would be interesting.

I’m looking for good historical romances as well. I’m mostly looking for World War II at the moment, but I would be willing to look at a book set in another time period if it had a really strong concept behind it.

In terms of sci-fi and fantasy, I enjoy quirky stories with interesting protagonists that I’ll fall in love with – and on that note, an element of romance is always great in fantasy! I’m always looking for a style of writing similar to Becky Chambers or Adrian Tchaikovsky, which transports me in a wonderful way. There’s a fantastic novel by Joma West coming out soon called Face, and that’s exactly the sort of thing I’m after.

Q. What’s at the top of your non-fiction wish-list?

Non-fiction is a new area for me. I’m looking for memoir mostly, with anything that goes into emotional and psychological territory being particularly of interest.

I’m also looking for nature non-fiction. If you’ve written a book on hedges and how they can be amazing, messy, wild spaces in an urban garden, I want to see it immediately!

Q. Is there any genre you’d rather not receive?

I’m not the person to come to with an epic fantasy series; I think there are other agents with the skills and contacts to be able to deal with that better than I could. Experimental literary fiction is another genre I’m not really the best fit for – book club fiction is about as literary as I’d be willing to go.

I’m also not looking for poetry or short stories. There are some short story collections that I’ve taken on, but that’s because the authors have also written novels that I’m interested in following. Finally, I don’t represent children’s or YA.

The reason for these cut-offs – children’s, YA, literary and epic fantasy – is because I’d be dealing with a different set of editors. Agenting is all about the contacts that you’re making, and I don’t think it would be fair for the author for me to take a book I didn’t have the right contacts for!

Q. What is a day in the life of an agent like for you?

The first thing I do is look at the emails that have come in overnight and answer the most urgent ones. These are usually from authors under contract or editors looking after those authors, and then there are usually queries about submissions as well. After that, I spend the rest of my morning reading since it’s when I’m most alert. I like to use my afternoon to write pitches, and then I’ll go back to the emails at the end of the day.

The amount of contact I have with my authors depends on where they’re at in the process. Unless they’re under contract with a deadline approaching, I won’t get in touch with them unless they ask for my help. I feel like I’m approachable enough that authors will reach out if there’s something they need to talk through with me, and the last thing I want to do is badger anyone! For many people, writing is a career they can’t necessarily do full time – they’ll have other jobs and other things going on in their lives, and their books will be ready when they’re ready.

Most of my contact time is spent doing developmental editing with authors whose books are going to be going out soon. I try to let authors know when I’ll have read their manuscripts, and then we can have a meeting over Zoom (or in person if they live nearby) to discuss areas I think could be better.

When it comes to sending books out to editors, I make sure the authors see the pitches beforehand so I can make sure they’re happy with the comparisons and the blurb that I’ve written. Similarly, as soon as any feedback, rejections or acceptances come back from an editor, the author is always the first to hear about it. As agents, we advocate for authors. We can’t do anything without their say-so, which means it’s important to be as transparent and open with them as possible.

Q. What do you want to see in a query letter? And what do you hate?

I like query letters to be short and to the point. Ideally, they should have four paragraphs.

Paragraph one should introduce the book: title, genre, word count and read-alikes – i.e., if somebody read and enjoyed your book, who would you recommend they read next?

The second paragraph should be the blurb or pitch of the book, ideally in 200-250 words. This should really sell the sizzle of what the book is all about.

The third paragraph should be the one that flatters me: why have you chosen me as an agent? Nothing upsets me more than feeling like I’m just one contact out of fifty copied into an email. If you want to have an agent, that’s a really interesting and close relationship to have with another person. I talk about all sorts of stuff with my clients that may not be directly related to their books but is emotionally relevant to writing. It’s got to be somebody you’re willing to take feedback from and give honest answers to, and if you haven’t done your research – if you haven’t found out why you want me as your agent – it’s just not going to work.

The last paragraph should be a bit about you. I don’t need to know that you have three dogs unless you’ve written a book about dogs. What I really want to know about are the things which are relevant to this book specifically, and whether you’ve had any short stories or novels published in the past. Anything like that is interesting to me.

One thing that authors often put in is their rationale for having written the book, as in what brought them to writing at all – and I don’t think I need to know that! Because I see so many cover letters when I’m going through submissions, it helps when authors have been really precise and there’s no waffle. It means I can read it and immediately decide whether or not they’ve got something I’m interested in.

Q. Same question when it comes to the synopsis. What should writers do? What should they avoid?

Synopses… they are so hard! I pity anyone who has to write one, but they are so useful at the same time.

For me, a synopsis is there for me to see if you can plot. I’ll read your query letter to see if your book has that high concept that’s going to immediately grab the attention of an editor, and I’ll read your sample to see if I love your voice and the way you write. I’ll read your synopsis to see if you can actually put a novel together.

Focus on just the main plotline and only give maybe two or three character names. I want to see all the twists – there’s no such thing as ‘spoilers’ in a synopsis; it’s all one big spoiler. What I’m looking for is a full character arc with a satisfying beginning, middle and end.

Q. What are you looking for in the opening pages of a novel? What really excites you?

I love to see dialogue early on. This is such a personal thing, but I think dialogue is the thing that gives novels momentum. If your first page is just one or two long paragraphs of description, that’s not going to set me on fire. If there’s a bit of dialogue or action that creates tension, gives me character or gives me a sense of place, that’s what’s going to work for me.

Q. What’s your favourite thing about being an agent?

That moment when you call up an author to tell them that an editor wants their book, or it’s going to acquisitions, or they’ve got an offer. That’s the best bit – it can’t be beaten!

I do love the negotiation phase as well, though, that’s always fun. You get quite an adrenaline rush when you’re talking to publishers. They’re so much bigger than you and they can just walk away, but it’s your job to get the best possible deal for your author. Sometimes, that involves saying the unimaginable and knowing the worst that can happen is that they’ll say no.

And then there’s a third best bit which is when something comes into your submissions pile, and you start reading it and just can’t quite stop because it’s so good. You suddenly get that feeling: “Oh no, who else is reading this?” because you want to have gotten there first!

Q. Tell us about a recent deal (or three) that really delighted you.

I’ve already mentioned Joma West’s novel Face, which is coming out in August. I’ve also got a great read-in-one-gulp thriller coming out in January 2023 called HOME by Cailean Steed, which is about a woman returning to a cult that she had previously escaped from in order to rescue her sister.

There’s also a wonderful up-lit novel coming out in December by Kate Galley, called The Second Chance Holiday Club. It’s about a septuagenarian woman who finds in the drawer of her late husband’s desk a love letter to a woman on the Isle of Wight, and in a fit of spite she decides to deliver the letter and confront the woman. On that journey she takes a coach trip and meets two other single women travelling for different reasons. It’s all about finding friendship in later life and it’s so lovely.

Q. Any final words of advice for authors in the querying process?

I do; it’s about rejection, which I think is so important to talk about. An agent rejecting your work does not mean that your work is bad, or worthless, or even that it needs more editing. It just means that the agent didn’t think they were right for that book.

I say this to my authors when we’re looking for editors as well – rejections are par for the course. What we’re looking for is that one editor who is going to be the champion for the book, in the same way that a querying author is looking for the one agent who’s going to be the champion for their book. Hopefully, you’ll be working with that person for ten or twenty years and that’s a really exciting opportunity. It’s got to be the right person.

The full interview can be found on Robbie’s AgentMatch profile.

In the meantime, 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! Finally, you can take a look at Cailean Steed’s fantastic article on irony in literature right around the corner on the Jericho Writers Blog!

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