Andrew Lownie Interview
Posted on 02 March 2007. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to literary agent Andrew Lownie, who has run his own agency specialising in non-fiction since 1988, having been a director at John Farquharson/Curtis Brown, and is a published author. He represents over a hundred and fifty authors, sells about fifty books a year and is very proud of his agency website http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk.
Tell us something about your background.
I set up my own agency aged twenty six, having been in publishing less than five years but, with the confidence of youth, I was keen to strike off on my own. I had worked for six months in Foyle’s bookshop, been the graduate trainee at Hodder & Stoughton with placements in everything from the warehouse to sales, production and the religious department, had worked as a freelance journalist and book reviewer for papers such as the Times and Spectator and on the staff of the parliamentary magazine The House Magazine , researched and help write some books and spent three years as an agent at Curtis Brown/John Farquharson so I thought I knew it all.
Curtis Brown generously let me take my authors with me on a shared commission basis but the early days were hard and I supported myself with journalism and writing my own books. I realised early that the only way to differentiate myself from other agencies was to specialise and to offer a very personal service and this ‘boutique agency’ approach has been at the heart of the agency’s ethos ever since. I started out with offices in Piccadilly, and then off Regent Street, with my former secretary from Curtis Brown and have been downsizing ever since . American publishers, in particular, are always asking where are ‘my people’ and sometimes authors claim to have talked to my assistant but I find I work most efficiently when I’m on my own.
For the last fifteen years I have worked from home – presently a 1725 house by Westminster Abbey where I have the ground floor consisting of a meeting room, office and library – and alone. That means I directly handle every aspect of representation myself in this country and in the US, using sub-agents only for translation and some film work, and if anything goes wrong only I can be blamed. One advantage is I can charge a blanket 15% commission, paying sub-agents from my cut, and giving me the lowest commission rate for non-domestic sales in all British agenting.
I see representation as a collaborative effort where the author, agent and publisher need to take a long-term view and work together including authors accepting that much of the promotion may depend on their own efforts. Many of my authors have been with me for over twenty years such as historian Anthony Bruce, UFO writer Timothy Good and crime novelist Mei Trow and I try, if possible, to keep authors with the same publishers – Lawrence James has been with Little Brown and St Martin’s Press since 1994 - and to build them gradually rather than simply going for large advances.
The website http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk, which has over ten thousand visitors a month, is the agency’s show window and is designed to be as helpful as possible, even to writers who don’t want to come to the agency. It should provide all the required information in no more than three clicks. Each author has a page on themselves with a picture and a link to their own website together with a note on how the author found the agency, as it was thought this might give useful indicators on the routes to an agent. There is then a page per book title with review extracts and rights information. There are also sections aimed at television and film producers, ‘Forthcoming Books’ listed in order of publication which is useful for publicists and those wanting to book speakers for festivals and regular articles on aspects of the publishing business.
There have been some forty articles over the last thirty months on such subjects as how to fill in US tax forms, advice on pitching to agents, writing book proposals and publicising ones writing through local and regional media, a literary editor’s view of publicity departments and a sales rep’s insight into the changing role of the sales department, a series where editors at different publishing houses explained how the commissioning process worked internally, the opportunities and challenges facing writers in the 21st century, how the Freedom of Information Act can be utilised, a week’s blog describing what happens in my particular agency and an advice column from an ex-bookseller-turned-publicist.
At the beginning of each month, I send to the thousand plus subscribers a short note on recent sales, news, new authors and an analysis of the website visitors and what they looked at and at the end of the year I write to give details of the number of books sold, the average advance and try to draw conclusions about trends in genres, size of advances etc. Few agents reveal such financial information but part of the agency’s ethos is to be as transparent and open as possible.
The agency takes a holistic approach helping to find subjects for authors, reverting rights and reselling them (see Rights Reverted section on website), marketing authors between books such as placing them as speakers on cruise ships and generally trying to provide as rounded a service as possible.
I’m not paid a salary and my income depends entirely on my efforts – like most authors – so I do try to go the extra inch in generating money. Often this means thinking globally and ‘outside the box’ – first placing a book in the translation market, selling a film option , developing the idea as a television or radio series, packaging an idea with an author, simply placing an idea as a serial, feature or television programme or selling rights separately or first to Canada or Australia.
Having written books myself, I hope I have some understanding of both the editorial and practical sides to writing - the importance of narrative thread and tension, the bore of clearing permissions, the preference for good reviews over sales etc - and that my year’s legal training at the College of Law is helpful over issues such as copyright, contract and libel.
How should our members approach you if they want to?
I take unsolicited submissions very seriously – how else are agents meant to find clients if they don’t already have inside contacts - and try to make the process as easy as possible. All the five hundred plus submissions a week are read by me initially and the promising ones then passed to my team of readers for a second , third or even fourth opinion. If we feel the book has commercial potential then we will work, sometimes for years, on shaping the proposal for the market.
Though I probably take on more authors than most agents - perhaps twenty authors a year - that is a very small percentage of the submissions I receive There are all sorts of reasons for turning down perfectly publishable authors– not my area of expertise, not sufficiently commercial, doesn’t interest me, have a comparable book already on the list – so authors shouldn’t despair. It’s important to keep trying and to take advice on making the submission as attractive and professional as possible. At the same time, many submissions are simply not suitable – poorly written, for genres I specifically say I don’t represent, not in the proposal format suggested on my website etc
Though I handle a wide range of authors and subjects , I am now taking on very little fiction and concentrating on history, biography, some trivia and reference books, memoir and issue books . For example, Amanda Steane’s Who Cares about negligence in the NHS and David Craig’s Plundering the Public Sector on wasted expenditure in Whitehall.
Tell us about your client list
The current no 1 UK non-fiction title is Cathy Glass’s memoir of fostering an abused child Damaged while Daniel Tammet’s extraordinary savant memoir Born on a Blue Day has spent the last month in the top four of the New York Times bestseller list and subject of a film bidding war between Universal and Warner Brothers. A large percentage of my books are serialised and many of them make the bestseller lists. For example Juliet Barker’s Agincourt was the fourth top selling history book last year. Not many small agencies can claim such a success rate?
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