#Writers , have questions for a Literary Agent? #askagent

Continuing the  guest post series in this blog, it is with great pleasure that I present Helen Mangham, a partner literary agent at one of the best-known literary agencies in Asia: the Jacaranda Literary Agency. She answers questions on various topics of writerly interest: feel free to leave your questions for her in the comments section.

1. How and why did you become a Literary Agent?

Graduating with a degree in history it seemed the only jobs I was specifically qualified for were history teacher or working in a Museum – but neither appealed to me. Publishing attracted me, back then I wasn’t quite sure what a Literary Agent did, but it sounded interesting. I saw a job advertised at Curtis Brown, London and applied. I didn’t know then that it was one of the oldest and most famous literary agencies in London. Luckily I got the job!

2. What book, published in recent times, do you think should be more recognized, and one that you think is overrated?

For over-rated, I’d have to say ‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen.  Franzen is undoubtedly a brilliant author and this book is a tour de force and technically impressive, but personally it left me cold as I couldn’t empathise with any of the characters.  I also think it is too long!   A book that I stumbled across a few years ago and loved was ‘The Glass Room’ by Simon Mawer, a complex historical novel set in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s and spanning six decades, it is a tragic, multi-layered and at times profound novel. Whilst not exactly under-rated – it was short listed for the 2009 Booker Prize – I think it deserves to be more widely read.

3. When it comes to non-fiction, a lot of agents are looking for ‘experts’ in their fields. What defines a person capable of writing on a certain subject?

I don’t think you necessarily have to be an expert to write on a subject. But you do have to be passionate about that subject and write about it from an original perspective. For example, you could be the world’s leading expert on a given subject, but still make it sound dull, or alternatively you could be enthusiastic enough to make it come alive. Look for something new to say.

4. Tell us about some notable books you’ve sold recently (publisher, title, author).

  • ‘Beijing Comrades’ by Bei Tong translated by Scott E Myers to Feminist Press, New York.
  • A debut memoir by Kenyan author Jess de Boer ‘The Elephant and the Bees’ to Jacaranda Books, UK (no relation to us!)
  • Krishna Udayasankar’s fourth book ‘The Immortal’, to Hachette India.  Also, another new book by Krishna Udayasankar:  ‘3:  The Legend of Singapore’ to Ethos Books, Singapore (for Singapore and Malaysia)  and also to Hachette, India (for India).
  • ‘Holistic Health Guide for Women’ by Dr I. Mathai to Via Nova, Germany
  • ‘Start-Up Capitals, Discovering Global Hotspots of Innovation’ by Zafar Anjum to Random House India
  • ‘Miss Draupadi Kuru’ by Trisha Das to Harper Collins, India.
  • Also, an as yet untitled book on Asian Parenting by Maya Thiagarajan to Tuttle.

5. What’s your advice to an aspiring author submitting to Jacaranda? As a literary agent, what do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?

Tantalise me, but don’t overwhelm me with information. Send me a short synopsis of your book, and a couple of sample chapters. Was your story inspired by real life or just a genre you love? If non-fiction tell me why you think it is different to other books out there and who it will appeal to? Please don’t expect me to be able to get back to you within ten days – I have to prioritise work for existing clients over potential ones!
I pray to open a manuscript and find myself reading for pleasure and not critically. If I’m engrossed and my literary agent hat falls off that’s a good start!

6. What’s one thing you are sick of seeing in queries?
Getting published, especially in these risk averse times, is incredibly difficult. With this in mind, a prospective author should ideally revisit, rework and edit their manuscript several times, as well as show their work to other people and get opinions on it before sending it to a literary agent.

7. What do you hope to see when you google a prospective client?
The right answer is an impressive ‘online presence’. An author web-page, a blog with lots of followers, an active twitter account and a facebook page for their book. I’m thrilled if I do find that, but I’m not depressed if I don’t. We can help authors to create their own websites and build online presence.

8. What sets Jacaranda apart from other literary agencies?
Obviously being based in South East Asia sets us apart – there are still not so many agents in this part of the world. Having an agent in the Philippines definitely sets us apart! We’re small and work across continents, with authors from as far afield as Australia, America and the US as well as our bedrock of S.E Asian writers.

9.  Tell us about your experience at the last Frankfurt Fair.

We had a packed schedule with only two or three free slots over the entire three days – hardly time to grab lunch, which we ate on the go! But that’s a good thing – we made lots of valuable new contacts, among both publishers and foreign agents. The most memorable moment for me was being on the Hachette India stand when it was announced that Malala Yousafzai had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – the youngest recipient ever! There was whooping and cheering and lots of high fives!


helen Mangham Literary Agent
Helen Mangham, Jacaranda Literary Agency

Helen has been a Partner Agent at Singapore-based Literary Agency Jacaranda since 2012. Here she is helping to build a dedicated list of Singapore Writers alongside an eclectic international list. As part of her role with Jacaranda, Helen attends the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs and meets with international publishers from across Southeast Asia, Australia, the UK and US. Helen came to Jacaranda with over eight years of publishing experience. She started her career in London, at Curtis Brown Literary Agency. She has worked with the publicity departments of a number of the UK’s leading publishing companies, helping with publicity campaigns for a number of high profile books including Michael Chabon’s ‘The Mysteries of Pittsburgh’, Andrew Morton’s controversial biography of Princess Diana, Whitley Streiber’s ‘Communion’ and the autobiography of Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin. Other authors she has worked with include Deborah Moggach, John Julius Norwich and Chinua Achebe.

Are you writing a book? Looking for a literary agent? Have questions for Helen? Fire away in the comments! And if you don’t have a question, comments are great, too.

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I love comments, and I always visit back. Blogging is all about being a part of a community, and communities are about communication! Tweet me up @damyantig !


Add Yours
  1. Roji Abraham

    I had self published my first book titled ‘Kaleidoscopic Lives’ last month. While I have been receiving a lot of ecstatic feedback from readers on how they loved the book, the book still has not found it’s way to the mainstream media. And given that my self-publishing firm isn’t really doing much, I doubt if it will, in future too. I would like to see the book get better mainstream exposure – would a literary agent be able to help get me into a good publishing house?

    • helen mangham

      Hi Roji, This is one of the problems of self-publishing and why it is generally better to go with a mainstream publishing company. You will need to get an agent to represent you to have the best chance of finding a publisher. So, the first task is to find an agent wiling to take you on – agents will only take on books they feel they have a good chance of selling. So do your research and find out which agents represent books like yours in your market. Check their website for submission guidelines and follow those. Good luck!


  2. aj vosse

    I enjoyed this read. Would like to ask one question please? Does Helen take unsolicited submissions from unpublished writers in Europe? 😉

    • helen mangham

      Hi, Yes I do if you follow the instructions on the Jacaranda website. Currently we are closed for submissions due to our workload – but you can send a short synopsis and two sample chapters to me at: helen@jacaranda-press.com

      • aj vosse

        Hi Helen,

        Thanks a million, I’ve sent on something for you to have a look at. Thanks too, for taking the time to follow up, it speaks volumes for your commitment and willingness to help unpublished writers! It is appreciated.

        Cheers for now,

  3. Dalo 2013

    This is a fantastic interview ~ and really liked the second question (great one, not easy to ask either) and then her answer…perfect. There are so many great writers out there who do not actively seek (while I am guessing quite a few mediocre ones who just want to publish), that I cannot imagine having to wade through it all as I just would not have the talent or patience. This is a great look at a difficult, yet charmed profession. Cheers!

  4. Charlie Garratt

    My first novel is about to be published in April and I’m halfway through a sequel but I don’t have an agent. Would there be any advantage is seeking one now?

    • helen mangham

      This is a very good question! I think there is always value in having an agent, even when you already have a publisher. An agent can help you to negotiate a good deal with your publisher and work with you to develop your writing career as well as protect other subsidiary rights. Often authors find it helpful to have someone to ‘go into bat’ on their behalf so that they can concentrate on the writing!

  5. justinchasteen

    Just finished my second draft–I’m not rushing anything, though. I just wanted to say that your blog is helpful and does help prepare me, mentally, for the road ahead.

  6. Drop Me Anywhere

    What a great article and well thought-out, as well as well answered questions. I’m traveling the world on a writing project write now, which I will turn into a book (my first). I’m so very nervouse about submitting and this helps my comfort level. Thanks for the wonderful information.

  7. qingchuan_lyu

    Do you need to write every day to keep a feeling of writing? Which writer influenced you the most? Thanks.

    • helen mangham

      Well I think everyone is different. Personally I don’t think writing is something you can force. It should never become a chore – ideally you should write when you feel inspired to write. However, you wouldn’t believe the number of people I meet who say they have a book idea that they have wanted to write forever. The trick is to start writing SOMETHING – the more you do that the more you will want to write. You don’t have to start at the beginning of a book, write the part you feel most inspired to write first. When you have some passages of your book that you are happy with, you have a framework to write around.

      There are so many writers who have made a deep impression on me that it is difficult to pick just one. I count among my favourites; Tolstoy, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Henri Alain-Fournier whose evocative and haunting coming-of-age novel ‘Les Grandes Meaulnes’ is still one of my favourite books, Milan Kundera, Jay McInerney, Kazuo Ishiguro, Donna Tartt and James Salter.

  8. writerhime88

    Hi, Helen
    I was wondering, now that you’ve worked as an agent for a while, what would you advise someone interested in the field to study while in college to get a foot in the door in publishing? Are there any skills they wouldn’t learn in the class room that you’d recommend them learning as well?
    Thanks, and the question and answers were really interesting.

    • helen mangham


      This is a good question and there are many routes into publishing. Obviously studying English or creative writing at university can be helpful, but people come into publishing from all walks of life. For non-fiction publishing it could be useful to have a background in science or business for example. Publishing itself is a business and so those and PR skills can also be useful. There are also shorter courses in editing skills and publishing that can be taken following college or university. But there is also nothing like learning on the job. In the old days secretarial skills could help you to get a foot in the door, but with the advent of computers that’s not really the case anymore. Other routes would be to intern at a publishing house or work for an editorial company.


  9. ruchira

    Loved all your answers to the above questions, Helen.
    I self published my first novel, and I agree self promotion is a tedious task, and could not reach out with my book to the audience as expected. However, now my second manuscript in hand, I guess finding an agent would not be as tough as it would have been with my first one.

    Are you by any chance accepting submissions of fictions?

    Thanking you

    • helen mangham

      Hi Ruchira,

      We are accepting fiction submissions according to the submission guidelines on our website. However, we won’t be able to respond to submissions until after the London Book Fair in mid-April I’m afraid.


      • ruchira

        No worries, Helen.

        Have submitted my synopsis of fiction and will wait up with bated breath 😉

        Thanks Damyanti for giving us all an opportunity to talk to a literary agent.

  10. Mochi Macchiato


    Do agents take on expat writers living in a different country? If yes, how are payments made? In the expat currency or agent/publishers country currency?


    • helen mangham


      At Jacaranda we represent both local and expat writers in different countries – what matters is that we like the work. Payments are made in the currency of the publisher and can be converted into whichever currency the author prefers and paid by bank transfer.


  11. ponderedmusings

    Very informative post! Being new to the field and just starting to venture out with my writing, this gives some very useful insights into the world of publishing. Thanks!

  12. Angie K

    I am writing a book and my main question is: if you generally like the book but have certain issues with it, would you just reject it, or would you discuss with the author and require changes to be made? Thanks.

    • helen mangham

      Hi Angie,

      This is a very good question. If I see potential in a book or if I like the book as a whole but have a few issues, I will always contact the the author and discuss the book with them. Ideally we will sit down together over a coffee, but if the author is in a different country then perhaps it is over a series of emails or a skype call. I’m very happy to work with an author through several drafts of a manuscript if I see something there I really like. Many authors are open to feedback and prepared to work on the writing. It should be a collaborative process. If an author is very reluctant to make changes for whatever reason, then I respect that completely – it’s their book at the end of the day. However, I will probably not take the book on.


    • helen mangham


      It depends what you mean by a high word count? Average book length tends to be 60,000 – 80,000 words, but longer can be fine if the storyline dictates. However, with a very long word count the author should be considering if there should be an editing process to tighten up the writing.


  13. D.J. Lutz

    Good scoop. I must admit, being somewhat new to the quest for an agent, I had not considered an agency outside of New York. Thanks for taking a few minutes to help many of us understand the industry better.

  14. Birgit

    This was quite interesting especially with what you loom for and that some writers send too much. I like that you want to get engrossed in a book and forget your job. There must have been books you had to review that just made your eyes roll into the back of your head

    • helen mangham


      I’m afraid if you haven’t piqued my interest in three chapters I will have to move on……


  15. johnwellcome

    I’ve written an early-reader chapter book. Should I try to get an agent to help me publish it, or should I just begin the process of getting it published by publishing it myself on barnesandnoble.com to start out?

    • helen mangham


      I would see if you can find an agent, but if this doesn’t work definitely go ahead an publish yourself. Perhaps try and see if you can take it into a few schools and get some feedback?


  16. spunkonastick

    I’m sure it really helps when the author has a huge online presence. Nothing like trying to build from scratch right before a book comes out.

  17. kkrige

    Thank you for a great article, plus all the excellent questions and answers that it solicited. I am working on editing a travel memoir of my 10-month trip through Africa, so I find any tips or advice on the writing/publishing industry valuable. You keep my hope alive that its publication isn’t just a pipe dream.


  18. Julia Lund

    Thanks for the advice and insights in this post. My latest manuscript had some interest from a UK agent who then decided not to take it any further ‘at this point’, offering me some specific feedback. My question to Helen is, when making future submissions on my next novel, should I mention the interest my previous submission had and should I mention the agency that was interested? Or is that not the ‘done thing’? Thanks.

    • helen mangham

      Hi Julia,

      I think it’s fine to mention the interest from another agent and the feedback to received. All information is helpful and the fact that an agent was interested is definitely a positive!


    • helen mangham


      A very practical reason is that the majority of publishers only accept manuscripts via an agent. This is a form of filtering that protects a publisher from being deluged with submissions. However I also think it is important for a writer to have an agent to give them very good advice on getting their manuscript into the best possible shape before submitting it to publishers. They will also work on putting together a great pitch document for your book. Importantly your agent should know the right editors to pitch your book to.

      Finally, if you are lucky enough to be offered a publishing contract it is invaluable to have an agent to represent your interests during the negotiation process.


  19. Angelika Schwarz

    How wonderful that an agent has the time to share some valuable information. I do have a question. Since I live in Germany, is it worth it for a first time author, without a publisher, to visit the Frankfurt book fair, and approach publishers with her book? I will be publishing my book on amazon soon.

    • helen mangham

      Hi Angelika,

      You can always try and meet publishers at the Book Fair but really I think it is better to either find an agent or submit directly. Most publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, but if you check a publisher’s website they often have guidelines for submission. Some publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts at certain times of the year for certain genres, so do look out for this and sign up to sites or blogs that alert you to these opportunities.


  20. Tyrean Martinson

    Thanks for sharing this informative interview. My question for Helen is: is there a genre that she does not represent and why? Also, if an author has published independently or with a small press, will that hurt the author when she is interested in finding an agent and submitting her work in a traditional manner?

    • helen mangham

      Hi Tyrean,

      I represent literary and good quality commercial fiction. I also represent general non-fiction including some business and memoir. I don’t represent academic books or educational books. My range is quite broad and eclectic and it depends what appeals and what I think I can sell.

      I’m open to representing authors who have previously published independently – sometimes this is a good test of the market if it has sold well. If an author has been published by a small press that would be a positive and wouldn’t prevent me from wanting to represent that writer.


  21. lovefromstu

    What a great, informative post! I have a question for Helen: what sort of things did you do in college in order to acquire a job at a prestigious literary agency? I’m an english major and I feel the same way– that teaching is my only option. It’s so inspiring that jobs like that actually exist!
    Thanks so much.

    • helen mangham


      I actually studied history at university and was lucky to be able to find my first job in a literary agency. There is no specific career path to becoming an agent – a love of books is of course crucial and experience of working in publishing can also be a route in. If you are interested in becoming an agent it might be worth looking at the sites of big agencies and seeing if they are offering any internships. Similarly you could try to find an internship at a publishing house. Do read a wonderful book by Joanna Rakoff – ‘My Salinger Year’ about the author’s experience of working in a big New York literary agency in the Nineties, it’s so true of how the business used to be! Good luck!


  22. cynthiamvoss

    Thank you for the interesting interview! My question for Helen is: what is your opinion of self publishing vs. traditional publishing? Does she have advice for new authors regarding this?

    • helen mangham


      I’m not against self-publishing but I think you need to be realistic. It can be very hard to gain a readership by self-publishing without the promotional support of a publishing house. We all hear about the success stories – but these are exceptions. Some publishing companies offer opportunities to post your books onto their online sites to gauge how successful they are and this can be an interesting option. Publishing is constantly evolving at the moment and so the rule book is being ripped up. But I still think the traditional route of finding an agent and then a traditional publisher is best. Do get a copy of the Writer’s & Artist’s Year Book – it’s full of invaluable advice for aspiring authors.


  23. Sarah Kay Moll

    A great post. Helen, you mentioned that people can send you a short synopsis. You probably get this all the time, but, how short is short? A few paragraphs? A page? Thanks!

    • helen mangham


      A few paragraphs – not more than half a page. It doesn’t need to include every twist and turn of the plot, but it should convey the essence of the book. Your covering note should include what inspired or who inspired your book and a bit of background to yourself and your writing.


  24. Bruce Goodman

    Great questions! Great answers! Thanks! I don’t know ever where to begin! I contacted a good half dozen agents, and they all asked the same initial question: who is your publisher? So I sent the novel MS directly to George Braziller in NY! He phoned me three times about it, and said he was looking for a “co-publisher”. Then he decided against publishing but said he still really liked the novel. Now, having had my whine, my question is quite simple: where do you catch the train? I can’t seem to get even a reject!

    • helen mangham


      I know – it’s a chicken and egg situation. Trying to sell debut authors is incredibly difficult and many agents only want to represent authors with a publishing track record. But take any advice you can on your writing – buy a copy of Writer’s & Artist’s Year Book if you don’t have one already (or access it online), It’s also worth entering writing competitions etc and getting your work noticed. Literary events often include an open pitching session which allows aspiring authors to pitch their book to publishing experts and agents so do look out for these as well. Many big literary agencies have similar schemes so do check their websites as well.

      Good luck.


  25. lostinmist

    Do you accept slush from through this post? I have yet to contact any agents except for one contest entry. I do poetry at lostinmist.wordpress.com although little of what I submitted is there. I live in kentucky, USA and my name is available upon request

    • helen mangham


      We have information on how to submit to us on our Jacaranda website. Sadly we don’t represent poetry I’m afraid.


  26. equinoxio21

    An interesting post. And candid answers from Helen. My own personal experience looking for agents in New York was not… pleasant: 25 query letters met with standard, arrogant replies if any. So I’m still not sure who needs an agent anyway?
    But that’s all right. Maybe Helen is an exception. She does look and talk like a nice person.
    Again, thanks, many, for this post.

    • helen mangham


      I’m sorry your experience hasn’t been positive – it is tough and agents can get overwhelmed with submissions. I still think having an agent is a big advantage but I know that finding one is tough. But do explore other routes and keep tabs on which publishers are accepting unsolicited manuscripts.


      • equinoxio21

        Hi Helen. Thank you for your kind and unexpected comment. Allow me to share my thoughts on the publishing industry. We are in the midst of the second Gutenberg Revolution. And as observers-subjects in the model we lack perspective. When Gutenberg invented the print, he was just doing business, he didn’t have a clue that his invention would spur two (or three) of the greatest social movements in human history. First, the Reform and Protestantism: for the first time one could read one’s own Bible and form a personal opinion. Second, without printed books, there would have been no philosophers (Voltaire, Rousseau, D’Alembert, Locke, Hume, etc.) and possibly there would have been no French Revolution. Not to mention the Declaration of Independence fueled by the above writers. With to-day’s technology, readers in India can read a short story of mine on their smartphones. For free.
        That is the revolution that publishers, agents and authors are facing. The business model has to be reinvented. From scratch possibly. 🙂
        So here’s a challenge to you: I invite you to set aside your slush pile and visit my blog Equinoxio. https://equinoxio21.wordpress.com/2014/03/20/foglines-by-brian-martin-onraet/
        First chapter of one of my novels, Foglines. No query, no synopsis, no five first pages. Just dive into it! 🙂
        It should take you no more than ten minutes. Or you can browse around the blog too. If something clicks in your mind, then I’ll be glad to send you a synopsis. 🙂
        Have a lovely week.
        Brian (aka Brieuc, aka Bruno)