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 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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