Julia Churchill, Children's Agent, A.M. Heath
I met my agent Julia Churchill in August 2012 after winning the Greenhouse Funny Prize. Since then, I've learned lots about what she does and how it all works. I've marvelled at how amazingly popular she is at writing conferences (!), I've seen her ploughing her way through piles and piles of manuscripts and I can assure you that she does read everything. "I'm a bit of a faithless rag" she tweeted in February, "but I do have faith in the slushpile"!
I thought I'd needle her a bit about whether she takes bribes, why she only needs to read five pages of a manuscript to know if she's found a gem, and what she thinks about self publishing…
What makes the best kind of query?
Strength of query is all about strength of concept. If you don’t have a good idea, and some strong architecture, your query won’t stand up. Squishy McFluff is an example of that. It’s impossible not to love the sound of an imaginary friend – who is a cat.
What's the strangest way an aspiring author has ever tried to get your attention?
When I worked at an agency where we had hard copy submissions, I used to get the odd attention-grabbing approach. Champagne. Pimms. Sweets. Money. If the person didn’t send an SAE for return, I’d give them away.
I understand the desire to be noticed, but the only thing I’m looking for is talent, and that’s about the words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Agents focus on words on the page. Can I sell this? If I can’t sell this now, can I develop so it becomes saleable?
Okay, so if the best way to get your attention is NOT a Jaffa Cake in an envelope, then what is it?
Voice, concept, story and character. I want to see intent, focus, clarity. As for Jaffa Cakes, only if they’re in sealed wrapping.
I wrote a blog post [which can be read below, if you scroll down] about breaking the so-called rules in writing for children. But are there any rules really, or does it just come down to the idea and quality of writing?
If you break a rule, and you do it brilliantly, then you’ve probably created something exciting. I tend not to think in terms of rules, but sometimes if I read a submission and it’s not working, it’s because rules have been broken.
Not writing for the right age-group or not syncing concept/story/tone and age, head-hopping, too many points of view, too much telling (rather than showing), using clichés, entering a scene too early and leaving too late, having too many characters, too many sub-plots, having a nasty main character or not understanding their motivations.
Wowsers, there are lots of ways to go wrong! When it comes to novels, how is it you can make a judgement on just the first five pages?
The truth is you can make a decision on much less than five pages. It goes back to voice, concept, story and character and they should all be at work from the first breath the writer takes.
How many new authors do you take on during an average year?
It varies, depending on how lucky I am, but maybe five or six.
What's your favourite book you've ever sold? You don't have to say it's mine.
Aw, shucks. Ha ha!
But seriously, books are like family and friends – you love them all for different reasons.
So what's the deal with self-publishing? Is it a good route for debut authors to take, or should they keep pushing to get in the traditional way?
When I started in publishing there was really only one way to do things: get an agent, get a publisher. Now there are loads of ways to do things, loads of new models and routes to market. That’s exciting.
Having said that I’m an agent, and I mostly operate within that traditional model. I believe in the talent of experts, and the power of a team, and an international career involves a lot of experts and a lot of teams.
Being seen is hard. I want my writers to have as many people, with as much clout and creativity, fighting as hard as they can, to get great books into the hands of readers.
What about e-books. Do you love or loathe the idea of books going digital?
I have to be pragmatic to best serve my clients, and need to engage with the world as it is. I’m not concerned about digital books, but I’m concerned about the pricing of digital books. Writers need to make a living.
I personally think children should always have real books, with pages, even if they have the digital equivalent as well. You?
I agree, but let’s keep that a secret.
It really was very nice of Julia to answer those as she's pretty busy at the moment – she's just started her new job as Children's Agent at A.M. Heath, one of the UK's leading literary agencies. And she's taking submissions now…
Of course, that does mean Julia won't be judging The Greenhouse Funny Prize, but it's still running! The UK entries will be judged by Sarah Davies at Greenhouse, along with guest judge Leah Thaxton, Children's Publisher at Faber and Faber. Do enter, you still have lots of time and it's the whole reason why I'm here, writing a blog about the road to publication.
If you don't already (and you probably do), be sure to follow @JuliaChurchill on Twitter and look out for regular #askagent sessions, during which you can tweet specific questions for immediate responses.
Thanks for reading, and ciao for now!