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The Soho Agency Director Alice Saunders on cosy crime, indie bookshops and the power of storytelling

The Soho Agency Director Alice Saunders on cosy crime, indie bookshops and the power of storytelling

By Claudia Besant |

whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books

Alice Saunders is Director and Agent at The Soho Agency, a leading literary, theatrical and talent agency based in the heart of Soho, London. Launched in 2019, the agency represents writers of fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, such as Taylor Jenkins Reid, Frances Cha and Kate Mosse, as well as TV presenters, illustrators, writers for stage and screen, brands, companies, charities, and online entertainers. Alice loves storytelling, in all its forms. Whether it’s fiction or narrative non-fiction. Alice is active in all types of representation – literary, audio, live audiences, film and television. As head of the ‘speaker’ business she works extensively with businesses and brands, matching and providing talent for corporate, industry and public sector events.

You must have read hundreds of manuscripts in your career to date. Can you tell us new ways in which writers are adapting, and are there shifts in the types of submissions coming your way? How much do you think cultural movements in the last decade have shaped this?

As agencies and agents become more visible via social media, events etc. we are seeing an increase of personalised submissions where it’s clear writers have really done their research in terms of representation. Approaches are more bespoke and there is less of the ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ – it’s always a good sign that a writer is really committed to a writing career and has immersed themselves, to some extent, in a writing community.

The submissions we get are a fascinating reflection of cultural shifts and moods of the moment. For example, I have seen very little crime/thriller submissions over the last year (and I really want some!) which I think is indicative of a general reluctance to inhabit darker worlds in fiction when reality is already a little bumpy!  

Do you still get excited by the same submissions and styles now as you always have, or have your views evolved on the sorts of projects you want to get behind?

I do. My passion for storytelling is what got me into this business 20 years ago and continues to be the driving force. Words are as powerful as ever, books continue to allow readers to escape into and learn from other lives lived on the page. They entertain us, comfort us, make our world bigger and can change lives – submissions that do that, regardless of style or genre, will always excite me. It is a pretty broad remit and why my client list is rather eclectic from chefs to thriller writers, narrative memoirs and personal manifestos.

Are you finding that authors’ expectations or goals have changed over the last few years? If so, in what way? Do they vary depending on whether they are established or debut authors?

Yes. Big, splashy debuts sold at auction now make national news and for debut authors, to some extent set a standard. There is some, but a lot less reporting on the reality, which as of November 2020 is that only 13.7% of authors earn their income solely by writing (www.bookbeaver.co.uk).

Established authors will undoubtedly have different expectations, having been through the experience of creativity meeting commerce and what uncomfortable bedfellows they can sometimes make.

Do you think readers’ appetites have changed / are changing?

Yes and no. There is still a lot of trend-led publishing but ultimately like all of us, readers want a good story. So yes, we’re seeing a rise in demand for cosy crime, but the next big thing always comes out of the blue like Eleanor Oliphant and are evidence that readers’ are always up for embracing something different when it is brilliantly executed.

In your opinion, what are the measures of success for a book and its author now versus ten years ago?

Ten years ago there was a lot of focus on advances whilst today my measure of success is to see a title receive a decent advance that is enough to allow a writer to not have to supplement their income and then to sell well, not necessarily via the bestseller list (although of course that’s the ideal) but steadily and continuously so it earns out and becomes a solid backlist title that readers recommend to each other year after year.

Books have been around for centuries and whilst there has been lots of speculation over the impact of digital publishing, all recent figures show that physical print is as popular as ever. In your personal opinion, why do the traditional formats still seem so robust no matter how much we advance in digitising content?

Ah, so many reasons! The smell of the paper, brilliant cover designers ensuring they are as desirable on the outside as in, books are still regarded as a status symbol and there is a cultural value to having a title like James Joyce’s Ulysses on your bookshelf, even if you’ve never read it… As more and more of our time is spent on screens, the printed page becomes a welcome alternative for weary eyes.

The pleasure of a good browse just can’t be replicated online. Bookstores and indeed booksellers offer a wonderful retail experience for a consumer and occupy a special place in the British shopper’s heart as seen when Welsh indie bookshop Book-ish recently achieved its crowdfunding target in just 10 days, raising £25,000 and securing its future after customers, publishing figures and authors donated money.

If you could have one wish granted for a change to the industry in the next decade (or less!), what would it be?

I’d like the term ‘women’s fiction’ to be retired and referred to as general fiction!

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