Juliet Mushens is an Agent in the UK Literary Division of The Agency Group. Juliet represents a bestselling list of fiction and non-fiction writers including international bestseller ‘The Miniaturist’ by Jessie Burton, Sunday Times bestselling crime writer James Oswald, and hugely successful brand ‘Very British Problems’.
A lot of successful agents started out as publishers. From the perspective of your authors, do you think it helps to have seen how publishing works from both sides?
I think it can be incredibly helpful to know how publishing works from both sides. I know what it’s like to pitch a book in an acquisitions meeting as I used to sit in them; I can be realistic about the what publishers can and should be doing; and I can sense check information which publishers give me. This insight into the process is invaluable when I decide where to submit a book, how to pitch it, and when negotiating a deal.
With the number of entrepreneurial indie writers taking their own books to market and self-publishing, does the slush pile still have a role?
Hugely. Some people have a marketing plan for their book, and they want to be involved in every aspect of the process from cover design to promotion: they thrive in self-publishing. However, some authors want to focus on the writing itself, rather than the business side, which means that my slush pile is bigger than ever. I often receive submissions from writers who have tried self-publishing and found it isn’t for them, and some people like to self-publish alongside looking for traditional representation.
One of my authors, James Oswald, sold 350k copies on his own when he self-published. He’s now published in 20 languages, is a Sunday Times top five bestseller, and has sold over half a million copies in the UK through Penguin. He often gets asked why he wanted an agent and he says it was so he had time to write, whilst I deal with the business side, and his publishers deal with the marketing, publicity and distribution.
How concerned should a prospective author be about their own ability to market and PR their book?
I really think, in fiction at least, it all comes down to the book itself. Some people can be incredibly active on social media, and make themselves available for a lot of signings, yet it still doesn’t click with the public. Others have no public presence yet sell bucketloads. I think that it can certainly help to be willing to do signings, and interviews, and blog posts – an enthusiastic, positive attitude is a joy for a publicist.
Is the process of editing valued as much as it used to be? And has the balance shifted in responsibility between agents, in house editors and freelancers?
I certainly believe that a lot of agents are much more editorial than they used to be. Lists are crowded, and when I send a publisher a book I don’t want to give them any reason to say ‘no’. Some books go through two or three drafts with me: others go through five or six. Equally, some editors are incredibly hands on, whilst others prefer to let a freelance take the lead. The Miniaturist went through 17 drafts before publication, and several of those were with her editors. It seems to really depend on individual editor and house: I’ve seen editors send a paragraph of edits, and I’ve also seen 20 page long editorial letters with marked up manuscript attached!
If you were to identify some new skills and specialisms that writers, agents and publishers were likely to value in the future, what would they be?
I think that it’s important for writers to decide how they want to be published. There is a lot more choice out there now – you can submit to indie publishers directly, as well as to agents, or you can choose to self-publish alone, or with the help of a consultancy. It’s important to research each path carefully, and put time and care into making the decision of which way you want your career to go. There’s a wealth of information out there, and I think authors can and should educate themselves about how they want to be published.
About Juliet Mushens – Juliet began her publishing career in 2008 at HarperCollins, after reading history at Cambridge, and became an agent in 2011. She was highly commended in the Literary Agent of the Year category at the Bookseller Industry Awards in 2015, having also been shortlisted in 2014. She was picked as a Bookseller Rising Star in 2012 and shortlisted for the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize for excellence in women in publishing in 2013. Alongside her role as an agent, she supervises Creative Writing dissertations for Kingston University. Her first book, ‘Get Started in Creative Writing for Young Adults’, was published by Hodder in June.