A collective voice for literature and languages in Scotland

Katalina Watt – Next Level experience

In late 2020, I was delighted to be selected as the second ever awardee of the Literature Alliance Scotland’s Next Level Award. The programme involved a tailored programme across skill-specific training, networking opportunities, and an extensive mentorship. The programme commenced in earnest in early 2021 and envisioned to be three months long, all taking place digitally. Owing to the extra pressures on publishing professionals working in the midst of Covid-19, it was necessary to be flexible, and therefore the programme wrapped at the end of May 2021.

I met with Jenny Kumar to establish my goals for the programme, and we worked together on a tailored action plan. Jenny was extremely organised, encouraging, and receptive, ensuring I had all the relevant materials and information. We created a flexible timeline and list of specific goals, as well as a list of trailblazers from across the book sector to approach for industry networking and mentoring. Jenny helped me narrow the scope of my initial list, which was North American-focussed, and we established that my main areas of interest were literary agenting and the non-profit sector. I had some understanding of agenting through my in-house publishing experience, but I was keen to demystify this area. Likewise, I had an abstract understanding of organisations working in the non-profit sector of the book industry. I was keen to learn more about working directly with creators, not just on specific projects but on their career as a whole.

I was warmly welcomed to a Literature Alliance Scotland meeting to gain an insight into the organisation’s work and meet with other members. This was a fascinating insight into LAS’ network, and the various areas of expertise represented by its members. Jumping off from this I had my first networking session with Peggy Hughes, then Chair of Literature Alliance Scotland. We spoke extensively about her exciting and varied career, and I was particularly interested in her hopes and vision for the future of the book industry. Particularly in Scotland, where she has strong connections. Her enthusiasm for her variety of roles and responsibilities confirmed that working directly with creators to affect tangible development opportunities was something which inspired me as much as it does Peggy.

Jenny and I discussed which soft and hard skills I felt the Next Level resources could be helpful for developing. I identified negotiation as an area which I used in my day-to-day at Canongate. I spoke with my colleagues who recommended Make Yourself, a training service previously used and approved of by Canongate. I recommended this to Jenny, who reached out one of the trainers Graham Singleton. These courses are usually structured for delivery to a team or group. Together Jenny and Graham tailored an individual course with a mix of the basic and advanced negotiation training curriculum. I worked with Graham across two three-hour virtual sessions, undertaking in-depth coaching with interactive exercises to prepare beforehand and throughout the sessions. Graham was an excellent tutor, using practical examples from real life business situations and well-known negotiations from popular media to underscore his teachings. We connected well and Graham was able to identify my personal negotiation style and help me develop those skills rather than applying a blanket prescriptive method. We discussed the main situations in which I would be using negotiation skills and I’m pleased to say this training was extremely helpful and beneficial. In the period after completing the course I have saved Canongate approximately £1.5k in production costs through my enhanced negotiation skills.

I’ve long been in admiration of Aki Schilz, Director of The Literary Consultancy. Not only for her work with TLC but also for her public advocacy of EDI in the book industry, particularly pay transparency championing #BookJobTransparency. I was delighted when Aki agreed to speak with me as an industry connection. At the end of 2020 Canongate established an EDI group and I was proud to be a founding member of the committee. During our discussion, Aki and I focused on applicable and measurable goals and strategies organisations can implement for improving EDI. We also discussed her thoughts on the changes she’s seen throughout the industry and her passion for working with authors and helping them tailor their own project and career plans, centring resilience as well as focusing on measures of success outwith the traditional publishing model. I found this discussion very thought-provoking and refreshing, applying some of Aki’s philosophies to the Canongate EDI committee future strategies. This meeting also inspired me in my ambition to work more directly and closely with creators and explore other innovative routes to publishing.

I also had the pleasure of speaking with several established literary agents whom I greatly admire. I spoke with Crystal Mahey-Morgan, who represents several Canongate authors, and who I’ve worked with on recent projects. Crystal is the co-founder of fully-service agency OWN IT and has a background in both in-house publishing and entertainment. The majority of my network connections have been with women of colour, and I’m immensely grateful to these industry powerhouses for changing the conversation and creating opportunities for others. Like myself, Crystal is from East London, and we discussed the ways in which publishing still underserves certain communities in terms of both its workforce and its creators. I was really buoyed up by this conversation, struck by Crystal’s passion for her clients and the advocacy element of the agent-client relationship.

I also spoke with Abi Fellows, an agent at The Good Literary Agency, who are dedicated to exclusively representing British authors from underrepresented backgrounds. Abi was warm and effusive, transparent about the agency’s process which is unique wherein the team consider every author submission as a team and collectively decide to offer representation, then deciding which agent would be the best fit. They are dedicated to working with authors to polish and develop their work and hope to partner with them for their entire writing career. Throughout these discussions I discovered this was an important element of both agenting and non-profits working closely with authors. There is both an advocacy and a partnership element and the joy of these roles is working with a creator at the start of the project, helping them develop that spark of an idea, and seeing the entire process from first draft to publication.

Finally, I spoke with Emma Paterson, a Director of Aitken Alexander Associates, and Nicola Chang of David Higham Associates. Emma represents several authors I greatly admire including Elaine Castillo, Mary Jean Chan, Natasha Brown, and Paul Mendez. Emma has always been very outspoken on EDI in publishing and leads by example with her successful client list. We spoke at length about the way agenting is perceived by in-house publishing professionals and authors, and Emma is keen that agenting particularly keeps evolving. We spoke particularly about some barriers to entry such as the lack of regional diversity and the early career financial instability of agenting. Emma is hopeful the industry is improving and her dedication and passion for her authors as well as pragmatic advice about list-building and resilience were extraordinarily helpful. Niki was transparent about the challenges and effusive about the joys of agenting with very sound practical advice and shared a great insight into her style as a very hands-on editorial agent who has worked across Aitken Alexander, The Good Literary Agency, and David Higham.

One of my goals was to receive mentorship from a literary agent, learning about agenting in an in-depth and practical hands-on way. I worked with Jenny who sent out initial emails to potential mentors, however we found that, as with the publishing industry at large, folk were slower to respond and had less time in their schedule to accommodate extra commitments. We re-strategized and I identified Juliet Pickering, both for her diverse client list but also as part of the #AskAgent regular discussion demystifying the agenting process on social media. I was delighted when Juliet, who is an agent at Blake Friedmann, agreed to the mentorship.

Jenny shared my application for the Next Level Award with Juliet prior to our initial meeting and introduced myself and Juliet over our first virtual meeting. In this session we established our goals for our time together. We outlined the following goals:

  • Queries: reading queries and evaluating manuscripts, writing rejections to authors
  • Building a client list: offering representation on specific projects and collaborating on long-term career ambitions
  • Submissions: editorial manuscript work, matching projects with editors, and the process of IP projects
  • Facilitating relationships within the agency, with your clients, and with other publishing contacts
  • Contracts and Finances: author-agent agreements, royalty statements, negotiating deals, sub-rights

Between our first and second session, Juliet shared materials from a successful client project including the initial query letter, communications on submission with editors, the deal memo, contract, and royalty statement. She also sent me a query from her inbox and asked me to write an example responsive to the author, analysing the writing and commercial potential of the project as it would suit her pre-existing list.

In our second session we discussed the successful project and Juliet filled in the necessary context to understand the life of the book from the query through to publication. Having these practical examples with timelines, challenges, and opportunities was extremely helpful for understanding the different possibilities as every project is different and there’s no single way a project will be acquired. Being able to see a query in its early stages and respond to it as though I were a literary agent considering offering representation was a useful exercise for considering all the factors which going into accepting or rejecting a query.

In our third session, we took an in-depth look into Juliet’s inbox. This was a great way of understanding how dynamic and reactive the job of a literary agent can be. Every day is a bit different depending on the status of various projects. Juliet showed me examples of projects at various stages in the publication process, including approving cover designs, checking in with authors working on their next writing projects, and tense negotiation deals with editors. We also looked specifically at IP projects, with Juliet guiding me step by step through a recent IP deal with one of her clients. It was fascinating to see how organic these projects could be, originating sometimes from an off-hand comment in a conversation. This underscored how important it is to be in communication with editors and keep your ear to the ground for the right fit for opportunities between your clients and editors. Finally, we looked in depth at contracts and royalty statements and Juliet gave me an insight into the processes and databases Blake Friedmann use for organising their projects.

Throughout my Next Level Award, I had been considering my next career move. Through my learnings it became clearer to me that I wanted to work more closely with creators near the start of their creative projects, as my current role related more to project management at the latter stages of publication. Throughout my career I’ve also been dedicated to EDI and demystifying the publishing process. I had considered several opportunities in agenting, however many of these required taking a pay cut and more junior responsibilities, or moving to London, neither of which aligned with my philosophies on diversifying the industry. I was delighted to be offered and accept a new position as Literature Officer at Creative Scotland. In my last session with Juliet, I was excited to share this news and she agreed this would be an excellent next step in my career. I hope this new position will allow me to work more closely with creatives, assist with demystifying the funding process, and overall allow me to contribute to evolving and improving the Scottish literary sector.

This programme allowed me to develop my skillset and reach out to publishing professionals whose work I’ve long admired. Every industry connection I’ve made has been so candid, helpful, and encouraging, all offering to remain in contact and advise in any way they can. Many have offered to review applications, pass along relevant opportunities, and remain open to any questions I might have. I feel so inspired by the people I’ve interacted with throughout my Next Level Award, and it’s given me the confidence and assurance to pursue the next step in my career. Although not agenting, I’m delighted to be moving into a new role which aligns with many of the goals established at the start of the programme.