What’s everyone looking for?

Today’s issue of Broadcast focuses on what the various commissioners at ITV are looking for. Most of them say they don’t want to be too prescriptive. The drama controller thinks there’s room for more crime, as long as it doesn’t include grizzled detectives, dead prostitutes and abused women.

Producers, publishers, and agents are often asked what they’re looking for right now, and the only genuine answer is rather formless: something fresh and character-led. ‘Character-led’ means that the characters are well drawn, and we like them enough to care what happens to them. It’s also important that what happens to them is interesting.

You have to take a conservative view of ‘fresh’: this often means a fresh angle on a well-known genre. It must not so far away from what an audience has seen recently that no one knows how to market it, but not something we feel we’ve now seen a hundred times. It’s a tricky balance. ‘Fresh’ doesn’t mean gimmicky, for instance, a grizzled detective who also happens to be in a wheelchair. One example might be Emma Adams’ play, Ugly, about climate change. You’d think that commission was career suicide, but Emma looked at the issue from the point of view of how people treat each other when resources get scarce. Still bleak, but a dimension we haven’t looked at much.

In this competitive world, a thoughtful creative choice means a writer is much more likely to get a commission.

Where is the money?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere’s been a lot of coverage this week about the ALCS’s latest survey of writers’ earnings:
http://www.alcs.co.uk/Documents/Downloads/whatarewordsworth.aspx
Nicola Solomon, Chief Executive of the Society of Authors, makes astute comments on the publishing aspects here:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/11/traditional-publishing-fair-sustainable-society-of-authors
Briefly, in publishing, book sales have been declining over the past few years; however, as Nicola points out, publishers don’t appear to be suffering. In television, companies have had to provide new digital services with no extra funding. Other media, such as film and theatre, have suffered from austerity cuts. Who loses out? The individual, as always – the writers.
What can be done about this? For a start, it’s time for the writers’ unions and agents to examine the writer’s share of money generated by their work. In the way that poor people’s benefits have been cut, almost as a punishment during the austerity cuts, writers seem to be expected to subsidise the digital developments in the media. Second, both the Labour and Conservative governments can stop suspecting there’s money to be found in creative content if we can just make it cheaper for the consumer, or promote our culture… without spending any money on it. At this rate, we won’t have a culture.
(Meg)

Meg’s Q and A

MegDavisWhat was your first job in publishing?
I had a variety of jobs after taking my degree in Russian, including as a theatre techie and bookseller.
How did you become an agent?
I’d been reading the entire contents of the bookshop I was working in (which you’re not really supposed to do, but those cold February afternoons when no one’s in the shop…) and four years later was now bored. One of our regulars came in looking happy, saying he’d got an agent for his book. ‘What’s an agent?’ I said. It sounded so fascinating that I wrote to a load of agencies until I found one that was willing to hire me as an assistant. At the end of my first year, one of the agents there left, and my boss let me inherit one of her clients. That was Anne Perry, and was the start of a very successful and happy working relationship.
How long have you been at Ki and what was your previous job?
I founded Ki three years ago; before that I worked for a long time at MBA Literary Agents.
What are the key skills an agent needs to do their job?
Diplomacy and a liking for people; enthusiasm; integrity; business acumen; editorial judgement; physical stamina (it can entail long hours); an interest in the legal side; voracious appetite for reading; a sense of humour; patience and perseverance.
On a day to day basis what is the most challenging aspect of your work?
The new digital landscape has given us additional challenges – to make it work for writers, and to raise clients’ profiles so publishers and producers can get an audience for them more easily. Day to day, though, it’s all about keeping writers in work, getting them paid as highly as possible, and smoothing out any problems.
Who has most influenced you in your career?
There are many fine agents to thank for help and advice along the way, foremost among whom is Diana Tyler, my boss at MBA. She gave me my start, allowed me to try things out for myself, and patiently sorted me out in the early days when I was in danger of making stupid mistakes.
If you hadn’t become an agent what would you be doing today?
Trombone player.
Who is your favourite writer?
Besides my clients, of course! Scriptwriters Donald Ogden Stewart (Philadelphia Story), Billy Wilder (Ninotchka), Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values), Joss Whedon; Sally Wainwright, all the writers of Breaking Bad and Madmen. Authors Jane Austen, Scarlett Thomas, Connie Willis. I guess the common theme here is an affectionate wisdom about human beings, laced with intelligent wit.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
Princess Leia.
Do you have a favourite quote?
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” An agent’s day is that unpredictable.
Name a book you couldn’t finish.
Loads of them, unfortunately. So much of my reading time is devoted to my clients’ work that I’ll put down any book I’m reading to keep up with what publishers and readers are excited about, if I think I’ve got a sense of it. A shorter list is the two most recent books I’ve actually read through to the end: Rene Denfield’s The Enchanted – which is a searing read, full of compassion – and Anton DiSclafani’s The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, which is vividly evocative of what it’s like to be a teenage girl.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Take yourself seriously enough to find out what you need to do to make it: raw talent isn’t enough, and it also helps enormously to know how to deal with agents and publishers and/or producers. That being said, there’s a lot of benevolence toward a writer whose work is exceptionally good; if the writing’s good enough, basic professional mistakes will be excused.
Do you write yourself? If so where?
No; I love being an agent, and that’s where my talents lie.

Meet Daniel!

116The amazing and talented Daniel Bouquet has joined the Ki Agency as an agent!  Here’s a chance to get to know him:

What was your first job in publishing?

“It was as an assistant to three directors at a literary agency, Watson, Little Ltd. It’s great that it still thrives but is today shaped so differently. ”

How did you become an agent?

“I had a useful background to be an agent. At the end of my time at Quercus Books Meg approached me about joining her at Ki. It took us a while to get to know each other better and in the end the attraction of working with Meg and Ki was too great to ignore.”

How long have you been at Ki and what was your previous job?

“I’ve only just arrived at Ki Agency. My previous job was as Head of International Rights at Quercus Books.”

What are the key skills an agent needs to do their job?

“The unoriginal but correct answer is: The ability to keep a large number of irons in the fire and to always believe that each work that comes your way could be genuinely original.”

On a day to day basis what is the most challenging aspect of your work?

“At this early point in my career at Ki, when I am seeing so much new writing, it is a challenge to be controlled enough not to leap at everything I like but to wait for those works that are truly saleable.”

Who has most influenced you in your career
Is there anyone in the book/film/tv industry you particularly admire?

“Most recently I would say Christopher MacLehose, the former Publisher at Harvill Books and now at his own imprint, MacLehose Press where I looked after his rights. Christopher is a true maverick and committed contrarian who publishes books I want to read- and which I sought to read before I ever met him. I have a large collection of Harvill Books. When you consider who he has published you can’t help but be awed. Murakami, Mankell, Hoeg, Richard Ford, William Maxwell, Anna Polytovskaya, Raymond Carver, Javier Marias, Jose Saramago, Roberto Saviano and Stieg Larsson to name a mere handful! He’s a hands on Editor, a relentless traveller and having achieved everything is still vigorously at it! I’m happy to say he is also a friend and someone from whom I can and do seek advice. ”

If you hadn’t become an agent what would you be doing today?

“Running a business of some kind- the shape of businesses small and large interests me: a record shop, a bookshop, a coffee shop, a small publisher, if viable, a combination of all? If earning a living was no issue just living on an island and near water. I’d like to live on the North coast of Mallorca.”

Who is your favourite writer?

“At the moment it is Ernest Hemingway. I am stunned by his craft. An old favourite is Robert Graves: Goodbye To All That is truly brilliant and very modern for its day, although not now very fashionable! In truth, my favourite writer changes constantly. When I was young I loved Paul Auster and Ian McEwan whom I now find barely readable. Sometimes it is Murakami. For craft I also admire William Maxwell, Georges Simenon, Jose Saramago, Paul Theroux, Roger Deakin and Henning Mankell. For exuberance I like Pedro Juan Guttierez. The things I read need to be enriching or have a point.”

Who is your favourite fictional character?

“Even though he frustrates I like Toru Watanabe from Murakami’s Norwegian Wood or the mysterious Major Quive Smith from Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male.”

Do you have a favourite quote?

“The Reverend Sydney Smith’s Advice on Low Spirits to Lady Georgiana Devonshire. It’s too long to quote here but I advise anyone to look it up.”

[Meg says: here’s the link http://www.futilitycloset.com/2012/10/10/advice-concerning-low-spirits/ ]

What is your favourite book/film/tv show/computer game?

“A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway- masterful in its concision and the best book on Paris in the 1920s. I also regularly re-read The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono and Dubliners by James Joyce. As you may tell, I like concise books and unelaborate writing. TV wise I like Scandinavian drama- especially Yellow Bird’s Wallander. It has to be with Krister Henrikson in the title role.”

Name a book you couldn’t finish.

“Fools Alphabet By Sebastian Faulks, which was recommended to me. Books I can’t finish seem to behave badly around me and lose themselves- this one was left on a train. I bought it a second time and left it on the roof of a car as I drove away.”

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

“If writing commercially, identify a readership which makes your writing viable. Keep a journal. Write every day. Less is more in everything. Write a good first line.”

Do you write yourself? If so where?

“I don’t have the compulsion necessary to be a real writer- I prefer to leave it to professionals…”