Accomplishment: Leading British Literary Agent
We went down to the cellar together while I filled Sheri in.
"Sheil Land Associates is a long established literary, theatrical and film agency dating back to 1962. They have fourteen staff including eight agents and their assistants, all of whom are strongly supported by friendly and experienced finance and administrative staff, making us one of the top five literary agencies in the UK. Ian Drury is one of their top notch agents. They welcome approaches from new clients who have already published works as well as first time writers."
Sheri threw me a pitying smile. "Then I guess you'll be wanting to put those manacles on yourself, Hon."
Dames can be stupid. Even dames like Sheri Lamour. "No, on him. The manacles are for Mr Drury...Along with the cream...the bandages."
Does bestseller mean good writer?
Obviously not, Fifty Shades of Grey is truly awful and fully deserves the derision heaped on it by so many in the book trade. Conversely, my favourite writers include Adrian McKinty, Anna Zouroudi and, of course, Alan Furst; all of whom ‘appeal to a more discriminating audience’ as a former boss once put it. Trends come and go, and lucky authors can become bestsellers if they catch the tide; others find themselves swimming against it. This is such a subjective business of course. What I find ‘good’ seldom coincides with the view of the Orange prize judges – and (so far) never with those running the Booker.
To agent or not to agent? Why or why not?
In my case, the decision was to become agent after 25 years on the other side as editor & publisher. Publishers spend a disproportionate amount of time in meetings, struggling with cumbersome data systems, briefing colleagues, contributing to publicity and marketing campaigns, drafting jacket briefings, advance information sheets, managing freelance editors etc. etc.
As an agent, I can focus on what brought me into the business in the first place: and I don’t need the permission of a committee to get excited about a script. If I think it’s worth taking to market, off I go. I am not constrained by a reporting structure that restricts me to specific genres, so I can do both mass market fiction and serious non-fiction, which is a difficult combination to manage in a British publishing house.
Has a book ever made you angry. If so, which one?
Quite a few: I am known to follow Dorothy Parker’s advice about testing the aerodynamic qualities of books that really annoy me. But we are back to the subjective nature of our business, and some of the books I’ve hurled aside with great force are written by prize-winning titans of publishing. So the title I pick is Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: a coruscating analysis of the crimes of the Russian Communist regime. My anger is not with her, a brilliant historian, but at the people Lenin labeled ‘useful idiots’, the ‘champagne socialist’ apologists in the West. I had to put up with these bastards throughout my education during the Cold War. A trip to the Latvian Museum of Occupation in Riga should be compulsory for anyone who spouted the party
line from the safety of Islington – or their holiday home in Tuscany .
Which four literary characters would you like to invite to dinner, and why?
Assuming this is one dinner party, I thought I’d better invite five so we can sit boy-girl-boy etc. My guests would be Harry Flashman, Becky Sharpe, Tyrion Lannister, Cassandra and Rebecca from Ivanhoe. Flashman is my favourite fictional creation of all time and I go back to Macdonald Fraser’s incomparable novels at regular intervals to recalibrate my critical judgement. And with a glass or two inside him, I can ask the question so many of us have wanted to know: just how did he cock-up the Battle of Gettysbsurg?
Becky Sharpe became one of my literary heroines when I was studying for my English ‘A’ level and I do like to revisit Vanity Fair too: interesting how much more there is to see there when you read as an adult, rather than a 16-year-old student.
Tyrion, like Flash Harry, has a taste for low company, fast women and booze; I suspect he’d be more fun at parties than my other fictional heroes Hornblower, Sharpe and Jack Aubrey.
Cassandra was cursed to tell the truth but have no-one believe her; from my experience as a publisher, we have a lot in common. I’ve felt sorry for her since Roger Lancelyn Green implanted a lifelong interest in ancient history, and the girl deserves a good feed in better company than she found in Mycenae .
And so to my fifth guest: Cora Munro from Last of the Mohicans couldn’t make it, so I am happy to introduce Rebecca, Isaac’s daughter from Ivanhoe. A medic, and hot enough to tempt a Templar from his vows, I always thought she was far more alluring than boring Rowena. I may of course be biased by memories of Olivia Hussey on the TV version I watched as an undergraduate.
Would you agree with some that self publishing is the new 'slush-pile’?
There is little doubt that a lot of slush-pile scripts have become self-published ebooks rather than going into the submissions file of an agency. I understand that Amazon has discovered that in most cases, readers of these 99p ‘bargains’ seldom read more than the first ten per cent of the text, before giving up. I have heard concern voiced at US literary conventions that some authors, faced with rejection, rush off to Amazon to publish themselves instead of trying again and honing their craft. Given that so many bestselling authors had early scripts rejected, the worry is that the business may lose out as new authors fail to realize their potential as they self-publish and – let’s face it – disappear without trace. However, as the UK remains mired in a deep recession, certain types of books have been very hard to place: history and biography, for example. Some authors – and it helps to have a name and a reputation here – have circumvented the trade publishers this way, and made money doing so.
Elmore Leonard listed ten rules, one of which is: 'Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. What rule or piece of advice would you add to the list, and if you know his ten rules, which one would you happily see broken?
I share Elmore Leonard’s implacable opposition to adverbs, and his ten rules are worth following. The tip I’d add is that writers should do their research properly because it does matter, not just to pedantic historians but to all readers. I was discussing historical fiction with an AA mechanic who was ex-REME: he’d just binned a novel set in the First World War because the author made a series of howling errors. As he put it, ‘if he can’t be bothered to find out how things worked, why should I be bothered to read it’. Detail matters because if an author gets it right when discussing things we understand, we will tend to trust he or she when they tackle subjects we don’t. Once lost, such trust is impossible to rebuild. So, stop putting
silencers on revolvers. . .
Which fictional character would you like to sleep with?
One has to take George Macdonald Fraser, or rather Flashman as our guide here. Flashy thought it would be virtually impossible to choose between the lovely Elspeth and Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi. ‘You’d think long and hard before putting England into bat’, he said. So would I.
"Thank you, Mr Drury." Sheri whipped off the manacles in super-fast speed. "Clay, you've forgotten the champagne." She gave me a look and I raced up the stairs. Guy wanted champagne. At the top I heard a heated exchange of whispers. "I've opened the side door. Now scram before Clay makes you an offer you can't refuse...He has a book."
A door slammed before I had time to breathe: 'Dames, treacherous as hell'.