Meet the Agents – Susan Armstrong, Conville & Walsh

Susan Armstrong, Conville & Walsh
Susan is an agent at Conville & Walsh. Susan joined Conville & Walsh in 2005 after working at Macmillan. As an agent, she is particularly interested in debut literary fiction, accessible fantasy and science fiction, and high quality commercial memoirs of unusual experiences or unique childhoods. She enjoy novels that blend genres, are unusual in setting or circumstance and that have unexpected twists. Conville & Walsh – are a leading international literary agency.

What sort of books do you love?

I love novels that are compulsive reads, where the characters reach so deep that when I have to break from reading I find myself worrying about what will become of them. Elements of the unusual, whether it be the setting (e.g. a lighthouse, underground, a fantasy land) or the plot (e.g. a girl turning to glass, an unthinkable moral dilemma, a retelling of the Odyssey in Teesside) always spark my interest as you can’t beat escapism. Essentially I love beautiful writing, twists, emotional pulls, unforgettable characters and a big pay-off. A few titles I adore are: The Secret History, Cloud Atlas, Under the Skin, Frankenstein.

Have you ever opened a new manuscript, read a single page, and thought ‘I’m going to end up making an offer on this’? What was it about that page which excited you?

Yes I have. The author had only written three chapters of the book when he submitted it to me and I just happened to take a quick look before it went to our wonderful reader, David Llewelyn. I read the first page and was hooked. I met the author and offered him representation, something I’d never normally do without having read the full manuscript first but those opening chapters were unlike anything I’d read before and he had a clear plan as to where the story was going so I was convinced. What was it that got me so excited? The uniqueness of the voice, the concept and the prose.

What’s your pet peeve on covering letters?

Authors who haven’t done their research (at least look at an agency’s website) and submit to completely the wrong agent for their work. Also it never looks good when another agent, who’s rejected the book, is quoted on the cover letter.

Of the authors who are not on your list, who would you most love to represent?

Hilary Mantel, David Mitchell, Michel Faber, Robin Hobb, Jon McGregor.

Are you most drawn to beautiful writing? Or a wonderful plot? Or a stunning premise? Or what?

All of them.

Tell us how you like writers to submit work to you. And how you’d like them not to submit work.

I like it when it’s apparent why an author has chosen me to submit to, that they’ve done their research. And I like to know what sort of book it is, a few strong lines about the book that shows why it’s unique and intriguing, and then any relevant information about the author. The first three chapters or 50 pages with a synopsis to be sent along with their introductory letter. I’m happy to receive this by email or in the post.

Where do most of your authors come from? The slushpile? Personal recommendation? Or what?
I like to focus on a small list and those authors come from the Talent Pool (nee Slush Pile), recommendation, and what we call Outreach, which involves things like giving talks, attending readings, going out and finding authors online etc.

Do you need good personal chemistry with your authors?

Good chemistry is important but you’ve also got to have the same vision for an author’s career and mutual respect.

What’s the most important part of your job? Is it editing/shaping the manuscript? Selling the manuscript? Or supervising the publication process?

All of these things. Once you’re done with one you focus on the next. I do a lot of editing with my authors before I send it out and then once it’s ready it’s just as important to know who to send it to and how to present it to them in a light that will not only engage them as an editor but also show them how it might be presented to their sales team. Once this part is all done and dusted then I help guide and support my author through publication and ensure everything is done to give the book its best chance at success.

If you had one bit of advice to give to new writers, what would it be?

If an author wants to have a long-term career and earn a living out of writing I’d say this: sit down and think about what would make your novel stand out from the crowd just from the pitch alone i.e. rather than taking paragraphs to describe the book as “a coming of age about guilt and betrayal….etc. etc.” think of two lines that sum up your novel that couldn’t be used to describe any other novel out there (as much as this is possible). For example, Ali Shaw’s first novel The Girl with Glass Feet is a love story about a girl who’s turning to glass. The title alone is the pitch and what other novels do you know with that story-line?

The grim stats: how many submissions do you get per week (or year)? And how many new authors do you take on?

We get between 100-150 a week. I take on one, maybe two, a year from the Talent Pool.

Do you like your authors to tweet & blog & Facebook … or do you really not care?

It definitely helps if an author has an online profile, without doubt, but I wouldn’t not take someone on if they didn’t.

If you weren’t an agent, what else would you be?

Probably a very confused person.

Do you secretly have a book in you? And if so, tell us more …

I can’t write for fudge.

Susan is one of the agents appearing at this year’s Festival of Writing. Each year we invite literary agents who are hungry for new talent and who represent some of the biggest and best agencies in the business. Don’t miss your chance to book a one-to-one session with an agent of your choice.

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  • I’ve done some maths. Let us average Ms Armstrong’s submissions to 125 a week; that is 6,500 per year. She takes on between one and two new authors a year – let’s call that 1.5. So a submitting writer has a 0.023% chance of being the lucky person to hit her desk at the right moment with the right book.

    She says she encourages writers to send her submissions with reasons why they are submitting to her. The main reason has to be that they are cock-eyed optimists who don’t know a brick wall when they are beating their heads against it.

  • Harry

    There are several agents at Conville & Walsh, not just Susan. The real odds of being taken on at most agencies are about 1 in 1000 – some a bit more, some a bit less. Conville & Walsh will be about at that 1 in 1000 mark.

    But really, forget the odds. Far too many manuscripts that people send to agents are rubbish. Poorly conceived, unevenly paced & structured, insufficiently edited. The odds of a well-conceived, well structured and well edited manuscript are far, far higher than 1 in 1000. It’s not about odds, but quality. Oh, and there are ways to get help, y’know.

  • Well, that’s true. But agents and publishers pass on a lot of those superior typescripts too, else there wouldn’t be so many successful indie authors, most of whom tried the trad route and couldn’t get anywhere. Ironically, they are now sought by agents.

    Btw, your link doesn’t work.

  • There are not ‘many’ successful indie authors. There are a very, very few successful indie authors. They are called ‘outliers’. Also, there have always been such outliers, throughout the history of publishing, since long, long before the Kindle was even a pipedream.

    And getting picked up by an agent is most certainly not a question of luck. It’s of the writer’s skill.

  • Gary, you are mistaken.

    Take a look at this list of over 100 indie authors who have sold more than 50,000 books: http://bit.ly/yzEG90. It’s not by any means a complete list, as it’s almost entirely gathered from writers who go on Kindleboards. A minority have previously been legacy published, the majority have not.

    And these writers are making more money than a publisher would have been likely to offer them.

  • Which is great for those one hundred authors, Lexi, but they’re still outliers. For every one of them, there’s a thousand more with little or no experience in writing putting their novels or short stories out as ebooks when they’re really, really, really not ready for it – as the article above does in fact point out.

    And as you yourself say in the comments following that link you provided,

    Interesting that quite a high proportion of successful indies have been traditionally published in the past. Maybe this says something about the quality of their writing, or that it helps to have a readership established before you self-publish.

    Well, yes. I know people who are indeed having success indie publishing – because they’ve spent many years benefiting from a traditional publishing career.

    My real concern is that propagating the notion to everyone else that self-publishing is the route to success is going to lead to nothing but a great degree of disappointment on the part of would-be writers who don’t yet have the skill to recognise that their work isn’t yet ready. For those very few who make it big without a mainstream publisher – fantastic. Good for them. But they’re outliers, and very, very atypical.

  • They are not outliers. There’s a revolution going on you don’t seem aware of. Of course there are going to be many more unpublishable books written than publishable ones – trad or indie, that’s not going to change. But let me quote Jeff Bezos: (http://bit.ly/KeAJrn)

    “Kindle Direct Publishing has quickly taken on astonishing scale – more than a thousand KDP authors now each sell more than a thousand copies a month, some have already reached hundreds of thousands of sales, and two have already joined the Kindle Million Club. KDP is a big win for authors. Authors who use KDP get to keep their copyrights, keep their derivative rights, get to publish on their schedule – a typical delay in traditional publishing can be a year or more from the time the book is finished – and … saving the best for last … KDP authors can get paid royalties of 70%. The largest traditional publishers pay royalties of only 17.5% on ebooks (they pay 25% of 70% of the selling price which works out to be 17.5% of the selling price).”

    You’ve cracked the old system and have an investment in it. Congratulations. That doesn’t mean it’s not exploitative of writers, slow and inefficient, and misses a lot of talent. Publishers and agents will have to adapt if they want to survive, and a good thing too.

  • I am not painting traditional publishing as a land of milk and honey. Far from it. But I still worry greatly about your promotion of self-publishing with the starry-eyed enthusiasm of one who doesn’t seem to see the downside of all this – not for yourself, perhaps, but for others.

    Lexi, I’ve had a glance at your book Remix on Amazon. What I’ve seen is pretty good. A lot better, in fact, than a lot of things I’ve seen by otherwise unpublished authors. Without being aware of it, you may unconsciously be assuming other ‘indie’ writers are on a par with yourself. They’re not. An unfortunate number of them have serious problems with spelling and basic punctuation, let alone story telling, and don’t yet realise writing is a skill that needs time and dedication and learning.

    I see too many articles and comments extolling only the success stories in self-publishing without mentioning the untold millions of people who do not enjoy that same success, if they even sell any ebooks at all. You’ve ignored my previous point about people who aren’t ready to publish. What are you going to tell them when they get excited about this amazing new world and it doesn’t work for them because they don’t have the requisite skill?

    Not only am I aware of the revolution taking place, I’ve also published ebooks, Lexi; mostly reprints of previously published books, and one original, a semi-collaboration between myself and a friend. I’m all for ebooks. I read them pretty much exclusively now. But my eyes are open to the realities of the market and what is taking place. However, I do think it’s just a bit silly to try and support your argument by quoting, of all people, Jeff Bezos, a man with every reason to want to paint the best possible picture of the Kindle market for authors since it’s in the financial best interest of his company.

  • What do you tell writers who submit not very good books to agents? Do you worry that your success encourages them to seek publication? Perhaps like me you think it’s not your place to tell them anything. And I don’t see they are any better off in the slush pile than if they self-published. The mantra on the indie sites I frequent is that to succeed you need a quality book, proofreading, editing, blurb, and cover. I don’t have a problem with letting the reader decide, even if they sometimes choose books that I think inferior – and Big Publishing publishes its share of dreadful books.

    Jeff Bezos doesn’t need to exaggerate the success of the Kindle, KDP and Amazon, or the astonishing success of many indie authors who were failed by legacy publishing. It’s real, it’s ongoing, and it will change the face of publishing forever.

  • You might not have a problem with letting the readers decide, Lexi, but I can tell you for a fact the readers will definitely have a problem with deciding. A glut of badly formatted, badly written books will not endear readers to indie ebooks. It will instead teach them to avoid them and stick to books that have been curated – ie, passed through a proper editorial process, or written by authors who have otherwise established themselves in a professional, non-indie context.

    I’m afraid you’re cherry-picking only those facts that support your argument while ignoring those that disprove it. You enthusiastically promote self-publishing while ignoring the vast majority of otherwise unpublishable and unreadable ebooks that are produced, and yet lambast ‘big publishing’ itself for sometimes producing less than salutary work. How exactly do you reconcile those two facts? Why is big publishing bad because it sometimes produces bad books, but self-publishing is good even though it produces a huge number of bad books?

  • If you are right, then I don’t know why this worries you. The whole enterprise is doomed to failure. You can sit back and watch the ship go down.

    For anyone who wants to read my opinions, my blog is here: http://bit.ly/xjt2ca

    For information on all aspects of the publishing scene, I’d recommend The Passive Voice: http://bit.ly/IRHu3o

  • Isabel Rogers (@Isabelwriter)

    (Link does work, Harry.) Thanks for that. I’ve just been knocking down real brick walls in the garden with a new sledgehammer, & don’t want to start constructing metaphorical ones here. Thanks for the post, and now I’m tempted to hound Susan into a lift to pitch mine in York: she sounds as if she might like mine …

  • Philip Boyle

    It is a shame that this site has been hijacked by an argument which could and should have taken place on a different platform.
    I am only able to make the Sunday session, and Susan, you do not seem to be available on that date.
    I have emailed you directly with a few questions via Conville & Walsh.
    I hope you will reply.
    I prefer to send manuscripts by e-mail rather than post, as I do not fully trust the postal system. I work with it on a day -to -day basis.
    Thank you