Meet the Industry: Carrie Kania, Conville & Walsh

Carrie Kania is an agent at Conville & Walsh. Before packing her bags and leaving ‘Bright Lights’ to search for ‘Brideshead’, Carrie Kania worked in US publishing for 15 years at Random House and HarperCollins. Most recently, she was the SVP Publisher of Harper Perennial where she watched after countless authors and classics, including classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bell Jar and Brave New World, new writers such as Simon Van Booy, Sarah Hall and Tony O’Neill and notable authors such as Michael Chabon, Barbara Kingsolver and Mary Karr.

When did you come into agenting? What did you do before? And why agenting?

I was in New York City for just over 15 years, working at HarperCollins.  I had an absolutely wonderful job – where I worked with great writers and a very dedicated publishing team.  But when I reached ‘a certain age’, my heart told me to try a new challenge.   I had a dream as a kid to live in London and a dream to open a bookstore – so I decided that if I didn’t try to do that now, I’d never do it.   So I moved!

I opened The Society Club with my close friend Babette Kulik.   And since my heart will always be with writers, I asked Patrick Walsh and Clare Conville if I could join their firm Conville & Walsh as an agent.   As an agent, I am able to work closely with writers at every level – from concept and proposal, to editing and direction.   It’s a wonderful job and brings me a new challenge every single day.   I feel very lucky.

What sort of books do you love?

A difficult question! My home is stacked high with tomes, new and old, always on the brink of tumbling over. I love books that move me, make me question something or teach me … I like questions and love how books can offer answers (or solutions or even more questions).

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.  In 2007, I was at the London Book Fair (representing Harper Perennial in the US).  I met with a foreign rights manager, she presented me a book, and I opened it – read one line and make an offer on the spot.   That book, Dandy in the Underworld, went on to be a very important book to me, personally.  And its author, Sebastian Horsley, became one of my closest friends.

What’s your pet peeve on covering letters?

When comparing yourself to another writer, please spell their name correctly.   And we all know a ‘bulk’ email when we receive one.   Sending your manuscript via email to hundreds of names pulled off the internet never works.

Of the authors who are not on your list, who would you most love to represent? (You can pick a few names.)

A very difficult question. I’d rather say that the authors (that I do not work with) that I recommend the most include Vendela Vida, Nicole Krauss and Jess Walter.

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

It’s hard to say – I just know it when I see it.  There’s no sense in me working on something I’m not drawn to, personally.  I’ve worked on just about every sort of book there is – so after 15 years, you develop a certain taste for certain material…

Have you ever surprised yourself by representing an author whose work you had assumed you wouldn’t like?

Not yet – but I’ve only been an agent for a year and a half.

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

There’s no real wrong way (except the bulk-email!).   Email or physical mail is absolutely fine.  But I’ve been given manuscripts at parties, and – for me – that’s perfectly cool.   I’m lucky to co-own a bookstore.  Writers love bookstores and I encourage writers to come in and talk to me directly about their projects.  I’ve done one deal this year via an author I met at the store.  And I am working with two other writers via the store, too.  I have no problem having that door open and available to writers who just need advice.

Where do most of your authors come from? The slushpile? Personal recommendation? Or what?

Mainly personal recommendation – though I have gone after non-fiction writers (blogs, academics), too. [For info on non-fiction submissions, try here and here – ed.]

Do you need good personal chemistry with your authors?

Yes.  I think that is essential.  An agent is meant to be, for me anyway, the writers’ number one fan and supporter.   It is a lot easier to work with people you like.

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 the above!  And more (see next question)

Do you get involved in shaping an author’s career?

I think agents today need to.    At Conville & Walsh, I have the benefit of watching two of the best agents in the business (Patrick Walsh and Clare Conville) work with their writers on their careers – not just their books.   As the publishing world changes, daily it seems, it’s important for agents to be aware of the changes and help writers manage those changes – and, most of all, work within those changes to help their long-term careers as writers.   There are loads of opportunities out there for creative individuals – you just need to know where to find and how to embrace those opportunities.

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

Try to be patient.

Are e-books going to bring about fundamental changes to the publishing industry? What would you say if one of your authors wanted to e-publish their next book, cutting out conventional publishers altogether?

Remember, you’re speaking to a not-too-long-ago former publisher…   Publishers are needed.   Editors are needed.  Marketing and Publicity teams are needed. And, importantly, bookstores – physical real live bookstores – are needed.  More than needed, they are essential.
Every book is different and every author is different.   An eBook original might be the best thing for one writer – to help establish a readership – but might be a complete disaster for the next.
That said, yes, the publishing industry is changing.  But everything changes.   How you work within change, navigate change, adjust to change and embrace change is the challenge.

Have you enjoyed reading more since becoming an agent? Or are there times it feels like a chore?

No – for me, reading is not a chore.  This isn’t a job for me; this is what I chose to do.   I work in books (agent/bookseller) practically 24 hours/7 days.   It’s my life.

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

There’s no way for me to count.  I look at new material every single day.

What Unique Selling Points do you have as an agent or agency?

I am lucky I found Conville & Walsh, because they are known for editing and shaping manuscripts before going to publishers.   There’s a real core editorial sensibility here, and I love that.   Conville & Walsh also has, in my opinion, THE BEST foreign rights department – gathering book contracts for writers in numerous countries.   And with our recent alliance with the powerhouse-that-is Curtis Brown, we now have co-workers who specialize in film and television.    It’s a great firm.

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

I care very much, but if the author doesn’t want to, forcing someone to do ‘social media’ is not helpful to anyone.

Which is most important: the editor, the publisher or the advance?

Please.  Editor and publisher, always.

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

I am everything I want to be – agent & bookseller.   I just want to be better at it.

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

Of course!  Someday, someday….

Carrie is one of the agents appearing at this year’s Festival of Writing. Each year we invite important industry players who are hungry for new talent and who look after some of the best authors in the business. Don’t miss your chance to book a one-to-one session with an agent or publisher of your choice.

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