Career Clinic: literary agent Emma Paterson on nurturing creativity

·5-min read
Photo credit: Kane Hulse
Photo credit: Kane Hulse

If anyone knows how to spot talent; it’s Emma Paterson. The megawatt literary agent, who currently sits on the board of her agency Aitken Alexander after numerous years in the industry, is an award-winning connoisseur of novels, non-fiction and poetry. Her clients include the Booker-Prize winning Bernadine Evaristo, the viral-writer Kristen Roupenian, author of, yes, ‘Cat Person', and agenda-setting, cult authors and essayists from Susanna Moore to Emma Dabiri.

Her sharp insight has allowed her to seek out writers that will engender a new idea or space in the market, rather than slavishly follow trends. Here, she shares with us just what it takes to spot and foster talent and how to nurture creativity…

Spotting talent is not as mysterious as you think

"I would challenge the mystery of that and say that it's quite a lot like a reader’s relationship to, to any book that they encounter. As a reader, you feel something quite quickly when you open a book, and that feeling might be wonder or fascination or something like that. So, if I'm feeling any of those things, when I first read a new piece of work, from a new writer, then I know that that's something to pay attention to."

Get comfortable making tough decisions

"As an agent, you almost always make decisions on your own so you have to get used to that. I will obviously discuss writing with my team, and in particular my assistant Monica, but ultimately you have to be quite comfortable with making with making kind of tough or high stakes decisions on your own. Not only comfortable, but I think you have to enjoy that part of it.



The thing you have to constantly remind yourself is that you can't get everything right. You have to be quite fatalistic about things, I suppose. Sometimes, you know, you might turn down a book that later sells for a substantial amount of money and I think the key is, at those moments, not to second guess yourself or not to sort of punish yourself without having got it wrong, because there is no getting it wrong or getting it right, the decision is already made, you know? Don’t get burdened by regret."

Nurturing creativity is also about understanding business

"You have to be interested in the business of someone's career. The work you're doing is balancing a creative commitment to what they're doing and the business of how that will function for that particular person's career. I've always seen my job as I'm there to, to create the conditions for an author to publish the work that they want to publish, but to have that work published in a way that will sustain a career. And so that sometimes maybe involves talking to that author about other things they can do alongside their book that will sustain them financially."

You have to be their champion

"When I'm considering whether or not to offer someone representation it is obvious that you have to respond to the work but I would also say it is just as important to know that you can add value to that work. And so sometimes, I will be sent projects that I admire, but I can't see a new way, for me, as an individual to do justice to it. You have to ask yourself: am I the right person to advocate for it?"

You have to be on the same page as your client

"What's interesting about that is that that doesn't mean agreement. It means a sort of synergy. But if you're coming from totally different place, then you're just not going to get anywhere."

You have to think strategically

"One of the primary things I factor into my strategy is pairing the author with the right publisher. And that's not decided by money, because they might have a completely different idea of how to market that writer and it could run completely contrary to the spirit of the book. It is about matching authors up with, with publishers who have a really clear and strong track record in in that kind of publishing."

Inspire your writers – and wait for them

"I think one thing I like to do, when my writers feel uninspired, is talk to them about other books or films or music that become a really fruitful way of having a conversation about the writer’s book, just via other things. But sometimes writer's block is writer's block, and you have to sit with it for a little bit until it clears. Patience is a really important part of the job. You should not put pressure on your authors to deliver work when they're not ready."

Be forward thinking

"I think you have to have a depth of belief that you have found something distinctive, and new and sort of hard to compare and that – if there’s no space for it in the market, you can kind of create that place in the market. You know, you just have to have the confidence to say, to editors, publishers and readers; you can't not read this book."

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