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Friday, 4 November 2016

Meet Literary Agent Jemima Forrester, David Higham Associates

Jemima joined David Higham in September 2016 having previously been senior commissioning editor at Orion Publishing Group. She is looking for commercial and upmarket fiction, including crime and thrillers, psychological suspense, accessible literary fiction, women’s fiction and speculative/high-concept novels.

Jemima loves distinctive narrative voices, well-paced, intriguing plots and characters that leap off the page. Her favourite books of recent years include Elizabeth is Missing, Disclaimer, Life After Life, The Night Circus, Me Before You and anything by Jo Nesbø, Margaret Atwood or Curtis Sittenfeld.

In non-fiction, she is looking for innovative cookery, popular-culture and lifestyle projects, unique personal stories and humour.

Hi Jemima welcome to Sincerely Book Angels blog.  
How long have you been an agent at David Higham Associates?

JF: Only a few weeks! I’ve just about worked out which way the doors open and where the post goes! Well, maybe a bit more than that… It’s a really exciting opportunity for me as I’m building a list from scratch. It will be predominantly commercial and upmarket fiction, although I’ll also be doing some non-fiction now and then too. I was previously senior commissioning editor at Orion Publishing Group and have been working in the industry for about six years now – but on the other side of the fence.
As an editor, my job was to acquire and publish brilliant commercial fiction, which would be submitted to me by literary agents. Now as an agent, I’ll be seeking out exciting new writers to work with and submitting their books to editors for publication.

Can you tell us a little about your editorial role at Orion?

JF: Editorial is one of the most exciting and demanding areas of publishing. As an editor I worked with a list of about twenty authors, structurally editing their novels over several drafts until they were ready for publication. The editor is also the person who liaises with every other department during a book’s life cycle. Usually well before a book is edited, the editor briefs the sales team about it, they write the title information that feeds out to Amazon and online retailers, they brief the cover and write the cover copy. Nearer publication, it’s the editor’s job to make sure the marketing and publicity teams have everything they need to run their campaigns and that all the publications plans are being clearly relayed to the author and agent. From beginning to end (paperback publication and beyond), the editor is the main champion for the book in-house. It’s their job to drum up excitement and make sure all the other departments know what the ambition is for this book and how and why it can achieve that ambition. On top of this, when I was an editor I’d also receive three or four submissions a week from literary agents to consider for publication, so I’d have to read and respond accordingly to those as well. Most of the reading happens outside of working hours. It’s not a job where you can switch off at 5.30!

Can you give us an idea of what a day in the life of a literary agent is like.

JF: A day in the life of a literary agent is far less structured than the day in the life of an editor. We have very few internal meetings so my time is very much my own and I don’t have any other departments chasing me for things. While internal meetings are scarce, I do have a lot of meetings externally. I’ll often meet existing or potential clients to discuss their work, or editors to find out what they are looking for at the moment. I probably have two or three work lunches a week, usually with editors or literary scouts. Aside from meetings, I’ll often be taking a look at proposals, again from existing or potential clients and giving editorial feedback. I have a fairly large pile of manuscript submissions that come in from aspiring authors who are seeking literary agents, so I try to look at a couple of those every day to avoid the pile becoming too high. Often I can tell in a few pages if this is something I’m going to be interested or not. If it’s not for me, I’ll offer a polite turn down. If it’s got potential I will contact the author for the whole manuscript. As with editorial, agents also do a huge amount of reading in their evenings and at weekends. One other thing that hasn’t changed since my editorial days: I still drink copious amounts of tea!

Many writers hear the words "It's not quite what we are looking for". What are you specifically looking for in a book?

JF: That must be so frustrating to hear, but it’s an extremely common response – albeit a rather unhelpful one. Fiction especially is so subjective that a book can be well written but just not quite to the personal taste of the agent or editor considering it. I try to offer a constructive response as much as possible in my rejections, however it could be that the book wasn’t for me but another agent will love it. Don’t be disheartened. Take on board any feedback you get and make sure you’re submitting your work to agents who are looking for that type of book (most agents have online profiles listing the types of books they’re looking for).

For me, when it comes to fiction I’m looking for a combination of clever, intriguing plotting with a great hook; realistic, memorable characters; a strong narrative voice and excellent writing. I want a thriller to have me chewing my nails and on the edge of my seat. I want a romantic or family story to make me laugh and cry in equal measure. I want a historical or speculative novel to completely sweep me away to another time and place. Whatever the genre, I want to really get to know the characters from the very first page and feel invested in the highs and lows of their stories. (Fussy, aren’t I?!)

How many manuscripts do you read each week?

JF: This is a hard question to answer as it varies so much. I might be doing an edit on an author’s book, which is a solid day or two of carefully reading a full manuscript and making editorial notes. Or if I’m going through the submissions pile, I might look at ten in a day and quickly decide if they’re ones for me or not. It really varies and some submissions I will only read a chapter or two, where with others I’ll read the whole thing.

What are your biggest pet peeves about submissions (ie what people do wrong)?

JF: It’s far too early for me to have pet peeves about submissions. I’m just flattered that people want to submit to me at all! I suppose my tips would be to make your cover letter brief and engaging and your synopsis very clear and well laid out (tiny margins make my heart sink). These are the first impressions we get about you and your book – before we even get to your writing – so it’s worth getting them right. The synopsis should tell me the salient points of the whole story within two A4 pages. Also, do proofread the material before you send it. A typo or bad grammar wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for any agent, obviously, but it does suggest a lack of care.

How does it feel when a MS lands on your lap and you know it's the one?

JF: It’s a thrilling feeling, a real adrenaline rush, but it also comes with a tinge of fear. Whether you’re an editor or an agent, if you find a book you love, you know other people will love it too, and this is a competitive industry. There’s nothing worse than falling in love with a book and then losing out to a fellow agent (or editor in my editorial days). It’s heart-breaking, but if you believe in the book and the author you wish them well no matter who they go with in the end. At Orion I lost out on several books that I loved at the beginning of this year, but I hope they all go on to be big successes. The authors deserve that.

How do you balance debut authors (presumably more risky) with those authors already on your list (presumably less risky)?

JF: I always want to be working with a few debut authors. It’s exciting to discover and develop talented new writers and, while it comes with uncertainty, there’s also so much potential. This industry is all about taking chances and going with your gut. It doesn’t always work out, but if we didn’t take risks we also would see the same rewards. As an editor not all of my debut publications were successful and, as an agent, I know I’ll have debut novels I won’t be able to sell, no matter how much I love them.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

JF: Read. A lot. I don’t mean in order to make your book some sort of derivative copy of a bestseller, but it’s important to know who you’re going to be compared to and competing with in the genre you’re writing in and the standard of writing that’s out there.

What is the best way to approach an agent?

JF: Once you feel your manuscript is in the best possible shape, take a look on agency websites to see which agents are looking for the sort of book you’ve written. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is also a great resource if you’re looking for agents but don’t know where to start. If you don’t know which agent to send it to at an agency, you can address your submission ‘Dear sir/madam’, but you don’t know who will end up looking at that and whether they’ll be interested in what you’re writing, so it’s a riskier strategy. Far better to tailor your submission to agents who are most likely to be interested in your work. Also, as an agent, I’m automatically impressed with people who have taken the time to look me up and see what I’m looking for.

What is the most exciting event in the calendar for an agent?

JF: A hard one to answer as I’m still so new. I suspect I should say something like London Book Fair (a three-day event held annually where agents and publishers congregate to buy and sell book rights), but really I’m looking forward to being invited to the swanky parties held by publishers! I hear HarperCollins know how to throw a serious summer party!

How do you go about securing rights for other parts of the world?

JF: We have a fantastic foreign rights team at DHA who submit our books to publishers around the world and secure great deals for our authors. Occasionally we would sell a UK publisher world rights, but most of the time we retain US and translation rights as our agents can make more money for the author selling those rights directly.

Do you deal with television and film rights?

JF: Yes, DHA have a film and TV department. It’s a bit of a new world for me as publishers almost never acquire these rights, but I’m learning more about it every day. A recent example of the brilliant work they do and film deals they secure would be The Girl on the Train. I went to see it a couple of weeks ago and it’s excellent – and very true to the book.

Which authors are on your books at the moment?

JF: Again, it’s still early days, but I’m already working with a brilliant women’s fiction author, a couple of thriller writers and a guy who has written a novel based on the legend of St George and the Dragon! I also have a couple of non-fiction projects on the go which I hope to be able to go out with in the next couple of months.

Would you like to write a book yourself?

JF: I’d love to, but I’m not sure if I ever will. Writing and editing are very different skill sets and being a good editor doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be a good writer.

Are you open for submissions?

JF: Absolutely. I’m actively building my list at the moment so very much open to submissions and I have plenty of space to take people on. MyTwitter handle is  @jemimaforrester. I’m always contactable through David Higham and very happy to receive submissions addressed to me there.

Thank you so much for joining us on the blog today Jemima, it's been fascinating to see the world from an agent's point of view.

Thanks also to fellow Book Connectors Susan Heads, Katherine Sunderland, Sue Fortin, Christina Philippou and Rebecca Bradley for their questions and input.

Book Angel x


  1. This is a fascinating and instructive post from top Literary agent, Jemima Forrester.
    A must-read for us indie authors!

  2. Fabulous interview! Thanks for the insights xx

    1. Thank you, so pleased you enjoyed it.
      Annette x

  3. Great to read about a literary agent who is so enthusiastic about what she does - and willing to take on new authors despite the risks. Thanks for this, Annette x