The craft and business of writing and self publishing

What I Do: Alex Adsett on the Ins and Outs of Working as a Literary Agent

by Malcolm Neil

For most of us, working as a literary agent seems like a dream. Reading books for a living, hobnobbing with incredible creators from all over the world, helping deserving authors succeed—it all sounds kind of perfect. And truth is, it can be quite dreamy.

Of course, there’s more to it than just hanging out with authors and flipping through manuscripts. We caught up with publishing industry stalwart (and noted cosplay enthusiast 😊) Alex Adsett for an inside look at the life of a literary agent.
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So tell us, what does a literary agent actually do?

The short answer is a literary agent represents their authors—the longer answer is that a literary agent reads hundreds of bad manuscripts and dozens of very-good-but-not-quite-right ones, to find the shining gem of a manuscript that makes everything worthwhile. Once you find that manuscript, you pitch it to the best publisher for that author or work, negotiate for your author and then generally champion the new book to the world.

How do you (and how did you) become one?

There’s no set way to become an agent, but the key thing is that you are known and trusted by the publishers you pitch to, so that means working in the industry for years to build up your contacts. It’s been my life mission to work in publishing. I started as a bookseller in Brisbane then London, then worked at various publishers.  I starting my own consultancy helping authors and publishers with contracts and copyright in 2008 and then launched the literary agency a couple of years later as it seemed the next logical step.

Who are some of the writers you represent?

I represent about 25 authors, ranging from picture book authors like Shannon Horsfall and Shelly Unwin, to crime authors Gary Kemble and Nicholas J Johnson. Many of the clients I represent are just starting out in their careers, while some are bestsellers.

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What books helped shape the type of reader you are now?

Although I now represent all kinds of books as an agent, at my core I’m a genre-fiction reader. I have always loved science fiction and fantasy and crime and am a late but enthusiastic convert to romance. Books that have shaped me include:

The incredible Obernewtyn series by Isobelle Carmody.

1984 by George Orwell was an early lesson in the power of truly great science fiction to reflect the world back to us.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood does this too in a terrifying and powerful way.

Most recently I have become obsessed with the crime novels of Dorothy Sayers, the Lord Peter Wimseynovels, particularly Gaudy Night—although new readers would need to start with Strong Poison. They are just perfect gems of novels, with flawless psychology, characters and plot. I adore them.

What is you favourite reading space? 

I’m incredibly spoiled by living in Brisbane Queensland, where the weather is pretty much always perfect (even the summer storms), so when I’m not reading in a hammock on my deck, I’m able to escape to my family’s beach shack at Tugun Beach and read under the Pandanus Palms beside the ocean. It is really the most perfect spot in the world. Every summer I escape there for two weeks, just me, a pile of books and a crate of mangoes.

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Can you imagine a more perfect view while reading?

Digital or print? How do you read when you’re working?

ALL of the above, of course, including audio! I love stories no matter what package they come in. I still adore print books, but with a house full of them already, I’m tending to read digital and then only buying the print books of titles I’ve loved Audio books in the car are my guilt free reading- when I don’t have to worry that I should be reading manuscripts instead of a published book. The best bit about digital is being able to buy the next book in a series at 2 am when the preceding book finishes on a cliffhanger!

By the way, we hear you enjoy literary cosplaying… do you have any photos you are willing to share? Why do you love it?

Playing dress up is one of the most fun parts of working in genre publishing—no one likes dressing up more than the sci-fi/fantasy or romance authors. That being said, I don’t cosplay like the pros. I dress up to theme for parties, but not to character. One of the most rewarding parts of ‘agenting’ so far is seeing readers show up to events dressed like characters in my authors books—there have been a growing wolf pack of kick ass blue haired feminist werewolves following publication of Maria Lewis’ Who’s Afraid? I love it!

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