Meet the agent
Ion Trewin has viewed the world of publishing from multiple angles. He started his career as a journalist, first on local papers and then with The Times (as literary editor), then moved into book publishing some 30 years ago. He started with Hodder & Stoughton where he signed Thomas Kenneally’s Schindler’s Ark then moved to Weidenfeld & Nicolson to become publishing director. Here he added Alan Clark’s diaries to his list. Recently retired from W&N, he still assists on a consultancy basis but is otherwise preoccupied with writing Alan Clark’s biography and managing the Man Booker Prize in his role as administrator, which he adopted in 2006.
Ion’s Top Tips
This wealth of experience has left Ion in a strong position to determine what makes a book tick, but he is quick to add that there is no winning formula. “There are certain strands that help – it needs to be well written, have good characterisation and a great story, but, honestly? I think there is also an incalculable element of good fortune. I mean, dammit, if we knew what made a bestseller, we’d only publish those and we’d only write them!”
Think Like Your Reader
Ion encourages writers to think of themselves as readers. Why do you pick a book up? What makes you buy it? What makes you want to read more? And also as editors. “You are asking a company to risk their capital on something so for them to take this ‘gamble’ they need to know it will sell.”
Aspiring authors may glean some tips by calling on previous bestselling authors and genres. “Take Graham Greene and John Le Carre, for example, or the Whodunnits? written by Oxford dons,” says Ion. “All are highly intelligent books that respect the intellect of their reader and so there is enjoyment in their delivery, as well as in their content. They make your mind work a little harder and you enjoy them all the more for doing so.”
Ion is also attracted to the diary format. Aside from Alan Clark, he previously worked with James Lees-Milne’s diaries and John Colville’s Fringes of Power. “Diaries are a very English form and I was intrigued by the technical aspects involved in editing them. I grew a confidence in the genre so that by the time I came to bid for Alan’s memoirs I didn’t have the slightest doubt that they were going to be a success – although the level may have been greater than what I’d anticipated. They were well written, revealing, and there was an interesting character in the author. I couldn’t think of any ingredients that they failed on.”
Plus, there was that certain something. “Within publishing we are trying to take the art of writing and commerce and centrifuge them,” says Ion. “Sometimes it is oil and water but every now and then you get the emulsion you are looking for and it works – it’s like a chemical reaction.”
Diaries also offer a practical advantage in that they are based on non-fiction. “The strong factual background gives the future interviewer something to talk about,” explains Ion. “This commercial angle is always at the back of my mind.” Indeed, this marketing hook was one of strengths he also recognised in Thomas Kenneally’s novels. Before Schindler’s Ark, Thomas had written Confederates about the American civil war; Gossip from the Forest about the armistice that ended the first world war; and Blood Red ,Sister Rose a novel based loosely on the young Joan of Arc.
Think of the Marketing Plan
Once the first book is a success, the commercial path for subsequent novels is often easier. “If it is an author that wants to write popular fiction, ie, produce more of the same, then you have the basis of a brand,” Ion explains. “If it is a literary novelist they may write a totally different novel the second time round, but you may choose to read it simply because of who they are. But to succeed first time round; you need the reader to feel that excitement, to make their hairs raise on the back of your neck. That’s magical.”
Do you Really Need An Agent?
And of course you need an agent, and subsequently a publisher and sourcing these is no mean feat. Ion stresses that signing with the right agent and editor are crucial elements for a writer. “You’ve just got to get on with somebody. These are the people you will talk to when you are stuck over something. These are the people who will sell your book. Of course, relationships can break down in both directions; they are not finite, but the more you can limit this through your initial choice, the better.”
How do you Get Signed?
Before presenting your work to an agent, Ion advises you to be extremely tough on yourself. Write a proposal and give it to a few people who don’t know anything about the subject. If they are not excited ask them why. “Don’t be proud,” he says. “You want the opening page to sing to you. That’s the kind of thing that matters. If it doesn’t it is probably going to fail.”
After decades of nipping and tucking, Ion has now embarked on his own writing project, namely Alan Clark’s biography. The idea grew out of Ion’s continued work on the politician’s diaries following his death in 1999. Having spent years selling and editing books, Ion is understandably tough on himself: “You don’t realise when you are tackling a life how many by-ways there are and you can’t tackle everything. There are the diaries, which cover the last 37 years of his life, and then there are 40 years before that. I needed to make decisions about how to cover both. To not only choose what to include, but – often more importantly – what to leave out. It’s fun to tell what you think will be a familiar story, then write ‘Actually, reader, it happened like this…’