I started writing when I was at primary school, but it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I started seriously trying to get published. I knew from the outset that I wanted an agent – I had worked in the book industry and I knew my way around (ish), but that only made me even more convinced that I needed someone to fight my corner, give me advice about when to fold in negotiations, and take the heat out of any issues with my publisher (even though the idea of actually getting published sometimes seemed like pie in the sky.)
I did my research, worked out who I wanted to target, and polished my cover letter until it shone – but I made one elementary mistake. I forgot to polish the manuscript to the same degree. I sent it out to four agents and got four requests to see the full MS, but ultimately four rejections, although several asked me to contact them again.
When I sat down and really looked at my submission, I could see why. I had written the book, corrected my typos, and sent it out, thinking that was good enough, when really it needed a stiff edit and an outside perspective. I spent the next six months taking care of that. I joined a writing group and took their comments on the chin, and I found my sternest, most “don’t pull your punches” friends and badgered them for honest feedback. I took all their points on board and re-edited the book. Finally, I redrew my shortlist of agents and tried again.
Just two weeks after sending out the revised MS, I had an offer of representation from Eve.
Now, every blog I had read (and a fair few I have since written) urge writers not to jump at the first agent who likes their book. If one person thinks it’s good enough to take on, chances are, there will be others, and you need to pick the best match. But in the end I did sign with Eve, and I don’t regret it for a second. The important thing, I think, is that I didn’t pick Eve because she was the first person to say yes, I picked her because I met with her, grilled her with a lot of questions about how she saw the book and my career, and what we would do if it didn’t sell, etc etc. And I was impressed by her answers, and I liked her a lot. At the end of the day I asked myself, could I imagine liking another agent more? And the answer was no.
When I came back from the meeting with her, I signed the letter of contract she had drawn up, explaining her fees and how our relationship would work, and then I lay on my bed in the sunshine and I thought, “Maybe I’ll never get published. Maybe this will be the happiest I’ll ever be about my writing. But that’s ok – one person believes in me, and at the moment that feels pretty bloody good.”
As it turns out, securing an agent didn’t turn out to be the high point of my writing career. I’m not sure what was – getting that first offer letter and realising I was going to be a “real” author, holding my printed book in my hands and seeing it in a bookshop alongside other authors I had admired for years, getting onto the Sunday Times bestseller list for the first time, or maybe even hitting number one on the New York Times Bestseller list. All of those were pretty amazing, and it’s hard to choose. But that first meeting with Eve, and hearing her talk about my manuscript like a real book… that ranks pretty high.
Since that day, my career journey has taken some surprising twists and turns but Eve has always been by my side, helping me map read, and giving me sage words on the wisdom of shortcuts or u-turns. Most importantly though, she’s never tried to take the wheel. The final decisions have always been mine, but having the benefit of her advice has given me the confidence to make the right ones.
“It’s a submissions inbox,” Eve White corrects me. “Not a slush pile.” The agent has every right to be particular about the branding of how she gets unsolicited material as it has led to impressive results. It was how she discovered some of her most important clients, including Mr Gum author Andy Stanton and Yvvette Edwards, the début novelist who is Man Booker Prize longlisted for A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld).
When it arrived in the, er, submissions inbox in 2009, Edwards’ book stood out immediately. “I came away feeling I had been warmed by this gorgeous West Indian spicy soup,” says White, who offered it “to the usual round” of bigger publishers. There was a lot of positive feedback but no real offers until Oxford indie Oneworld, new to the fiction game, came calling.
White says: “A lot of the 2011 longlisted books would have been out on submission in 2009 and many of the bigger publishers were too scared to take risks. This is why eight of the 13 Booker longlist titles are from independents. It wasn’t because the judges wanted to celebrate indie publishing, it was that big publishers weren’t buying new talent.”
White set up her eponymous agency in 2003 after working as an actress for 20 years. Fans of “Hollyoaks” might recognise her; her last acting gig was four years on the soap as Sue Morgan, head of the Morgan family. When the Morgans were written out of the show, White decided to ditch acting to spend more time with her children. “I didn’t set out to be a literary agent,” she says. “But I always wanted to run my own business, I wanted an intellectual challenge and something creative.”
The impetus to start the agency came when her son’s deputy headmaster asked her to read his manuscript which he was going to self-publish. She did, and when she came back with suggestions, he asked her to represent him with sales and marketing. White arranged a meeting with the Waterstone’s children’s buyer, got the book included in a three-for two offer and decided to become an agent. “That initial experience helped a lot because it gave me a good grounding in how the bookselling side of the business works,” she says. “Setting up an agency from scratch takes a while because it is about meeting people. But publishers, and other agents, were helpful from the start.”
Her big break came just a year after starting when unpublished children’s author Stanton, after being knocked back by the first five agents at the front of the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, turned to the back and found the Eve White agency. He phoned her, they had a great conversation and she told him to send a sample. White says: “When I read his first three chapters, I immediately said: ‘Send me the rest—and don’t talk to any other agents.’” White eventually signed Stanton with Egmont and since 2006 his Mr Gum books have had sales of more than £3.7m through Nielsen BookScan. Children’s authors such as Stanton make up about 60% of her list. “I don’t want to specialise, I like variety and I’m aiming to get it closer to a 50/50 adult and children’s ratio. But I just go with books I like. I started out with kids – you soon make a name for yourself.”
Though her roster of clients has increased steadily, White has kept the business small and nimble – for the first seven years the company consisted of just herself and a roster of freelances, readers and interns. It is no longer a one-woman band, however, as she recently appointed her first assistant, Jack Ramm (the sort of name one should say in a basso profundo voice). The office is in her Pimlico flat and while White, Ramm and two readers are undoubtedly busy, there is a laidback, homey feel – though the laidback part may be because it is a Friday morning and the agency hosted a team of Egmont editors the previous evening for what seems to have been a lively knees-up. She is unfazed about competing against the bigger agencies. “One person has the capacity to represent a certain number of writers… the authors need someone they can relate to and get on well with. Someone who is determined, skilled and motivated who can give them support with their writing and help them to earn a good living from it.”