Friday, March 31, 2006

Meeting Lucy Firth from David Higham Associates Ltd

Winning the Raffle
When my name was pulled out of the hat at the SCBWI-BI Agent's Party in April 2005, I could hardly believe it. I'd resigned myself to the fact it would be some other lucky children's writer who would get the chance to meet up with one of the Agents on the panel. I'd won an interview with Lucy Firth from David Higham Associates. I was pleased the draw was at the end of their presentations, as for the rest of the night I was in a state of dazed shock.

We arranged I should send my manuscript as if I were submitting it for representation. We agreed that after she'd read it, she'd e-mail me and we'd arrange a meeting at the offices in London, where we could discuss my submission package and any other questions I might have.

The thing that struck me most when I listened to Lucy speak on the panel was how professional she was. She'd obviously done her research and planned what she wanted to say. It was clear she knew the business and I had to be equally well prepared when I met her.

Next morning, I re-read and edited my manuscript, re-wrote my synopsis several times and wrote a CV. Everything had to be perfect. I followed the submission guidelines very carefully:

  • A tight covering letter with no spelling or grammar mistakes;
  • A synopsis of my children's book for 9-12 year olds;
  • Three sample chapters;
  • A CV and a stamped addressed envelope.

I spent ages deliberating which chapters I should send. Lucy had said at the Party that she did not particularly like full-blown fantasy but was OK with a mix of fantasy and reality. She preferred contemporary, gritty, funny and historical work. I wanted to choose three chapters that would demonstrate all this and they were not necessarily the first three. My submission had to say, yes my manuscript is fantasy, but it is also contemporary, gritty, funny and historical.

Finally, I posted the manudidn'tpt but I didn't sit around doing nothing whilst I waited for her to get back to me, I set about trying to find out as much information as possible about Lucy Firth and the David Higham agency. I checked out their website and their very impressive list of authors. I made notes on the type of things their authors were writing at the moment. I also looked at the other things I was writing and got them together in a file to show my diversity. This might be my only chance for a one-to-one interview with an agent and I wanted to make the most of it.

The Big Day
The meeting was arranged for the 14th April. Armed with a map I'd printed off the website, questions and my manuscripts, I dropped the children off at school and caught the 9:30am train to Paddington. I got off the tube at Piccadilly and walked the few blocks to the David Higham Associates offices. In reception a young, male receptionist answered the phone and told the prospective author on the other end of the line, to address their manuscript to, yes you've guessed it... Lucy Firth.

Lucy led me to her office, which was floor to ceiling full of children's books. On her desk sat neat piles of manuscripts she was working through. We discussed my manuscript in detail and it was obvious she had read it. Talking to her I realised how important it was to have an agent, she filled me with confidence. She had inside knowledge that was not freely available on the Internet, or through the usual books and sources.

To my surprise, she took everything else I'd bought with me. Secretly, I wished I'd taken more. Realistically, I knew that if it was my style that didn't inspire her, it would make no difference how much of my material she read. To my relief, she was very complimentary about my writing.

What is Lucy Firth looking for?
Lucy said she looks for a story with a strong hook and a concept as that's what publishers seem to look for as a good selling point. But she emphasised that at the end of the day it's the quality of the writing and a great story that makes her sit up and take notice. She likes to read things written from a different angle. She said, "When you receive a manuscript you instinctively know if it has got that extra magic. There will be something about it you can't put your finger on. You just know."

She recommended that a good way to get a feel for the things she likes is to look at the make-up of her client list and what her clients are writing at the moment. With this in mind, she gave me a copy of the David Higham 2005 Bologna booklet to look through. She is not looking for any specific age range or genre, as she likes to keep an open mind and wouldnĂ‚’t want to close any doors.

The trend has been to take on about one new author a year and Lucy felt this was enough, as she doesn't want to neglect her present client list.

She said, "It's very rewarding to take on someone new and see their writing and career develop."

The Business
Once she believes a manuscript is publishable she draws up a list of publishers to submit it to and discusses this with the author. The number of publishers she would submit the manuscript to is dependent on the manuscript and individual editor's tastes.

A letter introducing the manuscript would also be sent along with some background information on the author (unless the author is well-known). Sometimes the letter will specify the rights being offered and sometimes a deadline might be given for a response. With some manuscripts, Lucy would speak to an editor first before sending any material, so they know to expect it.

Lucy's Advice
Lucy advised not to go with an agent who charges up front. As far as she's aware, all reputable agencies work on a commission basis. David Higham charges home 15% translation / US 20%. Sometimes there are charges made for things like photocopying and courier delivery, but authors are notified of these extra expenses if they are unusually high.

She also said, "Write what you want to write. It will come through in the writing."

Lucy's Predictions
Fantasy is still a popular genre and selling well, as is good historical fiction. Teen fiction is also strong and there seems to be more of a demand for books for the 8-12 age group. The picture book market is still tough at the moment though.

The Aftermath
Leaving the offices I couldn't help feeling a little disappointed that my manuscript was not taken on. But, I was pleased Lucy had given up an hour-and-a-half of her time to talk to me and made some suggestions on where I could go from here. Determined not to give up I walked to the large Waterstone's bookstore at Piccadilly and spent another hour browsing their shelves. This in itself was a luxury I rarely get to enjoy.

I spent the train journey home contemplating my future as a children's writer. My jaw set, I'm still determined to succeed and I can't help hoping maybe she'll be enthusiastic about one of my other stories. I got home just in time to pick the children up from school. It was a great day and I'm pleased I won.

Much To Do About Writing For Children

My goal is to be a highly acclaimed children's author.

I have written:
  • seven picture books
  • three chapter books for the seven to nine years olds, which are part of a series
  • a time-slip fantasy trilogy

All are unpublished.

I have had more success with my educational publishing and have had five books accepted for publishing last year.

  • Literacy Homework Book for Year 4
  • Literacy Homework Book for Year 5
  • Essential Literacy Skills for KS2
  • Exploration and Encounters Resource Pack
  • Pick-Up and Play - 27, 10 Minute plays for Primary School - Year 5

There are several other educational projects in the pipeline.

I have also had some success for writing for adults. I regularly write articles for my local newspaper, the Newbury Weekly News, and have written for various county magazines. I have also had several short stories published in UK's national women's magazines. I am trying to break into the Australian women's magazine market.