Greyhound Literary

Throwing Pearls To A Gorilla: Dotti Irving on Becoming an Agent

Agent Dotti Irving writes:

“You must be looking forward to retiring. You’ve worked so hard all your life. Are you going to help your daughter with your grandchildren? It will be lovely to have more time in the garden. Or perhaps you’re planning to take a cruise?”

If I had a fiver for every time I heard one of those comments in the six months leading up to my leaving my job as CEO of Four Culture last year, I’d be a very wealthy woman. Useless for me to say that, yes, I was retiring from the world of PR, but no, I wasn’t planning to stop work.

Instead I was going to pursue a lifelong ambition, something that had been in the back of my mind for a long time, from the time I left Penguin to set up Colman Getty in 1987. I was going to try my hand as a literary agent.

So what’s it been like, poacher turned gamekeeper (or perhaps that should read the other way round)? In truth, it’s been terrific fun. A bit daunting at times perhaps, but then you’d expect that if you are venturing into a completely different world and a whole new career.

Except of course that it’s not completely different. My many years in the world of books have given me the opportunity to see how all the parts come together, from the first glimmer of a good idea in a writer’s mind - which is of course the main ingredient - right through to the finished book winging its way into the bookshops and whizzing up the bestseller charts. We hope!

So it’s a world I know populated by people I’ve worked with, albeit wearing a different coat, for years. I’m also lucky enough to be finding terrific support from my more seasoned colleagues at Greyhound and also from publishers who are kind and curious as to what I’m up to.

So what am I up to? I’ve had a long association with the Booker Prize so it may seem odd that I’ve decided to focus on narrative non-fiction. But I also have a long association with the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction and I’m in total agreement with that prize’s tagline: All the best stories are true. I’ve always been fascinated by people’s real-life stories. The world is full of them.

So, for example, I’ve been thrilled to take on Manni Coe as my first client. Manni has written a heart-warming book with illustrations by his brother Reuben who has Down’s Syndrome. The book, brother. do. you. love. me. tells the extraordinary story of the two brothers’ journey to help Reuben recover from the trauma of lockdown. You’ll be hearing much more about brother and some of my other exciting new writers and their books in the months ahead.

The world I’m in now is the same as the one I’ve always been in. And so, I think, are the skills that are required to be a good agent and a good PR. The ability to spot a good story, a certain felicity with words, imagination, and perhaps most importantly, a tough skin, resilience, the ability to take rejection, possibly turn it around. I’ve been much encouraged by the support I’ve had from editors who, for example, might respond to a new book proposal with an email along the lines of, ‘This isn’t exactly what I’m looking for but if you and your writer were to do this this and this, I’d definitely like to talk more.’

One thing which I hadn’t reckoned on was the deluge of emails from complete strangers: writers in search of an agent who send me messages ranging from the heart-breaking to the nakedly deranged, and occasionally the inspired.

Please don’t send me poetry when I’m looking for non-fiction; please don’t send me fiction either. Charlie – Campbell, the founder of Greyhound – told me that Truman Capote used to describe his international bestseller, In Cold Blood, as a non-fiction novel. But I’m not looking for fiction. Unless of course you write as well as Truman Capote, in which case I’ll pass you on to one of my fellow agents with the greatest of pleasure!

Dealing with rejection is hard and it’s also hard for some of the writers I have said no to. One disappointed would-be author replied to say that he was sorry he had been ‘throwing pearls to a gorilla.’ I’ve pinned that quote up on my noticeboard, beside a fading one I had from an author years ago at Penguin, complaining that I had failed to generate enough coverage for her book which was, in her words, ‘a jewel in a sea of mediocrity’. Perhaps.

You win some, you lose some. I may be a mere beginner in the school of agenting, but I’m already planning to win quite a few. You’ll be hearing more about those in the months ahead …