Melanie Ostell on what it takes to be a literary agent

Melanie Ostell on what it takes to be a literary agent

Melanie Ostell is a literary agent. She advocates for her authors and their works, and helps them build a writing career. She has more than twenty-five years’ experience in the Australian book publishing industry across a range of roles, including editor, publisher and educator. In this interview, she considers the role of the literary agent, why she represents the writers she works with, and what she looks for when reading an unpublished manuscript.

Melanie mentions Tara June Winch, who she represents, in this interview. You can listen to Tara speaking about her phenomenal work The Yield here.

Literary agent Melanie Ostell


ASTRID: Melanie Ostell, welcome to The Garret.

MELANIE: Thanks so much for asking me, Astrid.

ASTRID: Now, we normally interview writers on The Garret, but today is a special episode because you are a literary agent. Thank you for joining us. And for those who don't have an agent, can you tell us what a literary agent does?

MELANIE: Okay. A literary agent is largely the representative of the author in helping them negotiate the publishing world. I think part career advisor and champion and advocate of the author. We also are people who try and help negotiate better contract terms for an author when they get a publisher. And also, we on hand to act as intermediaries if difficulties arise between the publisher and the author. We are a number of things. Some agents do a lot more hand holding than I do. I have to admit, I'm not as great with author care as other agents maybe, but I also do a lot of developmental work with the manuscript before submitting on behalf of the author. So that's something that's a little different from what I do from other agents generally.

ASTRID: At the beginning there, Melanie, you mentioned champion and author advocate. Now, I think everybody wants to have someone going in to bat for them. It feels comforting and it feels like someone has your back. I teach and I get students who ask me, ‘Do I really need a literary agent?’ Now, I'm not trying to give you a leading question here, Melanie, but if a writer, particularly a new writer, an emerging writer, doesn't have a literary agent, what are they going to miss? Or what trouble might they get themselves in? Because it's a complicated industry and people who are entering don't really know what's happening.

MELANIE: It seems really complicated. It's not as complicated as it may seem, and it's not essential to have a literary agent. It depends how you see yourself in establishing a writing career, whether or not you want to continue writing and you want to continue learning your craft. But it's quite possible there are organisations, writers centres in each state, there's the Australian Society of Authors, which also gives great advice for authors negotiating that path on their own. But it's not essential to have a literary agent.

What a literary agent can do – and I suspect that for many emerging writers, this is the singular importance of an agent – is that it gives them legitimacy. It makes them think that they're a bona fide author. And they may not be, because literary agents don't find homes for every manuscript, just as the same as people going through the slush pile don't. I think people who are seeking a literary agent might need or might want to interrogate their reasons for doing that because it's all hard work. There are no shortcuts, really. But a literary agent does generally get their manuscripts read ahead of the slush pile. There's no question of that. Time responses might perhaps be a little shorter than the six to nine months some people might be waiting otherwise to hear from publishers.

ASTRID: You do have an excellent list of writers that you represent.

MELANIE: Well, thank you.

ASTRID: Tara June Winch just stands out obviously, but there are many on your list and you do take new writers. What makes a writer stand out to you? Why would you choose to represent someone?

MELANIE: There's a raft of reasons that will play into that. Perhaps I should... Before I answer that question, can I just run back and say that I've been in the industry for many, many years as an editor and as a publisher, and then as a sort of a freelancer for a while, as a teacher, as well, and as a mentor to writers. I understand how books are made and I understand what makes a book. And with that experience behind me, there are certain things I am looking for regardless of genre or area of writing.

I'm definitely looking for great stories. I'm looking for stories told in a distinctive manner. So I'm looking for new voices. I'm also looking for someone who has an authorial control with what they're doing in terms of they know what they're doing. And the intentions of the manuscript are clear without being didactic. I'm looking for top page-turnability as every agent and publisher is looking for. And I'm also looking for someone who is engaging with something with a freshness. I'm looking for something, a different lens or a different tilt on something which might bring a new perspective to an old issue or a problem or theme or circumstance with which we are living. It has to be good writing, but it has to be saying something and it has to be saying it well.

ASTRID: They are all good things. You mentioned readability before. And I would suggest that readers are definitely looking for that page-turning feel as well. You also said the word authorial control. Can we explore that a little bit? I assume you mean in terms of the manuscript in front of you, it has a strength of backbone to it, but does it also refer to the writer themselves?

MELANIE: Oh, absolutely. I was speaking to two emerging writers yesterday about their manuscripts. And it's about the world building, it's about the situation. It's about whether it's first person or third person, doesn't matter. It's about the sense of getting that voice and there being pops of interest and opportunities there, but also it having a firmness or a consistency on the page, so we know that the author knows what they're doing. Too often with emerging writers, they will contradict themselves, or they will make things really complicated unnecessarily, when with opening pages of any manuscript, and obviously we're talking fiction here mostly, we have to be compelled to read on. Some publishers are only looking at the first page. They're not even looking any further than that, even though they're asking for 50 or 60 pages.

And I have to confess that I'm now getting to a point where I'm so strapped for time that if you haven't got me in the first couple of pages, I might leaf through a little bit further, but then that's your chance blown. So you have to hone manuscripts. This goes back to what draught are you on before you submit? And you don't submit until you really feel you're ready and it's had at least four drafts. There is that sense of knowing what you're trying to say, controlling what you're doing, and having your characters take hold of the story and running with it, but not running with it out of control.

ASTRID: So budding writers, emerging writers, always want to know how they can attract an agent. And that can happen if they've never sent their manuscript anyone, or if they have sent their manuscript into the slush piles and not heard back. So what turns you off? What makes you say no to someone who comes to you? You have limited time, you already have a great stable of writers. What are the immediate nos?

MELANIE: They can't write. That would be one, or there's so much hubris there that I just think I can't work with these people because they don't understand protocols, they don't understand the timeframes and lags between responding to people or not. Publishing is sort of a 19th century business. And there are manners that are important and things do take a little longer. And I don't think a lot of aspiring writers are really aware of just how frantically busy people in this industry are. And that goes for people in house, at publishing houses, as well as agents, as well as smaller journals, as well as any form of publishing creative material.

Everyone is strapped. Everything's done pretty tightly and on a tight deadline, but also with not too much spit and polish in terms of money circulating to get bodies helping to do things. A lot of stuff is freelanced, but everyone is on a deadline and has to turn things around and is time poor. So fundamentally what turns me off is people thinking that they can monopolise my time when my time is really my main commodity. And it's very important that if you are going to try and get my attention, you are ready to get my attention because you won't have it for very long if you're not prepared and you haven't done your homework.

ASTRID: Melanie, thank you for saying that. That is on behalf of everybody in the industry, thank you for saying that. We are all time poor. Now I know everybody is time poor, but none of us ever get paid to read and reading takes time, right? You can't appreciate someone's manuscript unless you sit down and start diving into it. And that's why they only get the first page or so, because no one has the time to deal with a half-assed manuscript. Can we explore the idea of hubris on the part of the writer for a while?

MELANIE: Yeah. Okay. So in some ways I'm a particularly harsh gatekeeper, given my editorial and publishing background. I'm not a clearinghouse for manuscripts. Other agents do a lot more volume than I do. I'm highly selective about the authors I choose. And in most instances, I'm actually now working with debut authors and within that sort of framework, the manuscript might come to me, and I might see a rough diamond, but there will generally be a couple of passes that I will try and encourage the writer with. And if they're not willing to do that, then we've got nowhere to go. I've been burned a few times by doing quite a lot of editorial work for Nicks, because it's just trying to get that manuscript in the best shape possible to get the greatest amount of interest from publishers as possible on going out.

And it's a bit of a crapshoot. We don't know how well or how these things are going to go. And often I'm surprised too, when I think that I'm sending or targeting particular publishers where it's an absolute bullseye, they'll say they weren't interested. And I'm baffled by that. So we all get some of this wrong in trying to match manuscripts to publishers, but generally, I will try and work to get the moving parts there if they're not quite oiled enough, but still leading plenty of potential. Because once that manuscript is acquired by publishing house, the author still got work to do so it's part of the process, but at least we've got to that major step where they will become a published author.

ASTRID: Does it matter if an author or an emerging writer has a well-known profile, is on social media, or has other form of name recognition?

MELANIE: You mean does it matter as in is it important that they have that?

ASTRID: Is it one of the things that might make an author more attractive to either you or a publisher?

MELANIE: Well, I think it depends on what they're writing, and I think it depends on whether or not their social media profile has some sort of relationship with what they're writing. Certainly, for non-fiction, self-help, or mind, body spirit books, that would be the case. I don't really track pick in that sort of work, so it's not as essential for me. When Twitter first started and Facebook exploded, which is 15 years ago or more, there was a sense that yes, we must have that. We must have that social media profile from Europe because they'll be marketing the books for us as well. That's less so the case now. I think that there was a fabulous article from the New York Times. I think it was, or the New York Magazine, about how the translation between celebrity memoir particularly, and they were citing Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, then writing books. The books tanked, even though they've got millions of followers because these people don't want to buy books. So if you're not working out the market properly there, then that's really not going to be help anyway. So it's not essential. It can help. It can certainly help the writer in generating a community of readers where they're feeling that they're getting feedback from their readers, that's helpful for future books. And that would particularly be the case with genre fiction. But I don't think it's insisted upon in the way that it seemed to have been a decade ago.

ASTRID: As a reader and as someone who actively cares about what happens in publishing in Australia, I'm aware of trends. Sometimes it feels like there are all sorts of things that are coming at me, whether I like them or not. Now-

MELANIE: Well, hang on, just stop, I'll stop you there, Astrid. And I'll ask you, tell me, what are some of the trends that you encountered lately?

ASTRID: There seem to be... And I don't know how to phrase this without getting myself into trouble, but there seem to be a lot of books written by women in their 30s, early 30s about emotional existential crises. And there's just a lot of them and they all feel the same. Now, I might have aged out, I just hit 40, but I can't tell the difference between them. And that worries me.

MELANIE: Okay. Well, we don't have to name names, I guess, but I'm just trying to... I'm racking my brain here. I can think of two offhand, but then again, I'm sort of minding my own scene a little bit, so I'm not paying as much direct attention to trends to some people. I mean, there are some trends that you can identify, and some things just happen to be zeitgeisty. And they're not quite enough to say that they're a trend. I mean, wizards certainly were a trend.

ASTRID: So were vampires.

MELANIE: And vampires. But you see, I mean, I was selling Anne Rice back in the days of Interview with the Vampire, which was a fabulous novel. So who would've thought Twilight would ever have eventuated? And I suspect that vampires will be making a return in another couple of years. I mean, these things do happen. I think that trends seem to occur more readily with a genre than with literary or smart crossover fiction. Certainly there were trends in YA where now for a number of years, it's been more contemporary. The John Green YA rather than the fabulous YA, that's starting to turn a bit. And of course, people like Jay Kristoff proved me wrong with that.

But I don't really like the idea of trends. Obviously, if there is a trend, you want to be starting it, not catching the wave at the end of it. And even as there might be trends, if there's something a little different about it, or it twists something in a slightly new way, then for me, that's sitting apart from the trend in a way. So it's earning its right to be there. I guess my answer is I don't really admire them, but I do have an Outback thriller that I've just sold, which has a twist. And so, it's a little different from the average Outback thrillers, and Lord knows, we've had plenty of those lately. So there you go.

ASTRID: I'd like to ask your perspective on what the international English-reading public thinks of Australian fiction. 20 years ago, when I was at university, even my lecturers were vaguely embarrassed about Australian literature. That is not the case anymore. Australian literature is flourishing in Australia, in a bunch of different areas. You do represent authors who publish internationally. You have been to international book fairs back when they were more easy to get to. What does the rest of the world think about our literature?

MELANIE: Well, that's a big question to ask. I mean, some things work well and travel really easily or relatively easily to other countries. But again, those things might only have a short term. I mean, I remember hearing how well Australian crime fiction was doing in German markets, but the German markets are now starting to say no to those. So that seems embracing Australian writers, I'm not going to say literature because I'm not sure if we're talking literary fiction here, if we're talking just fiction across the board. The placing of that will vary enormously depending on what the style is, what the profile of the author is, and what the intent is. I'm just trying to wrap my brains here. I do know that with COVID, it's been hard.

Now, one of the things about publishing in general is we are all terrible Eeyores. We're always saying how hard it is. And it is hard, but trying to sell into English language markets outside of Australia and New Zealand the past couple of years has been really hard for me at any rate. And I have some excellent co-agents in America and the UK, but it's just so hard. And unless you can really get horns in those territories, the rest of Europe takes a while to follow. Now, there might be pockets whether it's France or Germany or the Netherlands, where they might be interested, but everybody really wants to know that an Australian book has been embraced by the U.S. or embraced by the UK before they're willing to throw their hats in the ring too. So this can be quite a laborious process.

And sometimes with foreign languages, it doesn't really matter so much because works in translation always take time. So there isn't necessarily the great rush, unless it's a mega, mega, mega blockbuster and they have to get it out there. HarperVia in America published Tara's edition of The Yield. And they also took UK rights for that. Penguin Random House were looking after the right sales for that and did a splendid job finding a home there. And HarperVia is one of the few imprints in the U.S. within a major house where they're doing things that are a little different and they're focusing on different cultures or works in translation. And I think the whole nature of the dictionary in The Yield was party to that. Of course, it's an extremely important book and I'm very proud to have been associated with it. And I think it's changed the conversation in many ways. And I think there's a lot more first nations people being published right now than there were five, six years ago. So that's great.

So there will be pockets of interest from that sort of cultural perspective. Jessica Au was just be published in the UK as you know, and in the U.S. there's that kind of joint arrangement with Giramondo. So there are these openings that are there and obviously too, with the bigger houses they might take world and they might be publishing across different territories simultaneously. And there is something certainly with a miserable London winter, where you are reading about Australian sunshine, that kind of works. And there isn't an exotica about Australia as well, but there's also a sense too, that they've got enough of their own authors, particularly diverse authors or marginalised authors. They've got enough on the ground there that they're not so interested in reading that far field. So some things won't travel as well as other things. I think we're well regarded. I think we punch above our weight in the same way that Canadian writing does, but there's no guarantees. Any overseas rights still is always going to be the cherry on the cake.

ASTRID: Melanie, that was a really beautiful and nuanced answer. Thank you. As you were speaking, I realised one of the reasons why I was so interested in asking that question is, in terms of book sales, I don't mean the quality of our ideas. I mean just the physical size of the market and how many readers are in Australia. We're a relatively small market, right? So a bestseller here is not the equivalent income for a writer as a bestseller in London or New York. So not naming any individuals, but what counts as a bestseller in Australia? Is it 10,000 copies? Is it different between fiction and non-fiction? What makes you proud and excited?

MELANIE: Well, pretty much all of it makes me excited. And you need that excitement because you need the adrenaline because you're so tired. So that keeps you going. A best seller, well, certainly anything over 20,000, you're pretty cheerful. And that could be across any genre. Sometimes for some particular books, 10,000 is fine. Back in the old days when I was working in-house before the GFC even, there was a rule of thumb with literary fiction that you would always... You print, say 3000 copies of literary fiction. Nowadays, literary fiction is really struggling to find its space. And that's not entirely surprising because readers want a little bit more propulsion in their reading and a little bit more accessibility as well. I always think that the sweet spot is to get both of those things together.

So you've got clever writing on the line, but you've also got a story that you are putting the characters through, but those three set 3000 copies might now for some titles only be 1500 and the returns are really, really tight. And the thing is that Australia is massive. So if you are physically transporting books around the country, that costs the publishers money. And that's something that too few emerging writers understand that the distribution costs, selling or sending copies around this massive continent of ours and then to have them come back means that they've made a loss. And it's largely a low profit margin unless you do get a runaway bestseller. But it's a very different circumstance, say from the Netherlands, where things can be shipped out in a couple of hours almost around that area. So there's that. Anything above 15,000, I'm dancing a jig really.

ASTRID: That puts things into perspective. My final question, Melanie, and you can take this wherever you feel. For those listening who are interested in what literary agents do, they might want to become one, or they would like to find one for themselves, what do you think the broad state of the publishing industry is?

MELANIE: For those people who are looking for a literary agent, I think that one of the most important things to do is to do your homework. So that means researching who you are targeting to submit to. And I receive submissions where clearly they have no idea what I'm doing. I stipulate on my website that I'm not interested in fantasy and yet I'm still getting fantasy and/or poetry or other bits and bobs, which I really can't do anything with. I think that if you want to be taken seriously, you need to seriously do your homework. Research the two or three agents that you would like to try first. Make the decision whether or not you wish to go to a publisher direct because you don't need an agent and you are confident in your own abilities to manage that. That's fine, but don't go to publishers and then come to agents when you still haven't secured a publisher because you've jipped your chances of really finding a good home. That's one thing.

Make sure that you've done multiple draughts and you've had careful reads. And when I say multiple drafts, I don't mean tinkering. I mean, looking at substantive changes to do with the structure and the integrity of the work itself, looking at whether or not some characters could be conflated because there's too many bodies there. Is there a satisfying denouement for the reader because there's got to be a payoff for the reader. Look at all of those things and how they're operating and then be respectful about the requirements on the submissions portals, what they're asking for. Don't strip in all that into an email for God's sake. I think most people are looking for attachments and respect the request for attachments.

Remember to have a biog note there as well. And if you've had prizes one for short stories or novellas or short listings or previous publications that are relevant to the manuscript that you are pitching, then by all means include that. But we don't want to hear about you winning the Dandenong short story competition back in 1982, we just don't. And we don't want to hear that you've always loved books because we all do and that's a given. I think that you need to be respectful about the time that you are taking in sending something and to make sure that it's being proofread, spell checked, formatted correctly, and ready to share. And also as a courtesy, I'd ask you to send to agents and let the agent know that this is a simultaneous submission to other agents. That's purely a professional courtesy. It might also mean they come back to you faster with a yes or a no.

So they're the sorts of things that I think all emerging writers need to know. And I think they need to go into bookshops and they need to know exactly where their manuscript sits on the shelf. They need to know what similar titles are there and how it's different from those. I think they need to put that in their cover letter, but please stop comparing yourself to Dostoevsky or to Nabokov. It's just not on. We need the currency of these works as well. And I think that you need to also express a willingness to entertain that your manuscript might not be quite ready. And I think this is the thing, not everyone gets to be Jack Kerouac, and he only got to be it once. So books need editing. They need crafting. They need work. And even though you think it's done, I'm quite sure experts will think that it is not done.

ASTRID: I am blown away by your hard truth. Melanie, I cannot wait to see what this looks like in a transcript. It is going to be a beautiful, beautiful thing. Thank you for coming on The Garret.

MELANIE: Well, thanks for asking me, Astrid. I hope this helps.

ASTRID: Oh, absolutely.