Heather Slevin interviews literary agent and editor, Polly Nolan.
I got the chance to chat to the wonderful Polly Nolan, a literary agent at Papercuts Ltd, and a person who has an intimidating amount of experience working in the publishing industry. Originally from Galway, Polly finished college in the early 1990s, and knew immediately she wanted to get into publishing. Polly spoke to the University Observer of her experience attempting to break into publishing.
“I banged fruitlessly on the doors of all the publishing houses in Dublin, and nobody was giving any work. So, I went to London and started by working in a bookshop there, and through doing that I got to know the various sales reps who came in to the store and I let all of them know that I was very interested in working in publishing, and after about a year, one of them told me a junior level job was coming up in her publishing house so I applied for that.”
To Polly, this job was simply a foot in the door, and a beginning to her career as an editor. Polly’s next step was to learn how to proofread. “I was such a swat. And then the publisher there needed a secretary, so I applied for it, and I think I was the worst secretary anybody ever had in their entire lives.”
Yet, soon after, Polly moved into a Junior Editorial role. She moved jobs quickly and went on to work at five major publishing houses. She was Editorial Director at Scholastic, and to my complete wonder, was one of the first people in the world to read the second and third parts of The Hunger Games, even going so far as to have to have to sign an NDA promising that she would not tell anyone the ending of the books until they were published. Polly then worked as Publishing Director in Macmillan, and in 2013, made the switch from Editor to Agent, joining Greenhouse Literary Agency in London.
The thing that never changed was the fact that Polly has always represented Children’s Fiction. Polly said, reflecting on the years she’s spent as both an Editor and an Agent, how much Children’s Fiction has changed in the last few years.
“I remember when I first went to London and if I were out at a party or something like that, people would say in that whole polite conversation of ‘what do you do’ and I would say, ‘I work in publishing’ and they would say ‘Oh my goodness, that’s so exciting, I’m writing a book’ and then I would say ‘I work in children’s publishing’ and they’d be like ‘oh’ and turn away. That has changed completely. Now if I go out, I practically don’t say I work in children’s publishing because everybody is writing a children’s book.
Now if I go out, I practically don’t say I work in children’s publishing because everybody is writing a children’s book
“The two things that really caused that revolution, that big change, was Eoin Colfer’s first global success, Artemis Fowl, and the other one of course was Harry Potter.”
In fact, Artemis Fowl came to Polly while she was Editor, and she was the one to sign off on the never-before-heard-of £20,000 advance to Eoin Colfer. Now a well-established stable of the publishing scene, Polly recalls her first days in the industry, and how it seemed to be so intimidating, as if it were hidden by some ‘golden curtain’.
One of the biggest questions I had to ask Polly was ‘Why Children’s Fiction?’ At the beginning of the career she wanted to branch into Adult Fiction, yet she spent her entire career in Children’s Fiction.
“The people were just so sound. The pay was rubbish and you’ve got to work very long hours, but the people are great. Writers are very supportive to one another. There is nothing like the thrill of finding, on submission, either as a publisher or as an agent, a book that you just think ‘oh my goodness this is fantastic.’ I couldn’t imagine a world without reading. I have never forgotten that whole thing of putting a book down and thinking I’m going to go out into the garden and find the hole in the hillside to find the door to another world.”
Speaking of working in publishing, and advice for students seeking to get into the industry, Polly explained to me that it’s a very satisfying job.
“It’s very hard to get into. If you’re looking to own your own house by 23, it’s probably not the job for you, you never switch off. It’s not a nine to five job in that way at all, but you mix with a very interesting, talented group of people.”
Speaking specifically to the students who wished to be editors, Polly had some brilliant advice, carried down by an editor who helped her at the beginning of her career; “It’s not your book. If you want to publish a book, write it yourself.”
Polly also helped to break down the process a book goes through from query process to becoming a printed novel. The first step to publication is when the agent gets the manuscript in. Editorial work is then done on the manuscript by the agent, purely to get it into shape to go into an acquisitions meeting. Polly is very strategic with her approach when it comes to sending the book on submission to editors. To her, the dream scenario is that two or three editors would get back in touch with interests, so she can say, “I’ve got interest in this book and they pay attention.”
The Editor in House brings it to an acquisitions meeting, at which is the following: Managing Director, Sales Director, Head of Marketing, Head of Publicity, and Head of the Foreign Rights Department. The book has to be summed up in one or two lines, and an editor has to be very focused. “You have to understand why you want to publish this book as an editor.” Then, an offer is made and the agent accepts it on behalf of the author. The book is scheduled for publishing usually eighteen months after acquisition. The editor and author are in direct contact with each other throughout this time. The book then goes to a copy editor, and the copy editor is a completely fresh set of eyes. They pay attention to the very small details in the book.
At the same time, meetings are held discussing what kind of cover the book will have and the editor is deciding on what advance - the amount the author gets paid - is reasonable. The book is set and designed as to how it will look when published, and the first set of bound-proof copies are sent out to reviewers and bookstores. Meanwhile, the editor and design team are talking about the cover, discussing the market, and what’s working. The author may not get a huge amount of say, but they are clued in to what’s happening and what ideas or illustrators they’re thinking of. “Very often the designer is designing the cover without a finished manuscript. The cover is vital and an awful lot of time and effort goes into it. The author gets shockingly little say, actually, on that process [of picking a cover].”
Finally, I asked Polly the big question: What are her biggest tips when it comes to writing a query letter?
“Don’t ruin two years' work by hitting send too soon.
“My number one tip is don’t rush it. The key thing to remember about your query letter is it is the first a prospective agent is going to read, so don’t dash it off. People will spend four years working on their manuscript and four minutes working on their query letter, and yet the query letter is the agent’s introduction to their writing. If you’re in doubt, keep it short. You just need to say I’m delighted to send you my first novel, do not say anybody from the age of 6-99 will love this, because that just makes agents roll their eyes because you don’t know what the market is. If you’re not sure, don’t specify it. If you are looking for a publisher outside Ireland, you are going to need an agent. Every single agent in the UK has different submission guidelines. It is vital that you follow the guidelines of each agent. My two tips would be to spend time on your letter, it’s first thing somebody will read, if in doubt, keep it short, and separate from this, is check submission guidelines. Don’t press send, wait six weeks minimum and then take it out. Don’t ruin two years' work by hitting send too soon.”