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Headshot of Marina de Pass. Her insights into the perspective of a working agent.
literary agents

Meet The Agent - Marina de Pass

October 11, 2020
October 11, 2020

The Soho Agency is one of our roster of trusted literary agencies to whom we pitch our authors’ finished novels. We’re very pleased and proud to work with this great team who represent our very own writing coach Emylia Hall.

In this blog, one of the Soho Agency team, Marina de Pass describes the working life of a literary agent and gives a rare insight into the perspective of a working agent.

Marina de Pass’s career wasn’t ‘supposed’ to be in  books

I remember vividly the two experiences I had with career advisors in my life – one just before I left school, the other at university.

Both involved a lot of leaflets, an advisor who had no idea who I was as a person, but who was sure that I should trust the dreaded aptitude test that would absolutely tell me what I should do with my life.

Both times the test revealed I was most suited to a career as one of the following: lawyer, accountant or investment manager. Three very respectable and accomplished careers – and yet I was horrified.

I worked for a couple of weeks doing research for an investment management firm – the people were lovely, the work actually quite interesting for an internship, yet it left me cold. How could I commit my life to a career when I spent all my free time stitching and unpicking stories in my mind?

There were the far-fetched scenarios that would play out in my imagination – what if I were to get stuck in the lift with the CEO, he has an asthma attack and I save his life? There were the days I couldn’t focus on my work because the book or film I was currently engrossed in had taken a turn the night before and I was furious – how dare the writer kill off that character who I loved so much? The two detectives were meant to be together – why are they not together? You get the picture.

Marina de Pass makes a habit of asking questions

I haven’t changed much; I spend my life unpicking the TV series I’m watching or imagining sequels for my favourite novels.

I’m always asking questions about why something works, whether it be books, film, TV, theatre. Do I love this really mediocre programme because the two characters on screen have great chemistry? Is it because, despite the miserable setting, the dialogue feels really authentic?

How Marina found a career in publishing

A client of mine recently made the excellent point that when you are young no one properly explains to you that there are jobs for everything. It is perfectly possible to make the thing you love part of your every day. There are plenty of positions out there for book lovers, from editorial departments to creative writing, book marketing to – of course – being a literary agent.

Just at the point where I thought a miserable life of spreadsheets lay ahead of me, a chance work experience placement in children’s publishing opened my eyes to what a career working with books could look like. Then I was lucky enough to find what was, at the time, the Holy Grail: a paid internship in publishing.

For six months I worked with the team at Avon, a commercial fiction imprint at HarperCollins. It was invaluable schooling. The team at Avon taught me about books as a business; they taught me about commercial potential, the importance of plot and the power of story, and what compelling writing looks like broken down. They helped me to understand the building blocks of an author’s writing style.

It was a small, deeply dynamic team, who took me under their wing and I owe them a great deal. They were instrumental in helping me secure my next job in the editorial team at Sphere (Little, Brown UK), which taught me a whole host of other things.

I went on intense copyediting and proofreading courses, and had an amazing mentor from whom I learned all about the editorial process. I went to acquisition and cover meetings; I learned about what editors have to consider when acquiring books. I met and collaborated with all the different teams and departments that make up a publishing house, all of whom have a part to play in the publication of a book and the career of any published author.

How Marina found her career as a literary agent

And in the process of all of this, I discovered that – most of all – I didn’t want to work on the publisher’s side. My interest was always instinctively in line with the author’s; I wanted to work close-up with these brilliant, interesting storytellers, and help them build the kind of writing careers that they wanted. I love seeing a talented writer become a published author.

My heart is in fiction. I love that ah-ha moment you get when reading novels, when an author manages to articulate something you’ve been feeling, but don’t know how to express. I love unforgettable characters, the chemistry that sizzles on the page – that twist you don’t see coming or the unusual structure that breathes new life into an old tale. You don’t need to have studied creative writing to write something with a real, lasting emotional punch and unforgettable characters.

I think there is a story for everyone, from adult fiction to children’s. Stories that depict real life experience, stories as an escape, stories that teach you something about the world (often something you didn’t know you needed to learn), the epic love story that makes you believe in romance again, and the story that transports you somewhere you haven’t been yet (and wow, haven’t we needed these this year?).

I believe deeply that words have power. We need them right now and we are going to need them in the times ahead.

Marina de Pass’s life at The Soho Agency

I have worked at The Soho Agency, a literary and talent agency based in central London, for four years now. Every day is a little different and it is blissful.

It is a huge privilege to work with so many talented clients and colleagues – their imagination and creativity surprise and inspire me every day.

It’s great fun, too, because of the sheer variety of projects going on at the agency. We have agents working in all areas – from serious non-fiction, business books and memoir to crime, thrillers, historical fiction, rom-coms and more. We work with our authors globally, in North America, in translation, in film and television. I can honestly say there is never a dull day.

The impact COVID-19 had on the publishing industry

As with other industries, the last couple of months have been complicated. It has been an unsettling time for everyone in the business – authors, agents, publishers, booksellers, readers.

But we have proved that we are adaptable. Publishers quickly shifted their marketing focus to digital and there have been some amazing campaigns. People are still reading; bookshops have found new and enticing ways to sell books.

It’s certainly not all doom and gloom. We continue to take on new clients; deals are being done; publishers are buying books; bookshops are open again. . . Yes, I look forward to the day that we can walk away from our webcams and welcome clients back into the office for real-life meetings, which does sometimes feel like a very exotic, faraway thought. But we are getting there; every day looks a little brighter.

We are very much open for business and are on the lookout for new writers to champion.

The writing Marina de Pass is looking for

Personally, I am building a list of authors who are writing upmarket commercial and book-club fiction and am actively looking for new writers to work with.

There are lots of things on my wish-list at the moment: I’m always after love stories. I have been thinking recently that I’d love to read a smart, witty rom-com set in the UK. I’d also love to see more female-led historical fiction, with a mythical or magical edge (although no straight fantasy or sci-fi for me please – these are not my area of expertise). I am also always after upmarket thrillers and crime.

Ultimately, I am looking for great writing, interesting settings and set-ups, great characters and hooks. If a book takes a turn I don’t see coming, even better!

Publishing trends and telling the story only you can

I think trends in publishing can be misleading and sometimes feel limiting to writers.

Earlier this year, there were lots of whispers about how no one wanted to read dystopian fiction, because we were living in times that felt dystopian enough already. Then everyone said, feel-good fiction was the thing (I should say that I always think feel-good fiction is the thing!).

Everything changes so quickly, and regardless of what is ‘hot’ now, I would never advise aspiring writers to be held captive by trends. I work closely with Sophie Kinsella, who is often asked in interviews what advice she would give to aspiring writers. She says that you should write the book you’d like to read. I love this advice, because sometimes that book is a variation of something that’s already on the shelves, just told in a new way, and sometimes it’s something completely new.

Every writer has a different, distinct voice and way of telling a story – your novel comes from you and how you see the world. Isn’t that interesting, rare and exciting in itself?

If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that life as we know it can change in an instant. Most editors I know would admit that the books that they fall hard for are books they didn’t know they were looking for. That’s the same with us agents, too.

Regardless of genre, if your novel comes from the heart, if it’s a story that you think needs to be told – that will shine through on the page.

Which writers get published?

There isn’t a formula that will ensure you get published – if there was, everyone would do it. If you are already a member of The Novelry, you have decided you are serious about this writing business. Good for you.

Along with their talent and imagination, the writers we work with are some of the hardest workers out there – committed and disciplined. The hours are long, the work is solitary and you might not become a millionaire at the end of it all.

However, I believe that when you find an agent who will champion you and your writing, and be on your team, it lightens the load. They can help turn your manuscript into a career in books. Above all, it can be great, great fun.

All of us at The Soho Agency are absolutely thrilled to be linking up with The Novelry and we hope you’ll think of us when your novel is ready to submit.

Someone writing in a notebook
Members of The Novelry team