Interview with 2022 Novel and Picture Book Award Judges

Interview with Judges Clare Wallace and Lydia Silver

1. Can you tell us a little more about you and your role as a literary agent? And some of the wonderful authors you represent?

I joined the agency back in 2018, and I’ve been building a brilliant list of clients across every children’s age range. I originally started out in Editorial but I quickly realised that the literary agent role is a much better fit for me – I love working with authors right at the start of a project, finding and honing sparkling new ideas, rather than thinking more critically about exactly how the book will be published. I’m also extremely competitive and I like to win, which means I genuinely enjoy negotiations and contracts!

Someone once described having an agent as a booster pack for your career, and that’s how I like to think of my role. I’m there at every stage of the book, from concept to well past publication, but if things are going well then I should be pretty much unnoticed, smoothing the way for the author and handling the tricky business bits so that they’ve got the space to create. I work in different ways depending on the client but at various points, I might play the editor, the bodyguard, the career coach or the counsellor – it’s such a varied job.

I’m embarrassingly proud of my clients. The work they produce is so varied, but they’re all tied together by having a strong voice and something exciting and new to say. From picture book break-outs like Rachel Morrisroe, comic geniuses like Mark Bradley, middle grade mavericks like Nick Sheridan, teen queens like Gina Blaxill and legit superstars like Rashmi Sirdeshpande, along with a whole bunch of yet-to-be-announced projects, I hope there’s something for every child on my list.

I joined the agency back in 2011 and am now in my 10th year here. I started in translation rights, which I loved – it forced me to be very widely read and gave me a fantastic insight into the wider markets outside of the UK – and then I moved across to agenting. I represent a small list of adult fiction (Sophie Cousens, Phaedra Patrick, Kerry Fisher, for example), and represent several authors who write for both adults and children (Beth Reekles, Deirdre Sullivan, Polly Ho-Yen and Tom Ellen), and continue to build both the children’s and illustration lists which include A M Howell, Perdita and Honor Cargill, Efua Traoré, Stewart Foster, and illustrators Claire Powell, Lorna Scobie and Ken Wilson-Max. I’m very lucky to work with such a supremely talented, bestselling, multi-award-winning list!

In short, my role is essentially talent spotting (finding incredible new voices and helping to hone them), matchmaking (staying across the market, pairing clients with the right editors and publishers), negotiating (getting the best deal and contract possible), and author care (guiding authors through the whole publishing process and taking care of the administrative side of the business, like invoicing etc).

Agents support with both the business side of the publishing industry and the creative. We are there to champion and guide, and hopefully to help build long-term sales and careers.

2. Are there any age categories/genres which you feel are underrepresented and/or you’d like to see more of?

I would really like to see more chapter books and younger middle grade. Picture books in the UK at the moment are fantastic and so is our older middle-grade, but there’s a bit of a gap when you’re ready for longer stories but a bit too young for some of the language and themes of upper MG. Comics are so exciting in this space (Bunny vs Monkey, Bumble and Snug, Narwhal and Jelly), as are younger illustrated things, so I want to see more of that, but I’d also love to see something like Dragon Mountain that takes the big adventures of upper middle grade but makes them a bit more accessible for younger readers. In particular, I think this space is particularly poorly represented in terms of diversity, so I’d love to see books from authors who are traditionally under-represented in publishing writing for this area. I’m also keen to see work that would previously have sat in a ‘teen’ space, especially if it feels like it’s more aimed at boys – again, this is a big gap where we tend to lose readers and although publishing doesn’t quite seem to have worked out how to target it yet, I think it’s worth investing in.

To this, I would only add that I would also love to see more YA, especially with underrepresented protagonists, and particularly love stories or thrillers.

3. What will you be looking for when you judge our shortlist?  

I think great stories are a combination of three things: plot, hook and voice. They turn up in different proportions and can mean all sorts of different things depending on the story, but they’re always there. So that’s what I’m looking for – a great plot, a distinctive voice and a concept that really has something to say.

Yes, exactly this, and also, very importantly, great characters, which ties in with voice, characters you want to root for, characters that you want to laugh and cry with, characters that make you feel.

4. What kinds of mistakes do you most often see in manuscripts? (so our entrants know to fix these in advance).

Something I see quite a lot is stories that start in the wrong place, whether that’s with a prologue that’s not really necessary or a character getting up and about their day before some big tipping point happens several chapters in. I think that often authors need to write their way into a story, so I understand why it happens, but we want to start with the action! Think carefully about where the actual ‘story’ part of your manuscript happens, and open with that.

I agree, and I think the most common mistake, which links to the above, is authors submitting too soon, before the manuscript is ready. There’s no rush – it’s so much better to get it right, and spend that time doing one more read through, rather than rushing it out to agents as soon as its finished. You only get one chance to make a first impression!

5. What are your best tips/advice for people entering the award? 

It’s our advice for everything book-related but read, read, read! Read everything you can get your hands on in the area of the market you’re writing in, but read outside that too. Read things you think you’ll love and things you think you’ll hate, and study why you’ve reacted the way you did. All of that will inform your writing and make it stronger, and it’ll also give you a huge store of commercial knowledge you can draw on to make sure that you’re writing something that fits in the market, but still feels distinctive and stands out. 

6. What is the best book you’ve read in 2021 that isn’t a client book?

Can Clare and I pick two, for very different reasons? We loved Amari and the Night Brothers by B B Alston because it’s everything we enjoy in a commercial fantasy – a great character, fun and compelling worldbuilding, a villain with shades of grey and a did-not-see-that-coming twist. But we also wept buckets at The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethel, which has one of the most unique voices we’ve come across, so we can’t not include that too. 

7. If you had to be one Star Wars character, who would it be, and why? (or this can be a superhero or novel character instead, just for a bit of fun!)

Shocking confession time – I’ve never seen Star Wars. So I’ll go for a superhero character instead – can I be Spiderman? More specifically, can I be Miles Morales in Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse? I’ll say it’s because spiders are amazing and I’d love to swing between the skyscrapers in New York, but really it’s just that I want to live in a comic-book universe.

I have seen Star Wars but I just don’t love Star Wars (sorry to all). I spent a lot of Saturday mornings watching Marvel cartoons. My first love, before I discovered the X-Men (and Storm and Rogue), was Cheetara from ThunderCats. This isn’t a deep answer but it is an honest one – I just thought she was really, really cool.

Read more about the award and how/what to enter here.

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