Elaine Steel – The Life of the Literary Agent, Portsmouth Writer’s Hub February 1st 2012

On an icy night, through which numerous semi-clad students were wandering along Guildhall Walk, a group of 20 or so writers arrived at the New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth to hear literary agent Elaine Steel talk about the job of being an agent.

Elaine had an interesting style of presentation, being quite pulled back and ironic, and it was interesting to see a kind of double act occur between her and Chris Taylor of New Writing South.  This led to quite a free-flowing conversation in which lots of different subjects were broached, which genuinely gave an insight into the life and work of the Agent.

Elaine explained that she is primarily a theatrical writing agent, dealing with tv, film and theatre, but that she also does some book deals, too.

Starting off by describing her role as essentially holding a writer together, including acting as a kind of counsellor and guide, creative sounding board and therapist, it is clear that Elaine works closely and intensely with her clients.

As is the usual line with agents, Elaine was clear to say that she wasn’t really looking for new clients at the moment, although later she softened this stance, acknowledging that any portfolio of clients needs fresh blood, and advising that to begin with, a new author will only make her a few thousand a year on a 10 per cent cut.

Things that really stuck out for me at this meeting were as follows:

1) Elaine was absolutely honest about the whole new e-book phenomenon.  When asked if she thought there would still be a place for literary agents in 10 years’ time, she said “I don’t know,” but then went on to say that it is possible that the role of the agent will change and that some agents have even considered becoming publishers of e-books.  This in itself raises a conflict of interest.  At the end of the day, having thought it through with us, she concluded that when it came to the legals, she was pretty sure the agent’s role would be safe.

2) Elaine was pretty strong on the need for the writer to get to know the state of the market.  “Actors read The Stage,” she said. “Writers should be reading The Bookseller, so they know the market.”

3) Advice to writers presenting scripts was to make sure that the agent gets a feel for who the writer is.  Remember: the agent needs to get a sense of whether they can work with you or not.

4) More about what you are presenting to producers also came out.  Sending in a script on spec of Eastenders is not going to cut it with tv producers looking for talent.  They want something that is going to stand out and be noticed.  At the same time, they also want a “safe pair of hands” when it comes to working with people on established shows.  This was nuanced, but it became clear there is a fine line the writer and agent walk together when starting a new relationship with a producer.

5) Several other interesting ideas came up as part of the free-flowing discussion in the room. One of these was having a day to pitch ideas to tv producers – or a day during which agents and writers can take part in the “speed dating” high speed pitch format familiar to those who watch The Dragons’ Den.

6) The vagiaries of the agent’s life is also a factor in the success of getting your manuscript read, Elaine pointed out.  Happening to catch an agent at a quiet time is not something that is particularly predictable or controllable, but it is this sort of factor that might well get your work read.

7) It became clear that the art of editing in publishing houses is on the decline, which makes it even more important that you get your ms as polished as possible before you send it away.

8) The BBC Writer’s Room mailing list was highly recommended, as was the mailing list for The Society of Authors.

There were many more small insights like this throughout the evening – and I may well have missed some.  If you want to add your own observations, please do!


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