‘Literary agents are intermediaries between authors and publishers’

Interview: Hélène Butler, head of Rights at Johnson & Alcock

Hélène Butler, head of Rights at Johnson & Alcock. Photo IPP

Correspondent Priyanka Tanwar recently interacted with Hélène Butler, head of Rights at London-based literary agency Johnson & Alcock, who spoke about the role of literary agents in publishing, translations of Indian language books into English, and the challenges. Read on

Indian Printer and Publisher (IPP)Tell us about the literary agency Johnson & Alcock.

Hélène ButlerJohnson & Alcock is now in its seventh decade. It’s in London and we represent a wide range of authors in fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, and award-winning bestsellers but also more niche, really boutique authors, their literary and commercial works.

IPPHow did you become a literary agent?

Hélène ButlerOh, that was a journey – I started with a lot of internships, as a lot of people do in France because I am originally from France. My first job was actually as a scout in the UK with Koukla MacLehose. Christopher MacLehose also runs an imprint of literature and translation. It was a formidable education to work with both of them, and then I moved back to foreign rights because this is really where my heart strings: trying to make translations happen, and being there on the ground.

IPPWhat is the role of a literary agent in the publishing industry?

Hélène ButlerWell, I think in a way, maybe my colleagues would be even better at answering this than me, but I think it is to find new voices and offer them to publishers. Obviously, publishers are very good at sourcing them themselves as well. I think literary agents are going to be intermediaries who can really help source the talent in the first place, and also help the author find his or her way to the publisher and really create that pathway. I specialize in translation rights. So once my colleagues have made that happen in the English language, I approach publishers around the world and across all countries and all languages to try to make the translations happen.

IPPAre you planning to translate any of the Indian language books into English?

Hélène ButlerThis is definitely a partnership I am looking to explore and maybe create pathways the other way. I think this trip has really made me realize even more how urgent and important it is to bring some new voices into the UK. We have a few authors from India or of Indian descent in the agency. This is something we would like to explore more. So whether it is finding titles one by one or building a partnership with an agent or publishing house here, this is definitely something I would love to create.

IPPAre you in talks with any Indian publisher regarding translations of Indian language books into English?

Hélène ButlerWe have started a couple of conversations but it’s very early.

IPPWhat is the process of selecting the books that you want to publish?

Hélène ButlerIt’s all about how they make us feel, really. Personally, as I said, my colleagues are the ones who normally read through the manuscripts and select and sell in the English language, and I tend to represent everything they have selected. It’s quite new that I am choosing my own titles and building these partnerships myself. It’s a mix of finding something that has commercial potential in the markets I sell because I do not want to build false hopes. I need to know that I would be able to do it, to deliver, and also just something that makes my heart sing. And that can be really very different genres.

IPPWhat should an author keep in mind while approaching a literary agent?

Hélène ButlerThis is maybe subjective and will differ from one agent to another but I am quite open about the state of the project. It’s quite hard for me to say. I think very often, it’s easier to say what not to do. I think if you come from a place of genuine interest in your text, are quite humble but confident, than there is some value there. I think the agents can do their best to build these bridges.

IPPWhat challenges do you face while getting a publishing contact?

Hélène ButlerIn markets, it’s always difficult to build new contacts, and it takes a long time. I think once you’ve met one or two people and they introduce you to other people, it’s much easier. I think breaking into a market to make these original contacts is quite difficult. You can find publishers who published what you want to produce yourself, but finding the eMail address and making sure they actually care about your writing to them and answering back is harder. So, I think book fairs and fellowships and things like this are crucial to actually build in a network.

IPPWhich authors do you currently represent?

Hélène ButlerWe represent a large variety of authors – Cara Hunter and Sarah Pearse are two of our big thriller authors. Helen Russell is a big non-fiction author. We also represent Balli Kaur Jaswal who lives in Singapore at the moment. We represent Bangladeshi authors Mohammad Tufael Chowdhury, and Damilare Kuku from Nigeria – quite a wide range of literary and commercial.

IPPHow do you collaborate for foreign and film rights for the authors you represent?

Hélène ButlerWe tend to have a special agent who helps us with this because it’s such a different set of skills instead of contacts. Foreign rights is my specialty – I have been doing this for over 15 years. I go to book fairs, I go on trips directly to publishers’ offices across the world to meet with them. And now during the pandemic, we are able to do Zoom calls, which brings us closer even when we can’t go to the ground and otherwise. It’s just the daily exchanges by eMails or just finding the perfect book that you recommend to this specific editor like you would recommend it to a friend. No mass mailing, which really leads you nowhere except people finding that you are spamming them, but actually really understanding the taste of that person and recommending that specific book to them, and that’s how they pay attention to your book. And this is basically what I do.

IPPWhat is your submission style? What do you look for in the submissions as an agency?

Hélène ButlerI think it varies from one agent to the next – we have several primary agents in our agency, and they all have different personalities, so I think something that will vibrate with one might not resonate with the other one, and all have different specialties as well. Basically, we are all looking for a voice and a story sometimes. When you go very, very literary, the story can become maybe a bit secondary, but the voice really still needs to be there. Very often you find a really great pitch but then from the first page, you can tell that the voice isn’t there. It’s such a shame because you thought maybe you had found something but it might be for somewhere else for someone else, but not for you.

A lot of my colleagues are looking for anything that is science fiction to literary fiction, things that are feminist and diverse – something that challenges the mainstream narratives is always welcome and something we look for.

IPPHow is your experience at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023?

Hélène ButlerIt’s been fantastic – very, very welcoming, incredibly rich in terms of culture, and understanding of the work that everyone does here to promote translation and publishing. I am looking forward to exploring more.

I would like to extend all my thanks to everyone who has made this fellowship possible, mostly the British Council and Art X and the great work they’re doing with UK-India Together for this anniversary, which is really fantastic and has allowed us to hopefully create more bridges to take all Indian languages across the world.

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