SPECIAL FEATURE Lunch with Amber and Jo of Skylark Literary Agency

At the end of October this year, Rachel Burge was lucky enough to be accepted by Amber Caraveo of Skylark Literary Agency. When Amber took her to lunch with her partner, Joanna Moult, Rachel took the opportunity to ask them lots of questions to report back to Words & Pictures. Here's some of what she gleaned...

How quickly do you know if something is of interest to you?

Amber I can usually tell from the opening page. Firstly, I am looking for fantastic writing. You also want a great concept of course, but I have taken on someone because I adored their writing, even though the story wasn't quite right. We worked together on something new, and now they have a book published.
Jo Sometimes the concept is amazing, and then you find that the writing isn't there, which is such a shame. That's the key thing: finding a great idea that's brilliantly executed.

What percentage of submissions are an easy 'no'?

Jo I would say around 75-80% of submissions. The rest are not quite there for one reason or another, and they take a little longer for us to consider. In fact, if you haven't heard back from us for a while, that can be a good sign, as it means we're still mulling it over.

How closely do you work together?

Amber We work together most days. We also keep in touch by phone and email. If there's something one of us particularly loves, we will send it to the other.

Is it sometimes that one of you loves a writer's work and the other doesn't?

Jo There have been times when Amber has fallen in love with a manuscript, but I haven't and vice versa. Even then, we can tell what the other sees in it. I can't think of a time when one us has loved a submission and the other hasn't seen potential there.

What's the best thing about working together?

Jo It's great having a partner because we can bounce ideas around. And Amber is a fantastic agent because she's so tenacious and thorough. She's the kind of person who always reads the terms and conditions. Nothing gets past her!
Amber Working with Jo helps with all kinds of things. If I have a particularly tricky email to send, Jo will read it over and check I have got the tone just right. It's great having a second opinion from someone you really trust.

Does having an editorial background help with agenting?

Amber Yes, we only take on books that we think we can sell. Some agents 'take a punt' on a writer with the attitude that they've lost nothing if they can't sell the book. For us, we have to feel that we can find a home for a manuscript. Because we've both worked as editorial directors, we have a good eye for what will get picked up.
Jo and I have worked at a number of different publishing houses, so we’re largely selling to our old friends and colleagues. When we are considering an author, we are already thinking about which editors might like their work.
Jo We love doing author events and one-to-ones (especially those organised by SCBWI!) but we also spend time with other agents and editors too. Publishing is a very small industry, and it's part of our job to know what editors are looking for. That's part of the reason we decided to specialise in children's and YA – with a smaller sector, you can really build relationships and get a feel for what's happening.

What's the worst thing about the job?

Jo Sending things out to publishers and then having to wait. It's so hard when you've fallen in love with something and really believe in it. Waiting is tough on us as well as our authors – but, of course, editors are busy people, and it can take time for them to read and get back to us.
Amber Having to say no to an author who has potential, but their work isn't there yet. We’re a small company and simply can’t take on everyone.
Jo I've met so many lovely authors, and sometimes I want to take them on because they are a wonderful person, but I can't. I hate having to say no to anyone.

What's the best thing about the job?

Amber Working with talented authors and editors who are passionate about creating wonderful books. Editors aren't in it for the money – they do it because they love what they do.

Have you ever thought about writing a book?

Jo No, I just don't have the time. Plus, I'd be so critical of every line I wrote, I don't think I'd get very far!
Amber Hmm. I love the idea. Maybe, who knows... one day.

What are you currently looking for?

Amber & Jo Great writing! But some funny, heart-warming MG would be especially welcome.

Note: I didn't mention to Amber and Jo that I was thinking of writing up our conversation over lunch, though I did share this write-up with them before sending it to Words & Pictures.

I can honestly say that they seemed to really understand how hard it is for writers to have to wait to hear back/receive rejection.

For me personally, sending my work out and hearing nothing back was the hardest thing. That happened to me a few times (in one case even after the agent had met me in person and requested the full). Sometimes it can feel like writers don't get enough respect – after all, there's so many of us, and we're easy to dismiss. But I am pleased to say that Jo and Amber have a genuine respect and appreciation for how much blood, sweat and tears we writers put into our work – and how much getting published means to us.

If you're still searching for an agent, I don't have a magic answer, but I would be willing to share my journey/advice for what it's worth if anyone is interested.

You can read a bit about me and my book The Twisted Tree at: https://rachelburgewriter.co.uk

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