ME AND MY AGENTS Lu Hersey, Ben Illis and Rachel Hamilton

 Faced with a choice of agents, what made Lu Hersey pick the BIA over a big, corporate agency?



Some things can really change your life. Eight years ago I decided to go part-time at work so I could complete the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa (a brilliant course for any aspiring children’s writer). Don’t be envious – it took years of working as a copywriter and struggling as a single parent to get there – not to mention the bank loan! Anyway, I went on to win the Mslexia Children’s Novel Writing prize in 2013 with my first novel, Deep Water – which was an amazing stroke of good fortune. It meant I suddenly had a choice of agents – big corporate agents and small agencies like the BIA. So how and why did I choose my agent? 

It simply comes down to what you’re looking for. Some writers prefer a big, professional, corporate agency that’s been established for a long time and has a lot of clout. Others want an agent who will work with them on a more personal level, an agent who has chosen you because they really love your work and believe in you as a writer. 


While I was in a total quandary deciding what to do, Ben Illis at the BIA sent me a photo from Peru. It was a picture of the boat he was out seal-watching in at that very moment, an old fishing boat called Selkie. (Deep Water is a selkie story by the way). Under the photograph was the message ‘Look at this boat I’m on – and I’m out in Peru! I’m soooo the right agent for you!’ 


And that’s why I chose the BIA. I’m just a sucker for signs and portents. And, it worked out well for me, as Ben went on to get me a deal with Usborne for Deep Water.


Ben’s agency has grown since I joined and he now has the very talented Rachel Hamilton, (writer and literary festival moderator) on board too – which is a real bonus. Rachel is the queen of structure and Ben is a genius at brainstorming and helping to bring your ideas alive, so they make a great team. 


The BIA is still a very small agency but now has some fabulous clients, including Jasbinder Bilan, Mel Darbon, Claire McFall and Kimberley Pauley. It’s been a bit of a struggle for me since Deep Water was published as I’m no longer a debut, which makes my work a little harder to place. But I know Ben and Rachel have my back. They’ll continue to help me make my books as good as they can be and to send them out to publishers. And that’s really important. If you’re not snapped up by a publisher with your follow-up book, would a corporate agent drop you? I guess I won’t find out. Ben and Rachel believe in me, and that keeps me going, doing what I love best. And I’m currently keeping my fingers crossed for Sea Spinners, my favourite of the books I’ve written so far – and about to go out on sub… 



To me, agenting is about chemistry and alchemy. Working with Lu is a dream. Often a slightly strange dream, in that the final editorial destination isn’t always clear and the twists and turns along that route can be, wonderful, surreal and certainly unexpected. 

I’ll never forget reading Deep Water for the first time. The combination of folklore and magic with a kitchen sink reality immediately spoke to me. Back then I was a fairly new agent and Lu very much among the ones to watch. I didn’t dare hope she’d sign with me. I moved fast and offered representation, but something told me it was right to stress she take her time to explore her options and be sure I was the best agent for the job – this is an approach I very much stand by today. Nothing could prepare me for how nerve-racking that wait for her decision would be, nor how hard it remains on the relatively rare occasions we offer representation to this day! 


Back then I was also occasionally working as a travel writer. On a trip to Peru for a magazine, I found myself on a boat called Selkie off to look for sealions and the signs just felt both slightly spooky and fundamentally right. I messaged Lu with a pic of the boat and she agreed and that was that. Agent: thrilled. 


In Deep Water, the scenes of underwater discovery drew me in immediately and I wanted to expand them and really ramp up that mystery and revelation. That was the start of an editorial journey with Lu over subsequent manuscripts, which has grown ever more intense and ever more satisfying. 


More recently, Rachel Hamilton joined the team and Rachel’s and my approaches seem to dovetail beautifully. What I miss, Rachel tends to spot and vice versa. When I find myself stumped, Rachel has an idea to try out and when she is, so do I. And when we’re all at sea, we treat it as a rehearsal space and brainstorm every idea we can conceive and somewhere, somehow a route forward reveals itself. 

Trust your gut. It's rarely wrong.

For me, one of the great joys of agenting is the editorial journey. Another, of course, is communicating my passion for the resultant manuscript. The journey is never the same with any two writers. With some it’s fleshing the story out from the inside and building outwards on a frame. With others, it’s really just polishing and almost sanding down those rough edges. With Lu, it’s almost as though she’s already hewn a beautiful story from a block of marble and our job is to expose all the contrast, texture and definition we can. 


Agents exist in as many shapes and sizes as writers and, if you’re lucky enough to have a choice, it’s important to find the right chemistry for that alchemy to kick in. If there’s one piece of advice I’d give any writer on choosing an agent, it’s to trust your gut. It’s rarely wrong. 



My journey to agenting was a long and winding one, through ad agencies, a men’s prison, a building site, a secondary school and a lot of literature festivals. Writing has always been my passion and I was lucky enough to find my own agent, Luigi Bonomi, and to get publishing deals with Simon & Schuster and OUP, which launched me into the world of books. When I was invited to radio shows and lit fests, I found I enjoyed talking about other people’s books as much as I did my own. So, I trained as a moderator and interviewed many of my writing heroes – as well as realising my childhood dream of interviewing Richard and Judy on the sofa (and my adult nightmare of being stage-rushed by an unruly mob of seven-year-olds while helping Nadia Hussain ice gingerbread men). I was also freelance editing at the time and realised being a literary agent would wrap everything I loved into one neat job title. 

The next step was to find an agency-home and The BIA seemed the perfect fit. It didn't hurt that I was reading Mel Darbon’s magnificent Rosie Loves Jack at the time, or that I fell madly in love with both Mel and Lu when Ben suggested I chat to them about the agency. 


Working with Ben and Lu on Sea Spinners has been a joy. Lu has a beautiful voice and has created a story with layers of magic and myth and a rhythm that lifts you up and carries you along. No spoilers, but there is an incredible scene where Sirena receives her training in a mystical cavern, which I have watched turn from a clever set-piece to a truly mesmerising example of Lu's ability to pull you in and make your heart sing. Despite me being a bit of a gate-crasher – after all, Ben is the agent Lu 'chose' as her career partner – Lu couldn't have made me feel more welcome. I often find myself messaging her, either to ask for her professional opinion or to just have a good old gossip. I also think we make a cracking team – Lu puts heart and magic into everything she writes, then Ben explodes with creative genius all over it, and I follow behind, in my Bob the Builder helmet, poking at the structure and looking for opportunities to strengthen it. 

All images courtesy of Lu Hersey

All the links you need:  

Lu’s Twitter: @LuWrites 

Lu’s website : 

BIA Twitter: @blindingbks 

BIA website: 

Rachel’s Twitter: @RachelLHamilton 

Rachel’s website:

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