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Lit Agent Lorella Belli Tells Writers: “Keep an Eye on the Bestsellers List”

U.K.-based literary agent, Lorella Belli shared some insight into how the U.S. market and the European market differs. In our interview with her today, she tells us the importance of writers taking the reins in promoting their own work, why you as a writer should keep an eye out for what’s on the bestseller’s list, and why you should consider a U.K.-based agent if you’re not finding luck in the United States.


Lorella, tell us a little bit about yourself and your agency and why is it so many writers are banging down your door, trying to get represented by you?

I founded the Lorella Belli Literary Agency (LBLA) in 2002, so I am the owner as well as a literary agent. You should ask that question to my authors. Really as an agent you are as good as your authors, and mine are talented and wonderful to work with. I am told that three words come to mind when people think of me: passion, determination and knowledge.

For any writer, I think the best agent is the one with a genuine love and respect for their work, and the ability and contacts to make things happen.

You clearly love your clients but it can’t be easy for them in this recovering economy.

Despite the state of the economy and its repercussions in the publishing industry, last year we had our best year yet, and I can’t complain about the beginning of this year either frankly. I guess it also depends on the kind of books and writers one represents. We will just carry on being selective with what we take on and when we are passionate about something, we’ll just keep doing our best to help the author become (and remain) a success.

With both publishers and agents being more cautious, authors need to make sure more than ever that their work is of an excellent standard before appraching agents; they should make professional submissions, and to the right people rather than sending out dozens of random queries to agents and publishers hoping to get lucky, they need to do their research and be focused. If they are already published and have a track record, they want to help as much as they can in terms of promoting and market their work, as these days publishers tend to have less resources and manpower to spend in these areas (unless the author is already a bestseller or they have paid a substantial advance for the book, and even then, there are no guarantees). Especially when it comes to non-fiction, an author’s profile and what she/he can offer in terms of media contacts, appeal and background are crucial considerations for editors when deciding whether to make an offer or pass.

How does the iPad or the Kindle come into play when dealing with your clients?

It’s all very new and exciting. As agents we need to make sure we make the most of every opportunity for our authors, by being open to new ideas while at the same time by keeping things into perspective and planning for the long term. At the moment, we have a less robust digital sector in the UK compared to the US for example, the two markets are at a different stage.

The marketplace is being undeniably changed, to what extent and how fast only time will tell, even if there is so much debate about it. In the meantime, we should ensure that any new technology will add value to an author’s work and increase her/his earning potential, not devalue it or undermine it. The technology might change and evolve, but there will always be the need for an author’s work, whether it’s in print, as an e-book or any other future development. That will never change. That’s the good news for authors (and their agents).

What have you notices editors asking you more and more for?

If you ask any editor or agent this question, they’d probably say something brilliantly written original which will sell well and ideally even win prizes. It is good to keep an eye on the bestseller lists as they tell you what’s hot and selling right now. However, these books were commissioned one, two or several years before they came out, so it is far more complex (and frustrating for unpublished authors looking for specific answers) trying to predict what will sell next year or further down the line.

Also, the UK and the US markets may be similar but are not the same (just compare the bestsellers of both countries), and the same books may not perform equally well. There are trends though, and savvy agents should be aware of what’s working, what isn’t and when an area or subject is reaching tipping point (bearing in mind the long lead times to publication when it comes to books as opposed to newspapers, magazines or the internet).

As for what I am looking for, the vast majority of my authors were first-timers when we started working together, so I am always thrilled at the prospect of finding a wonderful new writer. Having said that, to be able to provide an excellent service and give the proper attention each one of my authors needs, there is a limit to how many new projects I can take on every year. I am representing only new authors whose work I am passionate about and I know I can sell.

We have been doing very well with, and would like to get more of, great commercial fiction and original non-fiction projects with mainstream potential – ideally books which have international potential and we can exploit in more than one market.

I also like variety on my list, a number of our non-fiction authors are journalists, and they write and specialize in certain areas or fields, so I would not want to take on a new writer who covers exactly the same ground or subject as one of my existing authors.

Lorella, what’s the best way for writers to approach you?

By sending a short well-thought email with a clear description of the book, the market and some relevant information about the author, something that makes me want to find out more about the book and whets my appetite for it. With an English literature degree and representing several bestselling authors, I have broad taste and interests.

We are based in London, represent authors from all over the world and have a clear international outlook as an agency, so cosy or local-interest projects with a niche or specialist appeal are probably not right for us.

I guess I am not keen on approaches from authors who don’t seem to know much about the kind of books we tend to represent (for example we don’t handle children’s books, short stories or SF, but we are constantly sent them), or from authors who don’t seem to know or have read much in the same area they want to publish (as they either have unrealistic expectations or have no idea of basic simple rules, especially if they are writing genre fiction for example) .

What’s something about you that very few people know, Lorella?

I dance salsa and collect shells.

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