Going solo: Four literary agents on setting up their new firms

Going solo: Four literary agents on setting up their new firms

Despite the unpredictability of the past couple of years, several literary agents have departed well-established agencies to strike out on their own. 

Kate Shaw left The Viney Shaw Agency, taking her existing client list—including several high-profile authors such as Isabel Ashdown, Vashti Hardy and Holly Smale—with her, just over two years ago. She says: “After 18 years working as an agent, I wanted to do something different for my clients. Writers mainly work alone and I believe they thrive when they are valued, celebrated and supported, in the good times and the difficult ones, by an agency that makes them feel at home. An agency family is what I wanted to achieve with The Shaw Agency.” 

Shaw reports that business has been progressing “really well” so far. She adds: “I’ve not looked back or regretted a minute of it. What I’ve discovered about running my own agency is that it’s far less about me and even more about my clients.” Reflecting on the impact of the pandemic, she considers herself “very fortunate that the business I started is in a resilient sector of the economy”. She expands: “There have of course been, and continue to be challenges for publishing and bookselling, which has had knock-on effects for publication dates, clients’ income and books’ discoverability. But we have found new ways of working together as an agency and I’ve focused even more on my clients’ needs.” 

She believes that the challenges she has faced during the pandemic have been “much the same as for a larger agency: juggling home-schooling, cancelled fairs and events, industry uncertainty, and having to become expert at Zoom”. In some ways, it’s been “simpler at The Shaw Agency, not having colleagues to worry about and already being set up to work from home”. 

Abigail Bergstrom, founder of publishing consultancy and literary agency Bergstrom Studio, agrees that there are positives to being a smaller operation during the current climate. She left her role as head of publishing at Gleam Titles this spring after five years there, and launched her own company in June. She acknowledges it is “a brave thing to do in a climate with so many unknowns”, adding: “As a younger business you can adapt and be more responsive. We’re acclimating and integrating the change rather than fearing it.” 

A broad church
Bergstrom’s new venture offers a range of services to help authors build their brands and it represents authors including Munroe Bergdorf, Florence Given and Laura Bates. Explaining her decision to open it, she says: “I had set up a thriving and successful agency for Gleam Futures and I was ready to do it for myself. Bergstrom Studio was also about diversifying. Rather than get pigeonholed, I wanted to create a business model that made space for my skills as an editor, agent and published author, one that would create roles for people who have a lot to offer to different parts of the industry.”

According to Bergstrom, things are going “brilliantly” for her team, who are currently editing and developing books with authors who have been commissioned by publishers and those who are still seeking representation. One of the benefits of being her own boss is that “we’re not a traditional agency, we’re also a 360-degree publishing consultancy, offering services to authors and working directly with other agents and publishers, so our revenue streams are abundant and diverse”. 

Pictured: Alice Sutherland-Hawes

Alice Sutherland-Hawes has also thrived since leaving Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency (MMLTFA) and launching ASH Literary, which focuses on the children’s market, a year ago. She says: “I have had a fantastic first year, earning well over my previous salary and building a business that so far is sustainable—though I am aware it is early days. I am so thrilled with the deals the agency has done, the creators I represent and the work they are producing.” 

While she had always aimed to run her own company one day, the move was accelerated by the pandemic. She explains: “After the fog of the first lockdown started to clear, I realised that I had an opportunity to rebuild my life in a way that worked for me… I realised I didn’t want to go back to how things had been, clocking in for set hours and wasting time and money on commuting. I wanted the flexibility to live anywhere, to work when works for me and to make my own decisions in the shaping of my list, the deals I do and how I work. And I also wanted to create a safe space for my clients to create in, which is something I am actively trying to do.” 

Sutherland-Hawes feels that not being part of a bigger agency has not added to the challenges she is facing during the current climate. In fact, the launch was a “great distraction” from the pandemic, and she credits the industry and her clients—including authors and illustrators Poonam Mistry, Kereen Getten and Harry Woodgate—with being “so supportive and wonderful”. She continues: “I knew exactly what I was getting into when I started my agency. I have to do everything—all the social media, payments, database admin—and sure, it’s a lot, but the payoff is worth it for me… it’s so freeing.” 

Paper talk
Another former MMLTFA staffer Catherine Cho, left to launch Paper Literary in May. “It had never been my goal to start my own agency,” she says, “but over the past year I had been thinking a lot about what a client needs. I started Paper Literary as my answer to this, to have an agile, ambitious and focused list that carefully considered each client’s strategy across the US and UK and the rest of the world.” She adds: “I also wanted to have a list that allowed me to work with writers that really excite me, while utilising modern systems for client care. With the pandemic, it also made me realise that the things we may have assumed were necessary, like office space, are not.”

Pictured: Catherine Cho

She admits that the pandemic adds “an extra layer of uncertainty to starting a new business” and that it was “a big step” to take, especially as she has two young children. However, the move has been “very liberating and exciting so far”. Cho expands: “I’ve hugely enjoyed being my own boss, particularly for the small things, like being able to make my own decisions about everyday logistics.” Paper Literary struck its first deal in June and Cho has received several submissions—“in the first couple of days we received over 500”—but she has tried to keep the list small in the first year. She says: “There has been a lot to learn, of course, but there’s been so much positivity and support from the industry and people reaching out, which has meant a great deal.” 

All four women have high hopes for the next steps for their new agencies. Cho is “excited” to build the Paper Literary brand and to announce the agency’s first deal, while Shaw is also “very optimistic” about the future. As well as having “some fantastic books in the pipeline”, Sutherland-Hawes is planning to move her agency out of London in 2023. Considering exactly what the future may look like for her studio, Bergstrom says: “The thing about moving with the tide is different threads of the business are going to grow and develop—the direction of that growth is all to be played for.”