Ask the Agent – Lisa Highton

Writing Magazine – October 2023

Lisa Highton’s publishing experience spans the world. She’s been a publishing director at Doubleday, HarperCollins, and Hodder in Australia. She returned to the UK in 2005 to work for Hachette, establishing their Two Roads imprint, where she worked with authors like Kirsty Wark, Sally Magnusson, Janet Ellis, and Susan Calman.

Having gained so much publishing experience, what drew you to becoming an agent?

I’d worked for many of the major publishers all my life, and while I was very proud of having started my Two Roads imprint at Hachette, it was time for a change and a fresh challenge. I left on a high in its tenth anniversary and best year ever, but after a break, I wanted to experience a different aspect of the book world!

You joined the Jenny Brown Associates agency in 2022. What do you enjoy most about being an agent?

Having worked with Jenny Brown for years from the other side of the desk, it was a natural fit. We share the same values of great storytelling, author care, and a love of the business. It’s great being back to hands-on and building a list and the autonomy is appealing. Finding and nurturing talent is really energising, as is trying to get that talent ready for submission and the best all-round deal. We’re a very small team and decisions can be made and implemented quickly, like our Debut Award for writers over 50—one conversation and the wheels were in motion. I’m very proud to be working with Jenny, who is the consummate professional and great fun. We complement each other.

Jenny Brown Associates is based in Edinburgh. Does the agency only represent Scottish authors or Scottish-themed manuscripts?

Not at all. Jenny only represents writers who live in Scotland, but my clients can be anywhere in the UK/Australia. While some authors we represent write about Scotland, the talent and breadth of subject matter are definitely not confined to Scotland. That said, we enjoy Scottish successes!

How does being Scottish-based influence how the agency works?

I live and work out of London, so I am the London-end of Jenny Brown Associates now. I spend a lot of time connecting with London editors and seeing my authors wherever they live. Jenny comes down to London as regularly as I go up to Scotland. We attend the London Book Fair and Frankfurt, and our foreign rights are sold everywhere by our Rights Director, Andrea Joyce.

You work with agencies right around the world. How important is it to secure foreign rights in your author’s work?

Not every book will sell in translation, or in other English-speaking markets, but we are committed to making sure that each book achieves its full potential, in as many markets and formats as possible. Each book is different and needs an individual approach, and sometimes we sell the rights and sometimes they are granted to the publisher. Regardless, we are always working in our author’s best interests to get the word out there, in whatever language or market.

The agency invites submissions from un-agented writers twice a year. What is it about this system that works best for the agency?

We don’t have a hard and fast rule about this. For instance, last year we had an open submissions period and then pitch sessions in person in Edinburgh and the Highlands during Book Week Scotland. This year we were open for a month for our inaugural Debut Writers over 50 Award and had over 1700 entries. We haven’t yet decided on the dates for our next open submission. We appreciate it’s very hard for writers to break through, but it’s a case of persistence and luck.

When the agency is open to submissions, which genres interested you and why those genres?

I’m really interested in narrative fiction and non-fiction—tell me a story! While neither of us handles SF, horror, or fantasy, as they require specialist market knowledge, between us we cover the market from crime and thriller to general, literary, and historical fiction, memoir, biography, nature writing, history, as well as some hard-to-define but wonderful titles. We’re always ready to be surprised.

What common mistakes do authors make when submitting to Jenny Brown Associates?

Be aware of who and what we represent. Read our submission guidelines carefully (no Dear Sirs/single spaced/I know you said no fantasy but. . .). Try not to compare your work and thereby yourself to The Greats. 

Word count counts. Ideally (and especially now with massive cost increases), scripts at over 90,000 words are daunting. We don’t represent fantasy or sci-fi, as we’re just not expert enough in that field, and we understand those are often longer, but generally, saying your book is 130,000 words is a massive roadblock.

Lisa Highton’s Top Tip

Do your homework. Be aware of the market and what else is being published—if your book were published, where would it sit in a bookshop, aside from ‘new releases’? Publishing is famously a business of opinions, but it is a business.

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