How Books Are Made

What is an agent and how do I get one?

Good agents are the fairy grandparents of page and screen. They get writers; and they get writers paid.

Most jobs in publishing are done by humans flying solo – writers and freelancers working from home, running their own show. That can be lonely work. Especially as a writer, it’s just not possible, on your own, to know everything and everyone you need to know to turn your talent into a viable business. For that, most writers need an agent. What does an agent do? And how do you get one?

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie is the founder of the Lennon-Ritchie Agency, which works in commercial book publishing, and the managing director of Torchwood, which represents writers in film and TV. She joins Arthur to talk about being and getting an agent, negotiating contracts, and writing for TV and film.

Links from the show:

Researcher
Klara Skinner
Editor
Helen le Roux
Transcript editor
Emma Sacco
This episode was published on 21 June 2024.
Supported by Electric Book Works: publishing reinvented for the digital age.

Transcript

Arthur Attwell:

Hello, and welcome to How Books Are Made, a podcast about the art and science of making books. I'm Arthur Attwell.

Arthur Attwell:

Most jobs in publishing are done by humans flying solo. Writers and freelancers working from home and running their own show. And the hardest part of doing that, the part that leaves you feeling tired and desperate and so lonely, the hardest part is just getting paid.

Arthur Attwell:

So imagine having someone in your corner whose job it was to stand up for you and get you paid, and then even better, to get you more work and to submit your work for awards. It's rare and you're lucky to have it, but that's what a good agent does for their writers. Good agents are the fairy grandparents of page and screen. And I'm lucky to have one as a friend. Aoife Lennon-Ritchie is the founder of the commercial publishing Lennon-Ritchie Agency and the managing director of Torchwood, which represents writers in film and TV.

Arthur Attwell:

She joined me in my study to talk about being an agent, about getting an agent, about negotiating contracts, about writing for TV and film, and much more.

Arthur Attwell:

This is lovely. It's lovely to see you and to be talking in person. Most of our podcast interviews these days are done over computer, and we get the rare opportunity, being in Cape Town at the same time. You've spent a year in Barcelona, though. How was that? What took you there?

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Well, hi. It's lovely to be here. And you're right, it's lovely to be having this conversation in person rather than in a little white room somewhere. Yes, just back from a year in Spain, which was terrific.

Arthur Attwell:

Sounds amazing.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Terrific. Yes. It was amazing.

Arthur Attwell:

Fantastic. Well, glad to have you back.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Thank you.

Arthur Attwell:

As you know, on the podcast, we talk about the world of bookmaking. And something that we've not talked about on the podcast before is what it is to be an agent and what an agency is and does, and so I'm so glad I get to talk to you about that. How did you become an agent, find yourself, is that something that you choose or something that happens accidentally?

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

It depends. For me, it happened pretty accidentally. So I was doing a Master's in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town, and I still had a business in Europe at the time, and I was traveling a lot. And at the same time, I was just very interested in the publishing business, so I set meetings with people in publishing, and when I was going to these meetings, my classmates said, 'oh, please, will you just sell my book while you're there?' So it started that way, selling books for my classmates.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

And then I got on very well with Ron Irwin, who is a full-time lecturer at UCT now, and he had a little agency in Cape Town, and he was really supportive and wonderful and taught me a lot. And when he went back to university full-time, to teach full-time, he said, 'why don't you do this? There's a gap there, there's nobody doing it here.' And I said, 'no.' I said, 'no way.' But then a year later, we traveled then as well, we were away for a year, I went to go away in Pittsburgh for a year, and while I was in Pittsburgh, I thought, 'let me see if I can do something.'

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

So I started, started working slowly, in 2012, 2013, and we're going now eleven years.

Arthur Attwell:

That is amazing. And am I right that you ended up representing Ron's novel as well? Novels now.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

So, a little bit. Sort of. Yes. So Ron is still a very close friend, close dear friend. He is represented in the States by a wonderful agent who actually was his childhood friend, they went to school together. But I do work often with co-agents, and I do sell rights for publishers and other people, and Ron is published locally by Pan Macmillan, who is a client of mine, and I loved the book so much. I chatted with Ron and with his agent and with their permission, then I was able to kind of talk to a few people about the book.

Arthur Attwell:

Fantastic. When you started the Lennon-Ritchie Agency, you were representing book authors, as you say, but over time, you've moved more into film and TV. How did that happen?

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

So I always had, so some of my authors were also screenwriters, so I always did a little bit of work for them on the screen side, a little bit. I was a little scared about throwing myself completely into that side of things on my own, and I was so busy with the books.

Arthur Attwell:

Mhmm.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

But I met my business partner on the Torchwood side, Torchwood is the other agency, David Kayser, at a film festival, must be, gosh, I think 2017, something like that. And he is South African originally, but was living and working in London, he was working for one of the big screen agencies in London. And we just got to talking, we hit it off, and we said this, we must be able to do something together here.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

There are a lot of screenwriters and directors here who need somebody in their corner, who aren't being well represented, who are, you know, fearful of negotiating contracts in case they anger producers and then they don't get offered work again. So it's really important, I think, to have somebody in your corner advocating for you. So we kept talking about it over the next couple of years. Every time I was in London, we caught up. Every time he was in Cape Town, we caught up.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

And then in 2019, he got knocked off his bike in London –

Arthur Attwell:

Oh my.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

– and decided, 'I've had enough of the grey skies, London traffic', and came home. So we set up Torchwood in early 2020. We launched in August 2020, and we've been going for four years. And it's been terrific.

Arthur Attwell:

Fantastic. I wanna come back to that later because I'm really curious to talk a little bit about what would have then happened over the pandemic years, whether that shaped the business. But before we get to that, I'm curious just to know a little bit more about the day to day work that being an agent involves. Something that, when I was a book publisher, I would spend a lot of time on is book contracts. And I assume that putting contracts together or negotiating contracts between writer and a publisher or a broadcaster or producer, you're gonna have to help me understand who it is exactly in the film world you would be connecting people with, but when you're doing that, where do you spend most of your time? What is the big piece of work?

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Well, that's a really interesting question. I think a way to think about that is maybe to have a chat about, I guess, the life cycle of what a contract might look like.

Arthur Attwell:

Right.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

And what we do as agents for authors. Shall we just talk about authors for now?

Arthur Attwell:

Yeah.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

It's a little bit different, but it all comes from the same place. It's the same sort of thing. So an author would have written a wonderful book, and they'll have polished it, they'll have done their research before they approach any agents. It's really, really important that it's part of the job of the author, not just to write the book, but to know about the industry and to know what an agent does and how they can help them and what they do for them. It's really, really important that they research this before they start approaching agents. We can come back to this. It's very important.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

So they will send me a pitch, a submission. There's lots of information on my website and on every agent's website about what they like to see. And it's really important to kind of look at that and give them what they want. So my system, for example, if somebody sends me an attachment, it gets automatically deleted, I won't see it.

Arthur Attwell:

Right. Otherwise, you would never get anything done if you had to...

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Well, you know, yeah, you can well, also well, there's lots of legal implications as well. So if somebody sends me a script, for example, that they attach, and then I look at it, I might have a client who's got something similar in development.

Arthur Attwell:

Right.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

But they think I've stolen their idea. So we do not open anything that we haven't solicited.

Arthur Attwell:

Mhmm.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Same on the book side. And so I won't see it, and I won't even get a notification that it's coming. So don't do that. And that is true for pretty much all agents. What I like to see is a paragraph description about the book that tells me what genre it is, who it's for, what it's about. And what it's about for me isn't about themes. It's about the character for fiction. What happens? What's the plot? What's the story? I'm very story-oriented. Other agents are very theme and lyrical writing oriented, for me, I need to know what the story is, who's the main character, what happens to them, and why? And why should I care? So that, a little bit about you, and don't forget to put your name.

Arthur Attwell:

Interesting.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Lots of people don't put their name. And then if that sounds like something I feel I can respond to and place, so it's really important that it's something I think I can sell. So I'm not judging. But if I could come back to somebody and say, 'sorry, this isn't right for me', it's not a judgment of the work, it's just a judgment on what I can do.

Arthur Attwell:

That's such an important observation. I always find those famous stories, about the agent who passed up JK Rowling or the agent who passed up the Beatles, a little unfair because they passed them up because they weren't the right person to sell that book, and that's fine.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

That's totally fine, and you don't want the wrong agent. You want, you need the right agent. I mean, if JK Rowling had had the wrong agent, we wouldn't know who JK Rowling was, I think. Yeah, she lucked out in many ways, and I think her agent was really terrific and did an incredible job for her. Yeah. People didn't praise the agent enough. He was crucial, he convinced Bloomsbury to take a book on when they weren't doing kids literature at all.

Arthur Attwell:

They weren't even doing kids literature.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

They weren't doing kids literature, they were thinking of maybe going into kids literature, and he convinced them to take on this book and print 500 copies.

Arthur Attwell:

Wow.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

I know. Like, who else could have, I couldn't just convince Bloomsbury to take, take on an unknown kid's writer at that time and print 500 copies. You know, he, I couldn't have. So I think, Christopher Little deserves a lot of kudos and respect.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

So back to the submission. Okay. So now the submission comes in, I think, 'oh, this sounds really interesting, I wanna read more.' And, also, I'll ask for a bit of a synopsis and maybe the first ten pages so I can get a feel for the writing.

Arthur Attwell:

Mhmm.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

And then I'll ask for the full thing. And then here, you have to wait, because it's gonna take me several weeks to get back, if not more. Yeah. And so apologies in advance if you're sitting waiting. And then if I think the book is wonderful, I think I can place it, then we talk about an agreement, and then I explain what I do for the author.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

We sign a contract that sets out my rules, their rules, and then I pitch the book and try and get a publisher interested. Once the publisher's interested, then I negotiate the contract there. And then after that, then I'm just sort of overseeing the process from quite a high distance. So I don't get involved with the day to day of the production of the book or the marketing of the book. I'll be keeping on top of things like prize entries.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

So I'll have to make sure that the publisher has remembered to submit books for prizes, for example. I have to make sure that they give loyalty statements once a year or twice a year whenever they agree to do that, and then make sure that I can collect payment for the author and pay them, make sure they're paid.

Arthur Attwell:

The most important part, I suspect, a lot of authors would say.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Yeah. Well, it's very important that people can make a living from their craft. So, in the contracting side, it's not, but it isn't just about the royalties, it's about, so, some very important things about contracts are how you get into the contract, but also how you get out.

Arthur Attwell:

Interesting.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

So, you know, what are we doing when we start? How do we expect to publish the book and, you know, get the book out there, distribute it, and market it? And if it doesn't work, how do we get the rights back?

Arthur Attwell:

And those rights that are being negotiated between publisher and author, many publishers template what they want, and that's often the starting place, as I understand, for the contract. But, of course, depending on the nature of the project and the author, those templates might be negotiable. Just to unpack a little bit what those rights are, though, as I understand it, they're essentially described as licenses, which I like to think is just another word for permission, to do particular things with the author's work. Is that a fair description? Like for instance, the publisher has the permission to produce a print book, ebook, and an audio book, but nothing else, for example.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Yeah. That's a really good way of putting it. Yes. Absolutely, and I think when, to kind of give an example, so I think if somebody publishes, for example, with, let's say, Penguin in South Africa, they get a contract from Penguin and they think, 'oo, my book is being published by Penguin in South Africa, and therefore, it will be published by Penguin all around the world.' But that isn't necessarily the case. Usually, it isn't the case. So, if I were negotiating a contract here, I would usually restrict the rights to local rights. An ebook that is geoblocked to Southern Africa, print book, and then I would retain translation, international English language rights, film, TV rights for the author.

Arthur Attwell:

Yep.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

So some people would think, okay, so then you're better off withholding rights that the publisher isn't gonna exploit directly. But, actually, that isn't necessarily the way to go because I also sell rights for publishers. So I work with Pan Macmillan, Jonathan Ball, Penguin, I do a little bit of work for Modjaji sometimes because they've got terrific things.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

I've got a New Zealand picture book press, and I've got Crystal Lake Horror Press, which is a terrific horror press, and the Mirari Press is a new sci-fi and fantasy press. So if somebody were to sign world rights with those presses, then they would give the book to me to sell. So I'm gonna be sending it anyway. So then you have to decide, okay, so if I get a local contract with the local press, am I going to find an agent in another part of the world or an agent who will take on the rest of these rights, or do I give them all of the rights and hope that their agent sells the rights?

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

There's no right answer.

Arthur Attwell:

There's no right answer.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

And the other thing is that because we're growing, but we're not a massive agency, we don't take the full lists from all of the publishers. We just take the books that we feel we can place overseas.

Arthur Attwell:

Right. Which is a way of being fair to the publisher and the authors because you probably could say, 'oh, we could represent all of that', but if you don't know that you can...

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

It wouldn't be fair. But the contract with the publisher and the author wouldn't necessarily change. So, yeah, so it's really hard to know.

Arthur Attwell:

Absolutely. So you have to be thoughtful about it, but also be a little bit lucky, if all the stars will align over the years after publication. That's really interesting.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Mhmm. But I would say, though, that if you are published locally, it's a, it's a good calling card to approach agents overseas. It really is legitimizing to have a local book published locally. It's not an easy thing to do, and it's not an easy thing to write a book, we know how hard it is, and to get a book published is really hard, so that, people, agents and other agencies will really look out for that and will be very impressed by that and will take you seriously.

Arthur Attwell:

How do you find publishers? There's probably no rule here. I want to say, how negotiable are publishers? I think the more thoughtful question is: what are the parts of the licenses or the contract that publishers do tend to be happy to have a chat about and others that publishers really aren't in a position to negotiate over?

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

I find that everything's negotiable.

Arthur Attwell:

Right.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

And publishers are really open to talking about everything. They wanna make sure their authors are happy because they want them to do well and to come back. So I don't think anything's off the table –

Arthur Attwell:

Sure.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

– ever. I think it's important just to have an open and frank conversation about what's realistic and what's reasonable. And a publisher will say, 'look, we can't make it work at this price point', if you're pushing on royalties, for example.

Arthur Attwell:

Right.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

But a way around asking for more royalties is to have escalations. So if the book is a success, then the author will share in that success, the more copies it sells, for example. To build in bonuses, you can build in bonuses if the book does well quickly. Yeah. But I really think that nothing's off the table, and it's worth discussing everything and asking for what you, for what you want.

Arthur Attwell:

Yeah. Absolutely.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

But it is hard for an author to advocate for themselves. So I would always say, and I know how hard it is to get an agent, but if you can, I would say it's, it's really important to have an agent if you can get one.

Arthur Attwell:

Yeah. We mentioned that there are differences between book contracts and TV and film contracts. What are the big differences? I know you've written in the past, I've seen that the ways that licenses are described, for instance, is kind of the opposite to the way they're described in publishing licenses. Maybe you could tell us a bit more about that.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Yeah. It's –

Arthur Attwell:

The broad differences.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

– publishing, in publishing contracts, you set out everything that you're, that the publisher will take, and in film and TV, you set out everything the producer is not taking.

Arthur Attwell:

It's so strange to me. You know, there's an infinite possibility of numbers of things that people could do with one's work. I can see the sense in both, I suppose, both approaches.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Yeah. I mean, technically, you do have both in both, but it's just the focus is a little different in them. You do kind of set out, okay, we expect that the publisher will publish in Germany, and they will publish a certain number of copies within two years, and we will sell it for this price, and we will give you royalty statements every year and pay you twice a year or whatever. And we will not give you film rights, and we will not give you Polish rights or Uzbekistani rights, just German. So that sort of thing.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

In film and TV, you are saying, 'okay, we're gonna give you film or TV. Maybe you've got an option on the other, maybe there's a holdback, so if you don't take film, but you do take TV, we can't sell film rights from two years after the TV series comes out', for example. And if somebody wants to make the TV series, you have the opportunity to come back at that point and compete with the producer who wants it. And there's, yeah. It's a little more complicated, they're a bit more complicated. And then we will usually withhold rights that aren't going to be exploited, so if the producer can't do a stage play, then we will withhold stage rights. If they're not gonna make a podcast, we'll hold podcast rights. We've started withholding NFT rights because who knows –

Arthur Attwell:

Interesting.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

– what will happen down the line, things like that. Yes.

Arthur Attwell:

To some extent, you have to imagine all the things that may be possible, decide whether this particular enterprise would exploit them. And then, yeah, hold them back if you feel that there's a better way to sell those rights in the future.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

That's exactly it. So if you feel that somebody's focus is on their territory and they don't have the means or the interest in exploiting rights in other territories, then I would say that you're better placed to place those rights.

Arthur Attwell:

Mhmm.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

And so we would withhold those. But there are exceptions, there are always exceptions. So, for example, if it's a very costly illustrated book, like, say, a nature or wildlife coffee table book, a local publisher will need to sell rights to be able to afford to produce the book.

Arthur Attwell:

Right.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

So they won't be interested in taking on that book if they don't have, say, maybe world English, because then they'll be able to get publication partners in other territories to come in and bring the production costs down. So you have to bear that in mind as well.

Arthur Attwell:

It's a dizzying number of probably infinite number of variations and potential opportunities.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

But again, it's a conversation. Yeah. So it's just about open lines of communication, really just discussing what's possible, what can happen, and making it happen then. It's basically, agents are win-win merchants.

Arthur Attwell:

Yeah.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Our job is trying to make sure everybody's happy and that, on both sides of the contract, so that the author is happy and taken care of and advocated for and that the publisher can make a success of the book and feels like they're really doing something great.

Arthur Attwell:

And that's so important. I know in all of our book work, making the book is just the beginning of a long relationship, a long journey of everything that's gonna happen after that, not least the marketing, obviously, when the book is published and released. But even beyond that, that relationship, being happy is probably the single most important factor to the long term success of the project, is that everyone just feels good about this partnership.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Absolutely.

Arthur Attwell:

We talked a little there about territories and about TV, and that reminded me that a couple of years ago, on a panel discussion, you explained how broadcasters had, during the pandemic, been forced to look to their catalogues to see what contact they had from places outside the US and the UK, and that that sparked a bunch of opportunities for writers in places like South Africa. How's that played out in the couple of years since you noticed that?

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Yes. So, yes, you're absolutely right, in lockdown and during COVID, when production completely stopped, broadcasters were really struggling to put things on air.

Arthur Attwell:

Mhmm.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

And so they went into their catalogues, but also they went into overseas catalogues, and they bought lots of things that they would ordinarily never put on UK or US TV. So I think the received wisdom in the States in particular is that people don't like watching shows or watching films with people who are speaking in funny accents.

Arthur Attwell:

Mhmm.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Or, a different language and don't like reading subtitles. But they found that there were some very huge shows like Money Heist and Squid Game, like, there were some massive shows that really overturned that idea. And so they were bringing in lots of things from overseas.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

The same thing happened again last year when the strikes were happening, this year and last year, when the strikes were happening, production stopped. And so they were going into back catalogues and overseas catalogues to try and put things on. So I don't think it's played out exactly how we expected. So I still think that particularly English language places like the UK and the US do prefer to have local projects.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

But what we are seeing is that they are investing more in overseas things, and they're doing more international co-pros. Yeah. So we do find that there are more co-pro opportunities so that you might have a show set in Thailand, for example, about a UK mass murderer, which is the one that came out a while ago. Actually, it was a French murderer, serial killer. It's called The Serpent, I think.

Arthur Attwell:

I remember seeing that.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Yeah. So that's a UK co-production filmed completely in Thailand, I believe, with French and German characters. There were a few English actors, but they were playing, I think there was one English actor who played a Dutch guy or German guy, and that was massive in the UK. And so there are a few more opportunities like that. Look, locally, the market is very strong. So we did have a little bit of a setback with Amazon pulling out earlier this year.

Arthur Attwell:

Right.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Yes. They were investing a lot in the market. They were here for a year, were acquiring lots of things and then overnight decided, we're gone. Netflix is still here aggressively producing and acquiring and commissioning, and they have a very local-for-local viewpoint.

Arthur Attwell:

I was about to ask, so they're producing locally because the South African market justifies that?

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

The African market.

Arthur Attwell:

The African market?

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Yeah. So they want to appeal to, let's say, whether the publishers have a remit to publish local books by local authors for a local readership and their broadcasters, similarly, including Netflix Africa. They really wanna focus on satisfying their local market.

Arthur Attwell:

And do you think that the return on investment is working for them, or are they still burning cash in the hope that it will grow?

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

I'm not sure. I don't know. I don't have access to those figures, but I think, I think they're happy to be here, and it looks as though they're not going anywhere.

Arthur Attwell:

That's encouraging.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

It is good. It's been really good for the market.

Arthur Attwell:

You've also sold a lot of rights at the Sharjah book fair, I believe. And you even won an award for your work there, which is...

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Uhm...no.

Arthur Attwell:

Oh, what was that?

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

We didn't win. They had, they had this lovely award that they started a couple of years ago to honour agents because we're not often, we don't often get nominated for prizes or win prizes. I think there's one in London, London Book Fair, for, they have an agent of the year, and I think that's it.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

And so Sharjah, Sharjah is this wonderful rights fair in the Middle East, and it's, it's a lot of people from smaller publishing companies and smaller agencies who wouldn't necessarily have the means to go to the bigger fairs. And so it's an invitation-only programme, and so people invite you, and then it's fully paid. So people can come from all over the world, and it's really terrific. It's a really wonderful place to meet people that you wouldn't ordinarily meet and to talk about their markets and what they're looking for and how things work for them. So yes.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

So they started this prize a couple of years ago. I was shortlisted, but I didn't win.

Arthur Attwell:

Oh, okay. I misread, but that's great, that you were shortlisted. That's fantastic. I'm so glad to hear that agents are being recognized.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

I know, right?

Arthur Attwell:

Especially when they're working between worlds. I feel sometimes that the world is sort of divided into pieces based on people's alphabet. It's like, there's an Arabic-speaking world. There's a Chinese, Mandarin or otherwise-speaking world and the, you know, Latin alphabet-speaking world. And I feel that if we're gonna break any barriers, if we can break those ones, that will be amazing.

Arthur Attwell:

I remember my friend, Ramy Habeeb, who's been on the podcast before, Egyptian by birth, Canadian by upbringing, now lives in Edinburgh, anyway, he really opened my eyes to how much I didn't know about publishing in Arabic in particular, and I'm curious to know if you've seen or learned things through your, particularly your work at Sharjah, what are the things that English-speaking publishers who are only in our own English-speaking world would really like to know about? What are we, what should we notice? Is it just, get to Sharjah?

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Yeah. I think it's, so it's not just the Arabic-speaking world actually either, although there is a big focus on Arabic language publishing, but they're very open to people from everywhere. Yes, so I've sold sold Armenian rights, Ukrainian rights, Italian, Mexican, Portuguese. It's a terrific place for people from everywhere to come and talk about their markets. I think there are more similarities than differences. I think everybody is there because they're really passionate about books and publishing. And the margins are really small in publishing, especially when you're talking about small publishing houses in small markets, and yet people persist and they do it. Yeah, I had a, Ukrainian publisher who bought a book to me, she published it, you know, I think three or four months after the war –

Arthur Attwell:

Amazing.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

– started. Yeah. Incredible.

Arthur Attwell:

Just keep going.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Keep going.

Arthur Attwell:

Love it.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Yes. Keep going.

Arthur Attwell:

I love having my own prejudices dispelled there because I had this impression of Sharjah being all about selling Arab world's publishing rights. And now you, I'm learning that it's much more international than that.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Well, they have a, they have a very generous grant. So they have, I think every year, they have $300 000 that you can apply for a portion of, to help publish your book. And so they allow for books to be published that otherwise would not get translated. They pay for the translation.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

So I think the majority of that, I think half of that or more is for books translated into or from Arabic, and the rest is for any language to any language. Yeah. But I, yeah, so the focus is certainly on the Arabic language translations, but not exclusively.

Arthur Attwell:

Yeah. I'm curious to know whether there are forms beyond books, TV, and film that look interesting to you. You mentioned NFT rights, so I suppose as an example of this sort of thing, I feel as if we're at a time where we're starting to think, what else is possible that we haven't thought of yet? I know that computer gaming, podcasting, maybe some weird new form that AI is going to give rise to.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Gosh.

Arthur Attwell:

Are there forms that look interesting beyond books and TV film that you think you could spend a lot of time in as an agent?

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

I don't have any more time.

Arthur Attwell:

Okay. Well, that solves that.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Yeah, I think it's a tricky one because, you know, in order to do something new, you have to spend a very long time working on something without getting paid. So this is one thing that people don't really know about agents: so we don't get paid. Nobody pays us. So we work until the author gets paid, and then we take a percentage of what the author makes, and you work on the commission basis.

Arthur Attwell:

And that can be a very long time.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

That can be years. Yes, it can be years. And so we need to keep the lights on. So we do need to work on things that are going to get made or will get published.

Arthur Attwell:

Mhmm.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

And then we are also, of course, always looking for new opportunities, especially for our established authors who are just keen to pursue new things. We definitely wanna facilitate them. But to try and start something completely new, I don't know, I think maybe one of the younger agents who has more energy.

Arthur Attwell:

More energy, yeah.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

More energy, yeah. I mean, we have some wonderful young agents at the agency now who are just really terrific and passionate and just really creative and interested and curious. And so we're really all about giving them scope and leeway to just try things and try new things. So I will ask them this question: where shall we go next? What shall we do? Because it's a very good idea.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

You did talk about AI. I don't know if you wanna talk about that?

Arthur Attwell:

I find the AI hype is such a distraction from just getting good work done, but I do wonder where the signal is in the noise. Maybe there's something that is worth noticing. Are you spotting anything you might need to take seriously?

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

So for me, I'm not concerned yet about AI writing. We do get stuff in, and it's just terrible. I'm sure it will get better. I'm sure it will. But I'm more interested, I think, in, like, the tools, AI tools who can make our job easier.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

So I know, for example, an Asian friend of mine found a news story that she found really interesting, in another country, and so she used ChatGPT to find a list, to put together a list of journalists who she could approach to write a book on the subject. So she wanted, you know, journalists who would, who were very well established, who could communicate in the local language and English, who would have expertise in the area, and she found a list. She approached a few people, found a journalist. They put a proposal together in a week and she sold the book.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

So there are ways that it can help. Other things like annotating meetings. So we have a lot of meetings. You meet people all the time. We take notes, but to have AI just write a summary of the meeting or follow-up points. I have tried a few different tools, they haven't, they're not super useful yet, but I'm really hopeful that that's something that can be useful down the line to be able to just write my to do list for me. That would be super useful.

Arthur Attwell:

I had a conversation recently, and we may have to edit this out the podcast, I don't know if it's appropriate.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Okay.

Arthur Attwell:

But, but it's funny anyway. I was having a conversation recently with a colleague about Afrikaans bodice rippers, romance in Afrikaans. And we were using an AI note taking tool in the meeting, and when I got the summary by email afterwards, the AI thought we'd been talking about African spider strippers. So now African spider strippers is a new genre that I'm very interested in.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Yeah. Love it. How do you strip spiders?

Arthur Attwell:

Very strange. When you head back to your office after this, what are you working on if it's not top secret?

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Not top secret. I'm an open book. So Thursday, I try to have lots of meetings, like, together because otherwise, they just take over your week. So Thursday is a big meeting day. I do lots of meetings late just because it's my LA and New York day as well. So Thursday is usually a late one. And then between meetings, then I'll be doing follow-up on meetings, other meetings I've had this week. I've got two contracts I wanna get out before the weekend, and I'm going to be in our Joburg offices next week. So I'm finalizing the meetings that I'm having in person in Joburg as well. And then, also, I have to make sure that if my writers are due money that I invoice for them and then pay them.

Arthur Attwell:

Right.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Yes, important. They can have money in their bank account by the end of the month to pay their bills.

Arthur Attwell:

I love how pragmatic that is, and that's, publishing is made of people who need to make a living.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Right.

Arthur Attwell:

Fantastic.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

Well, what writers do has value, and it needs to be rewarded. So it's really important that people understand that it's a business. It's, you know, obviously, it's an art form as well, but people wanna do this professionally as a job, and so they need to be paid for their work.

Arthur Attwell:

Wonderful.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

And it's part of my job to make sure that they are.

Arthur Attwell:

Aoife, it's been such a pleasure talking about these things, and what a joy we finally got to speak.

Aoife Lennon-Ritchie:

I know, it's lovely to see you. Thank you for having me. It's been wonderful.

Arthur Attwell:

This episode was edited by Helen le Roux and researched by Klara Skinner. How Books Are Made is supported by Electric Book Works, where we develop and design books for organizations around the world.

Arthur Attwell:

You can find us online at electricbookworks.com.