A Q&A with Mandy Little

Friday 15th December 2023

This week, we interviewed long standing literary agent Mandy Little.  Mandy joined what was then Bolt & Watson in 1981 and the agency became Watson, Little in 1983, taking Mandy and Sheila Watson’s names. Mandy was a fulltime agent for over 33 years, and represented a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction authors. She still works part-time, and remains the chairman of Watson, Little. It’s been fascinating to hear from her about her life as a literary agent, and how she feels publishing has changed over the years.

 

What was your journey to becoming a literary agent?

I started out in the film industry, initially as a secretary as so many young women did in those days, quite quickly becoming a junior publicist.  I loved working in London (Piccadilly) and I loved the films – well, most of them – but it wasn`t really the right industry for me and I moved over to the food industry, where I did corporate PR for some years, eventually with a staff of eight to manage.  Personal circumstances saw me leave London but, when I returned, I knew I wanted to change careers.  I met the literary agent David Bolt, purely socially, who said he and Sheila Watson were looking for an assistant who could hit the road running fast and was appreciably younger than they were.  It was David`s wife who suggested I might like the job, even if it meant going right back down to the bottom of the pile to retrain as a literary agent, when I didn`t even know what one was!    But that`s what I did and I`ve never looked back.   I`m a firm believer that nothing you do is ever wasted and my experience outside the book industry has given me a breadth and a balance I`ve known to be helpful.

What is the biggest thing you learnt during your career as an agent?

Perseverance. If you really believe in a book, and its author, you Do Not Give Up, even if you have to wait a few years for the market to change. 

What was your favourite part of your day-to-day routine when working at Watson, Little?

Coming in early and sorting out my day in peace and quiet, checking the banking, seeing what was in my Inbox – and then waiting for the first person to come and turn my plans upside down!   I was told on my first day in publishing that authors could be the most lovely and the most awful people I`d ever meet.   And, no, I`m not even going to hint at who fell into which of those extreme camps!  But they sure can upset your work schedule.  Yet the unpredictability of the life of a literary agent is what makes it endlessly interesting and you anyway learn so much from your clients – far more than they learn from you.

How did you ensure the longevity of your authors’ careers, and how did you maintain that personal relationship between author/agent for such a great length of time?

This is a People Business.   The relationship between author and agent has to have the right chemistry; you have to like, trust and respect one another, so one agent might be great for a particular author but absolutely not OK for another.   I think you, the agent, always have to be there for your clients, celebrating the successes and guiding them through the disappointments.   You learn a lot about their personal lives as time goes on, what matters to them, and you keep in touch as much as possible, listen a lot too.    It`s also about making sure the author is with the right editor or publishing house so that relationships are as solid as they can be.  The author comes first and he or she needs to know that, to feel it.   After all, without authors the agent has no business and there is no publishing industry.   

Do you have a particular moment that stands out as the highlight of your career?

I don`t have one High or one particular Low either really.     In 43 years there has been a roller coaster of highs and lows, as I imagine there has been for anyone who has stayed the course that long.    Selling my first book was a definite `Yes! I love this job` moment!   I remember once being so angry I was shaking when a client thought we should have paid him money which wasn`t due – having accused me of hanging on to his money he said he wouldn`t leave my office until I handed a cheque to him.   I handed him his cheque.  There followed a parting of the ways, as you might imagine!

From the start of your career until your retirement, how do you feel the publishing landscape changed?

What was really a cottage industry when I joined has now become dominated by corporate publishers over a period of time. So many of the reputable and influential publishers of decades ago are now just imprints of one of the conglomerates and, while that might mean a better marketing budget or a bigger sales force, it also means much less editorial freedom.  It means publishing by committee.   But the independent houses which remain are still out there, new ones appearing from time to time too, and they publish some fabulously unusual books just because they believe in them, not because the boxes have been ticked.   Literary passion, creativity and making money are all component parts of publishing.

What it was like being a woman (alongside another woman) running an agency, and did that change over the years?  

It was certainly unusual, but we didn`t allow anyone to make any capitol out of it and we had only one potential male client who said, after consideration, he simply couldn`t see himself being represented by a woman.    I think it was thought we`d perhaps do things differently from men, but in fact we didn`t and that meant anyone dealing with us could expect the norms of the day.  We were just as tough on late payments, negotiating or legal problems as any man would have been and we always had a distinct feminist attitude around the office.  Incoming male staff soon learned that one!  But things have changed a lot over the years and I doubt anyone gives this kind of subject much thought at all in today`s publishing world, which is still a very civilized place to work.

What is the best piece of advice that you would give to an author?

Read, read, read.     You simply cannot read too much, either of the kind of book you want to write or the background books you don`t know you need – yet!

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