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Making waves for WOC in the literary industry


THERE’S A look in Emma Paterson’s eyes that lets you know she’s serious about her business and given the dearth of BME women that work as an agent in the book industry maybe it’s no surprise. Paterson has worked hard to reach to where she is today.

A true inspiration to anyone who harbours similar ambition, talking to Life and Style the Londoner explained a bit about her pursuit of a vocation in which few people look like she does.

“I flirted with the idea of trying to become an academic,” Paterson says honestly.
“So I graduated (with a degree in English) and then I took a year out, went back and did a MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

“I did an MA in gender studies and at the end of that I considered applying for a PHD which I didn’t end up doing but around that time I ended up applying for a job in academic publishing which seemed like a good first step combining working with academic books and working with books, those two things interested me.

“I did that for about 18 months but it was quite different to what I had hoped it would be. I was an editorial assistant but I wasn’t working in areas that I found interesting. I was working on nursing, health and social work, so I became quite restless after about a year and decided I wanted to work in publishing but work with fiction.”

Paterson says the fact that the culture of the industry lends itself to inherent nepotism, consciously and otherwise, is one of the reasons there aren’t many black people operating in the space.

“I wanted to work in editorial still, but I wanted to work with novels. I found it really hard to find even an entry-level role. I was willing to start again from zero and work my way up but I wasn’t getting any interviews and I was applying for lots of jobs but there isn’t that many jobs going, not many jobs are advertised.”

She continued: “Lots of jobs are internally shared when you’re in the industry so it’s hard to find the jobs and then it’s even harder to get a foot in the door and secure an interview.

“And then, I did see an advert for a job as an agents assistant at a literacy agency. I didn’t really know what a literary agency was but I had a sense it was kind of like a music manager or a sports agent and I looked at the client list and thought, well, I love all of the clients on the list and it felt like I was moving in the right direction.”

Securing the role at The Wylie Agency (after three months as she didn’t get it on the first interview) meant Paterson was able to crack on with cutting her teeth. “It wasn’t until I started working there that I got to see what it actually meant because until you start, unless someone is actively talking to you about what it means to work in an agency, it’s quite mysterious.

“I think that you assume its just a lot of reading but there is a huge amount to take in. A lot of it is about having your business savvy, understanding contracts, lots and lots of relationship management and all of that stuff you don’t really have a clue about until you’re sitting at your desk.”

Paterson spent three years at Wylie Agency before moving onto Rogers, Coloridge & White. She took the role on the premise that she would quite quickly be able to represents authors of her own.

“I took on my first two clients together after months of having long conversations with them, both fiction writers and it felt good,” Paterson reflects. She managed to sell both books for the respective writers in 2015 and 2016.

Understanding it isn’t easy to get into the position she’s in Paterson has some great advice for would be agents. “It can be frustrating but the longer you can shadow and watch really experienced people the better you are going to be.

“It’s a really difficult job, I’m not saying its even more difficult than working in A&E but there is a lot to grasp. Even people in their fifties and sixties are still encountering new problems to resolve as literary agents. So I think getting yourself a really good entry level position and just staying in there is really good to do, if you can afford to as they are not paid too much.”

A fully fledged agent with her own clients just two years after taking the role as an assistant Paterson was making a name for herself on the literary scene.

Over the last five years, she has built a list of literary fiction and non-fiction that includes Sharlene Teo, winner of the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writers' Award, Elaine Castillo, Funmi Fetto, Megan Hunter, Chris Power, Ash Sarkar, and Otegha Uwagba.

Her endeavours have won enormous respect across the industry and last year saw her awarded the Bookseller Rising Star of 2018.

She plays the acknowledgment down but her talent was highlighted by her current employers, Aitken Alexander Associates, where she only recently started a new position.

Clare Alexander enthused: "Emma’s proven taste and entrepreneurial skill makes her a perfect fit for us. We enormously look forward to her joining us, and being a participant in our future growth."

To date, Paterson represents 45 writers. Her role beyond the obvious remit can see her selling, for some people, journalism, short stories and handling festival visits.
Looking ahead Paterson says she is quite motivated by some of the projects she is involved with.

“This year I have certain things delivering. Authors I have represented for a while are delivering their first proposals. Funmi Fetto, I think I can make this claim, is going to delver the first ever beauty bible for women of colour published by a mainstream publisher, so that’s rally exciting. That will be published in October of November (2019).

“She’s fantastic and she already has her column at Vogue and is really active in the beauty industry but I think this year her profile is really going to rise.”

It’s clear that Paterson loves what she is doing and while there is an obvious issue with regards to diversity in the profession (an issue she has plans to help address) the autonomy of her day to day offers the opportunity to savour the feel-good factor agents glean from bringing new content to market.

She enthused: “Emma Dabiri will be delving into the political, cultural history of black hair this year, she’s an academic, cultural commentator and presenter and I think it’s going to be a really important book, very different to Fumi’s but in the same way it will be the first book of it’s type that touches on that.

“That’s probably the best thing about being an agent, you can do whatever you want as long as you present it as commercially viable to the right publisher.”

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