James Wills at the HWS May 13th 2014

Report by David Eadsforth

Gary Farnell opened the meeting and explained that Barbara Large, who would normally manage proceedings, was absent on family business. Gary explained that tonight had a particularly full agenda. First, there would be a number of HWS announcements, to be followed by His Worship the Mayor of Winchester, who would provide an outline of his work during his term of office, which was due to end shortly. Then James Wills, of Watson Little, would talk about why a literary agent was still needed in the digital age, and finally the results of the monthly competition would be announced.

HWS Announcements

First, an award had to be presented to Rebecca Laurence for her poem “Fossils” , as Rebecca had been absent on the night in question. Then Cat Randall, chair of “Big Up Words” announced that a poetry festival would be held on the 24th May in Romsey. Cat explained that there would be 100 prizes of volumes of Slam Poetry and a reading by Teapot Percolator. She also gave initial notice of a Youth Anthology event which is planned to take place in Andover. Further details would be found on the site: http://www.bigupwords.co.uk

Celia Leofsy announced her debut novel “The Company of Goblins”. Celia thanked Jenny Knowles of Little Knoll Press for having made this possible. Against a projected image of a book cover drawn by 11 year old Emily, Celia explained that this book was the first of a trilogy featuring twelve-year old Izzy Green, who battles against the ambitions of the goblins who want to take over the world. Celia has drawn on Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythology in the creation of the story and the book launch will take place at Waterstones at West Quay, Southampton on the 12thJune between 17.00 and 19.00.

Anne Sherry announced the availability of her book “Safe Passage”, the writing of which has dominated her life for the last two years. Anne was prompted to write the book after facing the problem of what to do with her huge cache of travel journals, and in going through these she rediscovered a lost world. “Safe Passage” is Anne’s story, which she subtitles “The Human Face of Dementia”. Anne self-published, which had high costs in both money and time, but this enabled her to maintain the level of control she wanted. Alzheimer’s Research UK encouraged Anne to continue with self-publishing when the going got tough and helped with publicity.

James Wills, Literary Agent, Watson Little and the Right Worshipful the Mayor and Mayoress of Winchester, Cllr Ernie Jeffs and Mrs Barbara Jeffs.
James Wills, Literary Agent, Watson Little and the Right Worshipful the Mayor and Mayoress of Winchester, Cllr Ernie Jeffs and Mrs Barbara Jeffs.

Gary then introduced Cllr Ernie Jeffs, the Right Worshipful the Mayor of Winchester, and revealed that Winchester had the second oldest Mayoralty in England.

Cllr Ernie Jeffs started by answering the question in everyone’s minds; the oldest mayoralty in England was, of course, London. Cllr Jeffs recounted how he had attended the Winchester Writers Conference of 2013, and had been most impressed by the advice that Julian Fellowes had had to offer. He also noted that Barbara Large had run the conference for 33 years before handing over, and hoped that 2014 would go well.

As a result of praiseworthy research, we now have a list of the mayors of Winchester from the year 1200, he was the 814th, and was very proud to have been elected to the office. The Mayor has the use of a house in Winchester, one which has neither bedroom nor bathroom, and is used mostly for meetings. However, Cllr Jeffs was very keen for the public to use it as well as the city officials. The house was built on the site of an abbey founded by the wife of Alfred the Great and existed until the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. In 1889, Winchester City Council bought the house for £5,500, and its use is now largely ceremonial.

The duties of the mayor are considerable, and can involve up to 500 events per year. Over the Christmas period, he attended 22 carol services and 5 nativity plays. Regarding the latter, he had been advised to attend the dress rehearsals, the parents’ evenings generally being prone to descend into chaos, and so he did, although at one of these Baby Jesus was continually dropped on the ground by a somewhat maternally-inexperienced Virgin Mary. He had also led support for a number of charities; Help for Heroes, the Countess Mountbatten Charity, and the Scouts of Winchester. The last event he would attend would be a concert to be held at St. Swithuns at 19.00 on the 24th of May (to be preceded by a picnic) and for which tickets were widely available.

Referring to Winchester’s place in the literary world, Cllr Jeffs mentioned Jane Austen, who spent her final time in Winchester before her premature death, and who now has a splendid memorial in Winchester Cathedral. Thomas Hardy mentions Winchester in “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and was reputed to have based his heroine on Mrs Hamo Thornycroft, the wife of the sculptor of Alfred’s statue in Winchester. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also wrote three stories in Winchester. And of course the Winchester Bible, now conserved in the cathedral, is Winchester’s oldest book, having been created between 1160 and 1175.

The Right Worshipful the Mayor and Mayoress of Winchester, Cllr Ernie Jeffs and Mrs Barbara Jeffs
The Right Worshipful the Mayor and Mayoress of Winchester, Cllr Ernie Jeffs and Mrs Barbara Jeffs

Two books about Winchester have impressed Cllr Jeffs: “The Bloody History of Winchester” the launch of which he hosted in December 2013, and “Time Gentlemen Please” about Winchester pubs. Cllr Jeffs admits he was “rubbish” at English at school, preferring maths and science, and eventually becoming an engineer. However, as an engineer he had to write proposals and reports, and frequently had to correct those of others. Cllr Jeffs ended by thanking the University for its support of the HWS and said again what a huge privilege it had been to be Mayor of Winchester.

James Wills then took the stage and launched into his talk on “Do I need an agent in the Digital Age”. His immediate answer to this, surprisingly perhaps, was ‘no’. Do we wrap up now? he asked the members. However, he then went on to ask the members how many possessed electronic readers, and also took a rough poll of those who wrote fiction and those who wrote non-fiction. Twenty years ago, self-publishing used to be termed ‘vanity publishing’ but this was no longer the case. So, do you need an agent today? After all, the agent often seems to be a gatekeeper, all too often preventing your book being published. James then made the all-important point; do you, as an author want to write or do you have to write? There is a huge difference in mentality between these two groups of authors, and he is interested in the 25% or so who simply have to write. So, when it comes to the question of how writers get an agent to represent them, a big part of it is to realise that the agent wants to do more than simply push an author’s book to publishers; the agent wants to help the passionate.

Career management of the thoroughly committed is the ultimate aim of the agent. If an author can transmit the passion for his work to the agent, then the agent in turn can transmit that passion to the publisher, and the commissioning editor can in turn transmit that passion to the Acquisition Meeting. Editors now have accountants and marketing people to contend with; the book is no longer the end of the debate, possibilities are now the emphasis – possible film, TV, and theatre, and project momentum is the key. Most authors will not be an all-rounder – there are very few like Stephen Fry (although Stephen Fry does have an agent…) – most authors should be allowed to get on with what they do best: write.

Becoming a good writer depends for a great part on being a good reader. You, as a writer, should read as much as you can. Even though you might wish to ‘do something new’ you have to know the rules before you can break them; all too often the ‘great new idea’ painstaking developed by an author will turn out to have been done before; possibly many times. You will not be contaminated by reading: you must want to learn. If you want to write children’s stories then buy some and see how others achieve their effect. Research! Talk to people! Successful authors actively monitor and absorb the trends.

Regarding the approach to be made to an agent, if you do not plan this sufficiently you are very likely to suffer a rebuff. Watson Little handles a very wide range of subjects, and it is important that you find the correct agent for your book. When making an approach, avoid doing, or stating, anything that might put off the agent. Be concise, professional, and passionate. The slush pile can also be the talent pool, but you have to do what is necessary to float to the surface. In short, an agent wants to manage the career of their charge, in good times and in bad, so you have to be worth managing.

A question and answer session was then conducted with James answering quick-fire questions from the members to finish. Please see the separate blog for James’ question and answers.

Gary thanked James for his fascinating and very useful talk and then handed over to Jim Livesey for the competition results.

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