Mel Sherratt in conversation with Sarah O'Halloran

Sarah O'Halloran, Literary Agent
Sarah O'Halloran is starting as a Literary Agent at the Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency this August. I asked her a few questions about her role and also what she likes to read : 

Hi Sarah. Can you tell me what you look for in a manuscript?

Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction the first thing I look for in a manuscript is a strong, unique voice and stylish, distinctive writing. But of course an engaging plot is essential! I also have a fondness for dark themes and unlikeable characters.

What is your favourite read this year?

There have been so many impressive debuts this year but I’m going to chose HERE ARE THE YOUNG MEN by the incredibly talented Irish author Rob Doyle. It’s a dark, provocative and violent portrait of a lost generation of disillusioned young men and I can’t recommend it enough. 

How/why did you want to be an agent?

Being an agent gives you the opportunity to champion books and authors you’re passionate about which is a real privilege. Publishing can sometimes seem opaque and exclusive and it’s very satisfying to be able to help an author navigate the industry.

What's your perfect pitch look like?

I look for a professional and concise pitch. If an author can convey the essence of their book in a few sentences, that’s wonderful. It’s also really important that the author has thought about where their book sits in the market as well as what makes their book stand out from the crowd. It’s hard, though, to write a pitch letter so I try not to be too judgemental!

What do you see as the next big thing?

This is always such a hard question but there has been a lot of wonderful narrative non-fiction published recently. Books such as DO NO HARM by Henry Marsh, THE EXAMINED LIFE by Stephen Grosz and H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald have opened up non-fiction to a new audience and I think it’s a very exciting time to be representing non-fiction authors. 

What is your favourite genre to read? and to sell?

I love reading upmarket commercial and accessible literary fiction with real ambition. Some of my favourite books of the last couple of years include STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel, ASTONISH ME by Maggie Shipstead, THE INTERESTINGS by Meg Wolitzer and WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES by Karen Joy Fowler. It’s always a particular pleasure to sell children’s and YA titles as there are so many innovative and talented editors working in children’s books at the moment. 

What qualities does an agent need?

Obviously you need to be hard-working and a passionate reader, but more importantly you need to know the market well and to have both a strong editorial and commercial eye. You also need to genuinely enjoy talking to people and networking so that you know exactly where best to submit your clients’ work.
How has the role of an agent changed over the past few years?

It seems to me that agents are more involved than ever in helping their authors publicise and package themselves and their work. Agents are also doing more editorial work with their authors in order to give them the best chance of securing a publishing deal in a busy market. There is also, I think, an increasing awareness of the importance of properly exploiting subsidiary rights such as translation rights and film and TV rights which are an essential part of an author’s income.  

Who's the author whose book you wait for and buy as soon as it's published?

I’m a big fan of the Dutch author Herman Koch, the author of THE DINNER and SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL, who handles the unreliable narrator so skilfully and whose books are populated by casts of flawed and unpleasant characters. I love the way he uncovers the violence simmering beneath the surface of middle-class family life. His stories are so compelling I know that if I take one of his books on holiday I won’t be disappointed!  

Sarah began her career with the agent Norman North at The Agency, before going on to work at Curtis Brown and The Marsh Agency. She spent three years working as a literary scout at Louise Allen-Jones Associates before joining Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency in 2015 as an agent representing fiction, non-fiction and children's and YA authors. Sarah has a BA in History from the LSE and an MA in Literature from UCD.   


Are you a debut crime writer? Would you like the chance to receive a personal critique from agent Madeleine Milburn? If so, find out more here.

I am really excited to be taking part in BritCrime this weekend. I shall be on a panel 'This is Personal' at 14.00 Saturday, along with fellow crime authors Steve Cavanagh and Paul Finch. You can find out more here

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