Meet Agent Sally Harding

- by Dara Girard

SH, Cooke, Jan 09Tell us about your agency and yourself.

The Cooke Agency is a long-established and highly respected company with offices in Toronto and Vancouver. We have just launched a new company called The Cooke Agency International, which specializes in selling foreign rights. To find out more about us, do visit us at http://www.cookeagency.ca/.

I’m in the Vancouver office, so not only do I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, I get to play in a lot of time zones. I get to my desk around 7:30 a.m. so I can talk to Europe before they go home, then I check in with the North American east coast, then the LA film people come to life, and finally the Australians are ready to talk at the very end of my day. It used to be that an agent had to be in a major publishing centre. Not anymore. With the technology now available, and affordable flights, it has become very easy to stay in touch with the decision-makers an agent needs to know.

What kind of book grabs your attention and makes you consider wanting to submit it?

Whether you ask this question of agents or editors, there are three phrases you’ll get in response. They are vastly over-used, because they’re true. What grabs our attention is great story-telling, a fresh take, an original voice. These are key, because they are the elements that excite readers. I’ll add three more factors that I look for: intelligence, edginess, authenticity. I particularly warm to stories that provide insights into our humanness. That takes a smart writer. I am energized by stories that push at the edges of the genre, and take me into unfamiliar territory. I engage with stories told with an honesty that can only come from the heart of the storyteller.

What makes a writer a good choice for you?

I work for the writer, so first I need to determine what the author wants to achieve. Then the two of us need to decide whether we’re a good fit.

How much input do you expect to have on a client’s work?

I provide feedback on the ms as a thoughtful first reader, sometimes with quite detailed notes, sometimes with more general comments, and I can provide market perspective. But their creative excitement and the vision they share with their editor should be nurtured, not interrupted.

Do you consider yourself a career-builder?  Can you give an example?

We build careers in several ways. First, a writer’s career is built on the success their books, and we always ask ourselves, “What’s best for the book?” Second, we maintain a dialogue with the publisher as the publishing cycle proceeds, so that they know we’re paying attention and that we expect them to do the same. Third, at The Cooke Agency, we work as a team, so our clients don’t have just one person thinking strategically about their career, but several.

Fourth, we attend the major book fairs to sell our authors books to international publishers. We work to get our clients published in as many territories as possible. Fifth, we keep in touch with organizers of writers’ festivals and conferences, and talk up our authors’ work at every opportunity. These elements build name recognition for our clients, and enthusiasm for their work. That builds careers.

What is the biggest mistake you think writers today typically make in the genres you represent?

It is enormously tempting for a writer to try to write like someone else – someone whose work they admire, whose stories they love; someone who has made the NYT list. They shouldn’t be fooled by the industry marketing practice of comparing the work of lesser-known writers with big-name authors. A writer has to find their own story to tell, in their own voice.

How do you advise clients who want to venture into new genres or make a departure from their published works?

You may be doing this with your eye on the market, but make sure you have your heart in the work. Also, if it is possible, see if there is a way to maintain your core readership while exploring that new territory.

What kind of support do you offer clients who may have temporary difficulties in producing work?

This depends entirely on what the client finds helpful. What do they feel they need to overcome this difficulty?

How would you prefer to be approached by established writers looking for new representation?

I value honesty very highly, so I appreciate it when a prospective client tells me exactly how their career has been going, what successes they’ve had, but also what has not worked as well as they hoped. Then we can have a really worthwhile conversation about how we could move forward together.

What questions do you wish writers would ask you before becoming clients?

I don’t have an answer for this, because I’m very open with writers who are considering whether to come on board. They ask away, and I tell them everything I can think of! There shouldn’t be any unasked questions when they’re making such an important decision.

TCA revLogoHow would you handle a new mid-career client?

We would develop a strategy with them, but what that looks like varies depending on what the client wants to achieve. But generally speaking, I work with the client, and with their publisher, to figure out what the next best steps are. To be published well and successfully takes a team, so I tend to look at how that team has been working, and whether it needs to be strengthened or changed.

How have you seen the expanding e-book market working for your clients?

It is another way of making their work accessible and affordable. This is a good thing. But inevitably it comes with concerns about lower price points and reduced royalties.

Do you accept electronic submissions?

Yes. Guidelines are on our website (www.cookeagency.ca).

Is there anything else you would like to say?

Thank you for inviting me. This has been a lovely opportunity to tell your readers a bit about myself and The Cooke Agency.

2 comments

  1. Thank you for the blog today, Sally.
    It’s wonderful for writers to get a glimpse into the work of a successful agent and to understand how you fill your day. I think we tend to forget that you have so many clients you represent, whereas authors have only one writer they worry about…and we all know who that is!!! LOL

  2. Hey Sally, I want to thank you for answering some of the questions I never had the guts…lol…to ask you at the Naniamo workshop in September. Yeah, yeah…I’m one of those darn newbies that laughs when I feel nervous, as literary agents of your calibre are like “Yee gods” to me. Best of luck in your career!