Perilous Adventures
line decor
line decor


sponsored by

Olvar Wood Writers Retreat


Pippa Masson - Literary Agent

by Janene Carey

Pippa MassonWithout an agent, your chances of being tapped on the shoulder for a book deal are estimated at three in a thousand. Literary agents broker deals between writers and publishers, filtering out the dross and sending only the best prospects through. They are “the baleen to the publishing industry’s whale”, as agent Nathan Bransford puts it.

I’m close to finishing my first book when the New England Writers’ Centre advertises a workshop with Pippa Masson from Curtis Brown. I sign up eagerly but then realise, as the day approaches, that I won’t be able to make it. So I slap on my journalist’s hat and arrange to interview her instead, hoping to gather inside information about what agents do and how to capture one.

A little background reading uncovers some dismal facts. Unlike aspiring authors, literary agents are thin on the ground in Australia and can afford to be selective. The Australian Literary Agents’ Association consists of 14 agencies, most employing one or two people. Curtis Brown is the largest with five agents. Many publishing houses will not consider work from an unknown writer unless it has passed through the hands of an agent.  But an agent is unlikely to take you on unless you are already published, or have won a prize, or are inherently marketable. From the perspective of a supplicant, literary agents are gatekeepers, people with the power to determine whose words will appear in bookshops and whose will languish in a bottom drawer, unread. My mental image is of somebody formidable, probably clothed entirely in black.

Pippa Masson is 28, fresh-faced and glossy-haired. When I meet her she is wearing a floral frock. Perhaps she dresses more severely for the office. Today she is back in Armidale, where she grew up. After speaking to me she is going shopping with her mother. Being the daughter of Sophie Masson, a well-established author of young adult fiction, helped considerably when Pippa decided, soon after finishing Year 12, that she wanted to be involved in publishing.

“Publishing is one of those businesses where it’s about who you know,” Pippa explains, smiling.

“But remember, there was also that work experience you did in Year 10? With Anna McFarlane, at Harper Collins. It wasn’t just who you knew,” her mother interjects. “I was publishing with them at the time,” Sophie tells me. “Anna remembered how good Philippa had been. How on top of things she was, how motivated. She proved herself once she got in the door.”

Pippa landed a position as assistant to the managing director of Curtis Brown, where Anna McFarlane’s husband, writer Garth Nix, was employed as a literary agent. She’s been at Curtis Brown for nine years, and has a list of 90 clients, including Nick Earls, Scot Gardner, James Phelan, Matt Nable, Freya Blackwood and Libby Gleeson.

I ask Pippa what she considers the most important characteristic of a literary agent. I’d been assuming it would be highly developed critical faculties, honed by years of university training. But it seems the job is predominantly about people skills.

“It’s important to have a good knowledge of literature, but it’s also important to be good at gauging people,” Pippa says. “You have to enjoy being the person in the middle, deflecting and diffusing situations, because that’s a big part of what we do. And I think you have to be bubbly and personable. You have to be persistent. Sometimes you really have to push people to buy books, or to write them. I think diplomacy is one of the biggest skills you need.”

I realise I haven’t paid enough attention to the second word in the job title. Literary agents, like real estate agents and travel agents, are intermediaries. Being able to charm the buyers and the sellers is at least as important as having good product knowledge. And, because literary agents work on a commission basis, it pays for them to devote most of their time to proven performers. Placing work overseas, canvassing options for film, audio, serial and electronic rights, overseeing advances and royalties, advising on the commercial viability of future projects – these are all tasks performed by literary agents subsequent to the initial sale. Passing judgement on the literary merits of the slush pile is not the main focus.

“There are so many people wanting to write,” Pippa says. “For a while, maybe a year ago, a lot of agencies closed their books. They couldn’t cope with the workload. And it is a struggle. Our priority is our existing clients and we already have so much to do, looking after them. But I think it is part of our role to be there. So we’ve always kept our books open.”

For several years now, Pippa has been educating the masses of wannabes about literary agents. She talks at writers’ festivals and writers’ centres around the country, answering questions, explaining the elements of a proposal, giving people advice on how to pitch their work to an agent or publisher.

“It’s difficult for people to get in the door. So I feel it’s part of our duty to inform people about what we do, and provide them with some tools that can make getting in the door a bit easier. It’s also public relations for Curtis Brown. And I have found other people through doing talks like this.”

Submission guidelines on the Curtis Brown web site advise that they ‘prefer to see only a short synopsis (2-3 pages), the first chapter and two other chapters’. They also advise that the covering letter should include ‘any pertinent biographical information, such as former publications or any special knowledge or experience that is relevant to the book’.

I comment that the content of the synopsis is left unspecified. What, apart from obvious things like the title of the work and its genre, should be in it?

“It’s a piece to get someone intrigued,” responds Pippa. “So you aren’t telling the whole story but you do have to give a very brief overview of what the story might be. You want someone to read it and think, this sounds really interesting, I want to read on.” She stresses that at this stage, the biographical information in the covering letter should relate to your credentials as a writer.

“We’re after a relevant history – if you’ve won an award, or if you’ve published short stories. We don’t want a potted history of your life.”

Further down the track, more personal details may become relevant. One of the imperatives of modern publishing is that both the book and the author are packaged for public consumption. The writer’s contribution is not over when the final touches on the manuscript are complete; media interviews, writers’ festivals and readings are all part of the deal.  Paradoxically, this involves taking a writer, frequently a shy type who does their finest work on a page, and hoisting him or her onto a stage to perform in order to boost sales.

“There has to be a story behind the story,” says Pippa. “People want to know about the writer. Even when we’re pitching to a publisher, we have to look at how marketable the person is. Which can seem a bit vacuous at times, but it has to be done.”

She cites novelist Nick Earls as someone who has publicity down to a fine art. “Nick is one of the best public speakers. But he has been doing it for 15 years. And he has a lot of pre-prepared talks and he’s super-organised. And he’s funny as well, so that helps. But he still gets shy and nervous. He says he feels a bit sick, sometimes.”

“You need shy,” suggests Sophie Masson, a veteran of more than fifty book promotions. “It’s like an actor on the stage. If you don’t feel like that, you’re probably not going to give a good talk. Sometimes I think, ‘Oh, my throat is going to seize up and I’m not going to be able to do it. Something terribly embarrassing is going to happen and I’ll just have to run away!’”

We all laugh. I ask whether agents provide their first-time authors with training in public speaking. Surprisingly, it seems the answer is no, unless the story is controversial or particularly personal. Then, says Pippa, the publisher might offer some media training.

I have found one of Pippa’s seminars about literary agents on the Australian Society of Authors web site, and I point to the bit where she mentions that agents ‘support authors at launches, events and public talks’. I ask whether this amounts to just coming along and ensuring that they have a glass of water?

“Pretty much,” she says. “Or a glass of wine! And being there, so they have a friend in the audience.”

I come away from the interview having made several useful discoveries. Although they might reject you as a client, literary agents are fundamentally nice people, not dragons guarding a portal. Good contacts, backed by talent, can take you a long way in publishing.

And aspiring authors should join a public speaking group and start practising. Just in case.

Author Interviews

Susan Johnson interviewed by Sandra Hogan (Issue 11:01)

Krissy Kneen interviewed by n a bourke (Issue 09:05)

Steven Lang interviewed by n a bourke (issue 09:04)

Pippa Masson interviewed by Janene Carey (10:02)

Lisa Unger interviewed by Inga Simpson (10:01)

Charlotte Wood interviewed by Sandra Hogan (11:02)


Janene CareyAbout the Author

Janene Carey is completing a creative writing PhD on home-based palliative care and ethical life writing. She is a part-time journalist with The Armidale Express and her work has also been published in The Sydney Morning Herald, TEXT, Idiom 23 and Re-Placement, the 2008 AAWP national anthology of creative writing from universities across Australia. She was shortlisted for the 2010 Calibre Prize, a major Australian non-fiction writing award, and her essay will be published by Australian Book Review later this year. Her blog, In Medias Res, can be found at

issue 10:02 | archives by category | archives by author

Site by Olvar Wood