Updated: May 17, 2021
In this article, Francesca Tyer interviews literary agent and author Peter Buckman, discussing his early employment, his writing journey, and his career as an agent at The Ampersand Agency.
(image provided by The Ampersand Agency)
The following interview with Peter Buckman was conducted via Zoom. Our conversation commenced with a discussion about how his writing and publishing career began.
'I always wanted to be a writer,” Peter begins, 'because it seemed to be the one profession where you could do what you wanted, dress how you wanted, get up when you wanted and nobody could tell you what to do. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write but I kept notes on all my thoughts and feelings. Friends were wary of me even when I was a teenager because I carried a little notebook around.'
Despite warnings about a career in the publishing industry, Peter explains his decision to ignore the advice he was given and try it anyway.
'When I was at university, I was still keen to be a writer but I had to support myself. I asked anyone I knew who was a writer what I should do to earn a living. They told me to avoid publishing because it can commercialise your instincts. Acting on advice that my father gave me – which was to take the best advice you can and then do the opposite – I immediately applied for jobs in publishing. I got a job at Penguin in the copyediting department and they later put me on the editorial board.'
At the age of twenty-two, Peter was sent to America on a fact-finding mission. He speaks about this trip and how the outcome wasn’t quite as expected.
'I was meant to find out how and why Penguin America (Penguin Inc) wasn't doing as well as its rival. I was about twenty-two and I had no idea how to find out except to ask people. I had a list of people to call and I started asking questions. Within half an hour of me leaving the first interview, the guy I had just been talking to was on the phone to the head of Penguin Ink saying, "Who is this schoolboy asking these questions?" This so embarrassed my boss, he was the chief editor, that he fired me.'
(Image from Unplash)
Now jobless in New York, Peter had to find new work which he quickly did, securing himself an editorial position at the New American Library.
'There I was in America, with enough clothes for a fortnight and no job,' Peter recalls. 'Luckily, I thought New York was terrific and I passed around and I got myself a job. The New American Library was then the equivalent of Penguin. I had a marvelous year as editor until they tried to draft me for the Vietnam war because I had a green card. I had to decide whether to go to Vietnam or to go home and I went home.'
Following his return from America, Peter decided to give writing a proper chance. From book reviews to novels, he began to develop his writing career.
'I made a bit of a living writing book reviews and I did some scouting for American publishers. I also wrote a nonfiction book on the protest movement of the late 60s – it’s the most boring book ever written. I then managed to go on being a full-time writer for years. I wrote half a dozen books and scripts for radio, television, film and theatre. I basically wrote everything except greetings cards.'
Years of writing experience eventually led Peter on to explore an area of publishing he hadn't yet tried – literary agenting.
'When I hit my 60s, commissions started drying up,' Peter explains. 'The people who commissioned wanted their own generation of writers. My wife has been an agent for 40-50 years, selling foreign rights, and she encouraged me to set up as an agent. I had lunch with a veteran agent who I had known for a while, Peter Janson-Smith, and in 2003 we set up The Ampersand Agency.'
(Image from Unplash)
With his previous publishing experience, Peter had an idea of how writers would want to be treated. The first novel the agency took on was one that swiftly became a bestseller.
'The first book I picked up started with the sentence – I had just been arrested for winning the TV quiz show – and I thought it was a cracking opening. I read the first chapter and rang the guy up and asked to see the rest. He said, "that's all I've written", and I said, "you are going to finish it, aren't you?" He said, "I’ve got to go back to India in three weeks to work in the Foreign Office", so I said, "you’d best get on with it". He did finish the book in those three weeks. Within six weeks, I got him a two-book deal for 100 grand as a debut author. That book turned into Slumdog Millionaire.'
When asked about the most surprising aspect of being a literary agent, Peter returns to the success of Vikas Swarup's Slumdog Millionaire.
'It's surprising and encouraging when something extraordinary happens, as it did with Slumdog. I was reluctant to sell the film rights before the book had been published, but Film 4 made me an offer I couldn't refuse. Its huge success surprised and delighted us all. Agents are optimists who want to see an undiscovered gem turn into a huge hit. That's what makes the business so exciting, and such a pleasure to work in.'
The success of The Ampersand Agency has continued. Peter speaks further about its positive track record and of how selective the publishing and agenting industries can be.
'This is our 18th year and we've got about 70-80 authors,' he begins. 'We get at least 5000 submissions a year, so you can see how infinitesimally small the final selection is. I think it is so easy to send a manuscript but if writers haven't taken the trouble to research the agent, they're not going to get much sympathetic attention. However, standards can be remarkable and even in these uncertain times, you get somebody who can really tell a story. The standard is always elastic, with some good and an awful lot of bad, but occasionally you pick up a gem.'
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The industry isn't just selective, but subjective, as Peter goes on to explain. With manuscripts submitted to the agency every day, Peter and his colleagues, Jamie Cowen and Anne-Marie, make continual decisions about story quality.
'What appeals to the three of us is a totally subjective judgement which is what new writers should remember. Of course it hurts to be rejected but what appeals to me may not appeal to my colleagues. If it appeals to me, if I'm enthused by it, I can genuinely try and enthuse others. What you can't do as an agent, and what authors find hard to understand, is that if you've got a client and you love their first book and they then write something which doesn't work, you have to tell them.'
While being a literary agent has its challenges, there are many pleasures which Peter also discusses.
'What I enjoy most is finding something that really excites me and somebody who can write in a way that I, with my writer's hat on, couldn’t begin to understand how they got there. I think the pleasure is finding a writer who's got their own voice and their own way of telling a story and helping them make that voice the clearest and the best it can possibly be. The relationship between author and agent is very close and you have to be honest and offer unstinting support as well as encouragement. You also have to give the benefit of experience.'
Having worked in the publishing industry for around sixty years, Peter has read hundreds of books, both good and bad. He offers his advice on what makes a good story in his eyes.
'A good book is a story that involves you and intrigues you from the very first line and has characters that you can understand. The narrative voice, that distinctive tone, always stands out. Being surprised, having your expectations overturned. The most surprising thing is what doesn't work. People always ask what agents are looking for. I always say don't think like that because nobody knows what the market is or how it works. If you try to repeat something that's popular, the market will have moved on by the time you’ve finished it.'
The close relationship between author and agent must be maintained, as must the connection between authors and their publishers.
'Candour is vital with a publisher and they appreciate it if the point is well made,' Peter explains. 'Authors have to understand the publishing is a kind of cottage industry and you have to appreciate it because that's its limitation. Timing is as important as talent; it's important that people realise that. I don't like writers who refuse to take advice, but they're entitled to do that. I tell all my authors that it's their name on the cover and they should trust their Instincts because that's an important part of writing. Our job is to fight the writer's corner. If a publisher has put forward a cover that is absurd, it's our job to try and change the publishers mind.'
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As an author and an agent, Peter has experienced both sides of the industry. While the bulk of his experience lies in traditional publishing, he also speaks about the benefits and drawbacks of self-publishing.
'I think it's a terrible shame that writers have to do so much self-promotion,' he begins. 'The advantage of traditional publishers is that they know where books will fit, they are on top of the marketing and they understand metadata. The advantage of self-publishing is that it doesn't cost you. Amazon has a lot to answer for but they do make it possible for you to get your book out there. This is an opportunity, however difficult it is to make people aware of your book.You have to think of clever ways of drawing attention to yourself and push hard to motivate yourself.'
The divide between self-publishing and traditional publishing isn’t as wide as it once was, but authors often have to decide which route is best for them. Peter speaks about the reasons behind his own decision to self-publish his latest novel, Breaking Cover.
'I didn't want to upstage my own list of authors by getting myself a deal better than what I might have got them. I will also be eighty this year and I don't want to hang around waiting for editors to say no. There’s a lot of pain in self publishing and a very small amount of pleasure. I think the pain comes from relentlessly having to self promote yourself.
'I've started writing a new book and am having enormous fun. I think I finally found a voice and a way of telling stories that, if I'd found earlier I would, I hope, have been a best-selling author. I shall try the new book on publishers because self-publishing is a real grind unless you’ve got a series going and have a loyal following. You have to make your mark on Amazon and if you can give that to a publisher, it makes life easier. Writing is hard enough without doing the marketing and promotion!'
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Writing a novel comes with both pain and pleasure. The relentless see-sawing between the two is a battle most authors contend with during their careers.
'I like writing most when it goes well, which is hardly a surprise,' Peter concludes. 'When it goes well, it takes off in directions I hadn't even suspected. When it really soars you’re almost not in control, just desperately holding on and hoping that you're not going to crash. This happens often enough to make writing more of a pleasure than a pain.
'When it doesn't work, there’s absolutely nothing you can do. The best advice is to try and keep going. If you've got something at least, that’s fibre to your digestive system. You've got to keep going but if you come to the point when you think 'this is just awful, I'll never write again', you have to distance yourself. The worst part about writing is just sitting there pushing and pushing when absolutely nothing is happening. It's worth making notes on the good times just to look back on.'
With many thanks to Peter Buckman for agreeing to this interview