he highlight of my year has everything to do with Fiona Smith. Signing with her literary agency, Beyond Words Literary Agency, has been a huge milestone in my writing career. From preparing my manuscript for submission to discussing my author platform and writing goals, Fiona has been instrumental in getting my manuscript read by all the traditional publishers any writer could dream about. One minute I was in the query trenches, doubting my ability and future as a writer, and the next, I was signing an author agreement. Things can happen that quickly! Life has a way of keeping us on our toes and, sometimes, delivering the best surprises.
But when I was in those trenches, I felt so far removed from literary agents. This is why I knew I had to interview Fiona. I wish to break down some of those barriers for others. Sharing what I can gives me great joy.
Without further ado, let me introduce my agent Fiona Smith. She is such a kind and inspiring person. On top of running Beyond Words Literary Agency (BWLA) and representing a string of successful authors, Fiona is also a writing coach, editor, keynote speaker, and published author. Her memoir, My Wild Ride, was published by Allen & Unwin in 2013. Prior to creating BWLA, Fiona had a successful career in sales and marketing at a national level. This experience, coupled with her love for and knowledge of the publishing journey, enables her to place your novel with the right publisher. She has a B.A.E. with an English literature major and lives in far north New South Wales with her two teenagers, two dogs (editing assistants), and her horse, Dusty.
WOW: Hi Fiona, thanks for taking the time for this Q&A. It’s great to be able to interview you. Agents are like priceless paintings—writers want to get near but always feel you are untouchable. Before I signed with you, I gobbled up any agent interviews I could read. Aspiring authors just can’t get enough insight into the other side of that first yes. So, I’m thrilled to be showing readers what it’s like on the other side of a yes. Congratulations on the success of your agency. Let’s start with this: How was Beyond Words Literary Agency born and what made you want to become a literary agent?
Fiona: A good friend, Megan Albany, wrote a book and asked me to read it (knowing that I was already a published author). It was great, and I told her so. She replied with: “Awesome, now can you sell it for me?” She also knew that I had over twenty years’ experience in national sales and marketing. So, I sent the manuscript to a few publishers and a month later had sold it to Hachette. So, I guess I stumbled into the industry!
WOW: It was meant to be! Beyond Words Literary Agency's aim, “To help writers of all genres find the right platform for their stories to be released into the world,” is such an admirable goal. Do you only work with Australian authors; and why is that goal important to you? And what’s Beyond Words Literary Agency about?
Fiona: I work with authors from the US and UK also. Having written my own memoir, I know how much our stories are a part of our hearts, whether they are nonfiction or fiction. I think it’s important to give each story a chance because each one might just change someone else’s life for the good.
WOW: I’m sure there will be a lot of readers happy to hear you work with authors outside of Australia! I love that you understand how personal the stories are that we write. I’ve put my heart and soul into mine and appreciate that you understand what I’m about and the story I’m trying to tell. Beyond Words Literary Agency is currently open to submissions. What kinds of submissions are you accepting, and how can writers/authors submit?
Fiona: I’m currently adjusting my business a little—to now focus more on fiction, rather than nonfiction. I’m also really only after middle grade, young adult (YA), and adult commercial or literary fiction.
To submit, just go to the website and click on the “Submit Now” button on the submissions page. There is also information on the site about how to format your manuscript. I also offer editing if you have not had your manuscript edited yet. This usually needs to be done before I can send it to publishers.
WOW: Yes, that’s exactly how I submitted. Your website is very user-friendly. Do you accept memoir and nonfiction manuscript queries? If so, do you require a book proposal up front?
Fiona: Yes, I accept memoir (narrative nonfiction), but not straight non-fiction.
WOW: Wonderful! I know some talented writers who have written brilliant memoirs. (Hint hint, if you’re reading, you know who you are!) What are you looking for in a query, and what are some things authors should avoid when querying you?
Fiona: I love it when I get an author bio, synopsis, and the full manuscript. This gives me all the info I need without me having to chase it.
It is also helpful if the author puts their phone number at the bottom of the email and on all documents. It’s really frustrating when I have to search for contact details!
WOW: OMG! I never used to put my phone number on my queries. How many queries do you receive in a month, and how many of all your queries turn into BWLT authors per year?
Fiona: I receive eight submissions a month, and on average, I take on one new author per month, so around ten to twelve new authors a year.
“I know how much our stories are a part of our hearts, whether they are nonfiction or fiction. I think it’s important to give each story a chance because each one might just change someone else’s life for the good.”
WOW: Those are pretty good odds. Your author list is impressive. What can a Beyond Words Literary Agency author expect after they get a yes from you?
Fiona: Thanks. Firstly, we sign a contract, appointing me as their agent. Then we finalize synopses and the manuscript if it needs editing. We also finalize the author bio, and they send me a recent headshot to use in submissions. Then we work out a game plan, including who I will send the manuscript to and when. And once the manuscript has been sent, we wait...and wait. (Smile.)
I keep regular contact with all authors. We chat about every two months unless we get a positive response from a publisher. When this happens, I’m on the phone to the author immediately.
WOW: That is an exciting phone call! What are your plans for the future?
Fiona: I hope to just continue what I am doing within Beyond Words Literary Agency. However, I am also about to launch a totally separate self-publishing business. This business sets up your book, including editing, proofreading, typesetting, ISBNs and barcodes, and all upload actions to the Ingram Spark platform. Then the reins are handed over to the author to manage all sales and marketing from there. The author makes 100% of profits.
(I can share more info soon.)
WOW: That sounds like a great option for writers who want to self-publish but need some help with the set-up! Writing coaching/editing/manuscript appraisal is the department of Beyond Words Literary Agency, where authors can pay for support to help develop their skills and their manuscripts. I was one of your editing clients; is this service open to anyone? What type of manuscripts do you prefer to work on?
Fiona: Yes, this is open to anyone with manuscripts of all genres! My favorite is commercial/literary fiction, but I’m really happy to edit anything.
WOW: Let’s go back to where it all began. When I first met you, I was excited to learn that you are also an author. Can you tell everyone about your memoir, My Wild Ride, and any new writing projects?
Fiona: My Wild Ride is my story of beating an aggressive form of leukemia and then going on to achieve my dreams of riding in rodeo and becoming a mum. It was published by Allen & Unwin in 2013.
I have also started writing a novel, loosely based on a true story. That’s all I can say at this point! My editing work keeps me really busy, so I’m not sure when (if!) I will finish it, but I am hopeful of finding some time over this summer. I think that’s everyone’s problem—finding the time to write!
WOW: You are an inspiration! How important is an author platform when you’re considering signing on an author?
Fiona: It’s great if you do have a social media following, but most people don’t have the size following that would entice a publisher to publish their book unless the writing is fantastic anyway. So, the most important thing is to have a polished manuscript. Then you can work on the [fan] following once you get published.
WOW: That’s great to hear. Social media is certainly not for everyone and can take away from writing time. Have you noticed any trends in books/novels as of late or what editors at publishing houses are interested in acquiring?
Fiona: Ahhhh!!! I get asked this often. The truth is...I don’t know. And I suspect that most publishers don’t really know either because I have sent manuscripts that seem to be on trend, and I fail to secure a deal. Then other times, I have secured a deal quickly with something I wasn’t completely sure about. So, go figure.
One thing I do know is that the writing needs to be great. The story needs to be interesting, engaging, and not a “me too” [movement story]. The manuscript also needs to be polished, because publishers are readers just like us, and if they have to wade through mistakes and holes in the plot etc., their mind is taken away from the story. You want them to be turning pages, and loving every minute of it, not trying to work out what’s going on. Hence, I recommend editing.
WOW: We have heard of the trend that the publishing industry wants to see stories of women empowered but not suffering from sexual abuse. I just want to make this clear for our readers. The unpredictability of publishing keeps us all on our toes then! An important part of selling a book to a publisher is having a product they can market. How important is having a publicity hook for your book? What are some tips authors can use to match their manuscript/themes with a newsy angle?
Fiona: Yes, so true! Look at current trends, topics in the media, etc. People love reading things that they can connect with, and this really helps for stories that are set in the current day.
“Writing a book is not easy, even if you have a great story in mind. It takes time to learn to write well, and maybe your first manuscript won’t be the one that sells a million copies. But if you stick at it, you just might.”
WOW: Totally agree. The news is full of inspiration! I’d love to hear about what’s on your wish list—and finally, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Fiona: Hmmm...wish list—an international best seller please!
Haha! I’m just after well-crafted writing or authors who are prepared to put in the work to get there. Commercial fiction and literary fiction, plus memoir, are my favs.
Some advice: As with everything, don’t give up!
This is a hard business but a very rewarding one. Find people who can help you to hone your craft. Writing a book is not easy, even if you have a great story in mind. It takes time to learn to write well, and maybe your first manuscript won’t be the one that sells a million copies. But if you stick at it, you just might. Besides, most of the authors I have met write because they love it (that’s me, too). And if you are spending time doing something you love, you can’t go wrong.
WOW: I feel what you are saying with all my heart. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. It’s been wonderful to learn more about you and how your agency operates.
My thanks to Fiona Smith of Beyond Words Literary Agency. It’s been wonderful to chat and share how her agency works. I’m feeling inspired to finish writing my next manuscript, so I can go on submission again next year. If you’re inspired to query Fiona, consider sending your query package to Beyond Words Literary Agency here. Keep up with the latest calls and publications by signing up for an email newsletter at www.beyondwordsagency.com.
Kelly Sgroi is based in Melbourne, Australia. Now represented by Beyond Words Literary Agency, Kelly is thrilled to be out of the query trenches and looking forward to what comes next in her writing journey. She’s also a content writer and an enthusiastic member of the writing community. Some of her short works are published by WOW! Women on Writing, Dream Journal, The Endometriosis Foundation of America, Endometriosis Australia, and a few Medium publications. Her debut manuscript is a women’s fiction story about motherhood. Visit her website at www.kellysgroi.com