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‘Call my agent!’- report on the CREATe/CCPR event with Emma Paterson FSRL

Posted on    by Philip Schlesinger

‘Call my agent!’- report on the CREATe/CCPR event with Emma Paterson FSRL

The 2023/24 ‘Reflections on Culture’ series concluded on 21 February with a conversation between Emma Paterson, a Director of the literary agency Aitken Alexander Associates, and Professor Philip Schlesinger.

Photo by Weiwei Yi


Emma has been described by Harper’s Bazaar as a ‘megawatt literary agent’. She is a member of the Booker Foundation’s advisory committee, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She was named one of Britain’s most influential people of African, African Caribbean and African American heritage by Powerlist in 2022.

Emma’s career took off in 2010, when she started working at the Wylie Agency, a big New York player with a significant London office. She moved on for five years to another big firm, Rogers, Coleridge and White, and in 2018 landed her present job. She reflected on the differences between diverse agencies – their scale and scope and working practices.

A literary agent’s role is complex and multifaceted: a talent spotter, a seeker of business opportunities for her clients, a maintainer of morale and career adviser. It is a key role of brokerage in creative industries, a cultural intermediary between authorial creativity and business. Work like Emma Paterson’s is not widely discussed or understood, and this attracted an audience curious to find out what she did.

Emma reflected on how an assistant agent had lots of responsibility but little power to make literary choices. This situation had spurred her on to change jobs. Each career stage brought its own challenges. An agent must take tough-minded risks on her literary judgement. In her present post, she must generate in commission at least twice her income each year, as well as oversee others’ work. Emma recognises that her own assistants in turn face the challenges she herself faced earlier.

Emma has represented some celebrated authors at different stages of their careers, including the Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo. It was especially exciting, she thought, to take on new writers and steer their debut. But once people are launched, their careers need to be sustained and that can be a delicate process, given writers’ ups and downs. Handling complex careers epitomises the tensions between seeking and channelling creativity and running a business that brings an income stream to authors.

When writers win awards and gain notice, Emma noted, this is hugely important in generating sales and keeping them afloat from one project to the next, and in relatively few cases building stellar careers. Agents must routinely address authors’ isolation and keep up their morale.

During a lively Q&A, Emma Paterson observed that literary taste in the UK was not dominated by celebrity book clubs, as in the USA. She also gave helpful advice to intending authors on how to find the right agent. Emma also discussed how few people of colour had achieved her level of seniority – far fewer even than in publishing. She had a special responsibility, therefore, for nurturing the widest range of talent.