Interview with Ian Drury, literary agent

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Nov 23, 2002

Ian Drury read modern history at New College, Oxford before going into publishing: editing partworks and magazines before joining HarperCollins in 1994. He joined Sheil Land Associates in 2007.

Firstly, many thanks for speaking with us.

Sheil Land has long had a reputation for being one of the few UK agencies that actively solicits science fiction and fantasy novel submissions. Was that part of the draw for you joining them, or was it their wider portfolio, or general philosophy, that gave them particular appeal?

One of the first questions I was asked, when approached to change sides and become an agent, was ‘I hear you read fantasy and science fiction . . .?’ So, yes, Sonia Land was looking to expand the agency’s client list into the genre.

Eight years doesn't seem a long time as an agent in the industry, and yet you've already picked up a number of writers who have gone on to become bestsellers. Is there a secret to your method, or are you just very particular with what you pick?

The ratio of scripts I read to authors I sign up is >500:1, but I doubt that makes me especially picky for an agent. While I’ve been a fiction agent for eight years, I’ve been reading fiction for more than 50 years, 30 of which I spent in journalism and non-fiction publishing, so I’ve had plenty of time to develop my tastes.

You clearly have an interest in historical fiction, and the clients you represent in this area have voices that bring energy and life to their settings. Do you feel this is an essential part of any good historical novel, or simply a symptom of strong story-telling in the first place?

I think conveying a sense of place and time is important in any story, but it matters more in a historical script. I believe most readers like to learn as well as be informed by a historical novel (a painless history lesson, if you will). I was struck years ago by Georgette Heyer’s novel An Infamous Army, which is about Waterloo, appearing on the reading list for cadets at Sandhurst – it captures the period and the people better than many non-fiction accounts.

Something I find interesting is that many of your historical clients write around ancient or historical periods, and yet you studied Modern History at Oxford. Does this make it particularly pleasurable when you find someone trying to do something unique with recent history, such as when you picked up Peter Higgins’s Wolfhound Century?

Back in the mists of time, Oxford divided the history syllabus into two: ancient and modern, and the latter begins in AD410, so much of the course is decidedly unmodern. However, I was very struck by Peter Higgins’s idea that the Soviet era could form the historic background to a sweeping fantasy/SF series – and what an ambitious and brilliant tale it turned out to be. Francis Spufford puts it better than I can here:

Robert Fabbri is one of my favourite authors, but when he first came to you with a plan to write a long-running series on the life of Vespasian, did you ever worry that it might be too ambitious to sell to publishers?

I might possibly have pitched it as a trilogy, before admitting Robert had plans for a 9-book story arc. But this ambition would have been irrelevant if it wasn’t for the energy, commitment and publishing savvy consistently demonstrated by the team at Corvus, which has played an enormous part in getting Robert into the charts.

Speaking of selling, another of my favourites is Clifford Beal, whose Richard Treadwell novels have been something of a cross-over between historical fiction and fantasy. Again, even though you liked his writing enough to represent him, did you ever worry that it would be a struggle to find him a publisher? Or is the publishing industry becoming more flexible when it comes to genre cross-overs these days?

It’s a struggle for anyone to find a publisher, so I only go to market with scripts I really believe in. I think what you’re getting at is the blurring of the lines between the fantastical and the historical that Clifford does so well (D’Artagnan and Col Treadwell fighting a demon in the building where Milton is being interviewed by Oliver Cromwell . . .). Some publishers weren’t sure about the combination – but then again, others rejected Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns when they realised his erstwhile mediaeval world was actually a post-apocalyptic Earth.

Speaking of the selling process, if someone were to submit to you, and be accepted as your client, should they expect a degree of further editing before being presented to publishers? Or do you generally look to work only with what the client presents to you in the first place? How proactive do you generally find yourself with client manuscripts?

I do a great deal of editing, where necessary, and have been known to take 12 months and several re-writes before I think we’re ready to go to market. On the other hand, some scripts require very little intervention. I’ve written a fair few (non-fiction) books myself, and worked as a ghost-writer as well as being a publisher, so if a script requires work, I’ll put the effort in.

The publishing industry has undergone rapid changes in your time as an agent, not least with ebooks and self-publishing. Do you think this makes your job more difficult, easier, or is simply something to adapt to? I ask simply because Robert Fabbri has released a string of novellas with Corvus, something that might have been unthinkable before ebook publishing. Does this mean this is an era of new opportunities and new challenges?

Robert enjoys the short stories as a break between full-length novels, and a way to give subordinate characters a narrative of their own. They are just one way that ebook technology offers choices not available in printed book form, but it’s my view that physical books will remain the dominant format nonetheless. Browsing for ebooks is a disagreeable experience, and of course, if you buy from Amazon, you aren’t really buying, just renting, as they can deny access if they so choose.

As to self-publishing, Amazon’s recent decision to make further drastic reductions in what they pay authors caught up in their Kindle Unlimited programme renders this as close to vanity publishing as makes no odds. The avalanche of 400,000+ self-published (mostly unedited, unreadable and indeed, unread) novels offered as ebooks over the last year or two has made it hard for works of any quality to be visible in the ebook world. A printed book, in a bookshop (or online) has at least passed through the brain of an editor or two; and I think readers are becoming more reluctant to pay 99p to read what is effectively the slush-pile.

Now let's move onto one of your rising stars in fantasy, Mark Lawrence. I believe his debut, Prince of Thorns went to auction, and although he's still completing his Red Queen's War trilogy, you just sold the rights to a new trilogy by him - tentatively named The Red Sister trilogy - to Harper Voyager. What's it like to work with him, and does his best-selling and award-winning fantasy writer on your lists keep you especially busy?

Mark’s debut trilogy, beginning with Prince of Thorns was indeed acquired at auction and I can confirm that his latest series is now sold, once again to Ace in the USA and to Voyager in the UK. Mark is a delight to work with: delivering exceptionally clean scripts well within deadline, and you will have seen how assiduous he is on social media. He doesn’t just keep me busy: my colleague Gaia Banks has sold translation rights in more than twenty languages, which is a phenomenal achievement.

Going back to the agency – because Sheil Land has a portfolio that covers theatre, film, and television, does this place the agency in a uniquely strong position when it comes to selling film rights? On that point, Prince of Thorns was optioned in 2012, so does that mean we're likely to have anything in production sooner rather than later? Or is the world of film rights much more complicated than that?

Agencies have to be able to represent the authors in these fields too. Selling film & TV rights is exactly as you would imagine: a world of famine or feast – and mostly famine. Not that many novels get optioned in these days of deep caution in the film & TV worlds, and not many optioned scripts go all the way to be filmed. But if ever there was a story that would appeal to George R.R. Martin’s TV viewers, then Prince of Thorns is it.

The obligatory writing question now! If there's one piece of advice you would give to any aspiring writer, what would it be?

Read your work aloud: it’s the best way to reveal poor punctuation, repetition or dodgy dialogue.

This year we've already seen published The Liar's Key by Mark Lawrence, and Rome's Lost Son from Robert Fabri. Clifford Beal's Guns of Ivrea is coming in February 2016. Are there any other recent and coming releases from your clients we should especially keep an eye out for? Feel free to plug here. :)

Coming soon:

Angus Donald’s The King’s Assassin is out on 18 June. As The Times review says, ‘Angus Donald has turned a traditional hero on his head in his entertaining series about Robin Hood. Donald’s Robin is a charismatic but violent and morally flawed rogue — more Tony Soprano than Errol Flynn’.

Stephanie Saulter’s Regeneration is published in August, concluding her gripping trilogy that began with Gemsigns. If you know someone who thinks they don’t like SF, this may be the one for them: such a thought-provoking story.

George R.R. Martin has made no secret of the fact that Game of Thrones is based on the real-life civil war in the British Isles popularly known as The War of the Roses. I’m thrilled to announce that in December 2015 will see the publication of Battle Royal, the first of a two-volume narrative of this bloodthirsty saga by award winning historian Hugh Bicheno. All I’ll say here is that Cersei’s real-life counterpart was cleverer and every bit as ruthless . . .

Many thanks for your time. :)