Let me be honest. I had never heard of David Godwin until recently. People kept telling me he was coming to Uganda in that way that people talk about someone that you obviously should know and should be excited about. So I set out to find out who he is.
He has a long list of best-selling and award-winning authors but when I found out that he is the man that brought us Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, I got excited.
Mr Godwin was in Kampala; meeting up with different writers, reading some works by Ugandan writers, teaching a class at Writivism and talking to editors. We met and he explained to me what the world of a literary agent looks like.
Did you have any background in the book industry before you became a literary agent?
Yes. I was a publisher at three different companies: Heinemann, Secker and Warburg and the last one was Jonathan Cape where we published a series of books. In fact while at Jonathan Cape, we published the only African book to win the Booker Prize which is Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.
What made you want to become an agent?
I was badly behaved as a publisher so they fired me (which was fine and right). But I loved Jonathan Cape, it is the best publishing house and so I saw no reason to go anyway else. I thought to myself, I might as well switch. I always liked the writers more than the publishing so the most obvious thing was to become an agent and that is what I did.
I read somewhere that it was because you wanted to be the Robinhood; get money from the rich publishers and redistribute it writers.
That’s true. I wanted to redistribute the money because when I was publisher, everyone had big, expensive cars in the car park and I remember looking at that and thinking, “I want to take the big cars from the publishers to the writers.”
Did you have a big car?
Yes I did and I do have one now. It’s funny actually. Some people want their agents to look successful so they will have a big car whereas others will think if you have a big car, you are only interested in money, in which case I would use a small car. So I have two cars, a big one and a small one, for my two lives as an agent.
What’s the difference between a publisher and a literary agent?
We have a writer, agent and publisher. So the writer starts the process, writes the book and sends it to the agent (this is in England). The agent sells that book to the publisher and handles the money and contracts and all those arrangements. The publisher then takes the manuscript and turns it into a book. He puts a cover, sends it out to lots of people, takes orders to put the book in bookshops and at the end of the day when accounts are rendered, he will send them to the agent working on behalf of the writer. Then the agent will pass the money from the publisher to the writer. As an agent, that is the part where I take my commission then send the rest to the writer.
So does the writer pay you when he hires you?
No. I only take from the money I earn for them so I don’t charge them anything. If it does not work out as well as I had hoped it would, then I earn less.
Are there books that you had great hopes for that never got published?
Yes there are. And sometimes some books take long to find a publisher which is sometimes very dispiriting. But you’ve got to try and do new things and sometimes doing new things means that they don’t get published as quickly as you would like.
Do you read the entire manuscript when you get it?
I should but sometimes I don’t for a number of reasons. Sometimes I don’t like them so I don’t finish them because I have lots of stuff to read. But I have read and finished all the books I sell.
Who does the marketing of the book after that?
The publisher does all that. An agent can look after it and have ideas and even meet with publishers and make suggestions about different things. But my job in that respect is to check on them and theirs is to actually do the work.
Do you ever go to look for books/ or talent or do they always come to you?
Yes I do look for things. It is what I am doing here in Kampala. I read things and if I find something I like and someone I would like to work with, I ask them to send me some work and see if I like it.
Do you ever look at short stories?
Sure. I don’t mind. I don’t do a lot of stories but I could do them. I know there are lots of short stories coming from Africa when there should be more novels but I know it takes time to write novels. I understand that. Sadly publishers don’t tend to like short stories so much so that is a bit of a problem. The range of people you can work that with is smaller than one would like.
What do you look for in a manuscript?
Two things, really. I look for a voice (something distinctive in the telling of the story) and then I look for the story. The best books have good voices and good stories.
Sometimes people need help with how to tell a story. But you know, it is the simplest thing. It is like being in a bar with someone and you ask them to tell you something. Some people will tell you a story and it will go on for ages and you will be entranced while others will make a mess of it; they will get the order wrong, they aren’t interesting, there is no detail in the story or they are easily distracted.
So I want something that is plain, clear, simple and effective. Just interest me in whatever you have written.
So if you get someone that has a good story but are not telling it well, how do you help them?
It would depend. Right now I am here and doing some sessions with some writers, so we talk about the stories; what is wrong, whose point of view they could use to tell it and so on. In my job, because I have no time to do that because I have too much pressure on my time, if people send me stories and I read them or my son does, I have no time to say do it like this or like that. In that case I will either say I like it or I don’t.
But if I got to know the writer, once I have had a relationship with someone, maybe if I have sold a novel by them and they sent me short stories and I didn’t like them, we would talk about why I did not like them, what didn’t work and all that.
Do you ever read for pleasure? Books whose authors you have not worked with?
Yes. Of course I do. Well I am reading this (shows me Malcom Gladwell’s David and Goliath) and I was not his agent. You know the story of David and Goliath? So this book is about how people who you think are not going to win, win. I find he writes well and there are interesting stories. So yes I read loads of things for pleasure. And most of the books that I have published or represented have given me pleasure. Not all of them, but most of them.
How many manuscripts do you read say, in a week?
Quite a lot actually. May be two, three, four a week maybe? But they are usually a mixture of books. Some are books that have been published. I do lots of biographies and memoirs; I do some poetry, novels, short stories so there is a huge range. But even with that range they are all kind of posh; they are literary books not commercial books. I don’t intend to do detective stories or thrillers. It’s taste really, what you go for. I would do some more commercial books but I have quite enough to do in my time.
Are there authors you read and wish you had represented?
Sure! Oh yes! And sometimes they are writers I used to represent and they have left me and gone to someone else. Sometimes I read people I like and I will write them and tell them I like their work and some will reply and say, “Sorry. I am delighted but I have got a good agent” and that’s fine. Sometimes people write to my clients and ask them to leave or stay.
Do you have a favourite writer you wish you could represent?
There is a very good South African writer called Damon Galgut and he has an incredibly nice agent called Tony Peake for whom I have a lot of respect; really nice man. So even though I like Galgut, I am never going to write to him because I know his agent well. I doubt he would ever leave anyway and nor should he. I can’t think of the others now but yes there are people I would love to work with but it’s like pursuing another man’s wife; be very careful.
How do you advise someone to write a query letter?
First of all, find out as much as you can about the agent. Go to their website, find out what kind of books they do, their favourite books so that you know something about them. It’s just a nice thing to do. It is flattering. Then send them an email and show that you know something about them.
I would like to approach the agency…I know you represent abcd. I know you have agented this book which is one of my favourite books…
Then write an interesting paragraph about your book.
My own book is a memoir. I have grown up in Uganda I have been married to two husbands. The first husband treated me very badly, the second husband treated me very well. I now live in Kampala and this is a memoir of my life in Uganda. I also know you represented Binyavanga, who also wrote a memoir. I read his book and mine is quite similar and I think you will like it.
If I got a letter like that I would say, yes, send the manuscript right away. I may not like the manuscript in the end but I will read it.
Other agents will say they want a synopsis and chapter which I don’t have a strong view about. I think it is nice to get someone interested in what you’re doing straight away. I feel it’s a bit like having a conversation with someone that is kind of intimate in some way, you know? Rather than be shouted at like:
Dear Sir, attached is the synopsis and three chapters.
When I get such an email, I know they have sent it to lots of people, which is fine, but then I have to open it up and then look at it. Just make it easy for me. Interest me in who you are.
If you came here and started shouting about your blog, I would say I am sure you are good woman but I am going to pass. But here we are and it is natural. There are no big rules, really but I think this is nice way to do it. It is more friendly.
What do you think of the opinion that a poet does not need an agent?
It depends. True and not true. There is a poet I work with called Simon Armitage but he does more than poetry. He does memoirs, film, TV, Theatre, a couple of novels but he is primarily a poet. Someone like him needs an agent. There are some other poets that could use an agent; they have published several editions around the world, there is lots of money involved and an agent would be in control of all those aspects of the poet’s life and make sure the books are published properly. A young poet starting out probably does not need an agent but as time goes on they may need one. And they may need more than one publisher if say he is published in Uganda but wants to be published in England as well. In that case they would need an agent. Having said that, there are a lot of poets around but most agents won’t take them. It is too complicated, there is not much money in it and takes a lot of work. I might do it but I wouldn’t go out to look for a poet. I don’t even read that much poetry. I am just learning to.
What should I look out for when I am choosing an agent?
The first thing I would look at is if they represent books that I like or are similar to the ones I like and write. As a Ugandan, I would look for agents that are working with African writers (and they aren’t that many). I would also recommend the Handbook that Goretti [Kyomuhendo] has written about writing. It explains a lot about publishing and she names some agents in there. That is the best advice I could give to a young writer.
If I may, I feel that that Handbook* should be free. Of course I don’t expect Goretti to do it for free but the best thing any institution here could do is to buy copies and make them available to people. Commonwealth Writers for example could buy the rights to publish it as an e-book and make it available for free. It is good and useful. Writing is hard work so if you have managed to write, it makes sense to understand the book world so you don’t mess up the book you worked really hard on.
We don’t have literary agents here, how does one become a literary agent?
You can say to yourself, “I am now a literary agent”. Say to yourself, I am going to set up something called The Kakoma Literary agency. It is as simple as that. What that means is then you would have to find publishers here that would be interested in short stories and novels. You have to know each one of them. You have to be a good judge of what a good book is. Sometimes you just need to be lucky. You then have to find a crucial book; a good book that changes everything, a book that everybody wants. You would then have to think about how to get that book around the world so then you would go to another literary agent in the UK. I have got people in India who write to me about books they love and ask me to have a look at them and if I like them I say yes. If I don’t, it’s a no.
Then you would have to handle the money and you have to be very efficient with that. When the money comes in, you take your commission and then send the rest to the writer. You have to be completely above board and quick with the money otherwise people will think you are just sitting on it.
The best thing is to do it as a passion. Do it to champion people’s work.
I would also advise you to spend as little as possible in the beginning. If you can do it at home, do that. Don’t get an office you cannot pay for. Once you get the money you can think of how to spend it but don’t rush it.
Is that how you started?
It’s exactly how I started. I had a desk in a big room and my wife did the money.
You have written a book, Breaking 80 about golf. Were you your own agent?
I was and it was a terrible deal but I was so pleased to be published and it was a good reminder that the basics are not so simple.
But you weren’t as worried as the first time writers who know no one in the industry are…
Oh of course I was! Would the publisher like it? Were they doing enough? Were there terrible marks in the book? Would they support the book or were they saying, “God this is so embarrassing”. They made editorial suggestions about the book and their enthusiasm for the book was important.
It was nice to do. There was a nice picture of me and my dog on the cover so it was quite fun to do. Lots of people around me have read it, clients of mine have read it and liked it and its quite modest so it is not competitive with them. I was just thrilled about it.
Will you write again?
Well, I don’t know what to write about. Something called Breaking 70 maybe?
A memoir maybe.
No. There are bits of memoir in Breaking 80 but they are very simple. I don’t have much memory about things and I don’t think my life is that interesting so I wouldn’t do a memoir. But I actually enjoyed doing it. Much more than I expected.
What are you currently working on?
I am doing a book on swimming which is something I am interested in and another by a young man set in Detroit. And I am also reading some stories by Ugandans.
What is the next book you are looking for?
When Gabriel García Márquez wrote One Hundred Years Of Solitude, it was a book that transformed everything because it was loved in Latin America. If I am going to find a book in the next five years from Africa, it is one that should be loved by Africa. All these books these days are about leaving Africa, going elsewhere. They are books about starting here but end up in America. They are marvellous books but I would like a book that is about here; living here, life in Kampala and the like. A book by someone who has a story to tell and can write and lives here. All my best Indian writers like Arndhati Roy do that. I am looking for that equivalent here. It would break my heart if I don’t get that kind of book.
Thank you, David. I enjoyed this and learnt a lot!
*The Essential Handbook for African Creative Writers by Goretti Kyomuhendo is available in Ugandan bookshops at Shs20,000 and on Amazon.