Abigail Bergstrom is a literary agent, author and publishing consultant. She has worked in publishing for over a decade and is an expert in navigating the cross-section between digital and print, speaking at international conferences on the subject.
She’s edited some of Britain’s most prominent feminist voices, was nominated for Literary Agent of the Year in 2020 and was listed in The Bookseller 150 for shepherding over thirty titles onto bestseller lists and building some of today’s biggest book brands.
In short, dear reader, she’s one multi-hyphenate lady. Not only does she have a wealth of knowledge from the publishing field thanks to her time at Gleam Titles and heading up her own publishing consultancy Bergstrom Studio, she also knows a thing or two about what it takes to become an author, having recently published her first novel What A Shame.
We caught up with Abi to talk all things book-writing and publishing. From this year’s book tropes and trends to cooking up her very own bestseller, how to find the right agent for you and the recipe for getting that elusive book deal, if you want to break into the book industry and see your novel gracing the shelves of your local Waterstones, Abi is on hand to offer some invaluable advice on how to get your voice heard.
Congratulations on your debut novel What A Shame – this month’s Zoella book club read! How does it feel to be a published author after working on the other side of the industry as a literary agent, editor and publishing consultant?
It feels exciting and I’ve found myself in quite a unique position now having a 360 experience of the publishing process as agent, editor and published author. I think each perspective has made me better at my job and brings a slightly more informed lens to the work I do in these varying capacities. But as a writer, you work on a book for such a long time and in such solitude that it’s amazing to finally have people reading and contacting me about What a Shame.
You picked a cracking title for your novel. What’s the process for deciding on a title and is it always the author who gets the final say?
The title came last and it was called many other things before What a Shame. I love this title but I can’t take the credit, my brilliant friend who happens to be a publisher came up with it, Romilly Morgan. She was the first person who read the book and guided me through the angst that comes with putting your work out into the world, alongside my agent and editor. I think the best titles always come through collaboration but they are often hard won and take time to settle on.
Shame is at the heart of your novel – what drew you to writing about that?
I think all women live with shame, it’s something that society embeds in us without our knowing. Mostly we don’t notice the true weight and restriction it inflicts.Abi Bergstrom
I wanted the book to be an excavation of the female psyche and explore the process of asphyxiating the shame wrapped up in the female experience. Because I think all women live with shame, it’s something that society embeds in us without our knowing. Mostly we don’t notice the true weight and restriction it inflicts. Brene Brown says that “shame derives its power from being unspeakable” and that it hates having words wrapped around it – so what would happen to shame when a whole book was written about it? It seemed fascinating to me that much of what makes us feel isolated from one another as women is a shame, which is in fact a shared experience. When that’s brought out into the light it can create very meaningful connection.
We were interested to learn that your book was first submitted under a pseudonym. What was your thinking behind that and why did you choose to send it off without your real name at the top of the manuscript?
Well, I’ve worked in the industry for over a decade and I know all of the editors who commission fiction across the UK’s leading publishing houses – most of them very well. So I suppose it came down to three things, (i) I wanted someone to commission the book based on the writing and the story only, and not off the back of who I was. (ii) I wanted to be able to look aspiring authors in the face who I consult for and to be able to tell them that I’ve done it myself, I’ve been through the process of securing an agent and getting a publisher on board in the exact way they need to, and that I didn’t take any shortcuts. (iii) And finally, I suppose there was an element of protection baked into it, if nobody wanted the book I wouldn’t feel exposed.
So, it’s the million-dollar question but: What makes for a great book and what makes a book publishable?
If there was a straightforward answer to that, I’d have bottled it up and sold it already. There isn’t one. Books are great for so many reasons – the list of what makes them brilliant, unending. But some books that aren’t anything special get published and have a huge marketing spend behind them and do okay.
That’s why my job as a publishing consultant exists, to guide writers through these trepid waters and help give their ideas and writing the best possible chance of success. Abi Bergstrom
Others are simply incredible but they don’t get acquired or perhaps do, but don’t catch that wave and reach their audience in this very noisy, overcrowded landscape. That’s why my job as a publishing consultant exists, to guide writers through these trepid waters and help give their ideas and writing the best possible chance of success. But there are never any guarantees. Needless to say, a lot of great books go unpublished and a lot of mediocre books secure a publisher. All the elements have to be in place for a book to thrive and find its place in the world, and that’s a hard spell to cast and takes teams of people.
In your experience, what are some of the most common reasons books get rejected?
In terms of publisher feedback, it usually falls into one of two categories: it’s been done or we already have something on our list that’s very similar that we’re about to publish. Or, it hasn’t been done and there isn’t really anything in the market to compare it to, i.e. a framework for publisher’s sales teams can place around a text to help it flourish in the market. There is a sweet spot when it comes to trends, genre and reader behaviours. Success in this business is so much about timing.
What is the role of a literary agent and does everyone need one? What are the benefits of taking that route?
I’m a literary agent and I have one, so I think that speaks volumes and tells you all you need to know. A literary agent works with a writer from initial ideation to IP development through to negotiating the deal and managing all ancillary rights surrounding a book (podcast, TV/FILM, merch etc.) and they help a writer manage the process from acquisition through to publication. I think an agent’s level of market knowledge and expertise is invaluable to the process of publishing a book.
How do you make the sales pitch stand out from the crowd? What are you looking for when you get unsolicited submissions?
A new voice, someone saying something different, or approaching a subject matter in a way I’ve not seen or read before. I like theory and concepts enmeshed in personal writing. Bright ideas and bold new voices. I think a bridge helps. If two creative projects merged to form your book idea and its style of writing or content, what would those two projects be? The answer could consist of other books, authors or even a TV show of a moment in history. In terms of fiction, I like Irish writers such as Rooney, Megan Nolan and Naoise Dolan but would love to see those kinds of stories coming from writers in different parts of the UK with their slightly different tone and take – Wales, Scotland, Northern etc.
What’s big in the book space right now? What are publishers buying and buzzing about?
Publishers seem to be looking for ‘joy’. After a pandemic and now facing a horrific war between Russia and Ukraine, readers are in search of some respite. It’s a good time for books when we’re all wanting to escape our realities and the fickleness of social media.
How important is the role of social media in audience-building and carving a space for your voice and presence as an aspiring author?
It’s hugely important in the sense that publishers care more and more about platforms and communities. I don’t think the numbers need to be as big as people assume, but showing that you’re already having a conversation or that you’re creating your own network in your own small corner of the internet speaks volumes. I think publishers are commissioning less off the back of social media handles and numbers, and are looking more at engagement, viewing social media as more of a launchpad for smart marketing.
What advice do you have for people who haven’t managed to find an agent yet?
Don’t give up!
I sent my book to many agents and only one came back, but she read it overnight and wanted a call the very next day. It’s an incredibly competitive space, it’s just about finding that one person who has a vision for your book.Abi Bergstrom
How much of the writing would an agent/publisher need to see or does it vary depending on the publisher/genre you’re writing in? Would you need to have a complete manuscript before you start pitching?
If you’re writing a novel, you need a finished manuscript whereas if you’re writing non-fiction you only need a proposal to get your book commissioned or picked up. Bergstrom Studio offers a lot more information and services about this in terms of how to get started.
How long can it take from signing a book deal to getting published?
It can take anywhere from a few months to a few years – no two books share the same journey to publication. I wrote around 11 or 12 drafts of my novel. People think writing a book is hard because you’re writing an ENTIRE book. But actually, it’s hard because you’re needing to write 7 or 8 versions of that book, at least.
How can emerging authors learn to handle rejection letters?
I’ve never been to my book club and had every person in the room love the same book – you’re never going to be EVERYONE’S cup of cocoa, it’s about finding that ONE person who gets it. Look at your favourite writer’s Goodreads page and see the varied feedback even the most accomplished writers get. Just because someone rejects or doesn’t like your book doesn’t mean someone else won’t love it and think it’s one of the best things they’ve read.
What did your writing routine or rituals look like when you were penning What A Shame?
I was running a literary agency at the time and representing nearly 50 authors internationally, so I only had the weekends to write. My advice would be start small, start slow. Carve out a few hours for yourself where you can and don’t put too much pressure on that time. Just write. Just enjoy it. Sooner or later you’ll be surprised by how many words are on the page and by the story that’s starting to form.
What has making the leap from agent to author taught you? Was there anything about the process of writing that surprised you?
That it’s addictive, writing a book did one thing to me: it made me want to write more.