Industry Insights: Oscar Janson-Smith
By Elizabeth Oladoyin, Elizabeth Guess, Hannah Devine and Leyla Mehmet
We interviewed Oscar Janson-Smith to learn more about his role as an Agent at Gleam Features…
Could you tell us about your journey into agenting and to Gleam?
I left school relatively early, and wasn’t in a position where I could afford, or justify taking, a gap year, so I began working. I sent a significant number of what I now appreciate were ridiculously speculative applications to publishers over the years, but I never heard back. I think the industry was in a different place back then, and there was more emphasis placed on university degrees. I handed my CV in at countless bookshops around London, too, but I didn’t hear back from them, either. Needing an income, I ended up taking jobs in a DIY store in West Norwood, and a call centre in Wimbledon. I then managed to get work at an estate agency. I soon left estate agenting to set up a market stall selling clothes – which was fun, but it proved difficult to scale, so I found myself a job in advertising sales, and then used that experience to pivot into advertising itself. By leveraging my understanding of digital advertising and experience in sales and negotiation, I found my way into talent management, which eventually provided me with the opportunity to begin working on books – an opportunity I seized. I actually wrote to Gleam before they were actively hiring for my role, saying how much I’d love to work for them – thankfully, they agreed to chat to me, and now I’m here, and enjoying every minute of it.
Is there any advice you’d give to current publishing hopefuls? Are there routes into publishing that aren’t as “traditional” that you’d recommend?
I’d always advise people to embrace and pursue their interests, and not conform to what they believe the industry wants from them – liking books needn’t constitute the entirety of your personality. Publishing will continue to grow through commissioning in a way that speaks to a broader section of society, so the more diverse the backgrounds and interests of people in the industry, the more likely this is to happen.
Speaking from experience, my main advice would be to use the experience you do have, or can get, to your advantage, and know how and when to pivot. There are plenty of former copywriters, journalists, and PRs in editorial roles these days, while the route into a publishing PR, marketing or sales role can be more of a direct transition from another industry. The other thing is, keep reading! I know it sounds obvious, but reading widely is invaluable. Another thing would be to keep in mind you’re probably not going to get to start commissioning literary fiction straight away. Taking a job anywhere in, or around, publishing could well lead to your dream role; you just need to be patient.
Could you tell us a bit more about what a literary agent does, and how it differs from working in a publishing house? What kind of skills do you need to be an agent?
My job is, essentially, to sell books and to develop the careers of my authors. I work with authors to edit and develop their writing, or ideas, into a proposal which, hopefully, gets commissioned and sells millions of copies. The role involves so many different things. There’s a wonderful balance of editorial work, contract negotiation, talent management, sales, strategy, and spending time with amazing people – from footballers to musicians, polemicists to chefs, it really keeps the job interesting, and I’ve learnt so much from the people I’ve met. I also agent across branding, digital work, and live events, as so many of my authors do other things away from writing.
I think life experience, and exposure to a wide array of people and cultures, is a very important asset in agenting, as is proactivity and an awareness of what is going on in the world, and what people are talking about. I also firmly believe that the ability to write, edit and read with a critical eye are essential – however, I do not believe that these skills need to be accredited in any way.
What projects have you worked on that you’re most proud of? What made them stand out?
Probably the Sunday Times number one, to be honest! Working with someone as inspirational as Tom [Parker] was a real privilege, and I’m so pleased that he got to number one, as he wanted it so badly. It was really touching to see how much it meant to him, and I’m glad that we were able to get there – I just wish he was around to see it. I also have a couple of very exciting projects yet to be announced, and in the works, which I cannot wait to begin talking about – including some fiction, which is an area I’m keen to do a lot more in over the coming years.