Happy book birthday to REBELLIOUS SPIRITS by Ruth Ball!

It’s October 1st, and Ruth Ball‘s brilliant, highly entertaining debut, Rebellious Spirits, is out RIGHT NOW. It’s a delicious warm cosy book for the autumn, like sitting down with a good friend and a glass of something warming and listening to them tell fascinating stories by candlelight.


Rebellious Spirits cover


If you live in the UK and you want to have that experience in real life as well as in book form, sign up for one of these events! You’ll get to meet Ruth in person, try some of her favourite historical cocktails from the book, and share stories with a select few like-minded liqueur-lovers who I’m sure will be excellent people.

Drink Through History in London
series: October 28th-31st, November 4th-7th. 8pm at the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities in Hackney.

Ruth Ball at the Buxton Literary Festival: November 13th, 2pm. (NB I suspect there will not be cocktails at this one)

Rebellious Spirits Talk & Tasting in Cambridge: November 20th, 7:30pm at Quiver Company.


Oh, and here is what the book is all about:

For as long as spirits have existed, there has been someone doing something really naughty with them: selling gin through pipes in a London back alley; standing guard on a Cornish clifftop waiting for a smuggler’s signal; or dodging bombs and shrapnel running whisky in the Blitz. It is a history that is thrilling, utterly fascinating and uniquely British.

Packed full of historical recipes, from Milk Punch to a Wartime Martini, along with cocktails from contemporary bartenders, Rebellious Spirits is a treasure trove for the curious drinker.

 From the gin dispensed from a cat’s paw at the Puss and Mew shop which could have been the world’s first vending machine, to whole funeral cortèges staged just to move a coffin filled with whisky, the stories show off all the wonderful wit and ingenuity required to stay one drink ahead of the law. The accompanying recipes are just as intriguing: How did we drink gin before tonic? Was punch really made with curdled milk? Or breakfast served with brandy porridge, and gin mixed into hot ale? What did the past really taste like?


‘I’m forever fascinated by the underground, and the sub-cultural drinking habits of bad old Blighty are a rip-roaring read’ – King Adz, author of The Urban Cookbook and Street Knowledge

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Surprising insights from the slush pile

Having a teetering pile of queries in my inbox at all times has given me some interesting and unexpected insights into my taste as a reader. Every so often as I’m reading through them, I’ll notice myself going ‘ooh, more space archaeologists, YES PLEASE’, or ‘ugh, not more Celts’, and realise something new about what I like to read. Just for fun, I’ve made some lists of the surprising things I’ve noticed so far. I’ve left off things like ‘historical fiction with trans characters’ and ‘airships!’ and ‘the TV show Defiance but in manuscript form’ because obviously I always knew I was interested in those – these are just things that I didn’t know I was into/not into until I started reading queries. I don’t imagine this list will be even slightly useful, but I hope it will be entertaining.

Some things I apparently can’t resist for some reason.

– Books about the history of food and/or drink.
It started with Rebellious Spirits (out this Thursday!), of course. Ruth opened my mind to the fascinating history of spirits, and before I knew it I was spending hours on some of the internet’s foremost food history websites reading about the history of jelly and other interesting things. I think for some reason food and drink lends itself particularly well to the quirky, light-but-still-informative kind of non-fiction that I love most.

– Books about imaginary sports
I have no idea what this one is about. I have always hated playing sports, and the only sport I enjoy watching is hockey. But for some reason I am all over books about robot gladiators or werewolf wrestling or airship races or really any sport you can imagine (as long as you have imagined it and it’s not actually a real thing). The thrill of the competition! The surprising twists and turns of the race! The intriguing backstories of the competitors! The gritty determination of the hapless neophyte or plucky underdog or beleaguered champion or whoever it is that we’re rooting for this time! It’s all so exciting.

– Jews in science fiction
Entirely selfish. I like reading about futures that have Jewish people in them. Plus it means you get to phone up your client and say things like ‘so, the way that cloning works in this MS…what are the Jewish implications of that?’ and she says ‘I’m so glad you asked! I’ve been thinking about that for weeks!’ and it’s all very interesting if you like talking about the Talmud.

– SFF in which LGBTQIA+ characters have a nice time
Or have a terrible time but for reasons unrelated to gender or sexuality. I get a fair number of SFF submissions featuring LGBTQIA+ characters (probably because I keep asking for it – please send me more, especially if you identify with any letters of that acronym yourself), and I’m surprised at how often the characters in question are facing the same kinds of ill treatment and prejudice as they would in our world. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for that in SFF, but…surely there is also a place for not-that.

– Books about space archaeologists
I’ve seen a number of queries about space archaeologists (usually on fun, pulpy quests for mysterious alien artefacts) and I pretty much always request to see a partial, but I still haven’t signed any – I guess I’m still searching for the right space archaeology book. I think what appeals to me is the idea of a manuscript that has something of Rice-Burroughs’ swashbuckle and nothing whatsoever of his politics. The ones I’ve seen so far either seem to have both or neither.

– Magical or historical heists
From The Lies of Locke Lamora to Korean historical-fusion movie The Grand Heist, I rarely meet an SFF or historical heist that I don’t enjoy. I was not aware of this predilection until people started sending me heist queries – again, I still haven’t signed any, but I think it’s just a matter of time.


Some things I find offputting for no real reason

– Books where the human main character falls in love with an alien
I’m gettng SO MANY of these at the moment. I’m not sure if aliens are the new vampires or something, but whatever is happening here is not something I am on board with. It’s not so much that I’m squicked by alien sex (although I do have some questions about that) as that I’m bored by any book where Forbidden Romance is a significant part of the plot. So I guess actually I do have some sort of reason for this one.

– Books where the human main character turns out to secretly be an alien
But they don’t even know it, and the book is mostly about them coming to terms with the fact that they’re an alien. Or the Chosen One. Or the secret weapon that can destroy planets. Or the Key to unlock the doors between dimensions. None of that, thank-you, sorry.

– Urban fantasy.
It’s basically the real world but a bit of it is magical. I can see how that would be cool, but for some reason it doesn’t work for me and I’m not really sure why. I’m open to the idea that I might enjoy some historical urban fantasy if it were set in the right period, but I’ve pretty much stopped asking to see material for contemporary urban fantasy.

– Fantasy based on Celtic, Norse, Greek or Roman mythology
I don’t know why. I had no idea that I wasn’t interested in these mythologies before I started getting them in my slush pile. Maybe I read too much of them as a child? Maybe I just think there are too many books about them out there already? All other mythologies enthusiastically accepted.

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On finding the right agent

I recently read a manuscript that I thought had amazing potential. The concept really drew me in, I loved the characters, and although I felt that the plot wasn’t hanging together very well in places, it was nothing that couldn’t be fixed. So I reached out to the author and asked if she’d be interested in chatting with me about it.

She said no. She was looking for an agent who liked the plot just as it was, and wasn’t interested in making any major changes to her manuscript at this stage. And I thought good for you.

It’s always disappointing to lose out on a potential client, of course, but I love it when authors really know what they want in an agent – it makes things easier for everybody. If she’d said nothing and ended up signing with me just to have an agent, we’d have had a terrible partnership, with me constantly suggesting revisions and her feeling aggrieved, wondering why I’d taken this book on if I didn’t even like it the way it was. And neither of us would be wrong, we just wouldn’t be a good match for one another. It’s sad, but there it is.

I wonder how often this is the root cause of a relationship breakdown between an agent and one of their clients – it’s something that hasn’t happened to me yet, but I’ve watched enough of these dramas unfolding on the internet to know that I never want it to. Before offering representation to somebody, I try and explain as much as possible about how I work, to make sure that we’re on the same page about things. Here are the three main questions I ask every potential client:

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Deal announcement: EMPEROR TENTACLE by Danna Staaf

I have a new book deal to announce today! North American rights to Danna Staaf‘s EMPEROR TENTACLE: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods, sold to ForeEdge, the trade imprint of the University Press of New England.

Danna Staaf is a marine biologist and science writer with an infectious passion for all things tentacled. You only have to read her writing to get a sense of that passion for yourself – from her funny, chatty blog posts on science20.com and KQED, to the more sustained scientific writing in her book, practically every sentence she writes makes me more interested in her subject matter. She’s also a highly engaging presenter in person, as you can see from her presentations at Nerd Nite San Francisco.

Danna’s first full-length book will be an evolutionary biography of squid, telling the extraordinary story of cephalopod evolution, which starts 200 million years before the first dinosaurs arose and still continues today, as our modern squid and octopuses adapt, survive and thrive in rapidly changing ocean environments. As a work of popular science, it speaks directly to the dinosaur-crazy child in me, and is packed with facts and stories that I just can’t help sharing with people. Did you know that cephalopods were the first animals ever to rise from the sea floor and actually swim, rather than grubbing around on the bottom with the trilobites etc? Did you know that they did it by filling their shells with buoyant gas and floating around in the water like underwater dirigibles? Did you know that squid brains have three hemispheres, and their oesophaguses pass right through the middle of the three? Unbelievable. And you thought they were just live calamari :p

Another interesting fact about Danna is that she holds the record for ‘fastest offer of representation’ among my clients – I offered her rep in a Skype call that took place less than forty-eight hours after she first queried me. Her initial query wasn’t actually for this project at all – she’s also a very talented writer of science fiction, and she queried me with a middle-grade manuscript that will be going on submission in a few months’ time. I actually can’t wait – you’re all going to love it.

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Seven things I learned in my first year as an agent

I’ve been with The Rights Factory for a little over a year now. I started out just handling foreign rights for my colleagues, but with the support of my fantastic boss I soon started representing my own domestic clients as well. Now I represent clients writing in genres from middle-grade SFF to narrative non-fiction (and I even have one client who writes both of those!). I’ve done some deals and had some rejections. I have lost sleep over manuscripts and then realised that it’s all going to be fine. I have found diamonds in my slush pile.

Here are some things I’ve learned in my first year as a literary agent. I hope they’re useful to somebody else.

1. Publishing is slow
Slower than that. No, slower. These days I raise this issue with authors before I sign them, because I don’t want them to have unrealistic expectations of how quickly the publication process is going to go. You see interviews occasionally with blushing debut authors who shyly tell the story of their first publishing deal, and it usually goes like this: their agent submitted their manuscript and then had two editors on the phone within a week (sometimes within 24 hours). The contract was on their desk a week later, and it’s all been such a whirlwind and they’re so glad and they were never expecting anything like this to happen. I know that only a very tiny minority of authors have this experience and yet I have to admit, even I get carried away by these stories sometimes. Every time I do a submission I’m on tenterhooks for the whole following week, imagining editors reading it right that second and going I HAVE TO HAVE THIS. Because that’s how I felt when I read it, after all.
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Notes from Bologna

The dust has settled, the manuscripts have been sent out, and I finally have a bit of time to sit back and take stock of this year’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

I hadn’t been to Bologna since 2012, and oh my goodness, I hadn’t realised how much I had missed it. I have this problem where I absolutely hate book fairs unless I am actually at one, in which case I love it and always have a wonderful time. This year was particularly nerve-wracking for me because so much had changed since 2012. Last time I was at Bologna, I was a rights executive for a major UK children’s publisher – which involved taking meetings on their stand from 9am until 6pm, with the occasional quick break to dash to the loo. This time, I was a free-floating agent, which involved a lot of meetings in the café at the agent centre, a lot of dashing between other people’s stands, and a little bit of wandering around the different halls and treating the occasional editor to gelato in the sunshine outside Hall 25. Last time I had a big binder full of new projects, plenty of illustrated proofs and advance copies to show off, and a big stand full of backlist books; this time it was just me and my tablet. It feels a bit more precarious this way, but also more exciting.

The Rights Factory presence at Bologna this year consisted of me and my wonderful colleague, Ali McDonald, who is TRF’s main children’s agent. I was mostly there in my capacity as foreign rights associate, so Ali met with English-language editors and I met with editors who publish in other languages (as well as with our foreign co-agents and literary scouts). Ali also travelled to the furthest reaches of the fair and brought me back pizza for lunch, because she is wonderful ❤ (the food at the fair is still mostly terrible except for the pizza).

I found this Publisher’s Weekly article pretty representative of my experience: people are still looking for the Next Big Thing, of course, but at the moment nobody seems to have a clear idea of what that will be, and as a result people feel delightfully open to the new and unexpected. My biggest books of the fair were the ones that were a little out-of-the-ordinary: a YA horror novel with the feel of a cult classic, a highly-illustrated middle-grade that blends fact and fiction, a classic sports story with a science-fiction twist. Contemporary YA is still very popular – I had a lot of interest in a couple of YA romances with great voices and very high stakes – and YA fantasy can work as long as it’s unusual and/or feels really ‘big’. A number of markets seem to be paying more attention to English-language middle-grade recently, with some only prepared to consider series and others looking particularly for standalones. I was surprised at the number of middle-grade editors saying that they didn’t mind what genre the book was, but they did want the main character to be a particular gender (maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was).

Outside of the fair, I went to lots of dinners and spent lots of time drinking with editors in bars and didn’t get nearly enough sleep. I reconnected with some old colleagues, who generously let me crash their dinner on the last evening of the fair, I consumed a reasonable amount of limoncello and in retrospect I didn’t get nearly enough gelato, despite it being perfect gelato weather. Oh well – it was a fantastic fair overall, and there’s always next year.

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Deal Announcement: REBELLIOUS SPIRITS by Ruth Ball

Today I’m thrilled to announce a deal for REBELLIOUS SPIRITS: The Illicit History of Booze in Britain! This fascinating work of narrative non-fiction by Ruth Ball tells the story of illicit spirit-making in the British Isles – from Scottish bothies to Cornish smugglers, from Hogarth’s London to the Blitz – with accompanying recipes. UK and Commonwealth rights sold to wonderful British independent Elliott & Thompson, for publication in October 2015.

All of my clients are fascinating people, but Ruth is definitely a strong contender for ‘coolest day job’. She runs a custom liqueur business called Alchemist Dreams, creating delicious booze and running exciting events for clients including The British Library, Starwood Hotels, Garnier and The Science Museum Group. If you’re looking for a drink that evokes the pine forests of the Canadian Shield, or a cocktail that changes colour in an edible glass, or basically any outlandish booze-based creation you can imagine (and plenty that you can’t), Ruth is the person you need to call.

Her research at the cutting edge of boozecraft has uncovered a vast collection of fascinating tales from history, and I’m so excited that she has decided to turn them into a book. The accompanying recipes are as authentic as possible – adjusted only for safety and legality. If you’re interested in what 14th-century Aqua Vitae or 18th-century milk punch tasted like, this book will give you a chance to find out.

AND she’s looking for testers! If you enjoy experimental boozery and would like to get involved in making this fantastic project even better, email Ruth at testers@alchemistdreams.co.uk!

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