Tell us about your agency and yourself.
My whole professional career has been in book publishing. I’ve worked in contracts for both Berkley and Bantam and have run my own agency since late 1984. The agency is most interested in commercial fiction and children’s books. That said, we do a wide variety of books.
What kind of book grabs your attention and makes you consider wanting to submit it?
It’s mainly driven by what excites me—an exceptional story with strong characters and a powerful narrative. There, of course, is some calculation of its potential, but it’s mainly enthusiasm driven. I sometimes think about ‘playing it safe’ but always discard that idea. I recently took my first Christian fiction writer. He sent me a truly moving novel called THE SEARCH COMMITTEE about 7 members of a church on a road trip to find a new pastor. Of course they find much more than that. It was moving, realistic and quite interesting. He’s revising now; we’ll see if I can sell it.
What makes a writer a good choice for you?
I simply look for talent. Beyond that, hard work, professionalism, realistic expectations, the ability to listen and let me do my job. But it’s always talent. I’ve got a prima donna or two but mainly very hardworking writers.
How much input do you expect to have on a client's work?
It’s all project driven. Nothing’s better than getting a perfectly honed, ready to submit book or a proposal that needs nothing. If work is needed, you have to speak up. Then it’s a dialogue between author and agent. The key thing is what we can do to make this sell, period. No ego. No masterpieces (unless the author writes one). Sustaining the career novelist.
Do you consider yourself a career-builder? Can you give an example?
I do, but that’s tricky. Everything flows from the author’s talent, drive and hard work. What I can take credit for is the careful dealmaking, the pursuit of other income streams (translation is a big area for me), the encouragement, etc. I like to think I ‘value add’ to what is already valuable.
What is the biggest mistake you think writers today typically make in the genres you represent?
There are two, somewhat related. The first is settling and not pushing to really come up with that great story, perfectly done. That may sound counterintuitive, but I sense people just want to get that one book a year out, that the grind is making them hit on an idea and stay with it, even if it doesn’t look that great. If you want to take a step up, you have to find something truly better than what you previously did.
The second is overwork, too many deadlines, rushing out first drafts. It’s a true occupational hazard. If you write more than a book a year, you have to be careful not to get locked into rushing out subpar work.
How do you advise clients who want to venture into new genres or make a departure from their published works?
It’s hard. Accept that. Be prepared to listen. You may even have to write the whole book to prove you’ve got something.
What kind of support do you offer clients who may have temporary difficulties in producing work? Or in selling?
In producing work, just patience and confidence. I don’t terminate clients for lack of activity. This is life, and life is hard—illness, divorce, children. I’ll still be here tomorrow. Selling—just maximum effort by me and them to re-work and keep trying. Careers do fade and end; as long as we are making the right effort and the author is too, that’s all you can expect.
How would you prefer to be approached by established writers looking for new representation?
An e-mail with a short explanation is perfect. Why are you looking for a new agent, what’s going on, etc.?
How would you handle a new mid-career client?
I don’t really think that’s an issue. My goal is to sustain you and let your talent rise as high as it can. In the great scheme of things, the whole list can’t be bestsellers. If I like and respect your work, that’s all that matters.
In today's market, are there any genres you would steer clients toward--or away from?
I don’t really give advice like that. Write what you truly love and where your talent truly sings. You will not succeed trying to write bestseller list knockoffs.
How have you seen the expanding e-book market working for your clients?
It’s a viable secondary market, by which I mean that your first goal should be the large NY publishers; but after that, they are a totally legitimate place to publish.
Do you accept electronic submissions?
Is there anything else you would like to say?
It’s a very complex time. The Internet is a gigantic game-changer. We’re all still absorbing this moving at the speed of light information/marketing/distribution engine. E-books are an enormous change. We desperately want to see the distribution network for printed books survive and even expand, and we can’t take our eyes off that prize while also balancing out all these other threats/opportunities. Amidst all that, the writer is still the lone creator of a narrative that entertains and helps us understand, live and love life. My head is spinning, but I hope in a good direction (lol).
Thanks to Rebecca York for inviting Ethan to blog with us.