Tell us a little about your background.
Like I say on my Facebook profile: “If you’re a friend of books or a friend of writing, you’re a friend of mine.”
I’ve been very fortunate in that, over these past eight years in the writing world, I’ve written and edited for newspapers, written and edited for magazines, written and edited books, and written and edited online content. So I have a unique perspective in understanding not only how editors operate, but also how writers operate.
How did you get involved with this huge project, the Guide to Literary Agents?
I got hired at Writer’s Digest magazine (F+W Media) and that was a dream come true. Several months later, three staffers were laid off and I, being new, was one of them. None of us left, however—we all just went to other editorial positions in our publishing house. A few months later, a spot on the books side of things opened up—editing Guide to Literary Agents. I applied and got it. The 2010 edition is my third. Since I signed on, my job has expanded to include editing Screenwriter’s & Playwright’s Market, as well as contributing material to Writer’s Digest and running my blog (guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog).
How do you balance your writing, editing and promotional commitments?
No real trick to it—just lots and lots and lots of time working on everything. Besides spending time with my loved ones, there is nothing I’d rather be doing than writing and editing. Over the years, I’ve slowly let go of other fun-yet-time-consuming things (“that which I like”), such as poker and playing basketball, in pursuit of more time to write (“that which I love”).
I edit during the day. Then I come home at night and write. Promotion and marketing comes whenever I have time. I go to a lot of writers’ conferences on the weekends, and that’s when I find time to promote GLA and myself. Marketing comes in with a lot of little things: making Facebook friends, commenting on blogs, guest blogging, simply responding to e-mails from people who need an answer to their question.
Your blog and website are a wealth of info about agents—how do feel the web presence supports book sales and vice versa?
That’s a good question and we’re still figuring out the best way to make everything work together. The goal is to have people find the blog online and realize that we (at Writer’s Digest Books) know what we’re doing and can help writers on their journey. And we point these writers to our resources—magazines, books, online workshops, contests—that can help, as well.
It seems that agents are increasingly called upon to perform the editorial tasks once left to publishers, and even working with authors on marketing ideas. Where do you see the role of the agent heading in the next few years?
As agents spend more time with their clients to fill some editorial roles, that will leave them less time to take on new clients, I fear. That’s no reason to stop querying them, however. Everyone says the same thing: The cream always rises to the top.
I’m not sure how much their jobs will evolve these next few years. One thing I predict we will see is a small yet important shift in how agents take their commissions. If sales don’t pick up, then I foresee agents taking larger commissions on smaller advances—to ensure that they can continue to take on books that they love, even if they’re worried about a meager financial payoff.
Many multi-published authors work in two or more genres. Should these ideally be handled by the same agent, or by specialists? What's an author to do when they want to try an area their agent isn't familiar with?
Well, one agent is ideal, but this issue you bring up is nothing new. I once heard of a writer with six different agents—and imagine all the joy that would be (though it might have paid off come Christmastime when she was showered with cards). If you write in multiple genres, one of three things will happen: 1) You will hook up with a rep who handles all your categories; 2) Your rep, who only handles one of your categories, will do her best to handle the other(s) to keep things simpler for you and her; 3) The rep will wish you well in finding Agent No. 2 and probably even throw out some suggestions.
Finding a second agent is not completely uncommon. You get your queries read a lot faster when you start the letter with “I already have an agent, (Agent Name), but she does not represent inspirational work and recommended that I contact you.”
What would you suggest a mid-career author look for in an agent?
Someone who loves your work. Look for someone who pushes you and doesn’t let you slack off. Also, look for someone who has the same vision as you for the project. When you talk with them before signing, ask them if they think the book needs substantial work before being submitted to editors. What is their plan for submitting it?
What are some red flags to watch for when the agent/author relationship goes sour?
Not getting multiple phone calls and e-mails returned. If you can’t communicate, you can’t verify anything.
I noticed you go to a lot of conferences. What do you look for in a speaking gig? Any great or terrible stories you'd like to share?
I look for any number of things in a speaking gig. Will agents and editors be there? I want to meet with them and schmooze, just like writers do. Is the location nice? Obviously, Boston or San Francisco is more appealing than, oh say, Glens Falls, NY (and yes, that is an inside joke at a friend of mine). Is it a SCBWI writing group? As someone is who is trying to write kids fiction, I want to know kids authors.
Stories? A lot of piano playing with writers, a lot of seeing the sites, and a lot of meeting very nice people. Most people at conferences just need a little direction. If you answer their question(s) and give them a few minutes, they’re very kind and appreciative.
Good stories? I met my literary agent at a conference. That was nice.
Bad stories? I met one of Preditors & Editors’ “20 Worst” agents at my first conference ever. (What are the chances?) This woman charged people $3,000+ upfront to represent them. Somehow, she ended up at this conference with me and gabbed the whole time about how her business was legitimate, and people had it all wrong, etc. I didn’t think it could get any worse. But at the end of the conference, the attendees celebrated with some loud music and dancing. That’s when she walked up to me, in some kind of funky-sultry dance groove, and asked me to boogie with her on the dance floor. I declined.
What's the question you wish authors would ask you?
“What do you do when sources disagree on protocol for submissions to agents?”
By this, I mean: If one place says “Start your query with an excerpt of your book,” and other place says “Never do that,” what should you do?
When I blog and write articles, I always take the wide view. See, every agent has their own little quirks and “likes”—but these things have to recognized as just that: personal quirks and “likes.” Just because one agent says she opens unsolicited attachments doesn’t mean that others do, too. Just because some agents like you to pitch them a book series doesn’t mean that such procedures are universally accepted. When I talk to people, I give them “safe” principles. I say, “If you follow these submission guidelines, you work will not get thrown in the trash—period.”
Let me go one step further with an example. At a recent conference, an agent told a group of writers that she wanted query letters that revealed the ending of the story (e.g., “The good guy dies in the end”). In general, what she suggested is not recommended. Pitches are designed to be like the back of a DVD case—to pique interest. When you pick up the Die Hard DVD, you aren’t told that John McClane beats the terrorists in the end. You watch the movie to find out!
If you get conflicting advice, keep looking to see if you can find a general consensus on what to do. Meanwhile, I will continue to keep showing writers safe principles to give their work a fair shot and not make any agents upset.
Thanks to Elaine Isaak for her wonderful questions.