Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Long (er than You'd Expect) and Winding Road + a Contest!

Every year, I make a point of reading LITTLE WOMEN, which is one of my all time favorite books.  And every year, I get angry as hell that Jo and Laurie do not end up together when they so clearly belong with each other.  Now that I have an author writing a non-fiction account of the lives of Transcendalists Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott, I wish I could strongarm him into rewriting Alcott's ending of her story, but I guess it will have to go down as one of the greater romantic mistakes in fiction.

I drove my mom crazy in 5th grade searching for the book with this exact cover.

Actually, now that I think of it, a lot of my favorite stories have unsatisfying endings in terms of who ends up with whom...I want Cassandra and Stephen to be together in Dodie Smith's I CAPTURE THE CASTLE, which never happens, and I think that I'm probably the only person in the world who wants Elizabeth Bennett to stick it to Mr. Darcy and run away with Wickham.

That is one of the reasons why agenting appeals to me so much; once I find a story that I fall in love with, I actually get to have some say in any aspects that I don't like and can work with the author to tweak and polish their story until it is just right.  Not just with things like who gets the girl, but also with content, pacing, character development, and voice.  All of my authors will tell you that I get very involved in their manuscripts and immerse myself in every detail of their story.  It helps me to catch little inconsistencies or to create connections that I otherwise wouldn't see.

A lot of people seem to think that once they sign with an agent, their book is guaranteed to be sold.  Unfortunately that is not the case.  There can be several stages of editing and revising with your agent before your manuscript is even submitted to publishers.  I have worked with authors on revision for almost a year before we both felt that the manuscript was in the right shape for editors.  This is not to say that I would have felt qualified to tell Louisa May Alcott, Dodie Smith, or Jane Austen what to do with their masterpieces, but I at least would have made a strong suggestion!  

Disclaimer: To all the Louisa May Alcott, Dodie Smith, and Jane Austen fans--especially the Jane Austen fans, because I know you can get crazy--that was a joke (kind of), so please don't kill me!

Also, in other news, Backspace (whose conference I will be attending) is having a logline contest in conjunction with their conference and the Broadway play, SEMINAR, starring Jeff Goldblum.  You can enter for a chance to twin two tickets by sending them the title and logline for a fictious book.  To view details about how to enter, click here!

I don't know about you, but this is how I always envision Jeff Goldblum in my head.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

When Is Self Publishing a Good Idea?

At the conference this past weekend, I was part of an agent panel made up of five other literary agents (including myself).  A moderator asked us various questions about the publishing industry: What kind of advances can debut fiction- and non-fiction authors expect, on average?  Which format do we think has the most importance nowadays, electronic or print?  Why do we draw the lines we draw about the genres we represent (i.e. fantasy but not science fiction, romance but not erotica)? 

The agent panel for the Write Stuff Conference.  

The question I was most interested in was the one that asked us when we felt self publishing was a good idea.  Self publishing has recently lost a lot of its stigma, but to be perfectly honest, I’m still undecided on whether I think it is worthwhile venture, so I was curious to hear what the other agents would have to say.  Rachel Stout, from Dystel & Goderich, said she recommended it for authors who had backlist titles or had the rights reverted for out-of-print books. 

I suggested that self publishing might be viable option for an author with a strong platform and readership, or for publicity purposes if a manuscript is having trouble catching an editor’s eye.  For instance, Writers House author Christopher Paolini (who wrote the ERAGON trilogy) came to the attention of his current agent after he self published the first of his novels. 

But Katie Shea of the Donald Maas Literary Agency said the thing that was secretly on the tip of my tongue.  She said that she would NEVER encourage a debut author to self publish, except as a last resort.  As Lauren Ruth of Bookends LLC said, you shouldn’t just nonchalantly decide to self publish.  The numbers and sales you generate from that book will be tied to your name and are things that agents and editors will take into consideration when deciding to take on your current manuscripts. 

The points they made pretty much encompass the reason that I am not 100% sold on self publishing.  Even though fantastic authors and novels can come out of its ranks, self publishing still does not have any set code of standards.  That is not to say that every book published by a publishing house is perfect, but there is a bar that needs to be passed.  Lazy writing can very easily find itself self published, and where is the non-stigma in that?  Unless you are incredibly confident in your novel and have a great sales strategy/platform already thought out, self publishing can be the easy way out that ends up hurting your overall career.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Conference This Weekend!

I am getting ready to go the Write Stuff Conference in Allentown, PA today!  I still have to pack, which means that I need to figure out a way to cram 10 different outfit options and two family-size bags of Cheetos into my backpack...

I will be there today and Saturday.  If you're going to the conference, please come up and introduce yourself to me!  See you all there.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Reading, Reading, Reading

Any agent will tell you that it is easy to get overwhelmed with submissions.  There are so many queries to read, along with manuscripts for clients and other work to do with editors, lawyers, etc., that it seems like there is a never-ending inbox of things to look at.  

When I read submissions, the kind of writing that stands out to me is that which immediately brings me into the narrator’s world.  I have one author who starts her memoir with the line, “The 11:40 to Suzhou crept along the tracks, chugging away from the hazy Shanghai skyline.”  Not the floweriest of descriptions (which I actually dislike), but straight away, I envision a slightly out-of-date train creeping along in the afternoon sunlight, with the foggy background of Shanghai city in the distance.  It completely captures the moment and brings me into it. 

I prefer this style of writing to overly descriptive ones, full of adjectives and similes at every turn.  To me, it much more effective; flowery writing is just gilding the lily.  All of those descriptions can get in the way of the image you are trying to evoke for the reader.  In other words, I guess I’m more of a Hemingway than a Sir Walter Scott.

Not Me

If you read some of the interviews I’ve done, you will see that I have a very wide, eclectic array of interests.  I am drawn to topics such as architecture, mythology, sustainability, and something that I call “side history.”  Side history explains smaller, “side” events of history that might normally be overlooked, but that offer interesting insight or detail about a time period, place, event, or person.  I love side history because it introduces me to fascinating new facts and reminds me that even the smallest things can have an impact on our lives and the lives of others. 

Some great examples of side history books are Deborah Chandra’s GEORGE WASHINGTON’S TEETH and Sarah Albee’s POOP HAPPENED!: A HISTORY OF THE WORLD FROM THE BOTTOM UP, which I actually came upon as a result of a meeting with Mary Kate Castellani at Walker.  From these books, we learn about small facets of history, such as George Washington’s lifelong dental problems and various sets of fake teeth, and how societies’ human waste disposal impacted the growth and health of civilizations. 

I have some clients who have terrific side history books that I am sooo excited to represent!  One is about thieves who impacted history, another is about the prehistory of North America, and the other is the intertwined lives of influential Transcendentalist writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott.  One of the reasons I took these clients on was because their manuscripts were about topics that I myself knew I would enjoy reading.  Although I do consider a manuscript’s potential popularity in the market, when it comes to offering representation my decision more often than not rests on this question: Would I want to read this?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What Is an Agent?

Okay, first things first.  What is an agent?  According to Wikipedia, a literary agent  “is an agent who represents writers and their written works to publishers, theatrical producers and film producers and assists in the sale and deal negotiation of the same.”  Too often, when people ask what I do for a living, I get blank stares at my response.  My mother has started telling people that I’m like Sandra Bullock in THE PROPOSAL, which is not true!

The movie my life is apparently based on.

There are, however, a lot of similarities between what an editor does and what an agent does.  One big difference though is that agenting is usually described as the more business-y end of the industry.  For instance, agents are directly involved in contract negotiation (although some huge agencies, like Writers House, where I used to work as an assistant, can have their own contracts department), whereas editors are not usually the ones responsible for negotiating contract details for their imprint.

Another big difference (and this is my favorite one) is that as an agent, we get to be involved with the client and their manuscript from the very beginning.  I find it incredibly rewarding to work closely with my authors to help them shape and refine their book and then get to see it all the way through to the final stages when it becomes a finished product.

Being a new agent can be a bit of a challenge, though.  When I say that I make my living working as one, what I mean is that I partially make my living. My colleague, Teresa, sent me this link to an interview, which I loved because it perfectly describes my life right now.  New agents are just beginning to build their client list, so while they are busy reading, editing, and trying to sell manuscripts, paying rent and bills can be a tricky subject. 

I actually work a few days a week as a reservationist at a great Upper East Side restaurant, where I answer phones, make reservations, and do some data entry.  I love it because everyone there is so friendly and they feed me!  My friend, Naerim, who is a pastry sous chef there, made crème brulees for family meal dessert the other day and I was in heavennnn.

Although I don’t mind working at the restaurant, I am obviously looking forward to a time when my sole job is to do what I love: work with authors and their books!  I am lucky to have several amazing authors whose manuscripts are out on submission right now, so I am hoping that my sales will build and that eventually I will join the ranks of the one-job-only agents in New York.  Stay tuned to find out!