But I also know that writing success is a wild mix of talent, hard work, luck, timing, persistence, discipline. It’s not, as so many would have you believe, a zero-sum game — you win, I must lose. There are always many extremely determined competitors our there; some have helped me and vice versa. Score!
I see two sorts of what I call literary siblings — both the other authors sharing the same agent — and those who are published by the same house, maybe even by the same editor. (Which does she like better?)
I heard an author interviewed on the radio recently who is also published by Penguin/Portfolio, who will issue my new memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” on April 14, 2011. Some of their authors have had huge best-sellers, like Seth Godin.
I root for every writer I like but also cheer for those on the same editorial team, even if I’ll never meet them. Our successes will (I hope!) keep our agents and our publishers thriving.
Some of you have asked advice on how to find an agent for your writing. Having been through seven of them over the years, I have some experience with this.
So, here are some of my thoughts, albeit most suited to writers of non-fiction, as I do not write fiction. Most agents represent a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, children’s and young adult material. Read their list carefully and don’t submit any genres they don’t handle.
How do I know when it’s time to get an agent?
Do you have a manuscript ready? Or a full-fledged book proposal? (If you don’t know how to write one, read this book.) If all you have is an idea, or several, you’ll need very strong writing credentials, a platform (i.e. thousands of people who know your name and will possibly be eager to buy your book), media savvy, and the willingness to undertake the writing of a book proposal.
Why do I have to write a book proposal?
How else will the agent know what you hope to accomplish? In a few cases, an agent you are introduced to through a trusted contact may sit down with you to hear about your project — and if they’re intrigued they’ll ask you to produce a proposal. If they want the project, they’ll work with you on it. They are not paid for this time, nor are you. It’s a lot of work! Do it cheerfully and diligently. Even if that book does not sell (and that happens), you’re learning how to write this crucial document and will do it better next time.
How much work will an agent do on a book proposal?
As much as s/he thinks is worth it. They may love you and your idea, but they only earn a living when they sell a book and close the deal. They can only invest so much time on each project and writer. Don’t take it personally. Find someone to help you polish and edit the proposal if necessary. It is not unusual for a proposal to take months as you send it back and forth to your agent until they are totally satisfied with it. It’s their name and reputation that intrigues and attracts editors, not yours.
What do agents do?
They help you prepare a proposal and decide which editors at which publishers are most likely to find it of interest. They submit it and hope. If someone shows serious interest, they will come with you to the meeting with the publisher — which is common now so they can check you out in person. If an offer is made (or several) they will negotiate with the publisher and editor to get the best offer they can.
Do I have to pay them to read my work?
No. If an agent wants to work with you they will take 15 percent of your earnings after the book is sold. They will also take a percentage of all ancillary sales, such as television, film and possibly speaking engagements.
How should I treat an agent?
With respect! They are not your BFF or your Mom or your writing coach or English professor. They know what a tough game it is to be a writer, but they’re not especially eager to hold your hand. They expect professional behavior even if this is your first book and it’s all totally new to you. They will help you understand this new world, but don’t abuse their time and goodwill. I tend to check in every few months to say “hi” and hear what they’re up to on other projects once I’m mid-book. But once your book is sold, you’re essentially on your own.
The way many writers find an agent is through their friends and colleagues who will recommend someone to their agent. The way for a new writer with few or no such contacts is to read a number of books similar to the one you hope to write and read the acknowledgments; authors always thank their agents. Write to a few agents whose authors’ work you admire and tell them why you and your work are a potential fit with their list. Read their websites and see what sort of people they tend to take on — Academics? Politicians? Celebrities?
One of the best ways to find an agent who might be a fit is to attend writers’ conferences like this one, where they often speak. You can quickly get a feel for their personality and can probably slip them your card.
What if my agent is new to the business?
This can be an advantage. New agents are hungry for new clients while (much) more established ones have their pick.
What if turns out to be a poor fit?
It happens. Initial enthusiasm, on both sides, can pale. They can take too long to reply to calls and emails or sending out your work. They need to communicate with you clearly. There are others out there. Don’t stick with someone if it’s really not working well for you.
What should I be looking for in an agent?
Someone whose personality will work well with yours. They may be skilled and experienced and have a Really Big Name, but if they’re too brusque or intimidating or hurried or busy, move on. Someone who really gets who you are and what you do best and are excited by your project. I want someone who’s been around the block a few times, who won’t waste my time encouraging things that won’t sell. I think you want to like them enough to work with them, but they’re not your pal. They’re a business partner. Feeling cosy with them, however personally comforting, is less important than feeling certain they have your best interests at heart.
What sort of books most excite them? Sell well for them? Ask to see their list of authors and recent projects.
If you read it with a thoughtful eye, you’ll notice patterns. I saw that one agent’s list was heavy on academics — he likes smart and informed think-y books/authors (who doesn’t?) — but I saw in that a warning. Professors have salaries and crave acclaim from a wider audience, and can afford a tiny advance. I have different goals and need an advance I can survive on. Another had a list studded with celebrities and one-book-wonders. I want an agent who wants to run with me for years.
Here’s how I found the agents I’ve met and either worked with or considered:
1) Can’t remember. A NYC agent. Deal fell through after I flew all the way to Australia to do the reporting. Ouch. Costly error, fun vacation.
2) An adult student in one of my NYU writing classes knew an agent who gave me three names. One became my first agent.
3) A friend in Toronto, a former newspaper colleague, sent me to someone highly regarded there. She demanded 15,000 words and then blew me off after reading them with one sentence. Dick.
4) I play softball with a bunch of fellow suburbanites. One, the pitcher, is an agent. He read over a few of my non-selling proposals and diagnosed why they were going nowhere.
5) A friend whom I have yet to meet face to face (we met through an on-line writers’ group) sent me to his agent. She’s terrific and we discussed one proposal but I back-burnered it. This book is too similar to one of hers (a NYT best seller) so she had to decline it.
6) A friend admired an essay of mine and sent me to her agent. Not a good fit. One email was enough to show me this.
7) I spoke on a panel in NYC about writing and a passionate young woman in the audience asked a few questions. She was then the assistant to my current agent and suggested I write a memoir. Now I have!
My current agent is Kathleen Anderson. She’s my age, bloody brilliant and even harder-headed than I, which I didn’t think possible. We’ve had shouting fights with one another and equally fierce hugs. She’s got a NYT best-selling author right now short-listed for the Booker Prize, Emma Donoghue, author of “Room.” Cool!
Like dating, finding an agent can be a little challenging. It can be a fantastic fit or a disaster. Or neither. I’ve learned not to be in awe of them. They’re people. They work hard. They love writers and ideas. They advocate for talent. If you find a good one, treat them well!
This list of decidedly losing letters to one annoyed literary agent (and their unsent replies) is delicious, from mediabistro.com’s GalleyCat, the blog that follows the publishing industry:
“Greetings agent. I have written the most important book on earth.”
Will someone, for the love of God, please kill me.
If you really want to find an agent, find a writer who thinks your work is excellent and ask, very nicely, if they’ll share the name of their agent. That’s usually how it’s done. I found mine when I spoke at an event and her assistant suggested I write a memoir. I did.
This week’s installment of J-Day offers two New York City-based veteran agents, Kathleen Anderson and Joe Spieler, both of whom I know personally and have worked with on my own proposals. They’re very different people, but both bring a tough-minded, battle-scarred perspective to the brutal business of book publishing. No matter what form a new book arrives in, someone has to find it, prepare it, sell it, advocate for it and negotiate every possible profit for its author, from audio to foreign-language rights.
Being a terrific agent demands the diplomacy of an ambassador, the speed and agility of a prize-fighter, the protective instincts of a momma grizzly and the tenacity of a pit-bull.
I met Kathleen through one of her assistants, who found me. I met Joe Spieler when he, literally, pitched to me first — playing in the same co-ed softball group for the past eight years. Kathleen blends great sensitivity with a steel spine; Joe’s a gruff, tough guy with a deep love of excellence, the agent for Thomas’ Frank’s 2004 best-seller “What’s The Matter With Kansas?”
Kathleen Anderson is an award-winning editor and agent who has been working in the publishing business since 1977 — first as an editor at W.W. Norton where she published DEAR AMERICA: Letters Home From Vietnam, which became an Emmy award-winning documentary, then as a senior editor at Poseidon, formerly a division of Simon & Schuster, where she published and edited Mary Gaitskill and Ursula Hegi. She is a recipient of the Tony Godwin Award, given to an outstanding American editor under 35 who is then sent to England to learn about British publishing. She was a founding partner of Anderson Grinberg Literary Management, Inc., then formed her own firm in 2006. She specializes in adult and young adult literary and commercial fiction, narrative nonfiction, American and European history, literary journalism, nature and travel writing, memoir, and biography. She is a member of PEN and the AAR (Association of Author’s Representatives).
Where did you attend college and what did you study? KA: I attended Hampshire College because it’s an experimental college with no grades or credits. It allows you to progress through college by individual evaluations by professors. It was perfect for me because I needed a more creative education that allowed me to design my own education while providing me with the opportunity to take courses at any of the other colleges in the valley: Amherst, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, U.Mass. JS: I studied comparative literature (I don’t know why, except that I spoke a few languages, all of them miserably), taking a degree from City College in the Pleistocene.
When, how and why did you become an agent?
KA: I became an agent in 1995. Previously I had been working as a senior editor for an imprint called Poseidon, a division of Simon & Schuster, where I published a lot of serious nonfiction and literary fiction writers such as Mary Gaitskill and Ursula Hegi. The imprint was terminated so I found myself without a job, so took a few years off to travel and regroup. In the process, I metamorphosed into an agent, which was a rarity in those days for editors to jump the fence and become an agent. (It’s very common now.) But it wasn’t a big leap for me because I was always an author advocate in-house as an editor, always trying to get the author more money, better book jackets, always fighting with the powers-that-be on behalf of my authors. I somehow never realized that I was supposed to be representing the house and not the author. So when I became an agent, it made perfect sense and gave me much more flexibility — now I can work with all the publishing houses and I’m no longer restricted to one house’s point of view on a manuscript or proposal What my former employers reject, I can sell elsewhere.
JS: I became an agent in 1981, when a close friend, a Marine lieutenant who had seen and endured much in the Vietnam War, asked me to help him publish a series of linked short stories of his experience there. I did and the book was “Cooks and Bakers”, by Robert A. Anderson. I never looked back.
What are the top three skills an agent needs to succeed? KA: Patience, perserverence, and literary acumen.
JS: Perhaps a weaving of cultural passion, deep reading in the agent’s areas of interest, and a concern for others. Of course, I know hugely successful agents who show no sign of these traits.
Who’s the ideal client, i.e. what skills or aptitudes do they bring? KA: Patience, perserverence, and literary acumen.
JS: I have no ideal client. I want somebody who can write, who has something to say that hasn’t been said, and the mental/psychological conditioning of a saint, or who has come into a healthy financial inheritance.
Who’s the nightmare client? How can a writer who hopes to find an agent avoid being that nightmare? KA: Authors who treat an agent like their employee. Being an agent is a service profession, but it’s a profession nonetheless. Mutual respect of each other’s expertise and a general feeling of trust is paramount in the relationship. Once that goes, the whole relationship is a nightmare.
JS: There are no qualifications for being a nightmare client: if the writer is a nightmare to others in his life, the odds are he’ll be a nightmare to his agent. Sane, wonderful writers can become nightmare clients overnight — who knows why. The process generally doesn’t go in reverse.
What’s the most useful preparation a non-fiction author can do before coming to you? KA: Find out what other nonfiction authors I publish so you have a sense of the scope of what I have done. Write a proposal before coming to me — and the proposal needs to present a narrative overview of the book as a whole. It is expected that in order to promote your work, you have a website and hopefully participate in blogs, whether your own or someone else’s.
JS: Write it and rewrite it until you can’t go further. Put it aside from anywhere from a week to a year. Then rewrite it again. Then call me.
What is the most challenging aspect of selling non-fiction these days? KA: PLATFORM. This is what you most often hear from publishers — what is the author’s PLATFORM? I’ve never cared much about an author’s PLATFORM. I’ve always cared more about the writing.
JS: The same challenge it’s always been: to get editors–and their higher-highers–to see past their nose. Some can, and are encouraged to by their houses (probably less than a dozen senior such editors now in trade publishing); most can’t.
How has publishing changed in recent years and what are you, and your clients doing to adapt? KA: Publishers have become much more selective — they only want to publish books that can sell at least 25,000 copies. There are many successful authors who sell way less than that — and I’m sure Herta Muller, the woman who just won the Nobel Prize in Literature today, is one of them. So clients have to do one of two things to adapt: (1) they keep writing whatever they want, regardless of potential sales, and adjust their expectations accordingly — it would be more important to find a good home with the right editor in that case than strive for an unrealistic advance; (2) clients discuss with their agent different ideas for books and make a strategic decision about which book would have the best chance of furthering their careers or getting the highest advance (not necessarily the same thing). For my part, I edit the proposals and try to make them the best they can be before they are sent to an editor so they have the best chance of getting bought.
JS: Books have lost their cultural primacy, though they won’t disappear. Other forms have taken huge bites out of the printed word. What am I doing about it? I’m waiting for further developments. The horse did not give way to the car overnight.
What’s the greatest pleasure of being an agent? KA: Relationships with authors and what I learn from them.
JS: Drinking and going to sleep.
The greatest challenge? KA: Relationships with authors and what I don’t learn from them.
JS: The whole damn thing’s a challenge, like preparing yourself for root canal.
Anything you’d like to add?
KA: Remember that if your book is rejected fifteen times, it doesn’t mean anything. The proposal could have been sent to the wrong people, or the editors are too conventional to understand what’s in front of them. If you and your agent believe in the book, then you have to keep trying.
JS: The exception to all this–and it’s a big one — is books for children. For some reason, the dumbing down is at a minimum, and for most houses there remains an ethical strand in their books for the young-uns. That will probably disappear after the next generation of tiny-tot readers. Then again, so might the whole mammalian endeavor.
Next week’s final installment, a Q and A with non-fiction authors Ulrich Boser, whose 2009 best-seller is “The Gardner Heist” and Kelsey Timmerman, author of “Where Am I Wearing?”, a look at how our clothing is cheaply made overseas.