Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Notes from Q & A With 4 Literary Agents

From Poets & Writers


Maria Massie- Lippincott Massie McQuilkin, Anna Stein—Irene Skolnick Literary Agency, Peter Steinberg—Steinberg Agency, Jim Rutman—Sterling Lord Literistic


On evaluating Manuscripts—

·      INCREDIBLY subjective!  “How can you explain to somebody what moves you?  Because, hopefully, you’re capable of being moved by things that you didn’t know you’d be moved by.”

·      It’s VERY rare to be bowled over, but they know it when they see it.

·      All agents have different tastes and have SO much material to choose from

On falling in love with a Manuscript-

·      It’s the moment when an author makes the reader feel the author has seen into her soul.  When the reader can identify with the character to such and extend and says and does what we all would like to say and do, but don’t.

·      It’s when the author successfully, perfectly blends the familiar with something new and unique.  Which is really tough to do.

·      The agents all caution against paying too much attention to what is selling or trends and write what you’re passionate about—‘cause it’s really ALL about the story for them.

People in the business read in different ways than normal readers, like considering who the author is and other things beyond the story.

·      The agents agree that it’s the story first and the author etc are secondary considerations.

·      They also agree that synopses are tough to write, usually not done well.  If your writing and the story isn’t strong enough to hook them, they could care less what happens later on in the story.

·      Often times editors feel differently about synopses.

·      Agents are in constant contact with editors and they have to read submissions with an eye towards how a publisher will regard a book; not only is it a great plot and well written, but will it sell well?  How would they publish it?  What kind of cover would they give it?  How do they position it?

·      When they read something, they’re trying to imagine if more than a few people will want to read it.

Where these agents find writers, aside from referrals.

·      No blogs (not for fiction)

·      Referrals = ~ 75% , editors, MFA teachers, other agents, occasionally slush pile

·      Not short stories—most often those authors are already agented

On MFA Programs

·      The writers are SO savvy

·      MFA can be a drawback if the business of writing and submitting becomes more of a priority than the work.

·      On the other hand, having a MFA eliminates the newbies who want the agent to explain what a query letter should consist of.


·      Take chances; don’t worry about writing the “perfect” novel.

·      Pick 2-3 friends who hate everything they read, and have those people give you feedback on your manuscripts.

·      Once you think the work is done, give it another year before submitting it.  Most authors rush to submit less polished work.

Common Mistakes They See

·      Don’t be cliché

o   No characters sweating profusely on first two pages—don’t even use that phrase, “sweating profusely”.

o   No waking up from dreams on first page—it’s best to avoid dreams if possible.

·      When submitting, do NOT cc a hundred agents—no “dear Agent . . .”

o   Use the agent’s correct name.

·      Knowing “somebody” makes a difference.  A query of a “friend of a friend” makes a difference

·      Follow agency guidelines

The agents gustimate that there are only about a hundred people in the United States who make a living from novel writing.

It is EXTREMELY rare for a great piece of fiction to cross their desks.  Perhaps only 1-2 times a year.

When dealing with agents, it’s very important to have integrity, to be honest and gracious from the very beginning.   It’s a long-term relationship.

They all agree that wildly talented authors who are crazy (or difficult) . . . are NOT worth the effort.

The agent’s opinion of what are the big problems in the industry:

·      Too many books

·      Inflated advances for the few

·      Marketing budgets going to big, established authors

·      Returns

·      Trend-hunting

·      Barnes & Noble making decisions for publishers

What are the agents encouraged about these days?

·      Our president is a writer, who loves books and is all about promoting the arts.

·      One agent likes the Kindle and Sony Read

o   They keep up with new technology

o   They draw attention and intrigue people

·      YA has taken off in last few years and kids are really excited about reading.

·      One agent is encouraged by things that succeed

Best part of their jobs

·      Working with great authors

·      Discovering new voices

·      Holding an author’s book, when it first arrives

·      Having some part in the creation of a book they feel strongly about.

·      Making the author happy—making the author’s hard work pay off—their scream (happy)

·      One agent loves dealing with creative people on a daily basis and seeing how their minds work.

·               Having constant access to people who are smarter, more creative, more disciplined and better. . . just better.

1 comment:

Audra Harders said...

Great look at agents and how they look at us : )

Most of their answers/opinions make sense. I so agree with forget the trends and write the books you love. The quality of writing is so much greater. And I agree it's a shame only a few authors get the huge advances.

Only 100 people make a living writing? Wow, now that's discouraging. I guess that depends on the definition of living.

You've got to really love writing to stick with it in this business. Good, good, insights!