Literary Agents Answer Your Burning Questions, Part 3

Photograph by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash.

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the series.

In part three of this three-part series, we asked literary agents questions that are all about developing relationships in publishing. This article will provide you with insights about being a good client and utilizing social media to interact with your intended audience. We asked the agents the following questions:

  • How should aspiring authors utilize social media?
  • How important is an online presence to you when deciding to accept a book?
  • What can an author do to make themselves easier to work with?
  • How much editing/revising do you do with your authors before you start sending them out?
  • How can new authors establish connections in the publishing world?
  • How can an author develop their brand/build a platform?
  • Describe some habits of your dream client.
  • How do you build a lifelong relationship with an author?
  • How do you approach marketing an author’s book?
  • What are some questions you like to ask potential authors?

What you learn may surprise you.

How should aspiring authors utilize social media?

Jim McCarthy: I’m deeply conflicted about this question, and I blame Michiko Kakutani’s The Death of Truth, Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts, and too many articles I’ve read about the negative psychological effects of social media. Here’s what I’ll say: having huge numbers of dedicated fans on social media can be extremely useful in demonstrating to a publisher that you can command an audience. BUT. At the end of the day, if being on the various platforms causes you an overabundance of emotional stress? Don’t feel like you HAVE to use it. Can it be used as an incredible sales and marketing tool? Absolutely. Can you accomplish some really incredible networking using it? For sure! Have I told clients they have to get off various platforms because they’ve been emotionally exhausted by it? Also yes.

Kate Garrick: Honestly, however they like. I think the industry has sort of moved past feeling like every author has to be an expert at social media. The fact is some people are very good at it, and other people aren’t. If you enjoy it, and you find the community rewarding, then by all means, partake. But if you find that it’s making you feel bad about yourself and your work, it’s okay to step back.

Farley Chase: As if they were a highly visible and well-respected author already.

How important is an online presence to you when deciding to accept a book?

Sharon Pelletier: How I answer this depends on whether a potential client is writing fiction or nonfiction. In almost every case for nonfiction, it’s paramount that the author have a strong online presence (or, for some categories, significant credentials and expertise in their field), because that’s what publishers look for when they’re deciding whether to buy a project they like. For fiction, it’s less important that an author already have a robust following, but I do check out their social media and website to see if they seem comfortable with social media and present themselves professionally. (And I should note: I’m looking to sign authors, not just individual books! I want to work with an author long-term over the course of their career, whether we sell this book, their next manuscript, or every book they ever write).

Noah Ballard: If you say that your book is going to resonate with a large audience, you have to prove it. One does that by publishing in major outlets, speaking to big groups of people and having the ethos as an expert in whatever field. Social media and web publication is an easy way to check those boxes, but certainly not the only way.

Andy Ross: Publishers expect authors to work to promote their own books and social media is a good way to do this. That being said, Twitter and Facebook aren’t going to do magic. If I see a project that I like, and the author doesn’t have an online presence, it won’t stop me from taking it on.

Laney Katz Becker: Platform is hugely important to editors and publishers, therefore, it matters to me.

Julia Kardon: It always helps, but is not crucial, especially for fiction. 

What can an author do to make themselves easier to work with?

Jeff Silberman: We often fail to hear and understand what is really being said. We are not truly in communication, and this applies to all of us two legged creatures. So, in the case of authors, when we give you notes, either tell us you think we’re nuts (so that we can resolve any creative differences) or address them. We often give notes to an author, who seemingly agrees with them, or who doesn’t say I don’t know how to address them, but sends us a redraft where nothing has really changed. So then we have to give the same notes, and proposals and manuscripts often take many more drafts than they need to before we can send them out. Quoting the great Jerry Maguire (an agent, no less!), “Help us, help you.”

Terra Chalberg: One thing I really think helps the agent serve the author—especially with a full draft of a novel or memoir—is if the author shares material with a handful of other trusted readers and incorporates that feedback, then sends the revision to the agent rather than treating the agent as first responder. This goes along with the idea that the relationship works best when authors value the agent’s time (agents don’t bill by the hour like lawyers and are always taking an educated financial risk when considering whether they can sell an author’s work), skill set, and experience, and act accordingly. Approach querying agents and the author-agent relationship with kindness, practice patience, and be goal driven but focused on the process and turning out quality work. Also, read widely in your field, and educate yourself about the business of publishing, promoting your work, and connecting with your audience.

Miriam Goderich: Be a good communicator. Don’t expect the people you work with to read your mind. Communicate respectfully but forcefully about the things that are important to you. Be willing and open to critiques of your work. Know what advice to take—don’t listen to everyone, find the right people to trust. Be kind. Be patient. Be flexible. 

Jamie Carr: I think being open to editorial feedback, to doing the real neck-deep work of reimagining or departing, and being aware of the books that are publishing is all super helpful. Also, patience for the process and for yourself—and to release yourself from whatever wonky timeline you’ve got drilled into your mind. Your book will have a birthday; we just don’t know what that birthday is yet. And that’s ok!

Lisa DiMona: Be real. Be direct. Be considerate and understanding.

How much editing/revising do you do with your authors before you start sending them out?

Sharon Pelletier: Depends on the project but I am fairly hands-on and editorial. My feedback is usually developmental—identifying minor pacing issues or ways to strengthen character arcs—and I tend to get most excited about a project where I have a clear editorial vision for a way I can help, but on the other hand I won’t sign an author for a project that still has a long ways to go structurally or in terms of character development. I need to be confident that the author can write a compelling, cohesive plotline and create and sustain three-dimensional characters. I also like talking prose style with my clients; it’s not my role to do a full line edit, but my edit memos do include notes towards sloppy tics I notice the writer falling back on or other tendencies in their prose that they should be aware of.

Julia Kardon: Really depends–I have had projects come to me that needed almost no editing and I have also sat down with an author over months and helped totally rewrite the book. If I have faith in the writer, I am willing to do a lot of editorial work. Obviously I would prefer to see the most polished version of a project the author can possibly muster on their own before I start working on it, but I don’t have a one-size-fits-all policy.

Laney Katz Becker: Probably more than I should. But it’s really hard to sell books these days. Before sending out anything, I try to make sure the proposal is as bullet-proof as possible so the rejections will be due to taste, not poor quality. Let’s be real: as an agent, I’m also judged by the work I submit. I want editors to look forward to reading projects I send because they know that if it’s from me, it will be terrific!

Noah Ballard: Depending on how much they need. For fiction, I usually edit a lot. For non-fiction, since we’re typically just building a proposal, it’s less intensive.

Andy Ross: Lots.

How can new authors establish connections in the publishing world?

Jim McCarthy: Well, I spoke against it, but if you have the stomach for it, social media can provide some great opportunities. Also, it’s a little more old school, but I love writers’ conferences as a chance to meet people face to face from various parts of the industry. And then just try to remember that query letters do work. They’re still where I find the majority of my clients. So the cold-calling technique absolutely leads to success, and almost every agent out there has a site that will teach you how best to interact with them specifically.

Kate Garrick: This is tricky since those authors who live in New York obviously have an advantage, and of course many authors don’t live anywhere near New York. That said, if you have a local, independent bookshop, go there and buy books! Go to the readings they host. And talk to the owner.

Farley Chase: Start with one another. Find your network of writers and readers. Read! And read some more.

How can an author develop their brand/build a platform?

Jamie Carr: For better or for worse, publishing does care about brand/platform or connective-tissue. I think it’s always good to try to land your writing in the major journals (esp. ones with an online presence where things are “shared” more easily and editors can more easily click to see your name) and magazines, to share on your socials, grow your socials and expertise, have a website, follow publishers/imprints and book-influencer accounts, to be generally a sharer of your work and connected to publishing. All that. But also, I always encourage my authors to focus more on making connections and meaningful relationships with other writers and editors (books and magazine) and potential mentors who have some success in the industry. Those folks can give advice and offer up support (and war stories). And they may even be up for offering a blurb when the time comes or to connecting you to another 5 people that might even be more helpful to you and your career, including brand/platform.

Miriam Goderich: Social media is the most obvious way to build a platform and network with other authors and publishing people. But it’s something that requires a thoughtful and concerted effort. Developing a social media persona that people want to follow and trust is hard work. If someone has credentials in a specific field, they can also build a platform through lectures, workshops, seminars, conferences and lot and lots of networking within their area of expertise. Finally, publishing articles in well-read publications—print or online—can help establish authors and even gain them some fans within the publishing world. 

Jeff Silberman: An author has to have something to say and a way of saying it that engages people. And so the ability to build a platform rests upon that. Social media has created a great opportunity for authors to attract an audience through Twitter, Instagram, blogging, Facebook, etc. Connect with the world over things you are passionate about and over which you have something to say. Share beauty. Insights. Share yourself as well as your work. In traditional media, perhaps see if you can get short pieces published in local papers and eventually in national newspapers and magazines (literary and otherwise). Life is with people, so get to know as many of them as you can, and make a focused effort to find ways to connect with other authors and others who already have a significant platform, who may come to endorse your work with a blurb or support you with their own social media platforms. 

Terra Chalberg: Having a clear identity; focusing on and cultivating a target readership; and creating concise messaging. Parlaying that into original, topical content on social media. Networking and partnering with authors whose platforms complement yours.  

Lisa DiMona: An author’s personal and professional networks are likely more of a platform than they realize. Create a newsletter for your true fans. It doesn’t have to be a daily, weekly, or even a monthly offering, but spend time delivering something of value for your tribe.

Describe some habits of your dream client.

Noah Ballard: The best client has a routine of both engaging with a readership and finding time to do the work of writing. That means pitching a book review when you’re between deadlines, writing a timely essay for any of the numerous literary websites, doing something that makes them a good literary citizen. But keep writing, keep finding time to put words on the page. Most of my writers have day jobs, which is a necessity in this day and age, so finding balance is key. In terms of our working relationship, keep me informed, respect my time, and trust my instincts.

Sharon Pelletier: Communication! And communication. Also, communication. Seriously, being really organized and good with deadlines is great, and it’s also important that you be able to take feedback—from me, from your editor, from reviewers eventually—but ultimately it all comes down to communication. That’s the basis of the trust that’s so important in this working relationship. And if a project isn’t working, if a deadline needs to be extended, if a contract term is confusing or if editorial guidance is cutting into the heart of what an author envisions for their book, communication is part of the solution to all these problems.   

Laney Katz Becker: I like authors who show their appreciation for my efforts.  A thank you – whether it’s in the form of a gift upon the sale of a project or during the holidays, or simply a nice word or two of appreciation in the acknowledgments – goes a long, long way. But you know what really makes me smile? When an author thanks me even before the project is sold. I just let an author know that I’d finished contacting editors and his proposal was officially out on submission. His response?  “Have a wonderful weekend and thanks again for all the hard work you have put into this. Whatever the result, I very much appreciate everything you’ve done for me.” How can I not love that guy?

Julia Kardon: Dream client would be polite, respectful of my time, read a lot, write almost every day, engage with a community of writers, and not be too precious about their work to get edited.

How do you build a lifelong relationship with an author?

Jim McCarthy: Each relationship grows and builds differently. The short answer is that I try to adapt my working style to each client and offer the support they need to get through the publishing process as comfortably as possible. My goal is for my clients to be able to support themselves on writing alone but even more than that, it’s for them to have careers that will carry on. So many people jump into publishing and get spit back out. So I suppose the most important piece of building a lifelong relationship is doing everything possible to help mitigate the tougher stretches of a writing career and make sure that authors stay engaged and don’t give up when things get tough.

Rica Allannic: Honesty and transparency. I will always go to bat for my authors, but I am not a yes-woman. We have the tough conversations and then we figure out how to move forward from there, with all of the information. It’s my job to be a guide and an advocate, not a censor.

Kate Garrick: The agent-client relationship is like any relationship: which is to say they’re not all lifelong! But as with any relationship, I think it’s so important to maintain an open line of communication and to be honest. It may not always last forever, but it’s a good way to start.

Farley Chase: One day at a time… 

How do you approach marketing an author’s book?

Noah Ballard: On my side of things, it’s not about marketing in the traditional sense. It’s direct marketing, if anything. It’s about finding an editor who wants to collaborate on the objectives the author has set out to accomplish. I do this by constantly communicating with editors by phone, e-mail and face-to-face to understand what they’re looking for and to make sure the writers I sign have a legitimate chance of being published.

Laney Katz Becker: Publicity and marketing of a book is the job of the publisher. I, however, feel that how I package the author and the submission matters a great deal, and thanks to my background in advertising, I like to think I’ve got a leg-up in that arena.

Julia Kardon: I don’t handle the marketing of a book: I work with the marketing department of the publisher to make sure they are reaching out to professional organizations, doing giveaways, buying ads in appropriate places (if there’s a budget for it), and strategizing for how to make the book seem essential.

Sharon Pelletier: I don’t! I share reviews, giveaways, cover reveals, and other good news on my Twitter feed as much as possible, but marketing is the job of the publisher, with the author usually working hard right alongside the publisher’s promotional plans.

What are some questions you like to ask potential authors?

Jamie Carr: Where in this book have you departed from yourself or from your experience?

What have you learned most about yourself or your writing while working on this?

Who are your trusted readers?

Who are your writing mentors?

What are a few books that you admire? Ones that have published recently. Why?

What books have you hated recently? Why?

Where do you see yourself in 5 years writing-wise? 10 years? 20 years?

Connected: what are you writing next? Even if it’s a seed of an idea.

Terra Chalberg: “Have you had an agent before?” “Has any of your work been seen by book editors?” Even if it doesn’t immediately occur to me to ask, I’ve learned not to assume because many authors either don’t think this kind of information is important because it didn’t yield results or are scared to reveal a less-than-pristine track record with editors or former agents. Do not make this mistake. Any kind of history an author has within the book publishing industry is very important to share with an agent before even agreeing to work together. Such a history does not automatically dampen your chances with the agent—far from it. Deliberately withholding or forgetting to share this is detrimental to the relationship and also to the process.

Lisa DiMona: Since I also represent nonfiction that sometimes has a practical element, I like to ask about the bookie-ness of the book. Why do you think this (whatever it is you’re writing about) should be a book and not a blog, newsletter, podcast, etc.?

Miriam Goderich: What they want to get out of the publishing experience. How they picture their publishing career going—do they want to do one book or many. What their expectations are of the agent-author relationship. What questions they have about the process.   

Jeff Silberman: I work very closely with all my authors, so we talk about life as well as their work. It’s important to make sure we share a vision for their book, and that we resonate with each other personally and creatively. But as far as their work goes, I’m a drill down deep guy. I ask a lot and give a lot. So I’ll often ask questions about what they ultimately want to communicate beneath the surface of a story, or ask more probing, nuanced questions about what is already on the page to get them to think more deeply and create even more richly. I sometimes say authors are the music and agents are the conductors of their symphony, or the producers of their song. Our job is to help them know when to turn up the strings or turn down the horns, and how best to orchestrate and arrange things for the most powerful impact. And, too, we often come up with questions and ideas, or connect things the author might not have, so that the author can then run with it and enrich the book in new ways. Sometimes we get a submission and we see something great there, but perhaps envision a different rendition than what was submitted. That was the case with the ingénue story. The author submitted a memoir about her entire life. I suggested we focus on her journey into womanhood, amidst these different cultures, and during those incredibly transformative times where everything was shifting. Happily, she agreed. So sometimes the question boils down to do we see the same book?

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the series.

Thank you to all the agents who contributed their time and insights for this article.

Literary Agents

Andy Ross was the owner of the Legendary Cody’s Books in Berkeley from 1977-2007. In 2008 he started the Andy Ross Agency. Andy works in a range of genres including: narrative non-fiction, journalism, history, current events, literary and commercial fiction, and teen fiction. He is the author of The Literary Agent’s Guide to Writing a Non-Fiction Book Proposal

Website: www.andyrossagency.com

Blog: www.andyrossagency.wordpress.com

Farley Chase has worked at The New Yorker and Talk Magazine. He has worked at The New Press and later became an editor at Talk Miramax Books. He spent eight years as a literary agent at the Waxman Literary Agency and founded Chase Literary Agency in 2012. 

Twitter: @FarleyChase

Jamie Carr works with journalists, culture writers, activists, and novelists. She represents authors such as Sasha Velour, Noor Tagouri, Kimberly Drew, among many others. A recent title is MOTHER WINTER by Sophia Shalmiyev (S&S/February 2019). Born and raised in Lower Manhattan, she has also lived in Portland, Oregon, where she cut her publishing-teeth with the indie publisher Tin House. She has worked at WME for five years.

Twitter: @jacarrr

Instagram: @jamiecarr

Jeff Silberman began his career as an entertainment attorney, and is a literary agent with Folio Literary Management. He represents a wide range of authors and considers himself a perpetual liberal arts student with an undeclared major. He gets to take electives in anything that interests him.

Website: https://www.publishersmarketplace.com/members/silberjeff/

Jim McCarthy is a literary agent and vice-president at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, where he has worked ever since starting as an intern twenty years ago.

Website: www.dystel.com

Twitter: @jimmccarthy528

Julia Kardon is a literary agent at Hannigan Salky Getzler Agency. A native New Yorker, her first job was at the fabled Strand Bookstore. She represents literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, including New York Times best-sellers, National Book Award 5-under-35 recipients, and Center for Fiction Emerging Writers fellows. She lives in Brooklyn. 

Twitter: @jlkardon 

Website: hsgagency.com

Kate Garrick joined The Karpfinger Agency as an agent in 2015. Previously she was an agent and director of contracts at DeFiore and Company. She holds a B.A. in English Literature from Florida State University and an M.A. in English and American Literature from New York University.

Twitter: @kategarrick

Laney Katz Becker is an agent at Massie & McQuilkin. Laney’s authors have made the New York Times, national and international bestsellers’ lists, have been selected for the B & N Discover Great New Writers program and Target Book Club picks. Laney is a graduate of Northwestern University.

Website: www.mmqlit.com

Lisa DiMona joined Writers House in 2013 as a literary agent after twenty-plus years running her own agency and book development company. At Writers House, she specializes in practical nonfiction, creative nonfiction, and memoir. Authors on her list include James Clear, Julie Zhuo, Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy, and Josh Kaufman.

Twitter: @lisadimona

Instagram: @Lisadimona1

Website: https://www.lisadimona.com/

Miriam Goderich is a partner at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC, a mid-size literary agency which represents a diverse roster of award-winning authors of general fiction and non-fiction. Miriam’s interests include narrative non-fiction in the areas of popular history, culture, politics, and science.   

Website: www.dystel.com

Twitter: @MiriamGoderich

Noah Ballard is an agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd. He studied creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and began his career in publishing at Emma Sweeney Agency. Noah focuses on literary fiction, short story collections, and narrative non-fiction, including memoir, journalism, and pop culture. Noah has appeared at graduate writing programs and writers conferences across the country speaking about query letters, building non-fiction platforms, and submission etiquette. A New Jersey native, Noah currently lives in Brooklyn.

Twitter: @noahballard

Rica Allannic, a literary agent with the David Black Agency, represents authors from diverse backgrounds writing cookbooks and narrative nonfiction. A graduate of New York City public schools and Yale University, Rica worked in professional kitchens before joining the editorial teams of Scribner (Simon & Schuster) and then Clarkson Potter (Penguin Random House).

Website: http://www.davidblackagency.com/rica-allannic/

Instagram: @ricasuave

After graduating from UCLA and working in film development, Terra Chalberg began her publishing career in 2002 at Scribner. Later, at Simon & Schuster and Simon Spotlight Entertainment (now Gallery), she edited and acquired a diverse list of projects. As an agent, she represents a range of fiction and nonfiction writers, including Melissa Radke, author of Eat Cake. Be Brave. and star of USA Network’s upcoming show “The Radkes” and Sara Zaske, author of Achtung Baby.

Website: https://www.chalbergsussman.com/

Sharon Pelletier grew up in the Detroit suburbs, moved to NYC in 2009, and joined DG&B in 2013 after working for Europa Editions and Barnes & Noble. In addition to her own list, Sharon oversees digital projects and social media. While her interests are broad, Sharon is especially seeking smart women’s fiction and fierce narrative nonfiction, and welcomes marginalized voices in all categories.

Twitter: @sharongracepjs

Website: www.dystel.com

Interviewer

NATALIE GASPER is an internationally performed poet whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Write LaunchThe Hickory StumpThe Remembered Arts JournalNoon by Arachne Press, and ellipsis…literature & art, amongst others. She works as an interviewer and reader for The Nasiona, and is an editorial intern with a prominent New York literary agency.

Twitter: @nataliegasper

nataliegasper.home.blog


Featured image: Photograph by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash.

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