The following interview was conducted by e-mail in April 2016. It was based on a panel conversation moderated by AG Editorial Director Ryan Fox and held at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville, Virginia, on March 19, 2016.
I thought you could each begin by talking about what kind of books you specialize in, and, more broadly, why do agents end up specializing in certain types of books to begin with?
Eric Myers, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management: I specialize in YA and Middle Grade fiction, adult suspense thrillers, and adult non-fiction. I think most of us specialize in the kind of material that we feel most comfortable with, that appeals to our personal taste, and that we feel we would have the best luck selling to publishers.
Regina Ryan, Regina Ryan Books: I look for books of significant non-fiction that bring something new to the table. I focus mainly on adult titles, but do represent a very select group of juvenile non-fiction projects as well. It’s an eclectic list that reflects my interests, which are broad and varied—from women’s issues, to natural history (especially birds and brain science), to parenting, to food and travel, to music, business, psychology, history, and sustainability. And more! Check my website: reginaryanbooks.com.
David Forrer, Inkwell Management: Like many agents, I represent a range of authors and books—fiction, from very commercial to very literary, and non-fiction, including narrative, memoir, biography, and humor. Some agents tend to be stronger in certain areas depending on their personal taste and experience.
What do you look for—in both a book and a writer—when deciding whether or not to partner with an author?
EM: For a non-fiction writer, a solid platform is essential these days, as is previously-recognized expertise in that particular subject. Anybody who wants to can write a manuscript on a particular subject or theory, but if that person is not considered an expert in the matter, or is not, for example, a professor on the subject who is affiliated with a known college or university, a publisher will likely not be interested. For fiction, I look for authors who not only have a strong individual voice, but who also are far enough along in the process that their manuscript is very close to being ready to send to publishers—writers who will not need coddling, hand-holding, and guidance through draft after draft until their novel is in decent shape. That’s not to say I’m not a nurturing agent—I like to think I am—but our time, as you can imagine, is limited.
RR: I look for a fresh idea, good writing, a strong sales hook and a market that is clearly defined and reachable. Like Eric, I look at an author’s credentials (why he or she is someone to listen to on the subject), platform (the ability to deliver readers and book buyers—very important), and at an author’s savvy about the business and his or her cooperative spirit (i.e. they understand they have to do a lot of the publicity for their books on their own).
DF: I ask myself whether I’m confident that I’m the best agent to represent this author’s work. And I ask myself if this is a person with whom I want to have a long-term professional relationship.
What qualities should an author be looking for in an agent?
EM: I think an author should make sure the agent is really simpatico with that author and gets her work and what she is trying to say. And frankly, she should be looking for an agent who is able to give some tough love when a reality check is needed. That’s not always a pleasant part of the process for either party, but without it, necessary and beneficial change might not occur.
RR: Honesty, passion for the project, knowledge of the business.
DF: Authors should ask themselves, “Is the agent truly enthusiastic about my work, and do they have a plan for starting and maintaining my literary career?”
What makes for a good query letter?
EM: For me, a good query letter doesn’t go too far beyond a single page, double or single-spaced. It should give enough premise that I can get a sense of the plot, without spoilers, so that I’ll be intrigued. And no matter what your own biography is, and whether it’s impressive or not, I like a brief paragraph that tells me a bit about who you are and what you’ve done in life. As a stickler for spelling and grammar, I’d suggest that even the best writers have their query letter vetted by a few folks with a good sense of this, because if the query letter is full of spelling and grammar errors, it’s a good indication that the manuscript will be as well, and that’s a turn-off. Remember that one missing or misplaced comma makes me have to go back and read the sentence again to figure out what you meant to say. And if you’ve got that type of error in nearly every sentence, that means it will take me twice as long to read your query letter and therefore twice as long to read the manuscript. To me, that’s a red flag.
RR: A letter that quickly gives the sales hook for the book (the single selling sentence that expresses what the book is and why it will appeal to its market); plus the author’s credentials vis-à-vis the subject (why he or she is someone I should pay attention to on the subject), the market he or she is trying to reach, and the author’s platform (including previous books and sales).
DF: For a novel, a good query letter should have a one-line opening hook (the Hook), one paragraph summarizing the plot (the Book), and a few lines about the author and what they bring to the table in terms of promotion (the Cook). For non-fiction, the most important thing is for the author to establish him/herself as the best person to write the book, and I want to be able to “see” the book in my head. Is it really book-worthy, or would it be better as a magazine piece?
What else can an author do?
RR: Be savvy: show that you understand the business as well as your role in the publication process. Be courteous. Refer to a comparable title that has done well. Perhaps mention a book the agent has represented that you admire.
When you get a good query letter and you’re intrigued by an author’s writing, what do you look for next? Another way to ask this would be: What can authors do—other than writing well—to make themselves appealing to agents?
EM: I’m always attracted by someone who indicates that they know how the process of being a writer works—what is demanded, the sheer amount of dedication and time it takes first to write your manuscript, then find an agent, then to wait while the agent has the book on submission. That waiting game can be a rough one, and I appreciate any understanding an author will be able to give me.
RR: I look at the author’s sample material and make my final decision based on that. Other than that, I agree with Eric 100%. Anything the author can do to show how cooperative, enthusiastic, appreciative, and nice he or she is, goes a long way.
DF: The most appealing thing to me is when another author—preferably a current client—has read the book and tells me that I must read it immediately because it’s that good.
After you decide to partner with an author, do you usually work with the author on the manuscript, or do you just start sending it out to publishers?
EM: It’s rare that I have no suggestions to make about a manuscript. But for me to want to take on a debut novel, the manuscript really has to be about 90% there in terms of its viability and its polish. If it’s still very much a work in progress, then it’s not yet time for the author to be seeking an agent.
RR: I find I often have to help the author reshape the proposal to be a strong selling document. This may involve some editing and guidance on my part or, if it needs a lot of work and I think the author needs a great deal of help—say if the author isn’t a professional writer but a scientist or psychologist—I’ll recommend that the author work with an experienced book editor under my supervision. The same is true for the sample material. It all has to be as perfect as possible.
DF: The worst thing an agent can do is to send out a half-baked manuscript. I always work with the author until we both feel the manuscript is ready to share.
When you do start sending a book to publishers, what considerations go into putting together a strategy for where to send it and in what order? Do you consult with the author when putting together the submission strategy?
EM: The major consideration is which editors at which houses are going to respond, based on the books they have acquired already. And if the manuscript is really a hot one, you’re going to want to go first with it to the major houses that are able to offer the best advances and more marketing muscle. I’m absolutely open to strategizing with the author on this, as the author may have some good suggestions and, if the author has been to writers’ conferences and workshops before, may have made good contacts with acquiring editors who liked their work and have shown them some encouragement. Those, of course, would be editors worth approaching.
RR: I draw on my knowledge of what interests or passions certain editors have and/or what they’ve told me they are looking for. I check Publisher’s Marketplace for sales to publishers—to see what editors have bought recently that suggest they may be looking for a book like this. I consult my colleagues in the Agents Roundtable—a group of 11 experienced agents who have banded together in a consortium to share information, wisdom, services, and strategies. I may consult other agent friends as well. When I have my list, I make a multiple submission as a rule—starting with the publishers that have the best terms and have good publishing track records in the book’s subject area. If the author has connections or ideas, it’s a big plus and I’m happy to have them.
DF: I usually begin strategizing when I’m initially talking to an author about representation, so that they know how I would position their book. Good comp titles are important—has the publisher had success with similar books?—as well as certain editors’ and publishers’ recent track record. To me, a publishing deal is really a partnership, so the question is: Which publishers would make the best partners?
What makes for a successful pitch to a publisher?
EM: I try to make my pitches strong and pithy, direct and to the point—just the way I like my query letters to come to me. Of course, it helps if I have something to pitch that is very much of the moment, or in the national consciousness in some way, as that will give the pitch an attractive timeliness.
RR: A first rate, polished proposal is key with non-fiction. It has to display not only the rationale behind the project but the author’s abilities as a writer who is capable of organizing and presenting complex information, and who writes well. It’s important to remember that it is also a sales piece, and thus should have a sales handle to start with, bulleted sales points, an overview, a section called The Market (who you hope to reach with your book and how to reach them via organizations, newsletters, magazines, etc.), a section called About the Author, and one called Author’s Platform (and ability to reach that market), and a section on competitive titles, and most importantly, on comparable titles from the last few years that have sold well. There should be a table of contents as well as an annotated table of contents that not only indicates the contents of the chapter (and shows that the author has thought the book through completely), but that also titillates the publisher with teases in the contents descriptions that make one want to read the book. In other words, it should not be a straight outline such as a writer might use as a blueprint to write the book nor should it be the text of the book. Publishers want to see at least one, and preferably two, sample chapters attached to the proposal.
DF: It’s ideal when you know exactly what the publisher is looking for and you can present them with enough information to “sell” the book to their colleagues.
If you don’t mind generalizing, what are you looking for in a publisher?
EM: It would be easier to say what I’m looking for in an acquiring editor, as that’s who I’ll really be dealing with. I prefer ones who respond quickly to e-mails, for one thing. That’s not always a given, as you can imagine the sheer number of e-mails these editors have to cope with. And of course I prefer editors who deal sensitively with authors, and have an understanding of an author’s needs. (And that often involves speedy responses as well!)
RR: I look for a publisher who works hard to sell their books, one that respects authors, and one that has a decent contract. I look for a publisher whose sales force knows how to sell the type of book I am trying to place. Finally, I look for an editor who is really enthusiastic about the project, who gets it.
DF: I look for a good track record with similar projects and deep in-house enthusiasm for the book they’re acquiring.
What are publishers looking for in books that they may not have been looking for 10 years ago?
EM: Isn’t everybody looking for The Next Big Thing? And if I knew what that was, I’d probably be answering you from my palatial estate in the Bahamas right now. Sometimes it’s easier to know what they are not looking for any longer. In the YA realm, for example, the trend has been away from vampires, paranormal romances, and the supernatural to more reality-based stories, usually in a contemporary setting. And in the field of adult non-fiction, I recently went to a huge number of publishers with a great proposal for a memoir by a woman who had spent four years teaching in a rough inner-city school. There have been many similar books in the teacher-memoir genre, but her writing and her point of view offered a fresh and surprising perspective. Most publishers agreed on this, but they turned it down, citing the fact that there were already so many teacher memoirs on the market, and that lately they were not selling all that well.
RR: I think there is a lot more interest in science for the general public and in particular, natural history. Also in living the simple life—you would think this trend was over but it’s not. Parenting seems to be back as a desirable category having been a hard sell for quite a long time because there were just too many books on the subject.
DF: Big literary novels that they can turn into bestsellers, e.g. All the Light We Cannot See [by Anthony Doerr].
What are publishers looking for in authors that they may not have been looking for 10 years ago?
EM: They are looking for authors who know how to take the bull by the horns and promote themselves. That means coming in with a strong social media platform. The more Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram followers you can demonstrate, the more attractive a prospect you will be.
RR: They look for the author’s ability to partner with the publisher in reaching the book’s audience, in promoting and selling the book. This is now pretty much a requirement.
DF: I think more editors are looking for fresh and unusual voices, but it’s hard for them to justify those acquisitions in-house.
With the changes to the publishing ecosystem since 2008 or so, have you noticed changes to either the quantity or quality of books being published? How about to the publishers themselves?
EM: The merging of Penguin with Random House, reducing the Big Six to the Big Five, was disconcerting, as is the shutting down of some of the imprints, or the merging of them with other imprints. Acquiring editors we have cultivated relationships with over the years are now suddenly finding themselves out of a job, with no security and few prospects. We have yet to see how all of this will positively or negatively affect forthcoming books. But we’re standing by, a bit uneasily.
RR: Right after the 2008 downturn publishers were cutting their advances and their lists drastically. Lists seem to have grown again and are now about the same, as far as I can tell, but advances are still way down. Also, publishers have fewer editors as well as fewer staff in departments like contracts, publicity, and so on. Everyone is overworked and things take longer, much longer!
DF: The big publishers are all chasing the same big books and not taking chances on some of the smaller books and authors who might grow over time.
What’s the most important advice you could give a first-time author seeking an agent?
EM: If you don’t have any contacts in the industry, make use of such sites as www.agentquery.com and www.publishersmarketplace.com (the latter does charge a fee). Search through these to find out what agents are out there, what genres they are looking for, and how they’d like you to approach them. And reach out far and wide; don’t go after one agent at a time and wait for a response. Do be prepared to exercise patience. Things rarely move swiftly in this business, despite the handful of stories you hear now and then about a debut novel being immediately pounced upon by agents and publishers.
RR: Read a lot of good query letters and proposals in the many books that are out there. Educate yourself on what is required and expected of an author. Find out what is selling in your topic area and what kind of sales these books have had (check Amazon’s bestseller lists to get an idea; talk to booksellers). Be courteous and respectful of an agent’s time (very important!). Use good grammar. Check spelling. Be brief. Get to the point. Lead with your strongest suit (e.g. you’re a published author or well-known in the field or are on the lecture circuit or have a million followers on Twitter).
DF: When an agent says “no” he/she means “I don’t think I can sell this book.” It doesn’t mean that the book isn’t publishable—we’re often wrong about that—and it doesn’t mean that the agent has any constructive criticism to offer. When an agent says no just move on. And keep writing!
Eric Myers is an agent at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, where his clients include Chris Grabenstein, Seth Rudetsky, Bryan Batt, Lydia Kang, and many others. His specialties include Young Adult, Middle Grade, adult thrillers, and narrative non-fiction.
Regina Ryan has been an independent literary agent for thirty-seven years, handling primarily adult non-fiction. She was editor-in-chief of Macmillan Adult Books, the first woman to hold that position in a major hardcover publishing house, and prior to that an editor at Alfred A. Knopf. (Photo credit: Craig Whitaker)