Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Finding a Literary Agent, Part I

I promised to take notes and share the Q&A from last week's Writing Life daytime talk series program on finding a literary agent. Thanks to our terrific speakers, I have 9 pages of furiously scribbled notes. It's going to take me a few days to get them all transcribed (mostly paraphrased, I'm afraid).

Our speakers:
Zoe Pagnamenta (ZP), founder of The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency
Sharon Bowers (SB), partner at The Miller Agency
Elisabeth Weed (EW), founder of Weed Literary

I love our members. No reason not to cut right to the chase:
Q: How do we submit to you?
EW: Submit 1 page query about the book and about you via email. Definitely mention NYSL
SB: Do mention NYSL. Do some research - do mention "I saw that you sold this...". Don't say "this is the book that's going to make you rich". What's selling? Women's romance is growing, publishers are buying in quantity.
ZP: Keep cover letters short, say less. Agencies post guidelines on websites. Look at my client list to see the kind of things I go for. I prefer mail submissions (cover letter, 1st 50pp synopsis, sense of how you write)

Q: How democratic is this process? Does an anonymous writer have a chance?
EW: I read everything that comes through. Publishers Marketplace is a great place to start to find out what kind of work specific agents are buying
SB: Our site is minimal. We say we don't take unsolicited manuscripts, but we do look at them if they come in. We do take a lot of referrals. Sometimes as an agent you just fall in love with the work.
ZP: There is a degree of luck involved in getting it sold. The timing of the submission is sometimes influenced by what's already on the editor's desk, what else is going on. May not work the 1st time, sometimes the next. Authors shouldn't give up, especially if you're given comments which could help improve the work.

Q: Has the publishing industry changed in the past 2 years?
EW: I have 10 books coming out between April and June, including debut fiction. There are less $ for marketing, definitely, and a lot will fall on the shoulders of authors, including tweeting, blogging. I'm hopeful about e-books and think it could revive book industry.
SB: Definitely feel an uptick. 1 year ago, buys were down, advances were down.

Q: How will industry restructure with e-books? What will industry look like 3 years out?
ZP: Printed books must be higher production quality, better looking, and must be something you want to own.
SB: Industry will still look to agented work. Agents are the 1st line filter and editors sometimes refer writers to agents so an agent is involved in process. I also see books being less expensive for consumers. Unfortunately, I also think fewer people will be able to make a living as a writer.

Q: Do agents ever look at work outside their comfort zone?
EW: Yes. I am always surprising myself.
ZP: Yes, but it's in your best interest to submit your manuscript to an agent that knows about your subject. Especially true for non-fiction.

Q: Are there agents interested in work other than commercial fiction?
ZP: Younger agents at bigger agencies
EW: Sometimes it's a labor of love. I'm selling 1 book now to a university press.

Q: What does commercial mean?
ZP: Difficult to talk commercial non-fiction versus fiction. For fiction, must have characters, good story, universal themes. Watch the market, see what works.
EW: Just talk about the work and let the market work it out. Will or will not get that label once it's published.

Q: What qualities make you fall in love with a memoir?
ZP: Must be utterly convincing, not artificial, a powerful story. Also must be right length. If it's a misery memoir, add some lightness.
SB: Must be literary above all. Market is overdone on redemption memoir.

Part II of the Q&A tomorrow....

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