In part two of this three-part series, we asked literary agents questions that are all about you: the writer. This article will give you insights into your manuscript, from what draws an agent in to how to perfect your query letter. We asked the agents the following questions:
- What are some query letter do’s (and don’ts)?
- How can authors write the elusive “perfect” query letter?
- What’s your biggest pet peeve about submissions?
- What would you like to be reading more work about?
- What causes you to pass on a manuscript?
- What are you most interested in representing next?
- What are some pitfalls creative nonfiction writers should avoid?
- What questions should writers ask an agent before they sign?
- What are some hard-sells in the creative nonfiction/memoir world?
- How do you go about selling a book to a publisher?
- Which experiences are over-told?
- What draws you into a story? Setting? Characters? The topic?
- What do you wish first-time authors knew about the publishing process?
- What’s a change you would like to see in publishing?
What you learn may surprise you.
What are some query letter do’s (and don’ts)?
Sharon Pelletier: The number one DO is to research each agent/agency’s particular guidelines, and follow them! With so many writers not bothering to check on or follow guidelines, the ones that do really distinguish themselves as a writer who is not just talented, but will be professional and enjoyable to work with. Beyond that, in general, you want to keep your query fairly short and sweet. Aim for a one-or-two sentence opening stating why you are querying this agent and your book’s title, genre, word count, and comps; a one-paragraph story pitch that highlights the stakes of your story (think the copy on the back of the book); and a 2-3 sentence conclusion with your publication credits and writers group affiliations, if any, and any details from your bio that are relevant for your book.
Noah Ballard: A query letter should be three paragraphs: here’s who I am and the specifications of what I’ve written (genre, word count, etc.) and why I’ve reached out to you; here’s the who, what, when, where of the plot; here’s my biography that makes me qualified to write whatever it is I’ve written. First-time authors often overwrite their synopses, which are not as interesting to me as their weird, random biographical details or the quality of their sentences. Don’t address queries to “Dear Sir/Madam” either. Do some research! Spend a comparable amount of diligence researching agents as you did writing the book.
Julia Kardon: Do: spell the agent’s name right. Do: reference why you are picking them. Don’t: compare your book to one of theirs if you have no idea what the book is about. Don’t: be overly stiff or overly familiar—it’s a tough balance but you want to appear personable. Do: compare your work to books recently published in the same genre. Do: list any relevant qualifications (MFA, writing conferences, publications).
Laney Katz Becker: There are entire articles about this that are available (free) online. But in a nutshell: Keep it short, tell me what you’re writing about; why it matters; how/why you’re qualified to write it; your platform; you’ve got a proposal and sample material ready for my review. (Although I, personally, prefer that writers send their proposal along with their query letter.)
Andy Ross: Don’t make it more than half a page. Do write a synopsis. Don’t use hyperbole. Do offer facts relevant to the agent: word count, genre, concept.
How can authors write the elusive “perfect” query letter?
Jeff Silberman: Remember that famous Tom Cruise line from Jerry McGuire—“You had me at hello.”? Publishers and agents get inundated with submissions, and there are only so many hours in a day. What draws us in? A compelling premise. What keeps us in? A well-told story with intriguing characters. Your task in a pitch? Do it succinctly (and that’s our task when we pitch publishers). Try and master the art of writing a logline for your book. You know how movie posters have a tagline and you’re immediately hooked? Summarize your book’s premise in a few lines so that right away, I want to know more. Be succinct and creative. The tone of the book should be the tone of the query. BE it, don’t claim it. Don’t’ say, “this is eloquently written” or, “highly suspenseful!” or, “hilarious.” I always tell my authors that’s what we want publishers to tell us. So when I read a pitch, if you can make me go Wow! This is beautiful or You just doubled my pulse! or I want to know more! while reading your query, you’ve got me. We want to represent you, we want to discover more great authors. In addition, tell us something about you, something that makes us want to get to know you. That something doesn’t necessarily have to be related to the topic of your book, but it can be and should be if your book calls for certain expertise. If you’re writing a book about the brain and you’re a caterer and not a neuroscientist, that’s a challenge.
Jamie Carr: When you query agents, it’s always nice to let them know that you’re reaching out to them because you are aware of other books they’ve done and you feel like it would be a good match. When a writer makes it specific and a little personal—as if they are actually emailing me specifically and not just sending me a generic blast—it makes me more inclined to believe them. If they know me, and are familiar with a book or author (or two) of mine and decide to reach out because they see a connection, I usually want to take a deeper look. Which is also to say: don’t reach out to agents just to reach out to agents. We all do different kinds of books and it’s better to query 5 people who actually work in the space you are working in, then query 100 randomly. I’d also say, keep bio and summary of the book tight. And most importantly: nail those comp titles. Or attempt to nail!
Miriam Goderich: There are a lot of sources on how to write a query letter and we at DG&B wrote quite a bit about it when we had an agency blog. Here’s a link to my “perfect query letter” spiel which is found in the blog archives of our website. The important points are: (1) Be succinct—a query letter should be brief and lead with the important information about you as an author or the material you’re presenting. Work to tell us what the book is about in no more than a short paragraph. Tell us about yourself, briefly, and offer any helpful (but not grandiose) comparisons of your work. (2) Make sure there are no typos, grammatical errors, or other sloppy mistakes in your letter (this hurts more than you can imagine). (3) Do your homework. Know who you’re sending to and what his/her interests are. (4) Use any edge you have—if you’re a friend of a friend, mention it. Anything to bring your work to the top of the pile.
Terra Chalberg: There is a formula: descriptive copy (akin to what you’d read on the flap of a book jacket in the bookstore or online); an author bio; what the author may identify as her audience via other titles that audience will have bought; and an indication the author has done his research and displays either knowledge of my list and is querying me based on that knowledge, or another (specific) reason for querying me, or both.
Lisa DiMona: A perfect query letter is one that shows the author has taken the time to reflect on what book or author or subject or genre from my list is somehow connected to the work at hand, then captures in a paragraph or two why the proposed book is a great idea and why the author is the best possible person to execute that idea.
What’s your biggest pet peeve about submissions?
Rica Allannic: It’s a definite no-no to submit to multiple agents at the same agency; writers should do their homework and submit to the agent they feel would be the best fit for their particular material. Also, I can’t tell you how many fiction proposals I receive, even though my bio on the agency website clearly states that I do not represent fiction. Unrealistic comparative titles are also an issue—one I work on with clients; writers should not claim their book is the next Eat Pray Love, for example. Finally, and to end on a positive note, a shout out to writers who spell check their work and have a command of grammar: thank you.
Jim McCarthy: I just hate seeing lazy submissions. The amount of queries I turn down because my name is spelled wrong or it literally says “insert personal info here” or part of the query didn’t cut and paste…it’s depressing. I know how hard this is and how soul-crushing the process can be. I just want you to make me work harder. It’s too easy for me to reflexively say no because you called me Jam. Truly, you have no idea how many queries fail because they simply weren’t proofed.
Farley Chase: Marketplace blindness, laziness, cutting and pasting, not using my name, not being aware of my list, submissions to more than one agent in the same email. Boorishness.
Kate Garrick: “Dear Mrs. Karpfinger….”
What would you like to be reading more work about?
Sharon Pelletier: I would like to see more of the voices we haven’t heard yet, or aren’t hearing enough—marginalized writers from different cultures, communities, and economic backgrounds telling their own stories and sharing their creativity in all categories and bringing new perspectives to familiar tropes. Alongside and part of that general call for more diversity and intersectionality in my inbox and on my to-read list, I’m always eager for smart, fresh, upmarket suspense and women’s fiction that lets its characters take career as seriously (and multi-dimensionally) as they do relationships. On the nonfiction side I would love to find reported narrative nonfiction that is also compelling storytelling opening up a topic I never thought I’d be deeply interested in, like EVICTED and MAID do.
Julia Kardon: Immigrant experiences, muslim experiences, queer experiences–without the lens of the straight/white/male gaze centralized.
Andy Ross: In non-fiction I like history and journalism that approaches a subject in a new way. In fiction, it’s all about voice. (Although in both genres, having a clear, strong concept is important).
Laney Katz Becker: More investigative journalism about little known topics that have current/universal appeal and/or repercussions. Also, as a feminist, I’m always interested in women’s issues.
Noah Ballard: We read to learn about ourselves and the world around us. I don’t know what I don’t know, so it’s hard to say what I’d like to learn more about, both internally and externally, but I know that I’m a heterosexual, Jewish male living in Brooklyn, so those stories aren’t the most stimulating to me.
What causes you to pass on a manuscript?
Jamie Carr: Lack of comps! Comps meaning successful (copies sold or critical acclaim) books that have published in the past 2-3 years and are similar to the manuscript in either form or in content. Publishers are obsessed with how new books fit into the old stream of books they’ve published before, and so agents are, too. Even if that makes it tougher for books that feel new in form or content—I still want to know the author is thinking about those in a meaningful way. And that the author has an understanding of which recently published titles have worked and which ones haven’t. I’d also say anything that feels too formulaic and insular causes me to pass too. I’m always thinking: why is this important? Why is this important right now? What is revelatory about this? What have I learned (or unlearned) about the human condition?
Miriam Goderich: Poor writing. Confusing or inadequate set-up of characters and events. Underdeveloped characters and motivations.
Terra Chalberg: If I’m not engaged in the material quickly enough, which for me these days is less than five pages in. I also like to see that an author herself is engaging with readers in some way, whether it be as a featured writer in the pages of a magazine, in online media, or via social media. Active participation with some kind of readership and growth potential if not solid evidence of actual growth.
Jeff Silberman: Sometimes it’s just that we all have different sensibilities, it’s the difference between me liking strawberry ice cream and you preferring chocolate. It’s always important for an author to get a feel for an agent’s interests, tastes, and sensibilities, just as we do with editors. I’m not a big sci-fi or horror guy, for instance. Other are. So make sure you know what an agent is and is not interested in. Beyond that, there’s the question of whether a given agent thinks a book is really well-written and insightful. This can be very subjective. The Help got a multitude of rejections before it got picked up and then became a huge bestseller and a movie. There’s also the question of whether a premise or story is really compelling, and even the bandwidth an agent has at a given time. I may see something that I believe has potential but needs a lot of work, and I just don’t have time to take it on.
Lisa DiMona: I will know almost immediately if I have an affinity for an author’s way of getting at a subject on the page. Sometimes, even if I do love what an author is trying to accomplish, I will pass if it’s clear to me there are other agents for whom the work is better suited.
What are you most interested in representing next?
Kate Garrick: It’s tough at the moment not to be affected by the news, and while the slow pace of the publishing industry doesn’t make it an obvious candidate for engaging with the issues we collectively face as a society, I think books are, more than anything, capable of inciting change. Think of A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or The Souls of Black Folk or Silent Spring. Of course not every book will usher in sweeping change, but I like to think each contributes incrementally to the cause all the same. Those are the sorts of books I’m most interested in representing, whether the issue is social injustice or environmental calamity, but I strongly believe that the well-told story will always be the best way to reach people.
Jim McCarthy: I want to find big, bold, beautiful books. I don’t really care about the genre. I’ve become perhaps overly associated with YA projects. I adore that space, but I really want more balance on my list, particularly on the adult side. In nonfiction, I want beautifully written work with broad implications whether in memoir (think Kiese Laymon’s Heavy) or policy driven narrative (think David Cantu’s The Line Is Not a River) or even cultural criticism (think Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist).
Farley Chase: Narratives of any kind. Stories of overlooked history, or forgotten adventures. I love workplace memoirs, and memoirs of all kinds. Tell us something new about something we think we know.
Rica Allannic: I want to represent more women, women of color, and people of color who are opinionated and are great writers.
What are some pitfalls creative nonfiction writers should avoid?
Jamie Carr: I think the biggest pitfall, especially for creative nonfiction/memoir, is when the material feels too insular and doesn’t elevate itself beyond the personal to talk about a wider phenomenon or reckoning that feels urgent, right now. Or if a book is missing a critical central driving thesis (or question) that feels revelatory in some way. I think it’s a genre where there is so much leaning inward—and it has to lean inward in an authentic way to work—but with that comes the trap of having a book that reads A happened to me, then B happened to me, and then C happened to me. Instead of getting at what those happenings mean, how that is reflected in a larger way across culture, etc., and why we the reader should care.
Jeff Silberman: There are a lot of people on the planet, and so naturally enough, a number of authors write about the same subject or life experience. Publishers will continue to publish on familiar subjects and life experiences, but authors should become as aware as they can to what else is out there, and how best to distinguish themselves, or even whether a given subject already has so many books published that maybe there isn’t really room for another. Naturally, the more authors can distinguish themselves with a really distinctive subject or life experience, or offer a unique take and great insights, and a singular voice or style—even if the subject or life experience isn’t wildly new or unfamiliar—the better.
Terra Chalberg: That largely depends on what the author is writing about and whether the project is topical or meant for a certain audience. Memoir naturally veers myopic, so being able to address one’s own life in a larger thematic context is important. You want your reader to be able to relate to your story in one way or another, even if the version you’re telling is outlandish and singular.
Lisa DiMona: A strictly chronological autobiography is usually not a good idea. Avoid telling us about something and show us in scenes instead.
Miriam Goderich: Trying to get everything and the kitchen sink into the narrative. Taking a plodding chronological approach if a more inventive one will serve. Being embarrassed or worse if material from uncredited sources finds its way into the narrative. Or, not checking one’s facts and sources carefully.
What questions should writers ask an agent before they sign?
Noah Ballard: Writers should always make sure they have the same expectations as their agent. Are they going to edit the book or proposal before shopping it? If so, what is their editorial vision? Where and to whom do they typically sell their projects? If it doesn’t go to a major publisher, will they do a round of independent presses? What role will they have in the exploitation of film and foreign rights? Are they a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (the professional guild for literary agents)? If the writer has a project outside what their debut is, does that agent also represent that kind of project?
Sharon Pelletier: There are probably dozens of questions I could mention here, so definitely do your research online to make sure you’re prepared before your call with an agent, and pay attention to the business and strategy side of things alongside the more exciting stuff like the agent’s editorial vision, how they’ll pitch the book to publishers, etc. A few examples of questions to ask: How much experience does this agent have, and if they are newer, does their agency offer an environment for support and guidance? Young agents building their list can be an amazing partner because they are hungry and ambitious and sometimes have more time for debuts than agents with longer client lists, but you want to make sure your agent’s team has sales to major publishers and will offer your agent the resources and support to complement their fresh passion. And what happens if this book doesn’t sell? Will you need to re-query your agent—in other words, are they signing you, or just this project? Either is legitimate, but it’s important to understand what your prospective agent’s approach is and that that suits what you’re most comfortable with.
Julia Kardon: Oh tons! A writer should ask which titles their potential agent would compare theirs with, if they have any editors in mind, if they’ve done a similar book before and what that experience was like, how quickly they respond to emails, if they text with their clients (if that’s something the author wants), how much editorial work they think the project needs, how & why & when they became an agent, commission rates, and anything else the writer needs to know to determine if they are a good fit.
Laney Katz Becker: I think it’s really important to understand expectations. Does the agent require a lot of revisions? How hands-on/hands-off is the agent? I think simply asking that agent to explain the process of what happens from signing through submission and contract (and what, if anything to expect after that) can not only be enlightening, but super helpful.
Andy Ross: If you are a debut author, you should probably ask the agent whether she is willing to go send it out to the widest range of publishers, even small ones, where the advance will be modest. Debut authors sometimes make the mistake of believing big-name agents with lots of prestigious clients will be the best fit for them. Some of these agents are very good. But some of them are too busy or lazy to do the work necessary to find a publisher for an unknown writer.
What are some hard-sells in the creative nonfiction/memoir world?
Jim McCarthy: Really, the hardest sells are memoirs. I know that sounds ridiculous given how many are out there, but the fact of the matter is that I see more memoir submissions than any other nonfiction category. Memoirs still sell. Literally every day. You just need to be prepared for some serious competition.
Rica Allannic: I wish it weren’t so, but memoir from non-celebrities can be a tough sell.
Farley Chase: Memoirs written for the author and not a reader.
Kate Garrick: That’s a hard one! In some ways, the answer is everything and nothing. I would say that while the huge success of one book might encourage other writers to dip into the same territory, it’s important to make sure you’re distinguishing yourself. Which is just to say I think it’s vital that writers are always asking themselves “Why THIS story?” At the same time, I’d always encourage authors to follow their passion—that sort of thing can be really infectious in a book.
How do you go about selling a book to a publisher?
Jeff Silberman: In fiction, publishers want to see a completed manuscript, and of course we work closely with authors on their manuscripts. In nonfiction, we work with our authors to craft a book proposal that gives publishers a really rich experience of the book. We have a sense of which editors would most resonate with a given book, and the hope and expectation is to have interest from a number of publishers, so that we then conduct an auction. Sometimes a publisher will make a preempt offer so that they can avoid having to compete in an auction and know they have landed the book, and if we feel it’s a fair offer, we’ll make a deal.
Jamie Carr: The process begins way before I actually go to market with the book. I try to devote a good amount of my week to meeting editors around town so I can get a sense of what specific editors are looking for (or not looking for) as I start to brainstorm my submission list. Once we’ve done the work of shaping the material and we feel it’s ready (it has to be really ready, which is no small feat), I start pitching. Which really means that I call up my final list of specific editors across imprints at the major publishing houses, and some smaller ones too, and ask to send the material over. Then, for those who like what they’re reading, we set calls or meetings before heading to auction.
Lisa DiMona: Since most nonfiction is sold on proposal, we work closely with our authors on positioning, strategy, and framing of their book concepts. Once there’s a finished proposal and sample material, we think about who among editors is likely to be receptive and a best possible reader and potential publisher for the work.
Miriam Goderich: I’ll try to boil it down to the basics. You work with an author on putting together a strong proposal (if non-fiction) or a polished manuscript (if fiction). In the meantime, you’re talking to editors and publishers about the project. When it’s ready to go on submission you send it out to a group of publishers simultaneously and then follow up regularly until you have an offer in hand or determine that the work won’t sell. There are many moving parts to the process and every agent/agency works differently.
Terra Chalberg: That is the million-dollar question! It’s also one that would take up much more space to answer. The author is the artist; I work together with the author to create a viable commercial product and a clear argument for its value in the marketplace. I then endeavor to entice as many appropriate editors as possible with said product, sell said product, negotiate best terms on author’s behalf, and carry out a bevy of other tasks related to author advocacy.
Which experiences are over-told?
Noah Ballard: In terms of memoirs, it’s very, very hard to sell stories involving diseases, traumas, toxic relationships, deaths of loved ones, fucked up families, etc. Most memoir pitches I review involve these kinds of narratives. And while sharing these experiences is, in many cases, more necessary than ever, many writers—especially if they are at the center of the story—don’t have the distance from the painful story to provide the hope and redemptive qualities that make books like EDUCATED or H IS FOR HAWK or GLASS CASTLE really work.
Laney Katz Becker: Dysfunctional family memoir.
Sharon Pelletier: This is a tough one because we never want to tell anyone there isn’t room for their story. And every agent will have their own subjective set of tropes they can never get enough of and topics they’re totally sick of! That said, I personally am not likely to get excited about yet another novel in which people of privilege contemplate their own angst and have an affair, move to the big city, or travel the world in order to find themselves.
Julia Kardon: I personally find a hard time connecting with certain experiences: addiction narratives, for example, and on the fiction side, I am also bored of reading about siblings torn apart by an inheritance or family secrets coming out at a vacation home. Also stories of Brooklyn writers dealing with infidelity.
What draws you into a story? Setting? Characters? The topic?
Miriam Goderich: All of the above and strong, lucid, descriptive prose. That said, there are many intangibles that draw you to a subject, from things you’ve read or experienced personally, to curiosity about certain subjects, to hobbies and interests you’ve cultivated, to things your kids expose you to as they grow. Ours is a very subjective business and falling in love is a real (if ephemeral) process when we take on projects to represent.
Jeff Silberman: All of the above. Start with a great premise or topic—and setting may or may not be a key element in that. But let’s face it, if you have anyone hooked immediately because of the premise/topic, that’s pretty powerful. Richly depicted characters and beautiful prose keep every reader engaged, and can even overcome a familiar premise. And the characters don’t have to all be likeable, but engaging. I am working with a novelist right now and among the characters in his book is a guy who is a nihilist of sorts, a ruthlessly honest character who keenly observes life and people, and who engages in some disturbing behavior, but who is absolutely compelling. And of course, voice makes a huge difference. Every reader loves a really unique, original voice. Ultimately, the question is about captivating the reader, making us hungry to read on.
Jamie Carr: Language and setting are big ones. I’m a sucker for a story set anywhere besides New York City. I’ve lived in Charleston, SC and Portland, OR, and now that I’ve been back home in NYC for the past five + years, I crave stories that take me elsewhere. Language is so connected to place—and that feeling of being transported. Voice, plotting, and character arc are also super important but for me it usually begins with those two elements.
Terra Chalberg: The turn of phrase that shows confident writing and voice, the set-up, the point in time at which the author opens the story. POV and tense always factor in, but I don’t usually favor one particular choice over another. There was a point in time when seemingly every manuscript I read was in first person present, and I grew tired of it. But that wasn’t any fault of those writers; it was the filter through which I experienced the writing—a build-up of my reading experience over time.
Lisa DiMona: The topic could be most anything, it’s the writing that draws me in. Unpredictably, one of my favorite books in recent years was H Is for Hawk. Helen Macdonald’s intense, vivid writing made me care about goshawks—and her story.
What do you wish first-time authors knew about the publishing process?
Farley Chase: First, I wish authors realized that publishing is not an inaccessible fortress. If they are readers of books, they can use common sense to build a bridge from their book idea to the right agent. Second, I’d like authors to know that the thinking and writing they do to get to that agent—in organizing their story, in identifying what is new and original about it, about what is at stake in it and for whom, i.e. its reason for being in the marketplace—is precisely the work the agent uses to find their editor, which is the same work the editor uses to sell the book to the sales force, what the sales force uses to get the bookstores to order units, and what the publicist uses to book them on Fresh Air. In short, you solve the problem of the book by solving the problem of the people who will sell your book. The query letter should become the flap copy and the press release. Think in those terms. And study the books in the bookstore. All the answers are there.
Jim McCarthy: I wish that people understood that getting rejected isn’t the end of the world but also that being published doesn’t mean you’re set for life. I am still working with a good number of the first authors I signed on when I began building my list 17 years ago. Several have become bestsellers. Many have not. But no matter what stage anyone is at in their career, there is an insecurity—a sense that bad news means it’s all over forever but also a fear that if things are going incredibly well, it can’t possibly last forever. I don’t know authors who feel confident that they’ve reached their full potential and will continue to do so. The publishing process is a fight every step of the way. It can be enormously rewarding, but it rarely feels secure. I want people to know to be hopeful but also to be prepared to stay on offense in perpetuity.
Kate Garrick: In general, I don’t expect first time authors to know a whole lot about the details of the publishing process (that’s sort of my job!), but I do think it’s important to keep in mind that there’s a human being on the other end of that email or letter. I know it can be frustrating to send out queries only to hear nothing back or to be rejected over and over again, but in a business based on personal relationships, lashing out is rarely going to achieve a good result.
Rica Allannic: Sometimes it is not enough to be a great writer and have a great idea. Publishing is a subjective industry and houses are not always willing to take chances on new voices. Often things work out perfectly and a project finds the perfect home, but, when they don’t, it doesn’t mean the material (or the writer) isn’t good.
What’s a change you would like to see in publishing?
Julia Kardon: Not only do more marginalized voices need to be published, more people from marginalized backgrounds need to work in publishing and at higher levels. Currently there are many books that are never once seen by a person of color or queer person or person with a rural upbringing before they are published–and it also means that books that are written by someone with one or more of those identities have their book edited, marketed, and publicized by people who have no idea how to reach those audiences.
Noah Ballard: Instead of publishers spending millions of dollars on derivative thrillers or memoirs by the individuals dominating public discourse with fabrication and self-service, all the while lamenting how it’s hard to make a book “work” these days, why not spend $50,000 on some interesting literary fiction or non-fiction that interrogates stimulating and underexplored subject matters? Why not give a platform to multiple writers of color, LGBTQ writers, Native American writers, immigrant writers, writers in translation, incarcerated writers and not simply checking off the box of having one of these writers and being satisfied with tokenism? It’s disheartening to see editors responding to submissions with, “Oh, we already publish that kind of writer.”
Sharon Pelletier: More diversity. Not just in a book’s characters, but in authors, and in all roles and at all levels of publishing positions. To make sure the books being published reflect a full range of human experience, and do so authentically and respectfully, we need authors of color, immigrant authors, disabled authors, LGBTQ+ authors. And to appropriately make space for those writers, champion their stories, and encourage exploration of intersectional identities we need editors, publicists, and sales reps who come from and understand a diversity of communities in a personal way.
Andy Ross: In the ideal world, publishing decisions would be made on substantive grounds. Novels would get published because they are aesthetically superior. Non-fiction would be judged similarly on the importance of the subject and the persuasiveness of the writing. Too often decisions are based on marketing. I suppose this is inevitable. Publishing is a business, not just a vocation. And a book publisher won’t survive only publishing quality books that don’t have an audience.
Laney Katz Becker: I wish platform didn’t matter as much as it does, but I don’t see that changing.
Stay tuned for part three, which explores publishing with a focus on the agent-writer relationship—how to utilize social media, ways to develop your brand/platform, and questions agents ask before they sign you.
Thank you to all the agents who contributed their time and insights for this article.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
NATALIE GASPER is an internationally performed poet whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Write Launch, The Hickory Stump, The Remembered Arts Journal, Noon 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.
Featured image: Photograph by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash.