Why agenting? A lifelong dream, or something that happened serendipitously?
This happened with planning and forethought. I wanted to be an editor since I was twelve, and read about an editor’s role in the introduction to a short story in an Isaac Asimov anthology. So of course when I went to college (Boston University, for the sailing team) I majored in Economics and English. The Powers That Be thought it would be better for me to focus on banking and finance. I complied, but committed to a dual major so I could keep up with my love of literature and writing. After one hideous internship in the overnight money department at a major international bank, I gave up economics and threw myself into publishing.
I did a series of internships while in college (Art New England Magazine, Northeastern University Press, Houghton Mifflin trade division) and picked up solid production skills as well as familiarity with all aspects of editorial work. I came back down to New York to interview for jobs as an editorial assistant. With my two year’s of experience, I was a perfect fit — except I couldn’t type fast enough!
I fell back on my production skills, and got a great job at The Berkley Publishing Group (part of Putnam, now part of Penguin USA). I was working on three lines of books, including Ace Science Fiction. After less than a year my boss quit to travel the world. I got her job, and then was able to make the transfer to acquisitions editor at Ace about two years after I started at Berkley. This effectively put me way ahead of my cohort who had started as editorial assistants. So I guess not typing well paid off in the long run!
I worked in house for about ten years. I loved it, especially working with authors to develop their talent. An editor’s job is challenging but quite fun: Working with authors to develop their voice, strengthen their story-telling, and then turning around and working with the business side of things to sell that author’s book as best as possible.
I left working in house to pursue some other goals (graduate school in Medieval history, my own writing, travel, having a family). After all, I had been working non-stop since my junior year in university! I also consulted on a number of publishing projects, and became very involved with comics and graphic novels, especially graphic novels published in Europe. My children are now in sixth grade, and I realized that I had time to get back to my career full time. I thought long and hard about how I wanted to proceed. After all, we don’t get too many opportunities to reposition ourselves!
I thought about going back, and working in-house as an editor. However, for me, there were some issues with that. I want to work with a diverse list of books and authors, and be able to position each author as best as possible, for their individual work. I realized that working in house, with one publisher, wouldn’t present me with that opportunity.
Agenting allows me this freedom: To work with a variety of authors, and be able to draw from a diverse group of publishers, to position my people as best as possible in this competitive world. When the opportunity presented itself to work with Barry Goldblatt, I jumped on it. (Just ask Barry!) He has a superb reputation, and has himself developed a wonderful client list. It’s a pleasure to join such a firm.
And I love negotiating. Brings out the competitor in me. Must be from all my years sailboat racing…
What would you like to see more of as an agent? As a reader?
As both a reader and an agent (it’s the same thing, really – you have to represent books you are passionate about) I am looking for forward-thinking writers with a strong individual voice. A writer must not write to a perceived marketing trend (dare I say vampire novels?). What perhaps the novice writer doesn’t know is that it is so very very apparent when an author is not fully engaged with their work — when they are writing for a market. The writing rings false, and that translates to a very dissatisfying read.
Prospective professional writers must keep in mind that if an agent takes on a manuscript today, unless it is a highly unusual circumstance that book won’t see print for a minimum of two years. Add in the time to actually write the thing, and if you’re writing to market, that bus has already left.
So, my words of advice: Only write what you love. Think forward: a new creative voice, not a re-telling of a previous bestseller. And on of my pet peeves: Take the time and effort to fully render the setting of your story. It strikes me as very amateurish when the writer develops plot and characters, but not setting. Setting is a character in the best of books (think everything from Wuthering Heights to Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, to Harry Potter). Take the time to make your book the best book possible. A good book lasts forever.
What's the most common mistake you see authors making in their queries?
Not writing a business letter. I don’t want self-aggrandizing statements. (This book is the next bestseller!). All I need is a brief paragraph outlining the plot and characters, and five pages so I can see if you can write. Please only include biographical information that is relevant to the content and sale of the book. And take into account what I’m looking for. It’s just a waste of time to send me material that I do not take on.
What’s the one thing an author can do to catch your eye? How can authors get agents to look beyond the query letter?
As above: A query letter that is professionally written, short and sweet. And then, unfortunately, there is no secret. What will sell your book is five pages brilliantly written, so that I will ask for more. And that those five pages are followed by a dynamite manuscript.
Over the years I have seen my share of foolishness: In the old days back at Ace, someone sent in a beautiful handmade, velvet lined wood box. The manuscript was awful, so no, the box didn’t help. It did make us think that the author was, shall we say, trying too hard. The same with red envelopes, or whatever one can come up with for an e-submission. I am committed to reading EVERYTHING, and I will. However, publishing is a business, and I want to see a modicum of understanding of that from the prospective author.
What is projected to be the next big thing in publishing? What trend do you see dying?
No comment. Why? Because authors should WRITE WHAT THEY LOVE, NOT WRITE TO MARKET. See above. And by the way, Vampire books were dead in the water, until a certain author hit the scene.
Do you often choose to represent works that only you would personally read and enjoy or do you aim to represent works that you know will sell, even if you don't like them?
I must feel strongly about a book — and also about an author. The author and I must “click.” I have to know that the author is committed to a career, and will be professional in his or her dealings with me, and their publisher. I will not commit to an author just on their manuscript. I need to talk with them, suss them out, make sure that we’re a good fit. That said, I have widely eclectic tastes, and see a value in many different types of books and styles of writing, from frothy fun books for middle readers like the Captain Underpants series to adult non-fiction, and just about everything in between.
With the economic slow down as it is, are you signing fewer new clients and focusing on the ones you already have?
No. I am a huge believer that good books will always sell. I would be crazy to pass up a book I love and an author I want to represent because of the economy. Publishing is a long-term business. The manuscripts I’m reading now won’t be out for two years. I can’t predict where our economy will be then. Even if things are slow, good books sell even in a bad economic climate.
Do you ever get a chance to read for fun? What book do you not represent that you wish you did?
I read for fun all the time. It would be pretty silly to be in this business and not enjoy reading! And I have to say, as I’m building my list of clients, there is no book that I regret not representing. I’m looking at a very exciting future.
If you could offer one piece of advice to aspiring authors everywhere, what would it be?
Write a book that you’re passionate about.
And now, just for fun, I'll hit you with the Fast Five: Coffee or tea?
Coffee, rich and dark, with cream. Preferably that great cream one gets anywhere in Europe, full of flavor.
Courier or Times New Roman?
Times New Roman.
Cruise or Self-Guided Tour?
Self-guided tour. More opportunity for unforeseen adventure.
3 chapters or 50 pages?
Three chapters. I hate incomplete thoughts, which is what an uncompleted chapter is.
Spa pedicures and sail boat racing.
Thank you, Beth, for taking the time to answer some questions! Check out Beth's genres and QT profile here.