Free Advice (FWIW): What is a Literary Agent Anyway?

Beethoven_cartoonI plan to offer publishing industry advice every Thursday. As with all advice you get what you pay for. Still, I believe in writers helping writers, lawyers helping writers (though I can’t of course give actual legal advice here), karma, etc.

Before I do that, however, I thought I’d start with some basic background because I get asked this question often: “What does a literary agent actually do?” In short: we act as the liaison between writers and publishing houses. The major publishing houses (Penguin Random House [yes, they are one entity now], HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, etc.) generally will not accept un-agented manuscripts. So if you have a book idea, you find an agent.

That agent will help refine your proposal (for nonfiction) or manuscript (for fiction). This can take a long time. Months, even (ask some of my writers!). Then, your agent will carefully consider the “submission list” — the list of editors to whom he or she will send your proposal. A good agent will have personal relationships with most if not all of the editors on that list. The publishing world is still one of the last relationship-based industries, which is why as a true extrovert I love it so much. I wrote a post here, on my former blog about what I do when I go to New York to meet editors, which I do at least once a month — more if I’m actively pitching and selling a project.

Once an agent sells a book, he or she will negotiate the contract (this is where being a lawyer comes in handy — I love contracts! Really!) Then the agent will act as the liaison between the writer and the editor/publisher during the publication process: reading drafts and edits, consulting on cover choice, and acting as the “bad guy” if there are any issues. Come publication time, the agent turns into the writer’s biggest cheerleader, offering as much support and publicity as possible.

And, then, the agent will start nagging the writer for ideas for the next book… and the process beings again.

Many agents “come up” in the publishing world. They begin their careers in entry-level/assistant jobs either at agencies or in publishing houses. Eventually they start to acquire and sell projects until they have built up their “list” and can make a go on their own. My route in was lateral — I had the editing and writing experience but not yet the inside-industry experience, which was both a benefit but also the steepest part of my learning curve. But, as I zip to New York for coffee and drinks and lunch dates with editors, the most fun.

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On Writing: Performance Enhancers

In its August issue, Runner’s World profiles  author Malcolm Gladwell (who was a high school Canadian national track champion). Every nonfiction writer should read Gladwell, not only because he is a prolific bestseller but because he changed the nature of nonfiction. His writing is narrative, but anecdotally so, and he has perfected the concept of analyzing big, even abstract, ideas, by focusing on tangible, relatable examples. This formula works, and it sells lots and lots of books. I think there are certain “sweet spots” in fiction where a story is accessibly written but yet the reader comes away feeling as if they have learned something important (see: The Paris Wife, The Help). Gladwell — though perhaps somewhat less accessible — does this for his readers. It’s nice to throw around anecdotes from The Tipping Point or his “ten thousand hours rule” in casual conversation.

Gladwell’s Runner’s World interview is pretty running-specific, but this paragraph caught my attention:

I remember when [New York Yankees pitcher] Andy Pettitte was injured, there was some allegation he was taking something during his period of recovery. How can you blame the guy? He’s a professional athlete. If I got carpal tunnel and couldn’t type, would I take a drug so I could get better sooner? Totally. My living is typing.

Author Michael Farris Smith also speaks of performance-enhancing substances for writers in his New York Times piece, “What if Novelists Took Steroids?

I’m not talking about traditional writer standbys like booze or pills or wild, obsessive lovers. Or hard work. These have all been known to transform a writer from something into something else. I’m talking about a fat pill I could swallow once in the morning and once at night, and then sit back and reap the benefits of a stronger, faster novel-writing me.

Gladwell of course is implying more of a physical effect than creative. But I’ve thought about this often — what is it that makes writing so difficult and is there anything we can do to overcome that? Is it the solitude? The insecurity? The sheer frustration of seeing a crap first draft? The inability to focus? Sometimes I think I became an agent because, while I love to write, I don’t have the innate creative fire to write an entire book. And I so admire people who do, whether their books end up being published or not. (And this is why I try to be respectful of writers who query me — I know what it’s like to put yourself out there. It’s terrifying!)

Smith ends his piece neatly, although I have to disagree: “Cheaters always know how it’s going to end….part of the fun of being a writer is not knowing the ending before you get there.” It’s true: you never know the ending. But I find that more terrifying than fun.

Writers, what say you? Would you take a magic writing pill (not booze, not adderall)? Do you plot out your endings beforehand (as Joyce Carol Oates does, on many index cards)? Or is the not knowing the fun part?

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J.K. Rowling vs. the Debut Author

CuckoosI am one of the thousands of people who have recently bought J.K. Rowling’s “new” mystery, The Cuckoo’s Calling. When the book was simply an obscure, if well-reviewed, debut novel by a writer named Robert Galbraith, I had no interest — quite simply because I didn’t know about it. And even it I had, would I still have bought it? Perhaps. I love mystery novels — but there are hundreds of new mysteries released every year, and how would I know that this one would be worth not only my money but my time? As soon as I learned that Galbraith was a nom de plume for Rowling, however, I scooped it right up. Not only because I thought it might be well written but because, by that time, I was intrigued by the “scandal“. No-name author = no sales. Mega-huge author = bestseller list. (For the record, I really enjoyed the book. I hope Rowling writes other Cormoran Strike — what a Harry Potter-esque name for its troubled detective protagonist! — mysteries.)

This brings up one of the perplexing issues authors face in the publishing world right now: that of reviews and sales. It’s a circular, chicken-and-egg issue. You are a debut novelist. Do you have any chance of writing a best-seller? It actually may be out of your hands.

Consider this: You write a solid book that reviewers like. Those who actually review it, that is. There are almost no national papers reviewing books anymore. Reviewers such as Publisher’s Weekly are read mostly by those in the industry. And to snag a review in People or — gasp! — the New York Times Book Review is an almost impossible feat. So with fewer outlets reviewing, how will potential readers know about your book? They don’t. And so you sell very few copies in your first couple weeks on the market. Booksellers look at those numbers and decide not to restock copies and take your book out of its front-of-the store location (if it was there to begin with). And when it’s time to write your second book, your publisher looks at your sales numbers and offers a lower advance.

There are other issues at play other than reviews and publicity, of course. The e-book revolution has significantly changed the ways publishers publish, and I plan to discuss this often on this blog, but for a good overview as to how digital publishing affects debut authors, see this 2010 Wall Street Journal article. In short: “mid-list” authors — those who are not the marquee best-sellers but who nevertheless write books that, in the past, would have sold respectful numbers — are being squeezed out.

But back to the issue of publicity. Who gets the reviews? Big-name authors. Who gets the front-of-the-store placement? Those same authors, who bookstores know will sell — e.g., J.K. Rowling.  And if you’re not a big-name author who commands the attention of the publisher’s p.r. machine, the pressure to sell and seek reviews is left very much to the author him or herself, which is why many publishers also are very interested in a potential author’s social media “platform” — yes, even for fiction writers. In other words, how many people can an author herself convince to buy her book? Can she write an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal? Can she exchange Tweets with other authors who will recommend her novel? Can she leverage her network to get on the Today Show?

So I do encourage all writers to make a place for themselves in the social media world and to forge connections that will help them find their readers. This piece is an interesting summary of what several agents look online for when evaluating a potential writer.

Lest  you get too discouraged, however, I am still an idealist (or try to be!). I really do fervently believe that if the writing is good, editors will recognize that. My friend Lacy, whose novel EARLY DECISION was just published is a case in point — she is truly the only one of my friends not on Facebook (gasp!) but, yet, her writing credentials and contacts were solid and her prose stunning.

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September 3, 2013 · 11:41 am

It’s Not About the Book

This story is directly in the purview of my profession(s) — oh, how I’d love to be the attorney here (representing the publisher). In a class action suit filed in California, readers of Lance Armstrong’s autobiographies are suing Armstrong and Random House, his publisher, claiming that he tricked readers into buying his books based on a false advertising campaign. While arguably the books are protected by the First Amendment and Armstrong thus had a constitutional right to lie in them (“People don’t always tell the truth in their books,” said his lawyer*), false commercial speech is not protected by the First Amendment. So the issue is: in publicizing his books, did Armstrong engage in unprotected commercial speech?

To which I say to the plaintiffs (who are asking for $5 million in refunds and damages): come on. Are you really that upset that you want your $25.99 back? Arguably it is pretty reprehensible that Armstrong became so wealthy because of his deceit, but to take it to court?

*See, e.g., the “5 Most Ridiculous Lies Ever Published as Non-Fiction.”

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On Writing

One of my dear friends, Lacy Crawford, has a book being published tomorrow: Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy (William Morrow). The story is about a “college whisperer”, Anne, who is hired by elite families to help their children with college essays and the application process. The topic resonates in this age of helicopter parenting, and Lacy is getting a lot of great press. As she should, because she has not only hit upon a goldmine of a plot, but her writing is flawless.

And always has been for the past 20 years. So it irked me a bit, then, when the headline of a Daily Beast piece read, “College Application Guru Turned Author.Turned author? Lacy is a Writer. A WRITER. She has always been an author. She came to Princeton knowing she wanted to major in creative writing; she studied with the best (Toni Morrison, Russell Banks). After college she wrote and wrote: novels that were never published, stories, essays, and continued to study and hone her craft. Her writing is laced with literary references and exquisite prose. And Lacy writes about Anne:

 “…quite simply, she loved words most of all.”

 In a way, this is what I want my blog to be about. Words. My love of them, most of all. And, thus, a consideration of words and writing through my own lens of experience. Whether struggling through the same creative writing classes as Lacy in college (Joyce Carol Oates terrified me and it was clear that I had not the talent for fiction as Lace!), going to journalism school and literally writing for a living, teaching writing both to high school students and as a teaching assistant in law school to 1Ls, to now working as a publishing lawyer and literary agent: I write, and I work to promote writing. Without really meaning to, I’ve ended up  making career choices that have allowed me to examine it from different perspectives – from deadline-driven news articles to legal briefs to book proposals to copyright protection.

So welcome to Literary & Legal. I hope that some aspect of my musings on writing – whether about books or legal topics or the publishing world – will inspire and interest you.

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Filed under Alma Maters, Publishing, Read This