Very practical advice, Part IV: Hooray for my readers

Hello, readers —

Everyone, please give a round of applause to eagle-eyed super-readers Toddie and Dave, who each informed me independently that I had, to put it politely, made an error in compiling my agent list. Turns out that the list of agents (and editors, for that matter) from which one can choose when registering for the summer conference online does NOT entirely correspond to the website’s page of posted blurbs. The website discrepancy would be a less serious faux pas, I think, if the conference registration form listed the agencies from which these blurb-free additional agents hail, but it does not. Makes them a bit harder to find, even for the web-savvy, eh?

So by sticking to only the blurbed agents, as Toddie and Dave were quick enough to catch, I had skipped no fewer than THREE agents in my alphabetical list so far. I’m going to address a couple of those left-out agents today, and then integrate the rest into subsequent posts, as the tyranny of the alphabet dictates.

I should have caught this myself, because for the last couple of weeks, I had been wondering why my agency wasn’t sending anyone this year. They generally do. Had I gone registration form-searching, I would have seen: actually, they ARE sending an agent this year.

Which brings me to the first of the skipped agents, Lauren Abramo, who hails from my very own Dystel & Goderich Literary Management (where I am represented by — since some of you have been asking — the perpetually fabulous Stacey Glick). Regular PNWA conference attendees may recognize the agency — both Stacey and the firm’s principal, Jane Dystel, have graced our conference in recent years.

I have not met Lauren personally, but I have nothing but good to say about D&G in general and Stacey in particular — especially impressive praise, when you consider that the agency has stuck with me through what has surely been one of the most trying memoir-publication processes in human history. Not every author enjoys that kind of support; I have been very, very lucky.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that little rant out of my system, let me add: no single agency, however marvelous, is going to be a good fit for every writer. And as I’ve been explaining for the past few posts, every agent has individual tastes and style. You need to figure out who might be simpatico with you and your book.

That being said, and since there’s no blurb for Lauren Abramo on the PNWA site, I am going to quote her blurb from the agency’s website verbatim:

“Lauren E. Abramo joined DGLM after earning an M.A. in Irish Studies at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Prior to attending NUIG, she completed a B.A. in English at New York University.

“With two particularly impractical degrees under her belt, Lauren sought work in publishing, and DGLM has turned out to be a great fit. She is an avid reader of fiction, especially anything literary, smart and fun, as well as non-fiction designed to make you think or laugh – particularly history, politics, current affairs and philosophy. She also enjoys books on science, though she cannot claim she always understands them.

“Born in New York City and raised not far outside it, she now lives in Brooklyn.”

Okay, back to me again. I’m reluctant to dissect this one too much, since I’ve already done so much cheerleading for the agency above, but allow me to say: while a lot of agents say that they are in the market for funny writing, it has been my experience that everyone at D&G honestly has a sense of humor. So if you write humorous work, MAKE SURE YOUR PITCH TO HER IS FUNNY.

Ms. Abramo is relatively new to the agency (as in within the last year), and is, I’m told, actively seeking new clients. So far this year, according to the standard industry databases, she has sold 3 NF books (2 reference, 1 pop culture) and one novel:

To Adams Media, a NF: Reference book by founder and executive director of Animals 101 Michelle River, DO DOGS HAVE BELLY BUTTONS?, a trivia guide to man’s best friend.

To Simon Spotlight Entertainment, Post Road literary magazine co-founder Jaime Clarke’s anthology SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes. (I’m going to take a wild stab in the dark, and guess that this one is the pop culture sale.)

Another NF: Reference book, Founder and president of PrepMatters Ned Johnson and Emily Warner Eskelsen’s THE SAT FIX: WHAT PARENTS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT TEENS AND TESTS, an SAT resource guide for parents, sold to Palgrave.

And the novel, which sounds really cool: Lorraine Lopez’ FERMINA’S GIFT, “about four sisters who are each promised a ‘gift’ by their enigmatic Hopi caretaker and how they struggle with the responsibilities these ‘gifts’ entail, as well as the conflicts of sisterhood, love, marriage, and motherhood,” purchased by Warner/Solana.

I have met many, many aspiring writers at conferences who routinely avoid agents relatively new to the game in favor of the bigger wigs, but I think this is generally a mistake. The bigwigs might, at best, pick up one or two client at any given conference; they often pick up none at all, as their dance cards are already full. The lesser-known agents, on the other hand, are often “building their lists,” as the industry jargon has it, and thus might be open to a broader array of pitches. This in turn means that your chances of getting your work read and accepted are better.

Remember, too, that a new agent in a small agency and a new agent at a big, prestigious agency like D & G might easily have very different sets of connections. Just because an agent is new to the game doesn’t mean that she can’t help you; in fact, that is how agents BECOME big, usually, by discovering a great new author and riding together to the top.

I have a lot of territory to cover today, so on to the next skipped agent, Jennifer Cayea of Nicholas Ellison. Ms. Cayea is one of two agents at Nicholas Ellison, a subsidiary of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates; NE represents such bestselling authors as Christopher Moore and Olivia Goldsmith. Here is her blurb, borrowed from the NE website:

“Jennifer is building a select list of emerging authors of fiction and non-fiction. Prior to joining Nicholas Ellison, Inc. as an agent and director of foreign rights, Jennifer had a distinguished record as an editor at Random House, in the audio and large print division where she demonstrated a keen editorial eye and was known to be very aggressive in acquiring books. Her negotiation skills combined with her unique publishing background enable her to achieve the best possible results for the authors.”

Okay, this is a GREAT blurb for dissection, because it contains a lot of industry jargon. “Building a select list of emerging authors,” translated into English as she is spoke in these here United States, means that she is either a relatively new agent who has not yet built a client list, that she is just returning from an extended leave of absence, and/or is currently very open to representing previously unpublished authors on general principle (which is relatively rare). Let’s take a look at what she’s sold lately to try to figure out which is the most likely possibility:

December, 2004, Debut Fiction to William Morrow: Author K.L. Cook’s first novel THE GIRL FROM CHARNELLE, “following the family of a 16-year old girl after she is abandoned by her mother and her oldest sister, left to care for her father and three brothers while the family tries to regain its balance.” This book had some pretty hefty back-jacket candy, blurbs from the likes of Richard Russo, so I imagine this was a pretty sweet deal.

February, 2004, a pop culture book to Gotham, in a great big deal: “Legendary sound engineer Geoff Emerick and veteran music journalist Howard Massey’s HERE, THERE, AND EVERYWHERE: A Legacy of Sound, Music, and The Beatles, with a foreword by Elvis Costello, from the man in charge of the recording of such seminal albums as ‘Revolver,’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ and ‘Abbey Road,’ with stories of the groundbreaking recording techniques he pioneered to give them their unique sound and his post-Beatles days (including working Paul McCartney & Wings).”

(And, no, I don’t know why the publishing industry’s databases are so very full of typos, considering that much of the input is written by EDITORS. Go figure.)

These are great deals, but I can’t find anything she’s sold since, other than the world Spanish rights to Father Albert Cutie’s REAL LIFE, REAL LOVE: 7 Paths to a Strong & Lasting Relationship. Perhaps we’ll find more information on her webpage, which does include a list of her clients. Other than the three listed above, this list includes THE LOVE DIET by Mabel Iam (Rayo/HarperCollins); a short story collection by the aforementioned K.L. Cook, LAST CALL (University of Nebraska Press); BURN, PICTURE ME ROLLIN’, and EXPLICIT CONTENT by Black Artemis (NAL); DIVAS DON’T YIELD and OSHUN’S ARRANGEMENT by Sofia Quintero (Random House); THE SISTA HOOD: On a Mission by E-Fierce (Atria Young Adult Books); TAKE BACK YOUR POWER: How to Reclaim It, Keep It, and Use It to Get What You Deserve and YOU GO, GIRL! How to Raise Powerful Women by Yasmin Davidds (Atria Books); THE CHALUPA RULES by Mario Bàsquez (Plume); ASCENDING TO POWER: How I Achieved the American Dream by Rosario Marin (Atria Books).

Most of these books were sold prior to 2000. I would assume from this that she is VERY serious about building up a new list — which may make her a very good audience for a terrific pitch right about now. As anyone who habitually reads agents guides can tell you, being actually EAGER to work with the previously unpublished is not a very common trait, and it should be cherished wherever it crops up.

I do wish that her blurb gave more information about her specific interests — “fiction and non-fiction” covers quite a bit of territory, doesn’t it? Since her listed books are not very recent, I’m not sure what to advise you about what kind of work to pitch to her, other than to refer you to the lists above.

Please don’t hold this against her, though, because interest ambiguity is far from rare in the industry. In fact, preference vagueness is extraordinarily common in agents’ public statements about what they represent — as, again, anyone who has spent much time reading agents guides can tell you. It’s one of the best reasons to go to literary conferences: there, agents and editors will usually be far more explicit about their interests than they ever are in guides.

You may have noticed this phenomenon yourself, in trying to figure out whom to query. Many, many agencies will list themselves as accepting practically every genre under the sun, out of fear of missing out on that one bestseller in a category that they usually don’t represent. I think being vague about their tastes makes the aspiring author’s job considerably more difficult, as it is hard to second-guess the tastes of someone you don’t know personally. But it is accepted industry practice, and one of the reasons that it’s a good idea to perform as much background research as possible on agents you may be meeting at a conference.

But for instructive purposes, I am rather glad that Ms. Cayea’s blurb is so vague, simply because it IS so common. What does one do, when faced with this type of generality, since we at the PNWA have to make our agent choices so far in advance?

My advice is multi-part. If the list above strikes your fancy, sign up for a meeting with her. If not, attend the agents’ forum at the conference, and wait to see what she — or any other vaguely-blurbed agent — SAYS she is looking to represent at the moment. Then, if she seems like a good fit for you, run up after the forum is over and ask if you can give her your pitch, either on the spot or by arranging an informal appointment later in the conference.

Never underestimate the power of the spontaneous pitch.

And, as always, if any particular agent intrigues you, do some internet research. It can be very, very helpful not only in figuring out which agent to query, but also in figuring out what is and isn’t important to you in an agent — now, before you are in a room with several of them.

Before I signed with an agent, I found ranking my choices for conference appointments very annoying — not just because I didn’t always have access to much information about the agents in question (although often it was that, too), but also because I hadn’t given much thought to what I wanted in an agent. To be absolutely honest, as the veteran of two bad agent-client relationships, my primary criterion was that the agent was interested in my work; until I had offers from several agents simultaneously (not a very common luxury; I had won a contest), I had not seriously considered that I SHOULD have selection criteria of my own.

But I did, and you should, too. Not every agent is going to represent your work well; that’s just a fact. So why not sit down — preferably BEFORE you make your agent choices for the conference — and come up with a list of qualities you would like to discover in your agent? (Hint: it is helpful if you seek a bit more specificity than “a person who will sell my books.” Do you want someone that you feel comfortable picking up the phone and asking questions at the drop of a hat, or someone who has a more formal relationship with her clients? Do you want an agent who will leave you alone to work on your writing, or would you be happier if you received regular updates about what is going on with your circulating work? Etc.)

I guarantee that it will help make the selection process easier — and help you appreciate what an embarrassment of riches we have coming to the conference. Truly. Imagine, having access to so many disparate agents that we writers can narrow down our choices in order to find the best fit. Really, it’s a great thing, even if the necessity of making ranked choices is a stressful prospect.

Thanks again to Toddie and Dave for the heads-up about the skipped agents. In gratitude, here’s a tidbit that I know that Toddie will like, as we’ve been privately discussing the case of Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard sophomore who’s been under heat lately due to charges of plagiarism regarding her chick lit novel. (There are blogs and blogs out there now devoted to comparing her book to those of Megan McCafferty, Salman Rushdie, Meg Cabot, and Sophie Kinsella. If you want to avoid the feeding frenzy and look at a straightforward textual comparison between her work and Kinsella’s,. For other, more gleeful comparisons, check out the Harvard Crimson article.

The latest news, hot off the industry grapevine: this afternoon, Little, Brown announced that they “will not be publishing a revised edition of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life by Kaavya Viswanathan, nor will we publish the second book under contract.”

Ouch. So much for that immense advance — although one wonders if the Crime would have bothered to break the story if her advance hadn’t been so, well, large. And, correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t the mother of all chick lit books, BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, primarily a rehash of the plot of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE? I’m not defending Ms. Viswanathan (although I do hope that she sits right down and writes a book about all of this; it would be interesting to hear her perspective on being a 17-year-old who got away with such a thing for a couple of years), but if we’re going to be jumping on paraphrasing the ideas of others without credit, by all means, let’s be consistent about it.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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