Very Practical Advice, Part V: Boy Books and Lad Lit

Hello, readers —

Welcome back to my ongoing series on how to decide which agents to rank highest on your PNWA summer conference form. I’ve had to skip around a little (see yesterday’s post for why), but I’m trying to plow my way through the EXTENSIVE list as quickly as possible, so you may submit your choices soon. Those appointments have a way of filling up fast.

All right, on to the third of the skipped agents in my alphabetical list, Farley Chase. Since he and Byrd Leavell hail from the same agency, Waxman Literary, I am going to defy alphabetical order (and length restrictions) and cover them both today. Both have a strong track record of representing books aimed at men (which is a polite way of saying that their client lists seem to be awfully darned heavy on Y chromosomes), so it makes even more sense to present them together.

Again, the standard disclaimers, even more important in the case of agents who do not have blurbs up on the PNWA website: my information on these people comes from the authors’ grapevine and the standard industry databases; you can, and should, do further research yourself on any agent who truly interests YOU. In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably add up front: the books I will be talking about today are not my proverbial cup o’ tea, for the most part, so I am not as familiar with this area of publishing as I am with others. To avoid misrepresenting some of these projects, I am going to be quoting directly from their books’ marketing blurbs, whenever possible.

Here is Farley Chase’s blurb from the Waxman website. It’s a pearl of its kind, because it includes both a quote from the man himself and the standard blurb information, apparently compiled by somebody else:

“‘I’ve had the privilege of working in several facets of the publishing world, with a variety of talented colleagues. With some I fostered my passion for good writing and smart stories well told. And from others I gained an invaluable business perspective on the world of books. Most importantly, I’ve learned that these are not mutually exclusive propositions and as an agent I’m able to unify these points of view, working closely with writers to realize their aspirations without losing sight of what’s viable or realistic. I take pride in a deliberate and detailed editorial approach and a proactive attitude toward developing new ideas with our writers.’

“Farley Chase has worked in publishing for nine years. After an internship with Minnesota’s non-profit Graywolf Press, he worked for several years at the New Yorker magazine. He has worked at The New Press, Talk magazine and later became an associate editor at Miramax Books where he worked with Martin Amis and B&N Discovery authors Mark Ross and Lily Burana, among others. He has been an agent for three years, first with Goldfarb & Associates and now The Waxman Literary Agency. In addition to representing his own clients, he manages the foreign rights for the agency. He is a graduate of Macalester College.”

What can one say about this two-part blurb, other than that Macalester is a good school? Actually, his personal statement is quite illuminating: note especially, “working closely with writers to realize their aspirations without losing sight of what’s viable or realistic.” This is industry-speak for saying that he recognizes that there are a whole lot of wonderfully-written books out there that are not particularly commercially viable. (And he should know: those books are sort of Graywolf’s specialty.) It’s a nice way of saying that he is willing to nudge good writers into writing work that would be easier to sell.

Which would make him, in theory, a good pitching choice for all of us out there who have been dismissed with, “Well, the writing is great, but I can’t sell the idea.” Mr. Chase seems to indicate that he would like to continue the conversation AFTER that statement.

We would have to check his sales record, though, to see how this philosophy plays out in practice — because this kind of statement can also be industry-speak for being eager to work with well-known non-writers to turn their ideas into books. It just goes to show you: you need to do your homework on agents you wish to approach, not just rely upon what they say about themselves on their websites and in agents guides.

In his blurb, Mr. Chase has given a major hint as to how he likes to work with his clients: “I take pride in a deliberate and detailed editorial approach and a proactive attitude toward developing new ideas with our writers.” Translation: he is an agent who expects his clients to rewrite their work based upon his input BEFORE he sends it out to the market. This can be tremendous, for a writer who is open to it, but can be terrible for writers who resent outside tinkering.

Think carefully about which kind of writer you are BEFORE you have a conversation with any agent. You will be FAR happier in the long run if you find an agent whose editing tastes correspond with yours.

Checking the last few years of Mr. Chase’s sales, I’m kind of surprised he has TIME to edit his clients’ work, or that “is looking for the previously unpublished. He seems to work with a lot of journalists and celebrities, so maybe it’s their prose he helps to mold into marketability. Here are some representative samples, grouped by type of book:

NF: Sports: Golf instructor Jim Hardy’s THE PLANE TRUTH FOR GOLFERS MASTER CLASS (McGraw-Hill, sold 2006); John Andrisani’s THE MICHELLE WIE WAY: An Analysis of the Power Swing Technique of Michelle Wie, a close look at what PGA Champ and NBC analyst Johnny Miller says is “one of the top five best golf swings of all time,” (Center Street, sold 2005); Noah Liberman’s THE FLAT STICK: “The History, Romance, and Heartbreak of the Putter, — a humorous, anecdotal and illustration-rich look at an implement — just a fancified cudgel — that has bedeviled, mystified, and charmed golfers at every level since the beginning of the game” (My, aren’t we poetic? Harper, sold 2005); Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt and ESPN The Magazine deputy editor Glen Waggoner’s A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME: How America’s Pastime Lost Its Way — And How It Can Head Home Again, “a candid look at the changes baseball has undergone in the past thirty years, from free agency to the ’94 strike, the home run race to the steroid scandal” (Harper, sold 2005); “Former senior editor at Golf magazine John Andrisani’s HEAVEN CAN WAIT: Jack Nicholson, Jack Nicklaus, Jack Welch and 22 other Golf Nuts Remember Their First Trip to Augusta, a collection of first-person narratives by professional golfers, celebrities, politicians, businesspeople, and others about playing America’s most fabled golf course for the first time.” (Thunder’s Mouth, 2004)

NF: Health (but really sports): TRUE FITNESS: A Customized, Scientific Approach, No Matter Your Starting Level, by five-time Olympic gold medalist Dr. Eric Heiden, Dr. Max Testa, and DeAnne Musolf (Harper — by auction, but then, not all of us have gold medals hanging around our necks — sold 2006).

NF: Business (but really sports): WSJ contributor and St. Paul Pioneer Press editorial writer Mark Yost’s profile of the National Football League, “chronicling the remarkable history and business decisions that have made the NFL the most successful organization in the sports industry” (unless, of course, you count the Olympics; Dearborn, sold 2005).

NF: pop culture: Tom Reynold’s I HATE MYSELF AND WANT TO DIE: The 52 Most Depressing Songs You’ve Ever Heard (Hyperion, sold 2005).

NF: cooking: Photographer Melanie Dunea’s MY LAST SUPPER, “a collection of portraits of fifty world class chefs – including Eric Ripert, Mario Batali, and Marcus Samuelsson – with descriptions and recipes for the meal they would have if they could have only one more.” (Bloomsbury, at another auction, sold 2006).

NF: history: BBC journalist Nick Hacking’s BOUND BY DECEPTION: Spying Between the United States and Israel Since the End of the Cold War, “tracking the statesmanship and spycraft practiced by two supposed allies when their strategic interests conflict, showing disquieting machinations from both countries that have had a profound impact on world events.” (William Morrow, sold 2004).

NF: biography (but sounds a lot like the last): Gary Ecelbarger’s third book BLACK JACK LOGAN: An Extraordinary Life in Peace and War, “a biography of the seven-term Senator, victorious and popular General, and later a Vice-Presidential candidate, a transfixing public figure transformed by the events of the Civil War who later went on to found Memorial Day.” (Lyons Press, sold 2004)

NF: memoir: “Thirteen-year Cornell student Rob Shuck’s THE UNDERGRADUATE, written with GQ journalist Mickey Rapkin, exploring this real life Van Wilder’s strong belief that if college is supposed to be the best time of your life, then the rest of your life should be more like college.” (Broadway, another auction, 2005); “Esquire and Vanity Fair humor columnist Brian Frazer’s HYPERCHONDRIAC, a humorous account of a lifetime filled with pop-psych treatments, prescription medications, self-help programs, and oddball remedies (Atria, sold 2005); US ambassador to the UN’s Agencies for Food and Agriculture Tony Hall’s CHANGING THE FACE OF HUNGER: One Man’s Story of How Liberals, Conservatives, Democrats, Republicans and People of Faith are Joining Forces to Help the Hungry, the Poor and the Oppressed (try saying THAT title three times fast; W Publishing, sold 2005); Joe Sutter’s AIR BORN: How My Team of “Incredibles” Built the 747 and Other Adventures From a Life in Aviation, “a memoir from the ‘father’ of Boeing’s famed 747 aircraft.” (Smithsonian, sold 2005)

Fiction (and I found only two of these in the past three years, people): Roger Alan Skipper’s debut TEAR DOWN THE MOUNTAIN, “linked short stories featuring a young couple in fictional Union County, West Virginia and their powerful but conflicting determination to both escape Appalachia and to stay” (Soft Skull, 2-book deal, sold 2005; since short story collections are almost invariably collections of already-published stories, this is probably a writer he met through magazine work); Milton Burton’s first novel NEVER LOOK BACK, “in which a Texas man looking to exact a revenge that’s substantially more than financial finds his plans changed due to an oil strike, leaving him with a slew of unanticipated temptations to consider” (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s, sold 2004).

The moral of all this? A blurb that seems to imply willingness to work with little books may not actually be aimed at the writers of little books, but designed to reassure writers of big books. And, of course, if an agent has an impressive track record of selling books on sports, golf, sports, war, sports, frat boys, and sports, a wise writer might not want to pitch him, say, a sensitive coming-of-age novel about a young girl. But if you write on his subjects (or might at some future date, or are interested in the coffee table book market), he would be a great connection for you.

On to Byrd Leavell, also of Waxman Literary. Here’s his blurb from the agency’s website, also a two-parter:

“‘Early in my career I started to realize that a certain segment of the population, guys between the ages of 16 and 40, were being routinely dismissed by editors with the phrase “they don’t buy books.” It had become a self-sustaining cycle, but the readers were still there. It soon became clear that in this group of underserved readers lay an opportunity, one that could be tapped by utilizing the potential of an extremely talented and unapologetic group of writers who were plugged into this audience through the Internet, and had already established huge followings.

“‘As an agent these are the situations I live for — working with authors on books that attempt to reach undiscovered audiences. And it doesn’t matter whether that book is about cleaning up dead bodies, drinking seven nights a week, or church camp. It’s all about taking a great idea and then working together to turn it into something that people want to read – twice. I love writing that makes an impact and the work I represent covers a broad spectrum, from nimble, intelligent literary fiction like Euny Hong’s My Blue Blood, to Tucker Max’s blistering I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and Erik Barmack and Max Handelman’s genre-defining Why Fantasy Football Matters.’

“A graduate of the University of Virginia, Byrd Leavell began his career at Carlisle & Company and then served as an agent at InkWell Management and Venture Literary. His clients include The Modern Drunkard, Tucker Max, and The Phat Phree. A fan of writing that makes an impression, he specializes in books that attempt to push the publishing envelope to reach new audiences.”

I find this blurb admirably straightforward: he wants guy stories amusingly told, plain and simple. How I wish that all agents were so up front about their desires! But how does this philosophy play out in his sales record? He has given us a few examples of his taste above, but let’s see if we can get a general impression of what he wants from what he’s sold recently:

NF: Sports: (Oh, my God, here comes more golf. Brace yourselves.) Curt Sampson’s GOLF DADS: Profiles of Fathers, Their Children and the Game that Binds them, “a series of 10 stories about the unique bond forged between fathers and children around the game of golf, including high profile athletes such as Nicklaus, Hogan, Singh, Trevino, and Sorenstam, as well as stories of lesser known golfers, such as in his recent “Back to the Mariposas” piece in Sports Illustrated about the son of a renowned lepidopterist” (Houghton Mifflin, sold 2006; a lepidopterist, in case you were wondering, studies moths and butterflies); Founder and head writer of The David Dorey’s FANTASY FOOTBALL: THE NEXT LEVEL, “going beyond the stats and projections to offer the underlying tools, principles, and strategies for creating an optimal fantasy team year in and year out” (Warner, at auction, for a whole lot of money, 2006); Sporting News columnist and CNBC commentator Erik Barmack and Fox Sports veteran Max Handelman’s TAKING A KNEE: Why Fantasy Football Matters and Our Lives Do Not, “a guide to the personalities, flawed strategies, tired excuses, excessive trash-talking, and compulsive behavior that goes along with managing a fantasy football team.” (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, at auction, 2004)

NF: Memoir: Tucker Max’s THE TUCKER MAX STORIES, “the true adventures of a man who built a following by indulging every whim, sleeping with more women than is safe or reasonable, and generally just acting like the drunkest person that ever lived.” (Kensington, 2004).

NF: Advice/Relationships: Reality show casting producer Brenda Della Casa’s CINDERELLA WAS A LIAR, “a hip, informative dating guide for women, in which she dispels the fairy tale myth and offers realistic advice for getting and keeping a prince.” (McGraw-Hill, 2005; PLEASE tell me it does not offer advice on hooking Tucker Max…)

NF: Reference: Co-founder of blog and editor-and-chief of Make magazine Mark Frauenfelder’s RULE THE WEB, “providing powerful and little-known tips, tricks, and workarounds the Internet offers.” (St. Martin’s, at auction, 2006)

NF: General/Other: Dax Devlon-Ross’s OUTSIDE THE BOX, “a collection of profiles of unique and inspiring African-Americans whose career choices go beyond the stereotypical molds associated with black America.” (Hyperion, 2004)

NF: Humor: Bob Powers’s HAPPY CRUELTY DAY, “a collection of 365 mini-short stories from his web site, each full of dark and humorous guidance for how every day is to be celebrated.” (Thomas Dunne Books, 2005)

NF: Pop culture: Humor website’s LOOK AT MY STRIPED SHIRT! And Other Confessions of the Desperate, Lonely, Obnoxious, and Stupid, “biting social satire that ridicules people who make life less fun.” (Doubleday, another auction, 2005)

NF: Narrative: Gil Reavill’s AFTERMATH: Cleaning Up After CSI Goes Home,
a foray into the new field of bio-recovery (dial 877-TRAGEDY), in which the author will glove up, strap on a Tyvek suit, and work side-by-side with Aftermath technicians as he takes his readers on the journey of a crime writer who thought he could handle anything being confronted with the worst of everything.” (Gotham, 2005)

NF: Parenting (caught you by surprise, didn’t it?): Simon Rose and Steve Caplin’s DAD STUFF, “an illustrated guide to putting the fun back into being a father, full of useful explanations such as how to cope with the question — are we there yet?— and how to invent bedtime stories to lull your children to sleep.” (Broadway, 2004)

NF: Cooking: Frank Rich’s THE MODERN DRUNKARD: The Definitive Guide to Drinking in the New Century, containing such informative articles as “Drink Your Way to Fitness” and “How to Ace an Intervention” by the founder of Modern Drunkard Magazine (Riverhead, at auction, 2004, and no, I don’t know why this was categorized as cooking, rather than humor).

Fiction: Matt Marinovich’s first novel STRANGE SKIES, “about one man’s attempt to circumvent his life’s trajectory and the baby his wife is demanding they have by pretending he has cancer, which works brilliantly until he runs into a bald young boy and his mother in an airport bar” (Harper Perennial, 2006); I can’t resist including the description of Euny Hong’s MY BLUE BLOOD (Simon & Schuster, 2005): “the story of a descendent of Korean aristocracy living in NYC who, drowning in debt, tries her hand at courtesan-ship in the service of a Russian Madame and finds herself caught between a fiery classical violinist whose company she is paid to keep and a stuttering philosophy student who woos her with his intellectualism even as he repulses her with his plebian ways” (in other words, a slice-of-life novel);
Ryan Gattis’ KUNG FU HIGH SCHOOL, “the cinematically vivid story of a high school where students must fight daily to survive, told in the voice of a fifteen-year-old girl who, along with her martial arts master cousin, must avenge her brother’s assassination and somehow escape a brutal gang war for control of the campus” (Harcourt, 2004); Erik Barmack’s THE VIRGIN, “about a man who lies his way onto a shocking reality-television show.” (St. Martin’s, 2004)

If you don’t see a trend here, I can only suggest that you go back and read that list again.

If you write for men 16-40 (or, to be precise, THIS type of man aged 16-40; I know a lot of men in that age group who read, and even write, literary fiction, but we’re talking mass market here), Mr. Leavell is your man (and you are probably his); if not, well, you might be better off with another agent choice. And obviously, if you have any insight into sports (particularly golf) whatsoever, you should latch yourself onto these fine representatives of the Waxman Agency the moment you spot them at the conference and cling for dear life.

Isn’t it fascinating, though, to see so many titles represented by a single agency all at once? Really allows you to see the overarching patterns in a way that is almost impossible otherwise. (Although I have to say, if I had preferences this strong and specific, I would have gone out of my way to let conference-goers know about them in advance.) When agencies say that they specialize in certain areas, they usually are not kidding: pay attention to these trends, and address your queries to only those agents who represent YOUR kind of writing.

Trust me, you’ll be a happier camper — and a less often rejected one — if you do. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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