Very Practical Advice, Part VI, in which I discover I am a poor chick lit heroine

Hello, readers —

Have you been finding my series on how to read an agent’s blurb in a conference guide useful? I hope so, because it’s going to be a rather lengthy series, even if I rush through it: there are a LOT of agents coming to PNWA, 19 by my count.

In fact, the conference is known for high agent volume. At many smaller writers’ conferences, there are only one or two agents in attendance — and only a few writers are lucky enough to be able to get appointments with them. At PNWA, by contrast, there are always scads of agents and editors — and every attendee is guaranteed two appointments, usually one with an agent and one with an editor. Not to mention the relative ease of buttonholing the bigwigs in conference hallways.

If it sounds as though I’m pushing my own organization’s conference… well, I am, but not just because they are gracious enough to host my blog. I have been attending writers’ conferences all over the country for well over a decade, and I think PNWA’s is the most serious about helping writers make connections with agents and editors. (My favorite of the small, one-agent conferences, in case you’re wondering, is the Flathead River Writers’ Conference in Montana, a real gem.) The marketing and craft classes offered at PNWA are consistently strong enough, year after year, for writing “PNWA conference” on the outside of your query letters to agents who speak there (you know to do that, right, after you’ve seen an agent speak at a conference?) to make an actual difference in how a query letter gets read by agency screeners.

And that is not, as they say, something at which to sneeze.

Oh, and for those of you who have been following this series: both Lauren Abramo and Jennifer Cayea have now posted blurbs on the PNWA website. Hurrah! Please go and take a gander at them, to get a better idea of what they are coming to THIS conference seeking. (Ms. Cayea says, among other things, that she is very eagerly looking for a baseball book. Get writing that book proposal, all of you swingers!) I feel more comfortable about this, because it’s always better if people can tell you what they want in their own words.

On to the next agent (and back to the alphabetical list), Catherine Fowler of the Mill Valley-based Redwood Agency. Here is her blurb, lifted from elsewhere on this very website:

“Catherine Fowler (Agent) has more than 20 years of experience in book and Internet publishing having held senior positions for such prestigious companies as Random House, Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, Excite and WebMD. With Redwood Agency, Fowler is focusing on the core of her expertise and her passion: the development of high-quality projects, working with talented writers and editors, and negotiating contracts. Areas of interest include health, food and cooking, popular culture, women’s interests, narrative nonfiction, nature, parenting, aging, general reference, relationships, popular psychology, non-fiction “chick lit”, business, humor, lifestyle, cultural technology, quirky projects, memoir and the occasional novel.”

How’s that for a no-nonsense, straightforward blurb? (Although can anyone can tell me to a reasonable degree of certainty what NF chick lit is? Memoirs written by well-shod, bleached-blonde young professional women with man woes? Self-help books on how to coordinate your boyfriend du jour with your Prada handbag?) It tells us so directly who she is and what she wants (and kudos to Ms. Fowler for that!) that I have only two comments to make upon this blurb. (Okay, I have more, but I’ll save the rest until after I’ve gone through her client list.)

First, “the occasional novel.” I would take this very literally indeed, and consider very carefully about pitching fiction to Ms. Fowler, unless I were also planning on pitching an NF book in the same meeting. Yes, yes, there is always the possibility that a truly stellar pitch might wow her into falling in love with a novel at PNWA, but pitching is a high-stress activity: if you are new to it, it might be wise to stick to agents who are actively looking for your type of book.

Because, according to the standard industry databases, Ms. Fowler really isn’t kidding about the occasionally part. I found only one novel sale in the last three years, Sandra Kring’s debut novel UNDER THE TITTY MOON, “a tender, humorous story told through the innocent and wise voice of a simple-minded boy and portraying the complexity of life, death, war, prejudice, and family ties in a small-town family nearly torn apart by WWII.” (Delacorte, in a two-book deal, sold 2003)

Incidentally, as you may not be altogether astonished to hear, the title of this novel was changed: it was released as CARRY ME HOME. Hey, we writers have to pick our battles.

Second, if you are interested in pitching to Ms. Fowler, I suspect that it would be VERY prudent to check out her work at Excite and WebMD, at least enough to be able to conduct a reasonably well-informed conversation about it. Aside from the fact that it is always flattering when new acquaintances are already familiar with your work (you didn’t think I was going to all the trouble of listing agents’ recent sales just for the FUN of it, did you?), Internet publishing is a new enough facet of the publishing industry that writers’ conferences don’t tend to see a whole lot of experts on it. If you have any ambitions in that direction, Ms. Fowler might be a great connection for you to make.

I’m looking over the other sales Ms. Fowler has made in the last three years, and I have to say, she is apparently GENUINELY SERIOUS about liking quirky projects. Note, too, the recurring college theme:

NF: Health: Stella Mora-Henry, R.N. with Ann Convery’s THE EXPERT’S GUIDE TO LONG TERM CARE, “a comprehensive guide filled with personal stories to help caregivers make compassionate, informed decisions and tackle the toughest long-term care issues.” (William Morrow, sold 2004; I would have categorized this under Aging, but hey, I’m not the person who organizes the industry databases. Thank goodness.); Erika B. Hilliard, MSW, RSW’s SHY AND SUCCESSFUL: A Comprehensive Guide to Managing Shyness and Social Anxiety, “for consumer and therapists about shyness and social anxiety, as the author challenges the stigmatization of social anxiety and shyness in our culture and offers compassionate, alternative views.” (Marlowe & Company, sold 2004)

NF: Food and Cooking: Marcel and Shannon Biro’s THE KITCHENS OF BIRO COOKBOOK, “a companion cookbook by the stars of the upcoming national PBS restaurant reality and cooking series The Kitchens of Biro.” (Gibbs Smith, sold 2004); Restaurateur Sondra Bernstein’s THE GIRL & THE FIG COOKBOOK, “wine country-inspired French recipes and more from her restaurants, two of Sonoma County’s favorites.” (Simon & Schuster, sold 2003)

NF: Pop Culture: Whitney Shroyer, Letitia Walker, and Michael Traister’s THE SECRET LIVES OF SOCK MONKEYS: Daily Life at the Red Heel Monkey Shelter, “capturing an actual society of sock monkeys, including dioramic photos filled with humor and a bit of social commentary.” (Chamberlain Bros., 2005; I suspect that this MAY also have fallen under the category “quirky projects.”); Susan Marg’s LAS VEGAS WEDDINGS: History, Gossip, a touch of Elvis, and even a Chapel Guide, “a pop culture book about the creation, rise, myth and lore of Las Vegas weddings.” (William Morrow, sold 2003; this is another I strongly suspect of quirkiness.)

Another quirky project, this one technically categorized as NF: Other (hey, I told you, I don’t make up these categories!): Natasha Kogan’s THE DARING FEMALE GUIDE TO ECSTATIC LIVING, “a self-help book with an attitude that dares women to get as much as possible out of every aspect of their lives, with fun, inspirational, and practical dares, and filled with personal stories.”(Hyperion, sold 2004)

NF: Parenting: BLINDSIDED BY A DIAPER, edited by Dana Bedford Hilmer, “an anthology of original essays from notable writers, including Susan Cheever, Greg Behrendt, and Molly Jong-Fast, about the ups and downs and chaos in a couple’s relationship after baby arrives, and how to keep the partnership on track with a new little bundle of joy in the house.” (Three Rivers Press, sold 2006); Andy Steiner’s SPILLED MILK: Breastfeeding Adventures and Advice from Less-Than-Perfect Moms, “for and about ordinary mothers and their breastfeeding experiences, offering advice and solace from a variety of sources, with a sense of humor.” (Rodale, sold 2003)

NF: Reference: Natasha Kogan and Avi Spivak’s Students Helping Students six-book series, including Fishing for a Major, Have No Career Fear, Surviving Your Freshman Year, and Getting through College Without Going Broke, “all guides written and edited by college students and recent grads and full of advice on how to survive and succeed in college and beyond.” (Perigee, sold 2004)

NF: Advice/Relationships: “Seminar leader and personal growth coach Jane Straus’s THE TRUTH PARADIGM: A Bold New Approach for Living an Inspired and Truthful Life, a self-help title exposes the spiritual & emotional suffering triggered by deception and offers techniques to embrace truth as a guiding principle.” (Jossey-Bass, sold 2004); Susan Fee’s MY ROOMMATE IS DRIVING ME CRAZY! Surviving the College Roommate from Hell, “a practical guide to solving the most challenging roommate conflicts and situations.” (Adams Media, sold 2004; I wonder if this guide would have told me how to deal with my college roommate, who stopped going to classes altogether — they interfered with her ability to be totally nocturnal — and held all-night colloquia in our room. She also, bless her heart, cherished a large rat named Anton who ran around free and ultimately ate her concert-quality violin.)

NF: Business/Investing/Finance: Ron Burley’s UNSCREWED: The Consumer Guide to Getting Your Way, “tools for consumers frustrated by customer disservice to fight back and win against unscrupulous, incompetent and faceless companies.” (Ten Speed Press, sold 2005); Frances McGuckin’s previously published Canadian bestseller (125,000 copies! Self-published! In Canada!) BUSINESS FOR BEGINNERS: A Simple Step-by-Step Guide to Starting a Small Business and Big Ideas for Growing a Small Business. (Sourcebooks, in a two-book deal, sold 2004)

Kind of a fun list, isn’t it? I suspect, based upon it, that this might not be the best agent to pitch ultra-serious work — but an unusual or humorous spin on a familiar NF topic might find a home at this agency.

Another thing to note from this list: quite a few of these sales were to West Coast presses, indicating that Ms. Fowler probably has good connections out here. And since West Coast and East Coast publishing houses are known for having rather different tastes (because I love you, my readers, I shall spare you the tale of the months my agent and I expended in trying to get a NYC-based publisher to comprehend the concept of synergy, part of the basic LA vocabulary), if your book might appeal more to folks in this time zone, a West Coast-based agent might make a WHOLE lot of sense for you.

But — and this is a serious but, because I went through the databases in high hopes of learning something here — where is the NF chick lit? Am I never to learn what this elusive term means? Or where Barnes & Noble would place it within its bookstores?

This is not an altogether frivolous objection. You might have noticed, though, that a fair number of the areas listed in the blurb do not seem to have corresponding sales (Narrative, Nature, Pop Psych, NF Chick Lit, Humor, Lifestyle, Cultural Technology, and Memoir, to be precise; I think it’s safe to assume that THE DARING FEMALE GUIDE TO ECSTATIC LIVING would fall under “Women’s Interests.”) It is possible that there are Internet publishing titles in these areas that I missed, of course, but still, that’s quite a few categories.

What are we to make of this? Well, if Ms. Fowler is a good agent (and her past sales record indicates that she has been a VERY good one, especially in 2004), it probably means that she already has working relationships established with editors who are looking for these sorts of books. In other words, she has leads in these areas. (If she were not an agent with a solid sales record, I would suspect that these categories were gleaned from a quick perusal of the weekly bestseller lists, as all of these — except NF chick lit — are frequently represented there. But that would be a most uncharitable interpretation.)

Well, whatever NF chick lit is, I suspect its protagonists seldom sit up until midnight, typing away at their blogs. (Although their authors may.) I guess I am just not cut out for the chick lit life. In retrospect, finishing the dissertation was probably a mistake, in terms of developing my heroine chops to their fullest potential; graduate students are not known for their accessorizing prowess. If only I had thought ahead. But who knew non-fiction people would be expected to lead fictional lives?

And so, resigning myself to a lifetime of non-chick litiness, I bid you good night. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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