Very Practical Advice, Part X: It’s like pulling teeth

Hello, readers —

Boy, this is a long series, isn’t it? Of the 19 agents scheduled to attend the PNWA summer conference, we’ve gone through 12. Hurrah! And, after today, we will have gone through 14, so I hope to finish up with the agent round-up sometime next week. That way, you can rush right over to the online registration on this very website and make your choices!

Unless you want to wait until I go through the editors immediately thereafter — and, if I can find enough info on them, the fine folks who are teaching the Sunday seminars. (If any of you have ever taken a class with any of these teachers before, please take a moment e-mail me a review. I’ll be happy to preserve anonymity, if requested.)

The first agent du jour is Maura Kye-Casella of the Denise Marcil Agency. Here is her blurb, lifted from not far from here on the PNWA site:

“Maura Kye-Casella (Agent) has been working at The Denise Marcil Literary Agency, Inc. since 2001. The Denise Marcil Agency was founded by Ms. Marcil in 1977 and represents a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction. Titles range from award-winning crime novels to best-selling women’s fiction to parenting and business titles. With regards to fiction, Maura is looking for submissions in commercial and literary fiction (including chick-lit, thrillers, paranormals, women’s fiction and multicultural novels) and in non-fiction she is actively seeking memoirs, pop culture, adventure, cookbooks and food related writings, lifestyle, humor, parenting and self-help titles.

“Maura’s recent books include LOST IN THE AMAZON (W Publishing) by Stephen & Marlo Carter Kirkpatrick, DARN GOOD ADVICE Babies/Parenting (Barrons) by Jan Faull and ONCE UPON A WEDDING NIGHT (Avon/HarperCollins) by Sophie Jordan.”

To Ms. Kye-Casella’s credit, the titles listed are all quite recent sales: LOST IN THE AMAZON was sold in 2004; Jan Faull published two books in Barron’s Educational Series DARN GOOD ADVICE in 2005, and ONCE UPON A WEDDING NIGHT was published in 2006. In one of the standard agents guides, I found a bit more info on what Ms. Kye-Casella likes: “well-written novels with an edgy voice, quirky characters, and/or unique plots and settings.” (THAT narrows it down, doesn’t it?) “I’m particularly interested in representing books that would appeal to 20- and 30-year-olds.”

Okay, that’s a rather broad brief, but we can work with it.

The agency’s website provides more information about the kind of books they like to represent, a focus specific enough that it bears reproducing here: in fiction, they want to be relevant. They call for “thrillers, suspense novels, and women’s contemporary fiction books that reflect the lives, challenges, loves and family issues facing today’s women — from twenty-something’s (sic) to retirees.” In one of the agents’ guides, they add that they are especially looking for “Latina and African-American fiction and chick lit.” They are explicit that they do not represent SF or children’s books.

In NF, the agency’s website is also very pointed: they want to help people, so I would consider working that angle into a pitch. “We are currently seeking self-help and popular reference books, including parenting, business, spirituality, and biographies. We are looking for authors with national platforms such as national seminars, columns, television and radio shows.” They specifically state that they do not represent political NF (and in one of the guides, they say that they also do not represent science books, although they have in the past).

Did something in that list make a light bulb suddenly appear above your head? ALWAYS pay attention when an agent mentions platform: it means that you should be very, very sure that your pitch includes a strong statement about why you are the best person in the history of the world to write this particular book.

It is worth noting that in both fiction and NF, Ms. Kye-Casella’s stated tastes are considerably broader than those of the agency. That is not usually a problem — individual agents often have connections that the agency’s principals do not — but do bear in mind that agencies, like publishing houses, do gain reputations for bringing certain types of books to editors. As a result, it may well be harder for an agent to sell her first book in an area new to the agency than her second.

I’m just saying.

Let’s take a gander at what Ms. Kye-Casella has sold recently, to see if this theory bears out. The usual disclaimers about the thoroughness of the standard industry databases aside, something struck me as I was pulling up these titles: Ms. Kye-Casella’s e-mail address was listed as the contact on most of Ms. Marcil’s recent sales, so it was a trifle difficult to tell what she had been helping sell and what she had sold on her own. (She also might just have been the person who posted the sales on that particular database; it looked as though the agency actually might not report all of their sales to the primary industry sources.) Her name appeared in all of the following listings:

NF: Memoir: Wildlife photographer Stephen Kirkpatrick and Marlo Kirkpatrick’s LOST: A Photographer’s Daring Expedition into the Amazon Jungles and His Dramatic Battle for Survival, “recounting the true-life account of Stephen’s five-man expedition. Lost for twelve harrowing days in the remote jungles of the Peruvian Amazon, battling poisonous reptiles, torrential rains, hunger, brutal heat and an unforgiving landscape in a desperate attempt to find their way back to civilization.” (W Publishing Group, sold 2004)

NF: Parenting: Authors of THE BABY BOOK, Dr. William Sears and Martha Sears, and their sons, Dr. Jim Sears and Dr. Bob Sears’ THE BABY SLEEP BOOK, “promoting a new method of getting babies to sleep, matching the solution to the individual baby.” (Little, Brown, $$$,$$$, sold 2003); “Dr. William Sears’s weight and fitness guide to help parents fight the children’s obesity epidemic.” (NAL, $$$,$$$, sold 2002)

NF: Science: Dr. Gail Browning’s EMERGENETICS, “outlining her unique brain profiling program, which analyzes both the thinking styles and behavior of the individual based on her original studies and the latest scientific information about the brain.” (Harper, sold 2003)

NF: Business: “Former Chief People Officer of PepsiCo Worldwide Michael Feiner’s THE FEINER POINTS OF LEADERSHIP, outlining his leadership laws for managing relationships with subordinates, bosses and peers.” (Warner Business, sold 2002)

Fiction: Thriller: Peter Spiegelman’s BLACK MAPS, “in which continuing character P.I. John March seeks a truly evil, blackmailing Wall Street banker and the truth about a 20-year-old money-laundering scheme.” (Knopf, in a $$$,$$$ two-book deal, sold 2002)

What are we to make of this list, especially the fact that much of it is not very recent, and that it’s a trifle odd that an agency that lists itself as 50-50 fiction and NF would post so few fiction sales? Well, I think we must conclude that the Marcil Agency is a trifle lax about reporting its deals to the industry’s standard tracking clearinghouses. Which means that, even after scouring the databases and the usual agents’ guides, I can’t tell you too much more.

I’m sure that this agency IS selling books, though, including quite a bit of fiction. If you want to do more research on Ms. Kye-Casella, I would urge you to check out the agency’s website, listed above. (See why I think it is SO important for them to have websites? Generally speaking, I prefer to judge an agency — or indeed, any institution — by its actions, rather than just what it says about itself, but at minimum, in order to make distinctions between agencies, we writers need at least to be able to compare their PR.)

Try not to hold the difficulty in obtaining information too much against this agency, which is a fine one, I’m told. Given the literally millions of aspiring writers out there, there are surprisingly few who do in-depth research on the agents they query; as you may have yourself noticed, providing writers with specific information about their internal workings and desires is not exactly industry standard practice. It is indeed hard to get this information, across the board.

Which would bug me substantially less if agents and editors didn’t tend to walk into conferences and open their mail assuming that everyone who approaches them is familiar with their work. I kid you not, in the Herman guide, the Denise Marcil Agency’s listing actually includes the sentence, “Do your homework to assure that I represent your type of book.”

The next agent on the alphabetical list is Jandy Nelson of the NYC- and Palo Alto-based Manus & Associates. I’m not seeing a blurb for her on the PNWA website, so I would urge you to go to their website and check her and the agency out.

The interests she lists on the website are narrative NF, “innovative self-help,” memoir, and health, in the NF realm; as one of the standard guides puts it, “her list also reflects her passion for serious health and sophisticated self-help books for women.” Her stated interests in fiction are literary, multicultural fiction, and women’s. (Another thing to know: the principal of the agency, Jillian Manus, used to develop projects at Warner Bros. and Universal, so this would be a good agency for projects with film potential.)

Ms. Nelson is an agent I have met at conferences past, and in the interests of full disclosure, I should also add that she read the first three chapters of a novel of mine some years ago and declined with thanks. In fact, she (or, one presumes, two ms screeners at Manus & Co) read it twice. Kind of a funny story: Ms. Nelson had asked to see the chapters, then I heard nothing for a couple of months. Adhering to the rule of waiting twice the stated turn-around time, then asking, I sent a polite little letter, asking if they had received my manuscript. Seems they had misplaced it, but could I send the chapters again? A few weeks later, back came the chapters in my SASE: no, thank you. So I went on my merry way. Then, eleven months later, I received a second package, again in a SASE of mine, containing an identical rejection letter to the first. Apparently, they had been doing some housekeeping. And I STILL like Jandy Nelson, which should tell you something about her inherent charm.

Losing manuscripts is far from uncommon, incidentally; the larger the agency, the more likely it is to happen. That doesn’t make it any less painful when it happens to you — as anyone who has known the agony of the “Should I call today, since they haven’t gotten back to me in four months? Tomorrow? Never?” wait can tell you. This is yet another reason to make sure every page of your submission has your name in the slug line: lest some pages go astray. After this incident, I also began taking the extra precaution of enclosing with my requested materials a stamped, self-addressed postcard, bearing the name of the agency and two options from which the recipients could choose: “Yes, the manuscript arrived intact on ____” or “No, all that arrived here was this postcard.” Everyone got a laugh, and I received confirmation that my submission was indeed where it should be, at least at first.

Ms. Nelson’s tastes are genuinely eclectic, a good match for the West Coast publishers to whom she primarily sells. Here are the sales I was able to dig up for her within the last few years; as usual, bear in mind that the standard industry databases I used to collect this information are not always 100% accurate. Because part of the point of my going through all of these is to help my readers learn what to look for in a list, here’s a pop quiz: what is most striking about this list of books?

NF: Memoir: Andrew Pham’s EAVES OF HEAVEN, “the sequel to CATFISH AND MANDALA, about the author’s father, Thong Van Pham, and the reversals of fortune his family suffered during the Japanese occupation of Vietnam, the French colonial era, and finally the Vietnam War before they began a new life in America.” (Farrar, Straus, sold 2004; CATFISH AND MANDALA, published by Picador in 2000, won the Kiryama Book Prize); Terry Tarnoff’s THE BONE MAN OF BENARES, “an exuberant memoir of Tarnoff’s raucous and hilarious adventures in Africa, Asia, and Indonesia in the 70s.” (St. Martin’s, sold 2003); “Mineko Iwasaki’s life story (she is the geisha who was the source for much of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, and recently filed suit against Golden–and is the first geisha in over 300-hundred-year-old tradition to tell her story).” (Pocket, $$$,$$$, for world rights exclusive of Japan, interestingly enough, sold 2001); Al Martinez, I’LL BE DAMNED IF I’LL DIE IN OAKLAND (Thomas Dunne, published 2003).

NF: Health: MENOPAUSE: THE NEW OPTIONS, edited by Mary Tagliaferri, Debu Tripathy and Isaac Cohen, “a compendium that gathers together the leading experts on menopause and complementary health care to create a complete resource on alternative, complementary and conventional approaches to menopause in light of the WHI study that revealed the deleterious effects of hormone replacement therapy.” (Avery/Penguin, sold 2003); Nancy London, HOT FLASHES, WARM BOTTLES: FIRST-TIME MOMS OVER 40 (10 Speed, published 2001)

NF: Religion/Spirituality: LILY DALE author Christine Wicker’s new book, “which explores the inner-workings of a mega-church community.” (Harper San Francisco, $$$,$$$, sold 2005); Christine Wicker’s NOT IN KANSAS ANY MORE: Inside the Hidden World of America’s Magical Community, looking at witchcraft, voodoo, wizardry, and more.” (Harper San Francisco, $$$,$$$, sold 2003)

NF: Pets? Nature? — Journalist Mira Tweti’s BIRDS OF A DIFFERENT FEATHER: The Sometimes Funny, Always Fascinating, and Often Catastrophic Collision of Parrots And People, “an exposé of the world of parrots that reveals surprising scientific findings on parrot intelligence and behavior, the burgeoning global crisis of the illegal parrot trade and its dire consequences, the widespread emergence of bird clubs across the nation and the eccentric members of this hidden subculture among many other parrot fascinations.” (Viking, $$$,$$$, sold 2003; the phrase “an exposé of the world of parrots” tickles me no end.)

Fiction: Ronlyn Domingue’s debut THE MERCY OF THIN AIR, “a puzzle of a novel that pieces together two love stories that parallel and collide over two different periods in history in New Orleans, all narrated by a woman who while in the throes of a love affair dies in an accident and gets caught in The Between — a realm between life and the beyond.” (Atria, $$$,$$$, sold 2004); “Author of the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and Lambda Award winning THE WORLD OF NORMAL BOYS K.M. Soehnlein’s YOU CAN SAY YOU KNEW ME WHEN, about a son’s determination to uncover a mystery buried in his intolerant father’s past in order to find a connection with him after his death.” (Kensington, sold 2003); Tom Dolby’s debut novel THE TROUBLE BOY, “about a young gay screenwriter who traverses the worlds of New York nightlife, film, and public relations, and is caught in the middle of an accident that rockets through the tabloids, forcing him to make some tough moral choices.” (Kensington, sold 2002); Laurie Lynn Drummond’s UNDER CONTROL: STORIES ABOUT WOMEN, GUNS, AND FAMILY, “a collection of stories and one novella that explores the lives of women police officers based on the author’s many years on the force in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.” (HarperCollins, sold 2002; Harper Perennial reissued a short story collection called ANYTHING YOU SAY CAN AND WILL BE USED AGAINST YOU in 2004, which I assume is the same book, but I could be wrong about that.)

Pencils down, everyone: what did you pick as the dominant eyebrow-raiser? There are actually a few possibilities here. Three of her stated interest categories (Narrative NF, Self-Help, and Women’s Fiction) don’t appear here, so points to you if you noticed that. Points, too, if you noticed that Ms. Nelson’s memoir tastes aren’t particularly domestic; these are some pretty exotic locales for memoirs. But you get the most points of all if you noticed either that I went back 4 years for this list, instead of my usual 3, and that the vast majority of books listed are from 2003 and before. This would make me suspect a leave of absence, especially since the one listed 2005 sale was in October, or at any rate, extremely selective client acquisition.

However, as we learned from Ms. Kye-Casella’s list above, agencies do not always post all of their sales in the usual databases. A quick trip to Ms. Nelson’s blurb on the Manus website would be the prudent next step, to scope for newer sales. The clients listed there: Andrew Pham, Al Martinez, K.M. Soehnlein, Lisa Huang Fleishman (author of DREAM OF THE WALLED CITY, Washington Square Press, published 2001; Vintage released a paperback of her THE LINOLEUM ROOM in 2005, but I have not been able to find a deal listing for it), Laurie Drummond, Terry Tarnoff, Mineko Iwasaki, Katy Robinson (A SINGLE SQUARE PICTURE, Berkley Trade, published 2002), Christine Wicker, Mira Tweti, Nancy London… in short, essentially the same group of names as the sales list revealed.

There are a couple of ways to interpret this: I choose the upbeat one, and vote for Ms. Nelson’s now being enthusiastic for updating her list with a bunch of new clients. She definitely has an eye for the unusual, so she would be among my top picks for memoir (the more exotic the better!), literary fiction, and health books aimed at women.

Again, as with Ms. Kye-Casella, I would urge you to do your own research on Ms. Nelson and her agency. Get thee to a bookstore and read a few paragraphs here and there of her clients’ works, to glean an idea of what kind of prose she likes. And again, shake your head in wonder that in an industry where writers are expected to be familiar enough with prospective agents’ work to target the right ones, it’s not made easy to find out who represents what. Wouldn’t it be in everyone’s interests, including the agents’, to be as open with this information as possible?

Just my humble opinion, of course, more of which follows tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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