Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Macbeth in the 21st Century - dramatis personae

I want to introduce you to some key people involved in the journey of this wonderful story coming into the light. Many people ask about my agent, my editor, publisher, the babes etc and my some of writery friends suggested I get some guest posts happening so I've begun to send interview questions to key peeps.

During the next few weeks I shall be posting their responses to my questions.

Because I asked him first and he so willingly responded, here is part one of a two part interview with my literary agent, Josh Getzler.

Josh, in a former life, was the owner of a minor league NY baseball team (which impressed my hubby no end - and my mother who was a coach of said sport for many years. I'm particularly good as a batter and as short-stop by the way). But, back to Josh who now works for Russell & Volkening, Inc., one of the oldest literary agencies in America.

He's a busy man. Do go read his introduction of himself here This post is hot off the press and another blog I have added to my select group of must-reads!

To the interview:
What is meant by the job description ‘agent’?
Let me answer the first four questions as one, just for narrative simplicity. A literary agent is many different things (and different agents prioritize the roles differently). An agent reads (many, many) queries from writers looking to get published, and decides which ones he or she thinks have the quality of writing, uniqueness of plot (and best adherence to a formula), and marketability to be a successfully published book. Then he (I'm not going to use he or she from here on out, simply for simplicity's sake) takes the manuscript (if fiction) or proposal (if nonfiction) and works with the author to get it into the best shape for submission to publishing houses.

When it's ready, he uses his knowledge of publishers and editors to set up a submissions list; writes up an enthusiastic, persuasive pitch letter, lets the editors know by email or phone that he has a project he thinks would be good for them, and sends (at this point via email) the project out to the publishers for their evaluation.

At that point, his job shifts from first editor to business manager. When a publisher expresses interest in the manuscript, the agent notifies the other publishers that he has interest in the book, and tries to set up an "endgame" which is either an offer by the first interested editor or a competitive situation where a number of editors go head-to-head in an auction for the book. Then the agent negotiated the contract, using whatever leverage he has (which is often very little, unless there is a competitive situation) to get the best terms for the author.

Once a writer signs a contract with a publisher, the agent's job is to manage both the flow of information and money between the publisher and writer, and to advise the writer on next steps. The agent's first priority is always the writer's well-being and career, and every comment or suggestion he makes to his client is designed to further propel the author to greater heights. When the author is ready to submit book 2 to the editor, the agent (most of the time) reads the manuscript first and serves as first reader/editor once again, and then works with the editor to make the next publication even better than the first.

All through this process, the agent is serving as well as a sounding board, advisor, psychiatrist, cheerleader, voice of reason, parent, child, a business partner to the author. And it's one of the agent's most important roles. The agent has taken the author's baby and been entrusted with sending it out into the world. That is a tremendous responsibility, and one we take very seriously. Frequently, part of that process (as Tania well knows) is sending it out to publishers...and waiting...and waiting...and having people inexplicably saying that they don't want to publish the author's book. As much as the process I discussed above is the job of the agent, it's also the happy, fun part of the job. Much more of it is answering calls and emails from frustrated and apprehensive authors wondering why their book hasn't been taken. And to my mind, the way an agent handles that role is every bit as important, if not more so, than managing smooth, successful submissions.

What is in it for you? Why do you do what you do?
On a purely business level, what I get is 15% of what my authors get. But that’s facile and mercenary. And while many people might think that, well, that’s what agents are [here, his email contains a smiley face], the truth is way more complicated than that. So many agents are either former editors, or literature majors who stumbled onto the Sell Side of the business instead of becoming editors, that the truth is really the same for agents and editors. We want to find good books and shepherd them out to the market so that they will be read by as many people as possible. There is little more special than opening an unsolicited query, reading the first page, and realizing that magic is happening. It’s what we’re there for. And every editor I’ve spoken to feels the same way. It’s an unusual business in that respect, in that it bridges art and commerce.

Another reason I do what I do is that I love books, and I love talking about them with other people who like talking about them. I like the social aspects—the lunches, the get-togethers, the conferences—and the getting up early in the morning to meet manuscripts. I like line editing and having the intense satisfaction of seeing a final draft turn out exactly the way it should.

There seems to be so many editors even within the same houses so how do you decide who you should submit your client’s work to.

That’s where the social aspect comes in (and in fact what gives agents some intangible value). A serious part of my job is to read everything I can in the press and blogosphere about the different publishers, imprints, and editors, so that I know when I am submitting which editor at which house is most likely to bite on the project. That’s vital because in most circumstances there aren’t second chances—once an editor passes on a book, you can’t go back to that publisher with that book (the editors talk!). Also, it’s why I like working with other agents in the office, rather than by myself (also because I think I’d lose my mind if I weren’t talking to people all day!). We compare notes, have databases, look through the Publishers Lunch deal lists, and get a sense of the market. But really the best way for me to learn is by meeting people. That way I can find out that the mystery editor who does dog books also likes Western adventures, or the historical thriller editor has a thing for rugby. Every little bit helps.

Thanks, Josh, for these insights into your world.

In the next post, he answers more specific questions about the Banquo's Son Trilogy.

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