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For an unpublished writer, does it cost more to seek a literary agent abroad or would it be safer to self-publish first in the home country before seeking an agent in another country?
I’m not sure about the words cost and safer that you have chosen to use here. Do you mean them literally, or metaphorically? If you have e-mail, it shouldn’t cost you much. And unless there is a terrific home country–based agent (they are less common where you are, no?) whose loving advances you are rejecting, I don’t see any cost to your career, either. The United States, of course, imports little in the way of books, though we do get serial crushes on various areas around the world (India, Africa, e.g.) and then suddenly there’s a lovely burst of publishing activity...
What is the best advice you can give young writers who are applying to MFA programs?
My advice is to understand that you don’t need an MFA to be a great writer. That said, getting an MFA is a wonderful thing! If you decide to pursue an MFA, you’ll get an automatic community of other burgeoning writers who will give you honest critiques of your works-in-progress, you’ll gain access to accomplished professors, and you’ll have uninterrupted time to focus on honing your craft. I would only caution that an MFA in no way guarantees you that your work will ever be published, nor does it necessarily provide access to a teaching job. It is, however, a wonderful luxury, and I advise...
Do agents really read synopses? Isn’t a ten-page sample more useful?
For me, fiction synopses that detail every step of the plot are hard to read and fairly useless. The same description might yield work that’s boring, amazing, or ridiculous; it’s all in the execution. The ability to talk coherently and convincingly about your work is important, though. I like a query that communicates the book’s territory, feel, and type; your influences and credits; and, above all, a sense that you know what you’re trying to do. And then it’s on to the work itself. To that end, I ask for a query and the first page. One book I’m extremely excited about is...
I write literary fiction and have completed four novels and one hundred pages of a memoir with a proposal. I’ve published extensively in literary journals and anthologies—stories excerpted from the novels, in addition to others—and several have won prizes. When I approach an agent about one manuscript, should I cite the breadth of completed work?
Certainly mention publications and prizes, but I wouldn’t mention the earlier works upon first approach. The fact that you have five unpublished projects could be daunting in the context of an initial pitch, and I’d assume most of them had already been shopped at some point if you didn’t say otherwise. Generally, I’d advise focusing on a lead project and on your bio. However, because you’re passionate about more than one form, I think it would be good to convey that you write both fiction and nonfiction. Some agents may only want one or the other, while others may be more interested in the...
How is social media impacting the role of the literary agent?
Social media gives writers a means to connect directly to readers in a way that has never existed before. Using social media is not for everyone, but a smart agent will learn from the successes and creativity of those authors who are embracing it and pass along those examples to other authors who may be more apprehensive. I have also found it to be invaluable in gathering information. I love being able to interpret from the buzz online what readers are responding to. I think it helps tremendously in making me a better adviser to my clients.
What are you looking to see in a writing sample, specifically in the first five pages?
I want to see that it works: characters, narrative voice, the opening strokes of plot—all grooving in unison like the opening to a great song, no matter what genre (though admittedly, heavy metal is not for me). Or, to put it another way, I’m looking for pretty much the same thing you’re looking for when you browse the bookstore, randomly picking up books and glancing over the first page. Do you keep going or do you put it down? Whereas you’re thinking, “Do I want to buy this?” I’m thinking, “Can I sell this?”
Is it typical to give a publisher rights for all media? Is there a standard practice regarding adaptation rights into other media and/or translation rights when initially signing a contract?
I’ve seen contracts that grant the publisher all rights to the book, including all media. Most frequently such contracts are used when there is no agent involved. Sometimes the author signs one because she would rather have someone other than herself responsible for the rights, or because she lacks firsthand knowledge of industry standards. Independent and university presses, which are wonderful for many reasons, are most often responsible for contracts such as these because they publish unagented work and because their rights income is on a smaller scale, so they like to have as many...
Why won’t most publishing companies even consider unagented submissions?
When most people think of an editor at a publishing house, they think of a person in a quiet, comfortable office with appealingly soft lighting, reclining in a comfortable chair and reading all day long. Pretty sweet gig, right? Sadly for my editor friends, this isn’t the case. In truth there’s a lot of fluorescent lighting; uncomfortable, standard office furniture; lots of scrambling to return e-mails and phone calls; and way too many meetings. There’s all the usual corporate office stuff—plus they have to find time to actually edit! There just isn’t time left for these busy people to be...
What do you look for in a query letter? How much do you need to know about plot versus potential marketing tactics in order to make the decision to request a partial manuscript?
Here are the things I look for in a query letter: a distinct pitch, a short tease of the plot (set up the story and make me want to read more), and a comprehensive bio. I take notice if it’s a referral, or when a query suggests the author knows the kinds of books I handle. I prefer a short, clear letter rather than one that is overwritten or opaque. By which I mean, get to it: Know how to talk about your work succinctly. And, in general, keep it to one book per pitch. When I read a query, I am going with my gut in deciding if I want to see more material. There’s no real trick....
I’m a self-published author who just completed his second novel. An agent once told me I shouldn’t state that I’m a self-published author in my query letter because it shows that no one has taken an interest in my writing and therefore I had to publish my own books. Apart from being rather insulting, does this agent have a point?
Yes, it’s a little slighting. Am I guilty of countless acts of the same? Um, yes. This may change as the definition of self-publishing evolves, but we’re not all the way there yet. So unless you’ve sold a zillion copies of your self-published book, best not to bring it up too soon.