Q&A: A Merger of Literary, Legal Minds

Jonathan Vatner
From the July/August 2018 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Having run her eponymous literary agency since 2005, in February Gillian MacKenzie joined forces with Kirsten Wolf, a publishing lawyer and the president of Wolf Literary Services, an agency providing legal consultation to other agencies, publishers, and independent artists. The merger resulted in MacKenzie Wolf, which offers all the services of a traditional literary agency plus legal and strategic advising that can be uniquely important for authors, who often face questions ranging from copyright disputes to television and film rights. MacKenzie Wolf, which is currently open to queries, boasts clients such as novelists Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi and Patty Yumi Cottrell, as well as nonfiction writers Michael J. Casey, Virginia Morell, and Henry Fountain. Shortly after the merger was complete, MacKenzie discussed the partnership, the state of the publishing industry, and the challenges of reaching readers today.

Why did you decide to team up with Kirsten Wolf in this new venture? 
Kirsten and I worked in the same office while I was working in film development and production at Jane Startz Productions, before I founded Gillian MacKenzie Agency. Since she started Wolf Literary Services ten years ago, a literary agency and consultancy for other agencies, she and I have shared an office and assistant, with whom I’d sometimes coagent projects. Our merging officially into MacKenzie Wolf was a natural extension of how we’ve always worked, and it has allowed us to more officially and effectively grow the agency arm of the company.

Why pair an agent with a lawyer? 
It is surprising how often an attorney’s perspective is useful beyond negotiating the contract. Questions come up about writing partnerships, disputes with publishers, the legal implications of including particular content in a book, various subsidiary rights and how they can be exploited in new ways, and so on. While Kirsten isn’t representing any of our clients—in intricate legal matters, an author should have his or her own attorney—her expertise helps guide decision-making greatly.

How is an agent’s job changing?
The consolidation of publishing houses has reduced submission opportunities. And on the publishing side, it is harder to get a reader’s attention. With fewer physical bookstores, how does a reader come across a book? There is so much noise out there, and what once might have compelled a person to purchase a book—a stellar review, an interesting op-ed by the author—doesn’t necessarily lead to that outcome anymore. The sort of quirky, fascinating midlist books I love seem more challenging to get published these days as well.

So how do readers discover and read books now?
That is the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Of course, big traditional media coverage still helps. Stellar review attention and awards still can help. And to state the obvious, social media seems to matter much more. Today publishers hope to have “influencers”—prominent names with large and active social media followings—push the book; even better, for the authors themselves to have those sorts of followings. However, it is still not entirely clear to me what sort of mention of what kind of book and by whom and where actually pushes someone to go out and make a purchase. I think it is important we all keep thinking of creative ways to help people discover books and authors.

What are some ways you help your writers reach more readers?
We explore avenues that our authors and illustrators may not have originally considered. We are starting to pitch more of our illustration clients for animated commercial work. More and more we encourage our adult-nonfiction writers with suitable material to think about adapting their work for a younger audience. Our agency is also handling more of our clients’ speaking engagements, because not all clients garner fees large enough to attract traditional speaking bureaus, and yet their talks help sell books and generate word of mouth.

Who are you trying to reach with these tactics?
People find themselves so busy and so distracted these days, and even those who were once avid readers have trouble finding the time and bandwidth to read full-length books. I am convinced that if we can compel lapsed readers to take the time to be still for a spell and to read a book from cover to cover, they will be reminded of the addictive and transformative power of books. Yes, there will be other modes of “content delivery” that cater to one’s scattered attention span, but nothing will be able to replace that inimitably rich experience one gets from reading a book. In this way, good books are perhaps the best promotion for other good books.

Have you seen any bright spots?
I am heartened that quality books on not-overtly-commercial topics that matter still do find their way to the shelves. For example, in April my client Alisa Roth had her book Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness come out—a book about not one but two difficult themes that Basic Books smartly saw important enough to publish. And one of the biggest titles on my list, The Path by Harvard professor Michael Puett and journalist Christine Gross-Loh, is a book about ancient Chinese philosophy and how it informs our lives today—again a book on a serious topic one might not immediately expect to be best-selling and yet has been translated into more than twenty-five different languages and counting. 

What kinds of work are you looking to represent?
I am fairly catholic in my tastes: By nature I can find myself excited by stale toast if it’s presented in a certain way. I guess I gravitate toward things that surprise me by coming at an idea through a new perspective, a multi-disciplinary prism, a surprising voice, an unusual format, etc. I want to work on material that I think matters, that might make the world a better place, or at the very least, that will offer readers an entertaining diversion. I’m always interested in seeing book ideas about intriguing discoveries or ways of seeing the world backed by science, journalistic exploration, or personal experience, coupled with the right person behind them. I also have a soft spot for illustrated works and think there are opportunities out there for unusual and winning visual books. Recent projects range widely, from humorous illustrated middle-grade books to books about the blockchain to mountain climbing to dog intelligence to loose nukes. I also gravitate towards strong narrative nonfiction, business, sports, current affairs, and memoir.

What do you love to see in a query from a writer?

I have a full slate; fairly or unfairly, many of my clients of late have come through referrals. But I do read the queries that come in to me, and occasionally one will grab me. One of my favorite slush pile discoveries, for instance, is the talented Cat Warren, whose cover letter started, “My name is Cat, and this is a book about my dog.” As I kept reading, it was immediately clear that her story and talent backed up her compelling letter. Her book, What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World, ended up being longlisted for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award and is a best-seller for Touchstone, under the guidance of editor extraordinaire Michelle Howry. Cat is now working on a middle-grade adaptation of the book, which we recently sold to Krista Vitola at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. My colleague Kate Johnson, who primarily represents fiction, recently discovered Patty Yumi Cottrell from the slush pile. Patty’s stunning debut novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace—everyone must read it!—went on to win a 2018 Whiting Award in fiction and the 2017 Barnes & Noble Discover Award in fiction. 

What advice do you have for writers?
My advice is to do your research on who might be a good fit for your kind of writing, and when you make contact, let that person know why you have chosen specifically to reach out. And don’t give up!          

Jonathan Vatner is a fiction writer in Yonkers, New York. His debut novel, Carnegie Hill, is forthcoming from Thomas Dunne Books in 2019.