With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer and blogger Katie Flanagan present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
It was thanks to Harry Potter and the internet, really. I loved books and all through my childhood I knew I wanted to work with words somehow. In middle school I decided I would do this by being a journalist, because that was the only way I figured one actually made money with words. Then I got into the Harry Potter series. It wasn’t the first time I read an unfinished series, but it was the first time I was aware it was unfinished. I got almost all my books from the library, and whenever I came across a new book in a series, I always assumed it had just been checked out the other times I’d looked at that shelf. Then along came Potter, and the realization that while there were to be 7 books in the series, they hadn’t been written yet. My first tentative steps onto the internet showed me people talking about what might be in these unwritten books, and interviews with Rowling and these people called “editors” who apparently made books. That’s what really struck me: there were people out there whose job it was to make books, who were making books at that very moment. Naturally I had to become one of them, and so I went into high school with that goal in mind.
2. What made you choose agenting instead of another part of the industry?
Sheer dumb luck. My sophomore year of college I saw at ad at our Career Development Office for an internship at a literary agency. At that point, I had a vague idea what agents did and thought it would be a good learning experience. I was fortunate enough to be taken on, and I found I loved the work. The combination of editorial, detail focused contracts and accounting, and author career development suited me fine, not to mention that an agent has more freedom about what they sign on than an editor does. I thought, though, that I’d have to work on the publisher side first. After I graduated, I met up with fellow Vassar alum Doug Stewart, who turned out to have started agenting as an assistant rather than through a publisher. With that possibility open to me, I applied for jobs on both sides and starting reading agent blogs like a fiend. One of the agents I followed was Jennifer Jackson, agent to one of my favorite authors, Jim Butcher. So when I happened on an internship posting on craigslist by the Donald Maass Literary Agency, I jumped on it. Fortunately for me, they hired me.
3. You work at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. What was it like joining a team that is already so well established?
Pretty fabulous. The agency has been around for over 30 years, with all the experience to go along with that, so there is very little out there an agent might face which someone at the agency hasn’t already tackled. We all really works as a team, which makes the job go much more smoothly.
4. You work with a variety of fiction genres. How important is it for novelists querying you to have a platform?
I always tell novelists that their novel is their platform, so in that sense, extremely important. In the I-have-one-million-blog-followers sense, though, not really important, but doesn’t hurt (unless you rant and rave about the evils of publishing, in which case, why did you query me?). I recently signed a client where, after reading and liking her query, I checked her blog. It wasn’t regularly updated or hugely followed, but she wrote so intelligently about her craft that I asked for the full manuscript rather than asking for a partial first. But again, that wasn’t her platform, that was her writing. I won’t object if you have a platform, but it’s not the most important thing you can show me.
5. What are the most common mistakes you see writers making in the manuscripts you request?
Oh what an overwhelming question. For help, I asked intern Emily and assistant Jen, who respectively replied “prologues” and “pages that start with waking up.” I think these both fall under “starting the story in the wrong place,” which probably is the most common mistake I see because I read a lot more beginnings than I do middles or ends. Most prologues fall into either “this event happens long before the rest of the novel to set up character or world-building background” or “this is an exciting bit from later in the manuscript which hopefully entices the reader to get through the boring bits at the beginning.” For me, these prologues rarely work, because they feel like a trick. Integrating background information when necessary and not having boring bits to get through are much more enticing to me. As for “waking up” or other similar begins, they make sense for a first draft, when a writer is starting to make their way into a story and isn’t sure about the characters and plot yet. After the first draft, though, it is vital to go back and reconsider the beginning. Just because you start your day by waking up doesn’t mean you should start your story that way.
Emily also adds “romantic interests have no flaws.” Which really is just poor characterization. All people have flaws, so characters should, too. And no, clumsiness doesn’t count as a flaw.
6. You represent mainly science fiction, urban fiction, and fantasy. How susceptible are these genres to trends compared to other genres? Which trends are you seeing too much of these days? Which trends do you want to see more of?
I think all genres are pretty susceptible to trends. Fantasy goes wild for vampires; mystery goes wild for cats. Sci-fi becomes all about dystopian; literary becomes all about white, upper middle class ennui. Everything goes through trends. The key is not to write to them, but to write to what speaks to you. I could list things I see too much of (fallen angels) or things I’d like to see (Mayan steampunk), but really, those things aren’t good or bad in themselves. It is the execution that matters, and so the only reason to pay attention to trends is to make sure your premise doesn’t sound like every other premise out there. Average girl meets supernatural guy, finds out she is latently supernatural, and goes on to save the world from Evil McEvilson is old and staid, regardless of whether your characters are vampires or chupacabras. So what I’m looking for are books that twist and play with trends, subverting expectations and surprising me from page one.
7. One of the other interesting areas you represent is Westerns. What is the market like for Westerns, and what types are selling right now?
To be honest, I have yet to represent a straight-up Western, and while I never say never, it is pretty unlikely that I will. Part of this is that the market is very difficult to break into; most Westerns published today are by established authors. More than that, I come to Westerns from the film perspective, and what I really am drawn to are the themes from Spaghetti and Revisionist Westerns (Clint Eastwood rather than John Wayne). What I really look for are works that take the Western and twist it. That’s also what is more likely to sell. Steampunk has really opened the way to Weird West books, and I think there is room for expansion in sci-fi with western twists (The Knife of Never Letting Go and Terminal World as book examples, Firefly and Cowboy Bebop as TV examples). I recently signed a client based on her supernatural gothic Western; she sent it to me in part because I was looking for Westerns, so I’m not about to take that down. But it would have to be quite special for me to take on a non-sf/f Western. With a recent uptick in television and film interest in straight-up Westerns, the book side might see a similar swing, but it hasn’t come yet.
8. You have a large Twitter following. Do you have any tips for using social media, Twitter in particular, successfully for authors?
The goal of social media is to have a conversation. If you join Twitter or other outlet for any other purpose, you’ll probably fail. People generally see through that pretty quickly. This is why it’s also important to only do the kind of social media that appeals to you. Of course, this means you ought to try out all kinds before dismissing any. Join up, start following favorite authors, follow the people they’re having conversations with, and jump in when you have something to say. Don’t count your followers, don’t get peeved when someone doesn’t follow you back or unfollows you, and don’t be plain mean, because who wants to talk to mean people? Twitter is a giant cocktail party without any of the awkward accidental eye contact, and I find it works for me. While I occasionally have ideas for blog posts, I don’t have enough to update regularly and be effective, so I don’t do that. Writers need to play to their strengths, and just remember, “social” is more important than “media.” Make friends and connections. They don’t have to be important people, just people you find interesting enough to follow.
9. What are some of the most important things you think authors need to know about the changing role of publishing in today’s world?
Every author needs to understand that they have power. They always have; there were authors walking away from six-figure deals long before they had a viable method of self-publishing to turn to. Now that power is greater, but with great power comes great responsibility. (Yes, I had to go there.) More than ever, writers have a large number of options before them, and it helps no one if you don’t weigh yours carefully. You can choose different paths for different books even, because no choice is the only choice for all people or projects.
10. With so much of the publishing industry going digital, how do you see publishing and the role of agents changing in the future?
Amazon, the company largely responsible for the ebook self-publishing boom, decided to invest a great deal of money into creating a traditional publishing company. I think that speaks volumes about how even amid the change, many things will be staying the same. From my point of view, the publishing industry hasn’t changed so much as expanded. Like I say above, authors have more options than before: self-publish (both e and print), epublishers, revenue shares, independent publishers, corporation-backed publishers, etc. These options need to be weighed carefully, and experience with the different options and awareness of their pros and cons is part of what an agent brings to the table.
An agent has always been an author’s advocate and business partner. Our 15% is our investment of time, energy, and expertise towards an author’s projects and career. And like publishing, that role hasn’t changed so much as expanded. Just like authors, we have more information to be on top of and have to be more flexible and creative in our thinking. An agent’s job has never been just to get a manuscript through a publisher’s door, but through the right doors, for the right terms, with an eye on the author’s career future and a willingness to go to bat for their author when trouble comes.
11. What is the best piece of advice you would give to an aspiring writer?
I hate to repeat myself on a question, but I still feel the same way: Be daring. It’s better to fail spectacularly than hold back and achieve meh.
12. Do you have any upcoming projects for us to keep an eye out for?
Following her first three books that came out earlier this year, Thea Harrison has an e-novella, True Colors, coming out Dec. 13 from Samhain. While it is set in the same world as her Elder Races series, it has new characters and really is a stand-alone story (set in her alternate Brooklyn! Love!). Then in March there is book four of her Elder Races series, Oracle’s Moon (Berkley), a sweet ugh-you’re-annoying-(butalsoreallyattractive) love story between a witch and a Djinn. Thea’s stories are utterly delightful and so engrossing that even I just want to keep re-reading them.
In the summer (UK: Jo Fletcher Books) and fall (US: Flux), Tom Pollock has his debut novel coming out. The first in the Skyscraper Throne series, The City’s Son is a YA urban fantasy where a teen girl graffiti artist joins the son of a goddess to save the street monsters of London from a god of demolition. Tom has created a truly unique world and characters so rich and true that I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
The winner of Sheila Bender’s Writing and Publishing Personal Essays is Heather Marsten!
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Katie Flanagan is a fiction major at Northwestern University. She is currently an editor with Booktrope and a reader for Pink Fish Press. In the past, she has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management and the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. Her favorite genre is women’s fiction, but she reads any fiction put in front of her. Check out her blog about the writing life at katieflanagan.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter at @K_Flanagan.