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/blogger Cherise Hensley 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.
AUTHORNOMICS Interview with Katharine Sands
A literary agent with the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency, Katharine Sands has worked with a varied list of authors who publish a diverse array of books. Actively building her client list, she likes books that have a clear benefit for readers’ lives in categories of food, travel, lifestyle, home arts, beauty, wisdom, relationships, parenting, and fresh looks, which might be at issues, life challenges or popular culture. When reading fiction she wants to be compelled and propelled by urgent storytelling, and hooked by characters. For memoir, she likes to be transported to a world rarely or newly observed.
As a literary agent, how have you seen the role of an agent change over the years? How has it stayed the same?
Fast-becoming an entirely different job, we are in the eye of the tipping point. Today, agents have new ways of representing writers as their role as agents continues to evolve. Literary agent now means content manager. In the olden days (which can now be taken to mean just a few months ago….) we used to be completely deal-oriented; we are now more career-oriented, as a new breed of author advocate. From First Writes to Last Rights, client representation is now about working with writers at many stages of creation and in many formats, whether this leads to traditional publishing, self-publishing, crowd funding, or digital publishing. Just as being a writer means connecting more directly with readers as communities, agents have to be more and more involved in their client’s writing lives as content strategists. Agency-innovators in the era of both p- and e-publishing are morphing into hyphenate businesses addressing many aspects of 21rst Century wordsmith-ing. (And authors now fulfill roles way beyond the bookstore such as marketing via social media.) Agents still sell rights, but the work is hands-on with a role in developing and marketing an author’s name and material for print, digital and other media — not just centered around a book deal. The digital age is revolutionizing everything and reinvented agents are now far more involved in creating opportunities for writing clients’ content in emerging markets: for books, to be used online, with partners, in podcasts, in products, and in digital media to accrue sales. The new agent focus is on how writers can market and maximize their works across a wide slate.
Is seeking a literary agent the best course for most writers seeking traditional publishing?
Try this test at home: call a leading publisher tomorrow (one of The Big 6, oh, wait, that’s The Big 5.5) and try to get anyone to discuss your work. An agent has the greenlight to do this, but a civilian is unlikely to penetrate the publisher’s robotic turnaround, shielding editors from unrepresented writers. Betcha you can’t find out which newly-hired editor would really love your literotic chiller about a sexy ichthyologist who must solve eco-system crime in Namibia
For most writers — when you want to go from writer to author — when you begin to rivet writing to build a writing career, you need to get decision-makers — publishers, editors – but, yes, ultimately readers, to get excited about what is exciting to you. Today it is the readers themselves who are the new gatekeepers – dollars to downloads. I do believe that talent outs; eventually, I always believe a writer will find the right home, and recognition if s/he has luck, drive and smarts. That said, there is one thing agents know that e-publishers do not, and this is how many people approach agents hoping for traditional publishing after trying these other avenues…When I meet a writer – in–person or on the page – and review his/her work, I need to feel that I would be a strong choice for the writer – not just that the writer is publishable, but that I am the right choice to shepherd the book(s) to fruition, and be the publishing partner they seek. And I need to be able to answer this question: Is traditional publishing the best choice for me? My answer today is not the same as in days gone by.
What do you look for in an effective query letter? What makes you request a manuscript?
To get us past the first lines your letter must really hit home in some way. A perfect pitch, one that shows talent and power and ingredient X and quality, is the way past any agency’s first eyes. The guiding principle is to remember that agents are looking first for a reason to keep reading, then for a reason to represent you…you want your pitch to give crystal clear answers – fast. Imagine you have five minutes on TV to talk about your book. What are the most engaging, intriguing, seductive or powerful messages or narrative arcs you want to get across? Imagine you have five minutes with Oprah. This is always the way to approach your query letter, your pitch…it is a showcase of you, the author-to-be.You want to practice your Pitchcraft (TM) so that you are honed, rehearsed and ready to go at all times. Pitch Rivet: the reader has yet not read the book. The pitch must hook the reader with a particular formula: place, person, pivot….1) Where do you take me, or what is the story universe?, Who do I meet and why do I care about their story? 3) How do I enter the story at a lively, dramatic, interesting place? I am looking for a Pivot: this is the moment we, the readers, come into the story; we are showing up just in time to see something start the story in motion. It needs to be dynamic. Your Pitchcraft needs the Pivot to entice and intrigue in some way. In other words, it is the moment something changes. It could be your personal story, when something extraordinary or catastrophic or magical happens. Pitch point: a it has a job to do, and you are building a case for reader interest. Your reader has not yet had the chance to become involved with the character’s journey and why we want to take it with her/him. You want to show a story arc here, one that takes place in a fascinating world, rich with colorful characters and situations. You want to use the pitch to deliver enough of the flavor of the book to whet the reader’s appetite for more. Page 1 is about you being in charge of the page and taking your reader into your imagination, your world, your story. There are things to understand about how agents (readers) are looking at Page 1. Pitching to Page 1 is how the agent understands what is on offer. It is not that this is the only aspect of your work that anyone will pay attention to, it is the place where a writer shows the sparks that set off the alchemy of agency interest. We are deconstructing the pitch/query and the first writing that we see; we read to find reasons to keep reading long before we are ready to represent the writer.
What is one thing you would tell every writer searching for an agent not to do?
Not to take agent-getting advice as gospel. The conventional getting-an-agent advice is always to do your homework and to target a list of agents who specialize in a specific genre or subject area. While this would seem to make sense, I like to steer writers to have an alternate plan. Here is why: In practice, new writers report how they apply the advice and take their first steps towards finding literary representation. When a new writer compiles a select list of names from the Association of Author’s Representatives, the Literary Marketplace directory, and headline-making agency presidents, they will certainly have found an excellent, professional agent should any of the agents choose them. What may happen, however, is the writer will be crossing agencies off their list one by one as rejections come in. And this means missing out on dozens of potential agents. Why? The writer has not found the names of newer agents (who may not yet qualify for AAR), literary managers, or agents with producing and publicity roles that fall outside the AAR practices who are not members, also editors who have recently switched to agenting (a common occurrence), along with the assistants who are being promoted within an established agency or accepting a job with a different firm. Not only will these agents be building their client lists, newer agents may not have their areas of interest listed on Web sites or directories. You want to understand this literary deterministic chaos when you make your submission list. Agents choose for personal reasons, so happenstance and serendipity play a huge role in how and when you connect with an enthusiastic, capable and, most importantly, interested agent. We can be wrong and we know it. But instinct and skill do indicate where there is a publishable work from a new writer. And it is the brass ring for all agents. The new writer. The one we were smart enough to take on before anyone else saw what we did…
Do all nonfiction writers need to have a full book proposal ready before seeking an agent? What are some things you look for in a manuscript proposal?
When it comes to proposals, nothing is formulaic. My philosophy: things work – or they do not. Initially, you are looking for agents to express interest in you, your writing, and in your potential writing. But I am looking for the reason to represent the author. This can be early on, before you have completed a full book proposal; but, I am looking and thinking: What can we learn from you? What does your audience want and need? But why would this be a definitive book for readers who are reliably seeking one? What are the benefits for the reader? What do I do differently after I read your book, what could I not figure out without you? We deconstruct proposals with the precision of surgeons; we are looking to diagnose the project, and to make a prognosis for the author’s potential. If I am considering an author’s work, if what they propose is on my radar…I focus on the unique qualities of the writing, on the competitive and complimentary titles on their category cyber and mortar shelf, on how I would strategize and market.
What are some of the emerging trends in the publishing industry? Is there any effective way to gauge the “next big thing”?
Emerging trends: more ways technology will bring sweeping changes. While Next Big Things cannot be created or predicted, BookScan enables its subscribers to see data on sales figures, and today publishers review these categorically. Agents increasingly use this to gage how a proposal will be received by editors who will do a title search before seriously considering a book. As well as to track breakout e-tail successes and bring these Next Big Things to traditional publishers as next steps…
Seems like things that had the ‘kiss of death’ label: vampires & zombies, stories set in the 60s, set in the 70s, World War I-era stories, novellas and short stories, period dramas, alpha males doing just about anything, cozy mysteries – all of these were outré and now are most popular Next BigThings in entertainment! There is always a way for a great story!
How big of an impact does an author platform have on book sales? Do you have any key tips for authors looking to build an effective platform?
As an author, you must be an impassioned ambassador about your book. The springboard through which you do this is your platform. It defines your ideal intended audience and provides a blueprint for getting to those readers. First, what is specific, unique, fresh and interesting about you, and about your work? Why? How do you want readers to respond to you? Are there regional hooks? Demographics to use? Where do you find evidence to showcase you, and your potential as author? What Internet sites will mention your work or include a link to your book and author website? Which organizations, associations, conferences,e-blasts, databases, reviewers, buyers, blogs, internet sites are likely to support you? More and more publishers are asking authors to have a greater platform, so in this content driven market those authors who are allied with organizations — non-profit, grassroots, faith-based, civic, professional — show they are able to source reliable readerships.
In addition to agenting, you also teach workshops on writing and pitching and have been published in that area. Has this been a rewarding experience for you?
I love being on faculty. Conference culture is an immersion experience that is part movie set, circus tent, trip to the firehouse, team building training, college rush. I am juiced, jam-packed, and jetlagged through a mad whirl of panels, workshops, speed-date-like pitch meets, in-depth critique sessions. But I am so gratified to be able offer a writer in-depth feedback, an idea and encouragement, and to be an active part of this vibrant literary community. ‘Played’ venues from the winery to the stables to gym; and I get to be in green rooms with some of my industry and author idols.
As an author, how was the experience of working with publishers different than the agent side?
I now know all of the fears, whines, and worries of being on the writing side; in fact, everything I ever told a writer not to fret and freak over, I fret and freak over. I now viscerally understand that sharing words is passionate work and publishing is an emotional experience. Agenting is the opposite. I liken it to being a mid-wife –no less passionate, but, you’re there to focus on the physics, you have to pinpoint what is happening with a diagnostic eye on the patient giving birth. Ideally, you are there to help deliver the baby of their dreams.
As a literary agent you attend several writer’s conferences worldwide. What advantages do you think conferences give to writers who attend them? Are conferences helpful as an agent in finding clients?
Writerfests are springing up around the world. Conferences are many and varied.These can range from destination vacation hobnob with glitterati to homespun organization rubber-chicken circuit dinner, you can don your heroine’s antebellum costume or dress in full Klingon regalia. Best of all, you get to meet (and drink with) your heroes. Today’s conferences feature a host of bestselling authors, a who’s who of literary talent can be found teaching around the country. You can find stellar writers – Dennis Lehane, Richard North Patterson, R.L. Stine, Tess Gerritson, Anne Perry, Tim O’ Brien, Chuck Palahniuk – offering talks on how to tailor, tweak, and hone your prose. Whether you have yet to write Page One or you are ready to pitch agents, you can find sessions for any genre and every level. Conferences and workshops are great for sourcing new authors, the holy grail of agents. Let me point out that the writers I have signed from workshops/conferences are actually clients that were unexpected in some way…not what I might have chosen from a query letter, but spotted in person. For example, an IRS expert and a dominatrix…not what I was on the lookout for; but, who turned out to be marvelous writers!
Are there other ways you scout for clients? Blogs? Online sites, Amazon self-published authors with high rankings?
Idea-ing is my life. I have uncovered new books in a lot of unusual ways. Sometimes a chance encounter or a phrase catches your eye or writing stands out in some way. In person, I have met clients at table over at a drag show once, foodie events I frequent, and even the ladies’ room.
Agents source talent all over the Web and any medium where writers develop their voice and blogs/sites that serve to build their audience. A mistake I see is writers investing only in their ‘big book’, when there are wonderful opportunities to cultivate readers in a lot of media.
Do you have any upcoming projects or workshops we can look out for?
I am excited to represent the first book on LOGLINES: THE ART OF SELLING YOUR BOOK IN A SINGLE SENTENCE by Lane Shefter Bishop. Lane Shefter Bishop is the CEO of Vast Entertainment, a book-to-screen adaptation company for television and film projects in development at various networks and studios, including NBC/Universal, ABC/Disney, Lifetime, Sony, 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers.
The Jewish Mother From Oy to Icon by Barbara Barnett, Executive Editor of Blogcritics published by Technorati Media, and is host of the popular Blog Talk Radio program Let’s Talk TV.
Spiritual Pregnancy: Develop, Nurture and Embrace the Journey to Motherhood.
From Doctor Shawn Tassone and Dr. Kathryn Landherr, authors of Hands Off My Belly, “a comforting and informative guide through the fascinating myths and misconceptions of pregnancy. The balance of Science and medical fact with humor, compassion, and common sense lends an actionable reference to the inner wisdom of every mother to be.”
–ANDREW WEIL, M.D., author of Why Our Health Matters.
From Pitch to Page One; How to Get a Reader from the Get-Go is about starting your story in a logical, yet from a compelling perch. Chapter openings and closings *Detailed discussion of character(s), plot propulsion, pivots, sense of place, pacing, voice, telling details, mcguffins, red herrings, hooks, dings and grabbers that engage the reader.
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.
Cherise Hensley is an English/Marketing major at Whitworth University. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal and has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is an editor and a writer, and loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.