Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Writers are from Venus, editors are from Mars... in between are agents

Sandra Parshall

Writers live in their own insular
worlds – located mostly inside their heads – and editors live in the bustling world of commerce, where a book is a product that must justify its presence on a shelf. Straddling both worlds, always trying to bridge the gap, are those wondrous creatures called agents. If a writer wants to be published by a big New York imprint these days, having an agent to get your manuscript on editors’ desks is a must. Most New York editors won’t look at work that hasn’t first been vetted by an agent they respect.

Agents are in the ideal position to judge the current turmoil in the publishing business and predict the future, so I was eager to hear from the panel of agents who spoke at the Malice Domestic conference last weekend. Because the phenomenal Anne Perry was being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award, the Malice organizers were able to lure both her US agent, Donald Maass, and her British agent, Meg Davis, to the conference and to seats on the panel. Joining them were Ellen Pepus of the Signature Literary Agency, Janet Reid of the Fine Print Agency, and Meg Ruley of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

They tackled the toughest question first: Is publishing dead, or dying?

Ruley – whose clients include Julia Spencer-Fleming, Dorothy Cannell, Rhys Bowen, Cathy Pickens, and other equally talented mystery writers – believes this is a “watershed moment” in the history of publishing, with great movement and change as people discover new ways to read. Books are still selling, but the printed form is no longer the only way to enjoy a book.

Davis agreed and pointed to the internet and other “channels we haven’t seen before” that allow authors to prove to publishers that an audience exists for what they’re writing. Reid – who represents Dana Cameron, among other well-regarded mystery and thriller writers – said that publishing is certainly changing, but writers shouldn’t worry about it. “The one thing that will not change is the hunger for storytelling.” She advises writers to “just write really, really well” and leave the business worries to others.

Don Maass, who looks far too young to be the legend he is (clients include a long string of award winners and NY Times bestselling authors), believes that e-publishing is taking hold, although it now represents a “microscopic” percentage of book sales. Audiobooks, Maass said, account for 10% of publishing profits, and eventually e-publishing will equal that.

So what’s selling? What’s hot and what’s not?

These five agents may be markedly different in their personal styles, but they all played variations on the same theme: they want to see superior writing and storytelling ability. They aren’t interested in shallow books that are basically more of the “same old same old.”

“People want something that engages their minds in an intelligent way,” Meg Davis said. “They want books with weight.”

While admitting there’s still a strong market for vampire books, Ellen Pepus said she’s looking for “deeper” books that delve into the psychology of the characters.

Reid finds thrillers easiest to sell, but she said that a “compelling, fresh voice” is essential even in escapist fiction.

Ruley doesn’t believe it's worthwhile to think in terms of trends, but she snaps to attention when a book written in a “fresh and distinctive voice” lands on her desk.

Maass spoke rather disdainfully of “hook-y” books and said there are now more mysteries featuring Jane Austen as a character than books actually written by Austen. Those novels, he said, are “nice but shallow.” He’ll consider representing only “the best paranormal” – novels that create a rich, layered story world. What he most admires are literary mysteries with deep character development and great storytelling that works on many levels. He looks for “micro-tension” in a novel – every sentence must be so strongly crafted that it compels the reader forward. No flab, no utilitarian prose.

With so many writers jumping from genre to genre these days, I was especially interested in these agents’ views on writers who want to try different things. Pepus said that if a writer can be successful in different genres, she’ll represent everything the author produces. But Maass and Ruley said it’s unlikely that a writer can master more than one genre. A writer should think about his or her long-range career and focus on one thing, Ruley advised. “The more focused you can be, the better.” Maass agreed, advising writers to stick with what they do best and cultivate the audience for that type of book.

How does a writer claim the attention of these agents? It is possible, however daunting it may seem. Maass pointed out that his agency (four agents, total sales of about 150 novels per year) launched the careers of half a dozen new writers in the past year. Those writers have one important thing in common, aside from their talent: they were willing to dig in and do major rewrites for the agency before the manuscripts were marketed, and they had the patience to take their time and bring their books as close to perfection as possible. He’ll read queries from unpublished writers, always looking for a voice so distinctive that it bowls him over, and he doesn’t ask for exclusives on manuscripts. Neither does Ruley.

Davis bemoaned the number of “mass mailings” she receives – queries broadcast to every agent in the world. Don’t send out stuff like that, she advised, and don’t send agents money, candy, cookies, or nude photos of yourself either. Most writers, the agents agreed, say too much in their queries. It takes “so much less” to engage an agent’s attention than writers believe, Maass said. Brevity is best. If your work is special, you’ll be able to convey that in one paragraph.

Reid said she prefers to make sales herself, rather than being approached by writers who have contracts in hand and just want an agent to do the fine-tuning on the deal.

One of the most discouraging comments came from Pepus, who cautioned that “most first books don’t sell.” But if she loves a client’s writing, she’ll hang in there until something does sell.

Often it seems to writers who are wading through rejections that the last thing in the world agents are looking for is a new client, but no one who sat in on this panel could miss the enthusiasm – the love – that Davis, Pepus, Maass, Reid and Ruley feel for books and the people who write them. Ruley summed it up when she said “the most fun ever” is discovering a new writer whose work makes her “flip out.” Believe it or not, agents are in the business for the same reason writers are – because they are passionate about books.

(The agents in the photo above are Meg Davis, Ellen Pepus, Donald Maass, Janet Reid, and Meg Ruley.)


June Shaw said...

Excellent comments, Sandy, and it was a terrific panel. I was so impressed with these agents at Malice and their encouraging words about novels.

Neil Plakcy said...

Thanks for posting this-- very interesting comments!

MaxWriter said...

What a great review, Sandy. Thanks so much for sharing it with those of us who couldn't be there. I printed it out to save for when my ms is complete!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information! It's a shame that Maass has disdain for "hook-y" books, which many readers love. I just have to point out that Maass represents Parnell Hall who writes the Puzzle Lady mystery series. Um, that sounds pretty hook-y to me.

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm just reporting what they said, Anon. I'm afraid that explaining an agent's reasoning or preferences is beyond my capabilities. :-)

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Sandy--it's always nice to get an agent's-eye view of things. And nice to know that they love us. :)

Sheila Connolly said...

I agree--Maybe Maass is really Dorian Gray.

One thing that he and I think others said was that promotion wasn't that important--he cited the case of one of his writers who has been quietly producing a book a year for the last decade, without touring or promotion, and with Book Ten has topped the NYT best seller list.

Of course, I was sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for one or another of them to say "just write a good book." No one put it in those precise words, but that was the message.

Sandra Parshall said...

I could have written another 500 words,at least, using the stuff I left out. The writer Maass was referring to is Jim Butcher, author of Turn Coat (which I believe debuted at #1 on the NY Times bestsellers list). Maass said Butcher doesn't promote his books and "mostly stays home." Makes you wonder how much more quickly he would have risen to the top if he *did* promote his work.

Peggy Webb said...

Excellent summary, Sandy! It was wonderful to have affirmation that great stories with a strong voice will always find a market. As for promotion... I love meeting fans, booksellers, librarians, fellow writers, agents and editors, but I'm always sad to leave my beautiful gardens and my doggies behind. I was gone most of April and missed the splendor of my roses in full flush.

Lois K. said...

Re: Agents say staying in focus, i.e. not hopping genres. Boy, that is the way to kill creativity and growth. Writers naturally grow and shouldn't be boxed eternally, if their creativity calls.