Monday, October 3, 2011

The Scarlet Letter– A for Agent; A One Time Exclusive

The Scarlet Letter– A for Agent

Due to the forthcoming insights and intriguing material this edition of our member-only newsletter held, we've decided to share a one time exclusive peek on a hot topic with all of our readers.  In the Inscribing Industry newsletter this past February, we discussed navigating the highlights and pitfalls of the query letter when choosing the avenue of traditional publishing through an agent. There were theories, there were resources- but the following is a direct, inside look at everything "agent" from top-selling authors who share their views and then the perspectives of the agents themselves. You’ll hear some things that you’ve heard before in your foray into traditional publishing but you’ll also discover what you didn’t but should know all from the personal vantage points of professionals working in the field each day. Here to share their wisdom and experience are famed authors Erica Bauermeister (School of Essential Ingredients, Joy for Beginners) and Paul Levine (the "Jake Lassiter", "Solomon and Lord" and "Jimmy Payne" series) as well as agents Weronika Janczuk and Lucienne Diver.

See the q&a’s that you won’t want to miss!


Erica Bauermeister is the author of The School of Essential Ingredients, 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader's Guide and Let's Hear It For the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14. She received a PhD in Literature from the University of Washington and has taught at both UW and Antioch. Her love of slow food and slow living was inspired during the two years she spent living with her husband and two children in northern Italy. She currently lives in Seattle with her family. Joy for Beginners, released this June, is her second novel; see review (

Author Questions

1) How did you come to attain your agent and what factors contributed to your decision to sign with them as opposed to other agents or self-representation?

2) What are some of the most important aspects about your relationship to your agent and what direct influence have they had on your career?

My current agent is Amy Berkower, with Writers House. I’ve been with her since 2008 (School of Essential Ingredients). Initially I’d had a non-fiction agent for my first two books who has since retired. I obtained both through pure recommendation. For my fiction agent, I accepted an invitation to go out to dinner with a friend and author MJ Rose. It was typically outside my comfort zone to go to dinner with someone I didn't know, but I said yes. She asked if I was writing anything and I told her the title of my book, School of Essential Ingredients, and gave a ten word synopsis. She said that she knew exactly who I should send it to. The agent’s wife was having a baby at the time I sent it in and he didn’t get to read my manuscript for three months- he ended up saying that since his wife is a chef he doesn’t work with books that focus on food but by that time three other people in the agency had read it, including Amy, and they didn’t want it to leave their agency. It was a mix of timing and luck. If there hadn’t been a delay, the book might not have made its way to Amy who was perfect for it.

Since I’ve had the experience of having a good agent, I’d never represent myself- I was in real estate and I saw how important it was to have someone who did this every day as their job. As a real estate agent I would work with certain sub-contractors- they did a better job for me because I was repeat business as opposed to someone who’d use them only once- it’s very similar to literary agents and their relationships with editors and publishers; you have a more direct line in. We used to have a saying in real estate: "You wouldn’t perform your own surgery." It’s important to find someone who knows the 'neighborhood', knows the editors who like certain kinds of books. When it came to my fiction book and the publication process, I didn’t know how to wade through... wasn't familiar with the personalities of the editors, whether I should retain foreign rights… Amy advised me to keep foreign rights and we enjoyed even greater success with them than with the domestic. I value her advice above anything in the field. My advice to young writers is to say yes to everything- put your inner shyness in the backseat and get your butt out there in situations where you’re likely to meet an agent (conferences, workshops…) and to read the books that are most similar to yours; look at the acknowledgements page and see what agent is representing your type of work.


 Paul Levine, author of Lassiter, is a former trial lawyer and an award-winning author of legal thrillers, including Solomon vs. Lord (nominated for the Macavity award and the James Thurber prize), The Deep Blue Alibi (nominated for an Edgar Award), and Kill All the Lawyers (a finalist for the International Thriller Writers award). He won the John D. MacDonald award for his critically acclaimed Jake Lassiter novels, which are now available as e-books. He also wrote more than twenty episodes of the CBS military drama JAG. Paul lives in Los Angeles, where he is working on his next Jake Lassiter thriller. In LASSITER (Bantam; Hardcover; On Sale: September 13, 2011) this renegade lawyer makes his triumphant return as the former Miami Dolphin is still swimming with sharks in his latest, boldest novel of suspense yet.

Author Questions

1) How did you come to attain your agent and what factors contributed to your decision to sign with them as opposed to other agents or self-representation?

2) What are some of the most important aspects about your relationship to your agent and what direct influence have they had on your career?

I had a young agent at first as most people do, someone seeking new talent and trying to grow their list of authors, who I obtained through a query letter after a bunch of rejections. I was then at ICM (International Creative Management) for awhile, bouncing around until I came by my current agent, Al Zuckerman, the founder of Writers House, who I've been with since 1996. Al had been around a long time and had excellent relationships with publishers and editors. In addition to the value of his editorial input where he takes a look at the first draft, Al has been influential in the trajectory of my career, telling me when to get away from the series, do a standalone and when to return to the series. The new book is the eighth in the series, coming out after 14 years. Sort of like a metronome to music, there is a certain rhythm to my protagonist, Jake Lassiter; once I got back into that and re-read some of the books it was my voice again, it was me speaking in sync with the character. I'm a nostalgic person, so going back for me is fun.

In the publishing world, things have changed in the last fifteen years and particularly even in the last eighteen months; I can see that with electronic self-publishing. However, if what you want is a traditional publisher, I still believe that you need someone to negotiate for you. Despite the fact that in general things are changing rapidly, the agent has not become obsolete. If you can get a respected agent, why in the world would you not want to? If you've tried and exhausted those options, if you know your book is good, if that's what's in your heart, then I can see turning to self-published e-books because it is distressing how difficult it is to break in; I agree that it's never been harder. That said, when a print version comes into play, if Amazon were to say after seeing your sales that they'd like you to sign with their imprint, you would again have the need for an agent or lawyer to negotiate on your behalf and be your advocate.


Lucienne Diver joined The Knight Agency in 2008, after spending fifteen years at New York’s prestigious Spectrum Literary Agency. Over the course of her eighteen year career she has sold over seven hundred titles to every major publisher, and has built a client list of over forty authors, primarily in the areas of fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery, and young adult fiction.

In addition, she’s an author in her own right with the
Vamped series of young adult books for Flux and the new Latter-Day Olympians series of urban fantasy novels, beginning with Bad Blood, from Samhain Publishing. She also writes the Agent Anonymous articles for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and is a regular guest at Magical Words. Further information is available on The Knight Agency website:, her author website and her blog  

1) What led you to first decide to become an agent and between then and now, talk to us about major shifts you’ve noticed in the industry that are reflected in the author-agent relationships (what projects you are most inclined to choose in the current market, publisher’s level of approachability, preferences in how an author approaches you…)

I was a double major in college: English/writing and anthropology. When I graduated, I applied for jobs in publishing and to graduate school for forensic anthropology. I like to say that "publishing got back to me first," and this is partially true, but I could always have changed my mind and didn’t. I love publishing. I started my career at Spectrum Literary Agency as an assistant. I loved it so much that I spent fifteen years there before moving to The Knight Agency.

I could do an entire piece about the changes in the industry since I came aboard, but the big picture is still the same. My job is to sell books to publishers, and their job is to do the very best they can by those books. The changes are more about the specifics: what kind of books I sell to whom, what formats are best for these books, how to advise my clients on promotion and contractual language. Publishers have had to change the way they think about promotion and publication. E-books are no longer something that might become profitable or that they can consider in terms of readers stolen away from print publication, but as a format and force to be reckoned with and promoted. Publishers’ boilerplates (their standard contractual clauses) are changing year to year to adjust to the speed with which technology and shifts in buying patterns are modifying the face of the industry.

Again, though, big picture: publishers exist to publish books, so of course they’re still actively acquir-ing. Agents make a living selling books and representing the best interests of their authors. That hasn’t changed in the least.

2) How has your role changed since the beginning of your career? Many industry reports site that agents are often having to take on additional responsibilities of say an editor, publicist and sometimes even publisher- has this been true for you or any colleagues you know of?

It’s certainly true that my role has expanded since I first started in the industry. I’ve always worked editorially with my authors, now more so than ever. As mentioned, publishers are actively acquiring, but there’s so much competition out there that agents have to help authors hone their work to the point where there’s absolutely no reason to say "no" and every reason to say "yes." Also, it’s true that more and more agents are also assisting their authors when it comes to publishing and promoting their backlist, since it’s very difficult to convince the major houses to buy reprint rights to earlier works…sometimes even when the author is a huge bestseller. We’re offering more and more value-added services to help our authors succeed. The two things I most appreciate about The Knight Agency are our innovative approaches and the additional services we offer our authors, largely due to Jia, our amazing marketing director…everything from organizing chats to arranging group ads to promoting books on our website, newsletter and blog. She’s really a powerhouse.

3) As an an author and an agent, you’re able to see the publishing world from both sides- apart from the given advantages of networking and industry knowledge, how has your work as an agent influenced your career as a writer- from the writing to the publicity aspect? How do you believe your work as a paranormal young adult fiction writer might have been different had you not had the experience of an agent?

You know, I’m two such different people as agent and author that I keep the roles separated, even to the point that I have an agent who isn’t even associated with me to handle the managerial side of my career so that I can work solely on those of my authors during the business day. As an author, I’m…well, I’ll admit it, I’m insecure about my work. My first inclination upon receiving an offer for myself would be to say, "Really? Can we sign before you come to your senses?" I’d be a terrible negotiator. Not so as agent, where I have eighteen years in and am very confident in my role and my ability to read situations and contract language. I can take a much more critical role in haggling out clauses and terms for my clients. I can play bad cop. However, given my experience in the industry as agent, I can make more informed decisions about my career and the promotional efforts that I feel will give me the best bang for my buck. It’s very interesting, because I learn a lot about the parts of the industry from which I’m otherwise removed (the nitty gritty of revisions through production, for example) that I can use to empathize with and aid my authors.

I’m not sure my path would have been much different if I hadn’t had the experience of so many years in the industry. When I first started writing and submitting, I used a pseudonym, Kit Daniels, so that no one would judge me as either agent or author based on my other role. But eventually it seemed easier to be "me" no matter what hat I was wearing at the time. Unlike my YA heroine, I don’t think I was cut out to lead a double life!


Weronika Janczuk is a literary agent with Lynn Franklin Associates. Previously she worked with the D4EO Literary Agency and the Bent Agency, as well as at Flux, among others. Currently she represents a wide range of fiction and non-fiction for YA and adults alike—and is very actively building her list, especially in areas of crime fiction (especially espionage and literary suspense/thrillers), fantasy/sci-fi, horror, women’s fiction and romance, both literary and high-concept YA, memoir, and narrative non-fiction.

1) You've spoken about what first made you decide to become an agent- your love of books- and the fact that you thought you'd have to go into teaching to explore that passion and write on the side until you became familiar with agent/editor positions. Between then and now, talk to us about major shifts you’ve noticed in the industry that are reflected in the author-agent relationships (what projects you are most inclined to choose in the current market and why, publishers' level of approachability, preferences in how an author approaches you... such as how you mention you don't read queries and instead prefer to jump straight into the pages submitted to render a ruling on submissions…) and what fundamental lessons you've garnered through your experience that you would apply if you chose to merge into the profession of 'writer'?

This is a terrific question. Primarily, I’m seeing an increase in reliance on the agent on the author’s part—typically, yes (for the longest time), the agents have been fundamental representatives and aggressors on their clients’ parts. These days, with advances growing smaller and there being an increased difficulty in successfully making a sale, authors are placing a different type of trust in the agent—it is a statement of belief in traditional publication, of the agent being able to pull through whatever the difficulties; it is a statement of trust in the power of a branded publisher name (i.e., Random House), and in the power of traditional book-selling avenues and distribution.

I find myself making a similar kind of calculus: What books am I most likely to sell, and what books are most likely to earn out? Taking chances has become more difficult. Even two, three years ago, an editor’s passion might have been sufficient to sway a sales team at the houses where sales teams are part of the decision-making process, but these days, I’m no longer thinking of the editor as the only or primary representative. I have to be sure that a book’s hook or concept can be articulated quickly, and the best ones create visceral reactions.

It is changing the way that people write books, and the way people consider writing as a form of career. I imagined, once, that it’d be possible to write full-time if you churned out a book a year—but that’s growing close to impossible, unless you’re a highly prolific author who’s been successful at career-building. Lesson-wise, I wouldn’t approach an agent until my manuscript was beyond excellent, and I’ve seen from both an agent’s perspective and a writer’s perspective the benefit of having multiple manuscripts finished—and, depending on the speed of the writer, multiple manuscripts across genres, so that you’re able to debut multiple times, and thus build a career across multiple audiences that might have crossover potential.

2) The following is a question that has surfaced amidst new trends in electronic publishing and the wake of success with USA Today best-selling authors such as Amanda Hocking and HP Mallory: In your personal opinion, given the popularity and growth estimations of e-books, a refuge many authors turn to for a voice in the industry "letting the market decide", can traditional publishing retain its competitive edge by winning back some of the heart of emerging talent and author interest by taking small steps to personalize its interactions with writers again- as in rather than the form rejection, giving a brief paragraph of feedback for authors to work with, however subjective or objective?

This is a tough question because, yes, I think that agents and publishing professionals interacting more with writers could yield an increase in the trust in traditional publication. Unfortunately, the changes in e-publishing are making that more difficult—the amount of time that I dedicate to my clients’ interests has increased. I have to read more material, and explore more avenues. I’m putting in extra hours to teach myself how to format e-books, so that when the time comes, I can assist my clients in getting their material out there. And the Internet alone opens thousands of opportunities for e-marketing/e-publicity, so in order to make that push to earning out, I’m giving some of my time to explore new territory in that realm. As a result, in a way I have less time overall.

3) How has your role changed since the beginning of your career? Many industry reports site that agents are often having to take on additional responsibilities of say an editor, publicist and sometimes even publisher. You are known to be an agent who gets involved in edits with feedback that your authors value- due to the changes in the industry with e-books, do you see yourself shifting into new roles on the publishing/publicity side of the business?

My agenting career has been relatively short—it’ll be fourteen months at the beginning of October—and in that time my specific role hasn’t changed very much. From the very beginning, seeing how competitive the status quo is amongst agents, I committed myself to my small clientele list fully, as my clients’ partner in editorial work, submission, publication, publicity/marketing, e-publishing (I’m working, for example, with clients to e-publish novellas or short stories to offer a greater range of work upfront), and career building, etc.

Role hasn’t changed—at least not for me.

What has, however, and what will continue to shift over the next few years at the very least, is the specific business model—agents need to sustain their lifestyles, first and foremost, and they also need to offer wider services in order to keep existing clients and to attract future clients, and that means that the amount of work I do with e-publishing, and how I’ll be paid for it, will change. What we’re trying to do currently is determine what is the extent of the agent’s role. For example, I believe strongly that agents cannot be publishers of their own clients—in any capacity. There is too great a conflict of interest. Agents are supposed to be the middlemen, the representatives, and they cannot play that role in situations where they are also doing the ne-gotiations concerning publication and thus will have reason to make decisions in their, versus their clients’, best interest. ———————————————————————————————————————————