By Author Mary Yuhas, who has over 49,000 reads on Scribd of the first three chapters of her memoir, Quit and Be Quiet, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother.
Mary interviewed both Diana Fox, Owner and Literary Agent, Fox Literary, a boutique agency representing commercial fiction, select works of literary fiction, and nonfiction with broad commercial appeal, and Harvey Klinger, owner and literary agent, Harvey Klinger, Inc., representing the best in quality adult and children’s fiction and non-fiction.
Q. You receive hundreds of queries every week. Can you remember the best and the worst?
Klinger: There was an individual who for two or three years sent the same query every day to every literary agent I know. That was the worst. The best time is any time I receive a query letter that is completely unsolicited, and I sell the book. Barbara Wood sent me a query over 30 years ago. I sold her first novel, Hounds and Jackals, two weeks later to Doubleday. She had six more completed manuscripts just sitting in a drawer, and I sold two of those. That changed her life, and that’s wonderful. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning!
Fox: The best ones are the ones I signed, of course! And the worst ones are the ones that waste my time, like sending a query for something I don’t represent (like screenplays or inspirational Christian material), or where the author is abusive. But I do try to respond to every query if the sender followed my guidelines. If you want to see examples of some of the actual “worst” queries agents receive, check out SlushPileHell.tumblr.com.
Q. There have been enormous changes in publishing in the last ten years. Much of that has come about because of the Internet and e-books. What changes do you anticipate in the next five years?
Fox: I think that we’re going to see changes not just in terms of delivery, but in terms of content. More enhanced e-books and more multimedia applications. As far as the industry, I think traditional publishing will ultimately adapt, but we’re also going to see more consolidation (such as the Random House and Penguin merger) and the continuing evolution of new business models like no advance and profit sharing approaches in place of the current royalty structure.
Klinger: The e-book has been the biggest change. I saw this coming five to eight years ago, and a lot of the traditional publishers were looking upon this with enormous fear and trepidation. But publishers are now giving reading devices to all of their editors, and the whole process of how an agent submits materials to publishers has completely changed. Looking to the future, I don’t see how we can operate with publishers other than the way we always have. We supply material, and they buy and publish. Writers who can’t get an agent or those who think they can do better by themselves and keep total control are the ones who are going to self-publish.
Q. How has the role of a literary agent changed during that same time frame, and what changes do you see for agents in the future?
Fox: I think the majority of agents are wearing a lot more hats than we did in the past in terms of things like editing and helping our authors with their promotional efforts and managing their self published projects − in addition to continuing to place their work with publishers, negotiate contracts, and sell subsidiary rights − and I expect this to continue in the future. We also have to maintain our own social media presence to some extent, and as always keep up with changes in the industry, which is more challenging now given that publishing is undergoing a transformation of a kind that I don’t think we’ve seen since the advent of the mass market paperback. But one thing I believe will always be the case is that publishers will need gatekeepers and authors will need representatives whose interests are solely aligned with theirs rather than those of the publisher, and that’s what I see as the essential role of the agent.
Klinger: The biggest changes are that some agents are going into self-publishing for their clients. I don’t see that as a role I care to have. I don’t approve of agents getting into the publication of the book. I think that’s what publishers are supposed to do. I steer my clients to a reputable e-book publisher or leave it up to them up to them if I can’t find a brick and mortar mainstream house to buy their manuscript.
Q. Are publishing houses printing fewer books, and if that is a trend, do you expect this to continue?
Fox: The print runs of books are largely determined by how many copies retailers order, which is calculated based on expected sales. So if consumers buy fewer print editions of books and retailers order fewer print editions, publishing houses will print fewer of them. We saw a decline in sales of print books as e-book sales grew, but if you look at the publicly available data from last year, it looks like the decline in print book sales is slowing down. I think e-books and print books are both here to stay and that we will ultimately reach a stable balance point between the two, but I couldn’t predict − and don’t know if anyone can predict with certainty − where exactly that point will be.
Klinger: Absolutely. E-books are so much more cost effective. There are no warehouse costs, and they don’t have to worry about returns, the bane of publishers. You can’t return an e-book. I think you are also going to see the demise of mass market paperback books other than categories like romance and impulse buys. But plenty of publishing professionals will fight it to the death.
Q. Everyone talks about platform today. What are the best ways for a writer to build a platform?
Fox: You need to distinguish between fiction and nonfiction when talking about platform. For nonfiction, there are a lot of resources out there which can answer this question better than I can here, and for fiction platform doesn’t have the same importance. If there’s something in an author’s background that’s relevant to their fiction − for instance, an autobiographical aspect like an unusual profession shared by the protagonist − I think that’s worth mentioning in the submission, but the most important thing is to write a good book. Agents do sometimes sign clients we find through personal referrals or meet at writing conferences, but for the most part I don’t pay attention to writing contests unless it’s a very prestigious contest or I happen to be judging it. The same is true both for writers posting free work online on Goodreads, Scribd, etc. and for self-published books, because I just don’t have time to go looking for that stuff. Unless it comes to my attention in an organic way (like a reviewer I trust recommending it or my coming across the author online on my own) or it hits the bestseller lists, it’s not really going to be on my radar. It’s all I can do to keep up with the amount of submissions I receive, and I think this is true for most agents. That’s why the best thing for a writer to do is to send me a query and follow my submission guidelines. If an author’s self-published work has sold well enough that I think a mainstream trade publisher might be interested, that will get my attention, but the best way for the author to reach me is still to query me.
Klinger: I think writing contests, such as Amazon’s, are good only if it’s a contest that gives the writer some national exposure. A self-published novel that had sales in the 10,000 range would make me sit up and think, I’ve got to look at this. For a writer to try and launch a campaign on a book that didn’t go anywhere as an e-book or POD and hope a publisher will pick it up is not going to happen. I don’t go to conferences anymore, and neither do any of my agents. I think that getting yourself out on the Internet is really where it’s at: virtual book clubs, cyber clubs and authors blogs. Not so much Twitter.
Q. What is the biggest mistake most writers make when approaching an agent?
Fox: Not following submission guidelines, not writing a good query letter, and not writing a good book. The first two get you in the door, but if the book isn’t salable, it doesn’t matter. At the same time writers should also remember that agents turn down books that then go on to sell to publishers all the time, and there are a lot of reasons for that, so the other mistake writers can make is giving up too soon.
Klinger: Trying to oversell. The material has to speak for itself. The writer is just supposed to write. I’m the salesman, not the writer.
Q. What is the most interesting new trend you see developing in the industry?
Klinger: I don’t really see a new trend. I think so much of what’s happening right now is the whole evolution of e-books, and traditional publishers having adapted to it. E-books have gone through an enormous amount of growth for the past two or three years and now, will gradually creep up. In the future, we will have far more e-books than print. I think we are also going to learn whether young people who have always read e-books are going to want to read a print book for pleasure. They may never switch over from e-books. Publishers are still evolving vis-a-vis libraries. Libraries have been horribly handicapped because E-readers are expensive, and the libraries are underfunded. Publishers are also fighting piracy, which destroyed the music business, and are working to make sure it does not destroy the book business.