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What Does Literary Agent Peter Rubie Really Want?

By Author Mary Yuhas, who has over 60,000 reads on Scribd of the first three chapters of her memoir, Quit and Be Quiet, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother.

Literary agent and CEO of Fine Print Literary Management, Peter Rubie, says he isn’t literary snob, but after some consideration, adds, “Maybe I am.” A former professional jazz musician and member of the NYU faculty for 10 years, Peter taught the only university-level course in the country on how to become a literary agent.

Peter enjoys helping writers with technique—see the video!

LitVote: What is your advice to writers wanting to break into the industry?

Peter: This is one of those questions that appears simple and yet engenders within it a world of topics and conflicting advice. So, I’ll hesitantly, and I’m afraid very superficially, lend my voice to the Babel of voices already out there. I think the tyro writer who aspires to be a professional needs to think about two things: first of all, really learn your craft, understand that words are tools, and don’t use phrases like “fiction novel,” for example, so I have confidence that you know how to use those tools.  If you equate the world of writing with the world of music, excluding the lucky and the deeply idiosyncratically charismatic, you need to know how to play your instrument and have a decent grounding in music theory while making all that technique slave to your developing creativity.  You need to know not only what’s gone before, but also, what’s happening now, so that you can find a niche that exploits your unique view of the world and the people who occupy it, and more than that, can introduce me, the reader, to a way of looking at the world that is both entertaining (whatever that means) but also illuminating.  If you’re writing nonfiction, make sure your research is solid, and your ability to grasp the narrative sound so that you tell me a story that also informs me and helps me understand the world better after I’ve finished reading this story.

Having done that, you need to have developed or be in the process of learning how to develop a relationship with your target audience (i.e, a mastering of social media), so that you have a group of readers already mapped out, or part of your network, who will be enthusiastic about reading your book. And hopefully, not only enthusiastic, but willing to shell out money to buy it.  Publishing is changing, the bookstore is suffering worst of all and becoming less relevant (though I say that with profound sadness) because it is just not as important to the book sales and marketing process as it once was, and more and more the beginning writer needs to connect directly to their readership in order to achieve commercial success.

LitVote: What makes a manuscript compelling to you?

Peter:  First and foremost it’s the voice. Something compelling about how the words sit on the page and invite me to engage in a “conversation” that engages my interest to the exclusion of all else.  It’s not just clever plots, and/or weird characters in peculiar situations. It’s how all of that and something more creates what John Gardner calls, the “fictive dream” if we’re talking about fiction, that draws me in and engages my emotional as well as intellectual sides.

LitVote: When you receive a manuscript, is there anything that is a real turn off?

Peter:  Poor craftsmanship would be one. (I mean by that poor technique, which is technique that draws attention to itself; poor spelling and grammar.  Weak, cliched characterization and structure/plot.  The best writing is invisible and engaging at the same time, and that is SO HARD to do well.)  A cynically obvious attempt to pass off cliche as “commerciality.”  Even the successful writers we might agree are incredibly weak technically have found something unique that appeals to their readership that makers their work stand out from their peers. What we want, whether it’s a thriller, a crime novel, SF, Fantasy, literary, etc., is honesty in both a story and its telling.  Anything else is just a waste of time these days, though I should hasten to add that this is all DEEPLY subjective, and what doesn’t work for one person, may be another’s joy.

LitVote: If an author chooses to go the self-publishing route, what are the best steps to take? Biggest pitfalls?

Peter:  If you want to do this, I think it vital that you at least engage a good editor/copy editor who can help make the manuscript as polished as possible.  Then really learn and exploit your talents for finding and engaging with your target readership, which is more to do with having a conversation with that group than it is pounding out the “buy me” mantra whenever you can.

LitVote: What is the best way for an author to build a  platform?

Peter: Platform is another way of saying recognized expertise.  So besides becoming a recognized expert in a particular area, you also need to communicate that to your readership and to publishers to the point that they will likely start chasing you if you’ve been writing about your area of expertise whenever and wherever for long enough.  Or at least, have a profound idea that your peers will say, wow, when they hear it.

LitVote:  I understand you are consulting authors on self-publishing. Does that include editing? What is the reason for your shift?

Peter:  Again, this is a deceptively simple question with profound reverberations.  Short answer is, yes, my self publishing advisory company, Lincoln Square Books, which I’ve formed in partnership with the brilliant Stephanie Gunning, does include editorial work.  It’s a response to the changing nature of traditional publishing, and the opportunities that are rising for certain kinds of writers. As all these kinds of companies are, it is a pay as you go kind of deal.  The independent publishing area is a bit like the Klondike gold rush in some ways, and while the writers can be thought of as 49ers, actually those who made the most in that time were not the lucky and intrepid few who struck it big, but the entrepreneurial support teams that helped them get to that strike.  So Lincoln Square, in particular, is a fee based enterprise, with no claim on the earnings of a project, that allows the author to have complete control over their product,  It strives to ensures that the independent author-cum-publisher has the best tools at their disposal, and some guidance as to how best to use those tools.  It is not a cheap endeavor, but we are focused on achieving and maintaining the highest quality, and make no apology for that.  Our client author/publishers are the entrepreneurial few who have something to say, an audience who will listen to them, and we help them figure out how to exploit that audience and hopefully broaden it.

LitVote:  Can you tell us a little about your book, The Elements of Narrative Writing?

Peter:   It is a book I felt was needed and is still needed as so few out there tackle this subject in the book length depth it needs. I hope it helps the book length narrative nonfiction writer tackle the many problems that will rise up to challenge them if they want to write a memoir like Running with Scissors, a history like Seabiscuit, or a journalistic narrative like Black Hawk Down, The Hot Zone, or A Perfect Storm.  I got a nice quote from Mark Bowden amongst others, so I guess I’ve done something right, anyway.

LitVote:  What is the best advise you were ever given about writing?

Peter:  Keep on doing it.  Until you’re published you’re really not the best judge of your work, so you need to seriously think about what publishing professionals say about your work before you accept or reject what they say about it. They may not be right in the details, but they may well be closer to the truth than you like in the broader, overall details of what they have to say.


Peter Rubie specializes in a broad range of high-quality fiction and non-fiction. In non-fiction he specializes in narrative non-fiction, popular science, spirituality, history, biography, pop culture, business and technology, parenting, health, self help, music, and food. He is a “sucker” for outstanding writing. In fiction he represents literate thrillers, crime fiction, science fiction and fantasy, military fiction and literary fiction, middle grade and some boy oriented young adult fiction.

Prior to becoming an agent he was a publishing house editor whose authors won prizes and critical acclaim. He has also been the editor-in-chief of a Manhattan local newspaper, and a freelance editor and book doctor for major publishers. A published author of both fiction and non-fiction, he was a regular reviewer for the international trade magazine Publishers Weekly. He regularly lectures and writes on publishing and the craft of writing.

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