Sweet and Sour Literary Agents (and Rumi)

August 28th, 2009

This is a tale of two pairs of literary agents. Each pair includes a sweet one and a sour one.

Sounds like a fairy tale? It kind of is– with both a happy ending and a moral.

The first tale involves  literary agent Carol Susan Roth. I hate to call her the sour one, since we had a very pleasant lunch a while back. But for fairy tale purposes, she was.

Literary Agent Carol Susan Roth sold "The Infertility Cure" at auction

Literary Agent Carol Susan Roth sold "The Infertility Cure" at auction

Randine Lewis, author of The Infertility Cure, had two agents who were interested in her work. The first was ready to send out her book proposal as it was, right away. The second was Carol, who said that Lewis’s book proposal wasn’t ready for prime time yet. Lewis went with the first agent, who sent it out to three publishers, resulting in three rejections.

So Lewis went back to Roth: “ . . .She introduced me to a wonderful ghostwriter who totally revamped my proposal. Carol sent it out and after an auction with six of the major publishers, it was sold to Little, Brown & Co. for a very big advance!”

Pair number two involves a novel.  It has basically the same setup. The “sour” literary agent was interested in  the work based on the author’s query letter. But after she read the manuscript, she said to the author that their work had merit, but  just wasn’t ready yet. This literary agent suggested that the author  improve it, and that she would be happy to provide commentary on subsequent drafts until it was a salable book.

But there was a sweet literary agent who was willing to take the work on as is, right away. The sweet agent submitted the novel to dozens editors at a wide variety of publishing houses—and they all turned the manuscript down. They rejected this novel for the same reason that sour literary agent had declined to take it on in the first place.

So the author decided to go back to the sour literary agent—who agreed to work with her to improve the manuscript—even though it’s next to impossible to get an editor to re-consider a manuscript he’s already rejected.

The sour agent twisted some arms and sold the book. But that’s an unusual outcome. Rejected books are almost never resurrected. And because an agent sent this manuscript out before it was ready, it almost didn’t get published.

So both these tales had happy endings. The moral of the story reminds me of some lines from one of my favoirte Rumi poems, Borrow the Beloved’s Eyes. The translation, as you  might expect, is from Coleman Barks:

“Worry about the others, who give you

delicious comforts that keep you from prayer.

Friends are enemies sometimes,

and enemies Friends.”

So when you have a choice between a sweet literary agent who wants to represent you right away, and a sour one who wants  you to wait and improve your work, it’s usually wiser to choose the sour literary agent.

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What Literary Agents Want to See If You’re Not Famous, Part IV

August 27th, 2009

Literary agents always have a story of a book they recently sold where the author wasn’t famous– but had a story that was so interesting and well-written that they had to represent it.  Typically, it’s because the person who writes the material has an experience that takes you into a whole new world. Representing these books is clearly a labor of love for an agent, because they are captivated by the story and the way it’s told. And when literary agents love a book, they can usually find an editor who will feel the same way.

Literary Agent Andy Ross

Literary Agent Andy Ross

It really helps if you’re writing about something unusual. Andy Ross (www.AndyRossAgency.com) says that publishers are pretty tired of personal memoirs about everyday life and dysfunctional families. He says they call them “me-moirs.”

But when he was pitched a book proposal by a young man who a month after his twenty-first birthday, moved to Ujae (population: 450), a remote atoll in the Marshall Islands located 2000 miles from the closest continent to teach English, Andy knew he had something worth pitching. It helped that the author,Peter Rudiak-Gould,  is laugh-out-loud hilarious pages. It also helped that, unfortunately, Ujae may be one of global warming’s first casualties, so there was a current events factor.

But most important of all, the story is  engaging and extremely well-written. Every one of the testimonials on Amazon from eight other published authors mentions that it’s funny or moving.

The result? Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island will be coming out on Union Square Press at the beginning of November.

Another twentysomething, Jesse Saperstein, approached Deborah Levine Herman, of the Jeff Herman Literary

Literary Agent Deborah Herman

Literary Agent Deborah Herman

Agency after he was turned down by lots of other agents. Deborah says she loved the project. ” . . . He has Asperger Syndrome [a form of autism]and he walked the Appalachian Trail to raise money for Juvenile AIDS and he also has written a book that was his, it came from his inner voice and it was just a very unique voice.”

She didn’t accept Saperstein right away:  “I made this guy rewrite his book over two years. And because he just was very grateful and I think people need to be grateful every day for everything, he had a sense that what he was receiving was going to help him reach his goal. And so he was able to make whatever changes he was told to make.”

Herman was eventually satisfied with her young client’s writing, and was ready to represent him. She found an editor, Marian Lizzi, at Perigee Books who “got” his book,  a heartfelt and  humorous collection of essays revealing Saperstein’s unique perspective on growing up different, managing his quirks, his Appalachian adventure and even venturing into the world of online dating called Atypical: Life with Apsperger’s in 23 1/3 Chapters. It’s due out in April of 2010.

Saperstein was undoubtedly helped by the massive success of The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, which is narrated by a lead character who is autistic, and to a lesser degree (because they’re not current), Donna William’s memoirs Nobody, Nowhere and Somebody, Somewhere. When you write a book proposal, it helps to be able to compare your books to recent bestsellers.  That tells publishers, and ultimately bookstores, that there is a verifiable market for your book.

I doubt that Marian Lizzi, no matter how much she liked Saperstein’s book, could have gotten this book through her editorial board if Haddon’s book hadn’t been such a big hit. I imagine the sales and marketing people would have had a fit! “How could we possibly know if this book is going to sell since there’s nothing else like it.”

If you want to know how the editorial board at publishers work, check out my Inside the Editorial Boardroom interview with with David Nelson, a former VP of Sales who sat on these boards at both Penguin and Harcourt. You’ll get the inside scoop on  what goes on once an editor likes your book, including how publishers decide how much to pay authors for their books. It’s an extra bonus with my Agent University program, a six CD set I’m giving away for just the cost of shipping and handling.

And if you want to get published without being famous, do something unusual, then write about it superbly– and preferably with a great deal of humor, and you really can land a literary agent.

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What Literary Agents Want to See If You’re Not Famous, Part III

August 23rd, 2009

I had a lunch date with literary agent Carol Susan Roth a few years ago, and I mentioned an idea I had for a book.  It was a book on helping the world, but it had a funny title. I had planned to build a mailing list with a viral ebook, and then eventually going for a big publisher.

Carol said something that astounded me: “If you want, I can sell that book now.” My jaw dropped.

“But I don’t have a platform.” That wasn’t actually true. I had my AuthorSecrets ezine with 40,000 readers, but still, it wasn’t a list I’d built of people who are set on saving the world.

She told me it didn’t matter. “With a title that funny, you can sell it. 10 Speed Press loves that kind of thing.”


I’ve since decided to change the title to one that will be more effective for what I want to accomplish with the book. Plus, I wasn’t sure I could write a book as funny as the title.

But that story came to mind when I saw that copywriter Andrew Gall and illustrator Vince Soliven had sold their book to Adams Media. It’s called Everything’s Better with a Gorilla. It uses fun factoids and illustrations to show that any boring activity becomes effortlessly enjoyable when you add a gorilla to the recipe. Two examples: “Having a Gorilla as Your Wingman” and “Going clothes shopping with a Gorilla.”

If you’re funny, you can sell a book without being famous.

The gorilla  book was sold by LaunchBooks Literary Agency.  David Fugate was the literary agent.

Contessa with Carol Susan Roth, literary agent

Contessa with Carol Susan Roth, literary agent

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What Literary Agents Want to See When You’re Not Famous, Part II

August 20th, 2009

Another way to get literary agents excited is to have a book on a topic that fills a hole in the market.  That doesn’t mean presenting a book proposal on something no one’s ever seen before. You don’t really want to write the first book on a topic no one’s ever heard of. You want to find a hole in an existing market.

One way to do that is to create a whole new category for yourself and your book. For example, what do you get when you combine sex & dating with working out?

Billy Sunday Mars knows.  He bills himself as a “romantic fitness expert.”

Mars just got a publishing deal with The Experiment for a new book, FIT FOR LOVE.  He calls his book “a kind of prequel to the Kama Sutra on how best to train and strengthen the body for intensely pleasurable love-making.”

See how he combines two proven markets?

Hey, we all know some people go to the gym to improve their love life. (If this weren’t a blog for my business, I would have said that in a much crasser way!)

Also worthy of note: Check out how he compared his book to one of the bestselling books of all time. It’s a prequel  to the Kama Sutra.

Imagine how talk show hosts will introduce this guy: “Our next guest wrote a prequel to the Kama Sutra. He’s a romantic fitness expert. Please welcome Billy Sunday Mars.”

Literary agents and publishers actually think about things like that.

So find a hole in the market, compare your book to a bestseller, and show how it’s different. You’ll greatly enhance  your chance of getting a literary agent.

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How Suze Orman Became Famous

August 20th, 2009

I just had a lovely video call on Skype that seemed more like I was interacting on a TV talk show than talking on the phone. The guests or hosts were Barbara Wellner and Karen Melamed of Mediawise Consulting (www.Mediawise-Consulting.com). They were as entertaining as can be! They teach people how to be GREAT when they’re on television–and though they were only on a little webcam from their computer, it was clear that they were naturals at it themselves.

Barbara was a senior producer on the team that developed and launched FX, the largest launch in cable history, as well as a producer for Tom Bergeron.

Karen was the producer of a local TV show in Baltimore called People are Talking. You might have heard of the star of that show: Oprah Winfrey.

She later became a producer of Oprah’s national show and was responsible for some of her highest rated episodes.

So Karen was around before Oprah helped make Suze Ormon a star.

She told me three things that made Suze extremely easy to work with from the perspective of a television producer:

1) Suze offered to be a guest in case there was an emergency because of a cancellation.

2) She offered to pay to fly herself to Chicago and

3) She was more than willing to be one of the experts who comment from the audience that Oprah talks to for 30 seconds. (If you’ve watched Oprah, you’ve seen them. Believe it or not, some people are divas who say they will only appear if they can sit on the stage.)

But the most important part of the story is this: Suze said to herself, if I’m going to only have thirty seconds on Oprah, I’m going to make it the best 30 seconds I can.

When she had her moment in the spotlight, she was so entertaining, informative, and easy to understand that Oprah continued to talk to her way past the thirty second mark. In a few short minutes, she heard the words that every guest on Oprah wants to hear: “You’re fabulous! I need to invite you back on the show.”

That’s how Suze Ormon went from a thirty second guest in the audience to a household name.

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What Literary Agents Want to See When You’re Not Famous, Part I

August 13th, 2009

When you’re trying to get published, the first thing literary agents tell you is that you have to have a platform. A platform is an audience of people who know who you are. Typically it’s achieved through becoming a well-known speaker, having a syndicated column, developing an e-zine with a large following or a Web site or blog with lots of traffic or having tons of followers, friends, or links on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.

A platform takes time to build. But certain strategies can help you land a literary agent and get published even if you’re not already well-known to tens of thousands of people.

First off, timing is everything. Literary agent Grace Freedson says you can sell a book without a platform “if it’s a topic that a publisher … feels if I had a book on this I know I could sell it.”

Even if publishers don’t realize they want a book on a particular topic, but yours covers a trend that affects lots of people, you can get published without a big platform.

Here’s an example:

In today’s economy, millions of people are losing their homes to foreclosure, going bankrupt, and missing credit card payments. How do you do things like rent an apartment, get a job, buy a car, get a credit card and start a new business after your credit is shot? Chris Balish and Geoff Williams answer that question with their book LIVING WELL WITH BAD CREDIT, which literary agent Laurie Abkemeier of DeFiore and Company sold to publisher HCI.

If you’re a book publisher, publishing this book is a no-brainer. It’s filled with timely information that the media will be happy to talk and write about. A morning talk show like the Today Show could literally do a week-long series on living with bad credit. Each day they could show you how to overcome one of the problems the book solves.

So if you come up with something timely that’s already on everybody’s minds, or if you happen onto a topic that publishers think is hot, you can attract a lot of attention from book publishers and literary agents.

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Literary Agent Grace Freedson on What Book Publishers are Choosing Based on Today's Economy

July 30th, 2009

In an interview with literary agent Grace Freedson,  it’s evident that one way to get published is to filter your self-help or how-to book through the lens of the economic realities we face today: “I think I would say there is a trend towards frugality not only in the way business is conducted but in the types of books we’re seeing published . . . when I say frugality, it impacts the business sector, it impacts the way we cook and choose the foods we eat. It might impact the way we plan our weddings [etc.] and that’s reflected in the kinds of books that are published.”

She also mentioned that  she had several books on the use and misuse of credit cards, as well as dealing with collection agencies, which are topics that pretty obviously relate to today’s rough times.

Freedson started her own literary agency after she left Barron’s, famed for their SAT and GMAT books, as Director of Acquisitions.  She mentioned that  one of her bread and butter categories is particularly hot today:

“. . . Test preparation [is] still a very fertile category, people are staying in school if there are no jobs, graduating college seniors might opt to further their education. Those who are not furthering it are trying to improve their skills. So there are many skill-based books, whether it’s how to manage your time better to how to interview better for a job. I think those skill-based concepts are pretty good right now.”

Here are some recent deal as of this month that reflect what Freedson talked about with me.

In terms of saving money:

Ellie Kay’s THE LITTLE BOOK OF BIG SAVINGS, ways to save money every day in twelve  categories

In terms of skills for work:

Michelle Lederman’s THE 11 LAWS OF LIKABILITY: Building Authentic Relationships for Business Success

Jodi Glickman-Brown’s GREAT ON THE JOB: 11 Essential Strategies for Succeeding in the Workplace (also about relationships and communication)

If you can figure out a way to make your topic relate to the economy, you have a better chance of getting a literary agent.

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Want free publicity? Tie your story to current events

July 12th, 2009


How potent is tying your subject matter to current events?

Potent enough to turn Carol Burnett from a little known night club singer into a national star.

According to Tom Shales of the Washington Post, this is how Carol Burnett got her big break:  In 1957, she was appearing at the Blue Angel nightclub. Teen-age girls were obsessed with Elvis Presley. Burnett’s friend Ken Welch wrote a song about a young girl totally obsessed not with a rock star but with the secretary of state: “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles.”

Jack Paar heard about it, booked her on the “Tonight Show,” and it created a frenzy. Ms. Burnett says in Shales’ original article, “The phones were ringing off the book. I went back to the Blue Angel to do the midnight show and there was a man on the phone who said he was Mr. Dulles’ television adviser, and he said, ‘Mr. Dulles didn’t see it. Could you possibly go back on the Paar show and do it on Thursday?’ I said, ‘Fine by me.’ But of course I didn’t know. But they called Jack Paar, who had a great show, and he brought me back on Thursday. Then Ed Sullivan called and I did it on his show that Sunday. So it was three times in one week.”

A week later, Burnett watched “Meet the Press” because Dulles was to be the interviewee. “And the very last question was, ‘So tell me, Mr. Dulles, what is going on between you and that young lady who sings that love song about you?’ And you know how dour he was. I got up close to the television set and he said, ‘I make it a matter of policy never to discuss matters of the heart in public.’ Isn’t that sweet? Wow.”

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How Adults Learn

July 18th, 2006

This next post is based on a conversation I had with Michelle Price of www.SellMoreBooks.com.

At a past job, Michelle designed education programs for grown-ups. We were talking about a book I was editing that I thought was too theoretical, without enough meaty (well, tofu-y, I’m vegetarian) ready to use information.

In agreeing with me, she mentioned 3 principles of adult learning that I think are particularly appropriate for authors.
Here they are, in Michelle’s words:

1. Adults want to enjoy the process and have fun learning.
2. Adults want to be able to apply what they’ve learned in their own life – it needs to be relevant now.

3. Adults want to be able to share what they’ve learned with others so concepts should be simplified (not dummified) – an easy way to do this is to find a way to compare what you are teaching to something they already know, which will anchor it for them.

If you’re writing non-fiction, check what you’ve written against this list.

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Book Clubbing II

July 14th, 2006

Just to make my point even further, I was just looking at a list of debut fiction that recently sold, and here’s another that sold as a pre-empt–in other words, an auction was about to be held, but one publisher came in with a high bid right out of the box, pre-empting the auction. What that means is that the book sold for a lot more money than most debut authors get.

It’s by Susan Breen and it’s called THE FICTION CLASS. The book is populated by a teacher and the offbeat members of a creative writing workshop she leads.

A ongoing class is a kind of a club, right?

The author is a writing teacher.

It must be cool to have a novel written about the writing class you’ve taken.

But hey, there really was a Broadway musical written about the songwriting class I took when I was trying to make it as a composer and lyricist for Broadway.

I talked about that  in my last newsletter. You can subscribe by going to www.GetAnAgentNow.com.

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