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

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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