by Mary Calhoun Gattuso.
I’ve been querying agents since April, but I hadn’t met with one until Lit Fest. As a writer who spends hours researching agents, keeps a spreadsheet of submissions (and rejections) by her bedside, and has nightmares when she doesn’t send at least one query a day to some unknown online entity, I couldn’t wait to see a real agent. It helped. The spreadsheet has moved to my desk. The nightmares have subsided, at least for now.
I also attended three business panels during Lit Fest, and each one seemed to center around the fact that everything starts with the quality of the author’s work. As Sally Wofford-Girand, Jenny Offill’s agent, said, “The number one most important factor was the actual novel in hand. It’s a work of art and literature, but also a completely gripping, emotional and cathartic novel.”
In From Modest Beginning to Best Seller—a session looking at the factors that made Offill’s Dept. of Speculation such a success—Wofford-Girand read the submission letter she sent to publishers for the book. (Offill had never seen it before.) “I love every word of this book,” she wrote. “Extraordinarily crafted work and so riveting you will have to force yourself to slow down to prolong the pleasure.” The passion Wofford-Girand displayed for Offill’s book was striking to me. Their business partnership seems to be founded on friendship and mutual respect, and I wondered it that was rare—until I saw Anna Stein and Ben Lerner together.
In The Perfect Pairing, a session looking at the author-agent relationship, Stein said when she read Lerner’s manuscript, “I devoured it. I was smitten.” She searched him out to offer representation. Lerner said about Stein, “Anna did all this magic that helped me get the book to a broader world and to protect me from pressures I wanted to avoid. I feel like I’m really lucky to have someone who is concerned about protecting the integrity of the work and not just maximizing profit.” Lerner also appreciates Stein’s editorial feedback. “When I share work with Anna she is very clear about what she gets and what she doesn’t, very clear about helping me figure out what I want and realizing that,” he said.
I learned more about the agent-author relationship in the Big Press, Small Press, No Press session, too, where panelist Eleanor Brown said, “Agents are like buses; if you miss one, the next one will come along any minute.” (Hmm…I sure do hope so.)
But agent Alexandra Machinist said she doesn’t take on a project unless it has a shot at being purchased by one of the big five houses and at least a six-figure advance. “Lots and lots of times you’re better off self-publishing, especially if you’re using the book as a marketing tool,” Machinist said. “What you need more than anything is the wholehearted attention and commitment of your publisher. Choose someone you can have longevity with. Do not choose [an agent] based on prestige exclusively. You have to like her.”
Other advice from the panelists:
- Find a press that specializes in your genre. Regional writing might do better at a local press. (But not necessarily, e.g., Wild)
- Build your own platform. Choose one form of social media and get really good at it. (But not all best-selling authors use social media, e.g., Jenny Offill)
- All but one panelist did not recommend hiring a publicist.
- A small press is gentle and holds your hand, but you might not get much exposure. Hybrid publishing can include a mix of traditional, self-published, big press, small press. Consider which is right for your book. Look at who your peers would be. You might start out self-published or at a small or mid-size press and then go to a large press. Not all agents are forever, nor are agencies or publishers, but you can navigate through the changes.
- It is the responsibility of a large press to get reviews. Don’t pay for reviews. University presses will get reviews. Trade reviews in the big four (Booklist, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus) are essential.
- Small press and self-published books need to have a distributor so that your book can be ordered at a bookstore.
- Paper book and e-book rights are inseparable, but audiobook rights are often sold separately.
Mary Calhoun Gattuso is a longtime Lighthouse member and has recently completed her first novel. She lives in Denver where she tutors math and writing.