KD: How and when did you become a literary agent?
MB: I’ve been an agent for a couple of years, now. I started out by doing an internship with an agency and when that was over, I signed on with another agency as a junior agent and started the learning process. I ended up at Inklings because I’d met Michelle and Jamie during my internship (they were interns too), and when they opened Inklings and Michelle invited me to join them, I jumped at the chance.
KD: What fiction genres are you looking for this year? Is there anything special you’d love to see?
MB: I’m always looking for romance in all subgenres except Christian/inspirational. I also like science fiction, fantasy (though I’m really picky about this genre), historical fiction, western, mystery, thriller.
I’d like to see a fresh take on cozy mystery; a time travel romance; a good epic fantasy that doesn’t include a dozen (or even half dozen) points of view, or names I can’t pronounce, or every mythical creature ever imagined, or magic (think Dark Tower, which admittedly has a few of those elements but is so awesome it doesn’t matter).
KD: Is it harder these days to place authors/novels with the larger publishers? How does the increase in smaller and/or regional publishers, especially those who also take unagented submissions, impact your job?
MB: I don’t know if it’s harder per se to place with larger publishers, but the increase in mid-sized and small publishers, especially digital-only presses, means that advances from larger publishers are lower, and often publishers will acquire to their digital imprint before or rather than print imprints because there’s less cost and risk involved. They can offer even lower advances, and in many cases no advance at all, for digital-only or digital-first acquisitions.
As far as my job is concerned, this means often I’ll receive offers for digital-only with no advance when what we really wanted was print. However, were it not for their digital imprint, the publisher may have rejected outright, so at least the digital imprint gets an author’s foot in the door and gets them a publishing credit.
I don’t think that publishers who take unagented submissions affect my job at all. Generally, those publishers have laxer guidelines (than the larger publishers) as far as the quality of the work they accept and publish, so often they end up taking work I would have rejected, so it saves me the time of going through those queries. I know that sounds insensitive, maybe even brutal, but that’s the truth of it for most agents.
KD: Has the increase in self-published books had an effect on your agency? If so, what?
MB: With regard to self-published books, publishing companies are wary about taking those on unless they’ve had phenomenal sales. Once something is published – even self-published – it’s ALREADY BEEN PUBLISHED, so a publisher doesn’t want it unless they can make oodles of cash off something that’s really taken off.
This affects our agency because authors don’t understand that publishing requires infinite patience. If you self-publish and your sales are bleak, or not what you expected, and then you go back to querying agents in hope of still going the traditional publishing route, you’re crippled yourself with the self-publishing. Most agents won’t touch a self-published book unless it’s had outstanding sales, which doesn’t happen often. I get many, many, many queries from authors who have self-published, but are still querying agents. I can’t sell those books, so I have to reject.
KD: What gets you excited in a query letter? What makes you hit the delete button?
MB: Excited: Concise, well organized, outstanding voice, great story and characters.
Delete: If you don’t follow submission guidelines; if you attach information instead of pasting it into the email; if the query letter is long, rambling, incoherent; if you’re querying a genre I don’t represent; if you spend paragraphs tooting your own horn and then the writing is atrocious; an incomplete manuscript; work that isn’t fully edited and polished.
KD: Writers are often advised to have a web presence before even selling their first manuscript. Of the following web and social media opportunities, which do you consider most important for the debut author: a website, a blog, Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads? Are there any others you recommend to your authors?
MB: “Platform” is more important for non-fiction than fiction, but a “presence” is always valuable. However, I don’t think that having an active web presence is absolutely necessary for fiction authors. I’ve sold authors who barely have any presence at all. In my opinion that whole presence thing is over-hyped for fiction. But that’s just my opinion. Other agents will likely tell you otherwise.
KD: How closely do you work with the authors you represent? Are you editorially involved, or do you prefer only to handle the business side of things?
MB: I work very closely with my authors. I tend to be laid back and casual, and end up developing great working relationships with my clients. Communication is very important to me.
As far as editing, I try to take on work that requires as little editing as possible because I just don’t have oodles of time to be an editor. It’s the author’s job to do all that before they query. That being said, I do a thorough developmental and copyedit for everything I take on. I probably do more than I should, actually, but the English professor in me just can’t help it. And I have taken on a couple of projects that needed significant work, but were so outstanding I couldn’t turn them away. I try to stay away from those, though, because they’re so time consuming.
KD: If a manuscript piques your interest, what’s your next step? How often do you request revisions on a manuscript you want to represent? Do you offer representation before or after revisions are made?
MB: If something piques my interest and it needs very little editing, I’ll just offer representation. If it’s something I like but needs some work, I’ll ask for revisions. I don’t do that often, and if I do I wait to read the revisions before (and if) I offer representation. Just because an agent asks for a revision, doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get an offer to represent, though.
KD: When reading the beginning pages of a manuscript, what’s an immediate turn off? Consequently, what gets you excited about those first few pages?
MB: Immediate turn offs to me are:
1. Badly copyedited writing – word clutter, passive or incomplete sentences, grammar/spelling/punctuation issues.
2. Cliché openings like characters waking up, descriptions of weather, long exposition, back story, flashbacks, etc.
3. I really don’t like prologues and I don’t even read them. In pre-published work I’ve found that 99% of prologues are unnecessary.
Immediate turns offs don’t mean I stop reading immediately, but often they end up meaning rejections.
What gets me excited in first few pages:
1. Strong voice which is, admittedly, difficult to define.
2. Action with necessary exposition/back story woven in sparsely.
3. Clean, concise writing.
4. Clear setup of the story and characters.
KD: What are your thoughts on the current market for fantasy romance and paranormal romance? What areas of this genre do you think editors consider over done?
MB: Unfortunately both urban fantasy and paranormal romance are really glutted markets right now, and editors at big houses aren’t buying those genres as furiously as they were not so long ago. Stories in these genres now need to be very unique and stand out against everything else in the genre. Frankly, I’m sick to death of vampires and werewolves. I don’t know that anything new can be said about them anymore.
I think there’s still room in the market for both genres, but there’s got to be really unique angles and/or twists on it.
KD: What are your thoughts on New Adult? It’s very hot right now. Do you think it’s a fading trend like chick-lit was?
MB: I think NA is definitely hot and on the upswing. It started out as what Michelle (my co-agent at Inklings) calls “college f**k fiction” meaning that it was just stories about college girls getting laid. But it’s developing into a genre similar to YA in that it’s all about people in this age group finding themselves, learning how to live in an adult world, and dealing with adult issues, and it’s spreading into all genres. Personally, I don’t like the college student stories, but I would like to see NA stories in any genre that deal with people that age. I don’t think it’s fading at all, and I don’t think it will.
In fact, I just talked to an editor not too long ago at St. Martins who said that although paranormal is kind of dying now, she sees NA paranormal as a growing market, which kind of ties both your questions together!
KD: How often do you communicate with your clients?
MB: Like I said earlier, I’m very laid back and often end up chatting with clients frequently either by email or social media.
KD: What do you do for fun when you’re not working? Any unusual hobbies?
MB: Not working? There are people who actually do that????
KD: What advice would you like to give authors who plan to pitch their novel to you at Colorado Gold?
Make sure the novel is complete and polished – then polish it some more. Get help if you need it, but not from your mom/brother/uncle/cousin/BFF.
Be sure it’s a genre I represent!
Relax some more – I’m a person just like you, and I write, too, so I know how you feel.
I hate the term “elevator pitch” but be able to describe the essence of your story in a few short sentences.
Relax and enjoy yourself!
Thanks so much, Margaret! We’re all very excited to see you at conference in September. Counting the days!
Karen Duvall is an award-winning author with 4 published novels and 2 novellas. Harlequin Luna published her Knight’s Curse series in 2011 and 2012, and her post apocalyptic novella, Sun Storm, was released in Luna’s ‘Til The World Ends anthology in January 2013. She released a romantic suspense novel, Desert Guardian, that she published herself in June of 2013.