A few weeks ago John Marlow, who is an editor and script writer in Los Angeles, contacted me and wanted to do an interview on his Self Edit blog. It is a fantastic blog for writers who are interested in writing for movies or getting movie deals. I liked the interview so much that I’m posting it here. We will do it in 2 parts.
JRM: Why did you become—and why do you remain—an agent? What got you started, and what keeps you going?
Andy Ross: Most agents come out of publishing. Usually editorial. This makes a lot of sense. They have experience in the decision to acquire books for publishers. They know the calculations that go into making the decision, and they usually know what general sorts of books publishers are looking for.
I came into this job from an entirely different background. I was a retailer for 35 years. For 30 years I owned and managed Cody’s Books in Berkeley. It was an extremely well known and highly regarded store that had a reputation for its unusual selection of titles and its commitment to books of literary and intellectual value.
This gave me an unusual perspective. I like to say that, as buyer for the store for so many years, I have been pitched over 50,000 titles. It was invaluable experience for understanding the tastes of a very wide range of publishers.
It is pretty easy to make a submission list of the imprints from the 6 major publishers in New York (Macmillan, Random House, Simon and Schuster, Harper Collins, Penguin, Hachette Book Group). But in the tough world of publishing, realistically it is going to be necessary to go down the list to smaller houses. As a retailer, I am more familiar with a wide range of imprints than many other agents.
When I left Cody’s in 2007, I wasn’t sure what skills I could bring to any new job. I had a sense that my future lay in…maybe…sacking groceries at Safeway. But I had a kind of epiphany that I would be a pretty good agent. I think I am. I’ve sold 21 books [link] in my two and a half years at this job. Many are lead titles.
I love working at this other end of the book food chain. And getting an offer on a book is a really emotional experience. Getting rejections is also an emotional experience, but that is another story. Honestly, I love this work. I wish I had started years ago. It’s like Christmas every day.
JRM: Given your seen-it-all perspective, what still gets your attention and makes a query
stand out from the crowd?
Andy Ross: I see a lot of articles and presentations for writers about how to structure a query letter. Some of them even profess to offer a kind of kabalistic secret technique that will assure the writer of finding an agent and a publisher. I don’t buy that. The best kind of query letter is one that pitches a good idea for a book from a person who has the authority to write it and the platform to get attention for it
You should always look on an agent’s website for submission guidelines. Speaking only for myself, I like a short query (half page or less) sent by email with the text embedded in the email that tells me the genre of the book, succinctly what the book is about, the audience it is trying to reach and why the author has the authority to be writing about this subject.
You have no idea how often I get queries that begin with a kind of breathless narrative. Two long paragraphs later, it is still unclear whether the book is a novel, a memoir, or something else. I don’t like that.
But, notwithstanding, if I get a query with a project that excites me, it doesn’t really matter if the format is different. I just did an entry on my blog called 9 Tips for Effective Query Letters, which conveys a better idea of what I’m looking for when I read query letters.
JRM: What are some of the mistakes you see new writers make in their approach to people or the industry?
Andy Ross: There is an old cliché that publishing is the marriage of art and commerce. In these hard times it is a kind of S&M marriage with commerce being a rather harsh dominatrix. Publishers are under huge pressure to make money. I suppose they have always been. And their first concern is how to find an audience large enough to make publication a viable commercial venture.
This is only to say that the decision to publish a book is quite different than a judgment about whether a book is high art or intellectually worthy. And writers need to have no illusions about that.
JRM: What are the most important things for a writer to know—in general, and when approaching an agent?
Andy Ross: It’s important for writers to understand that publishers are going to expect the writer to do the heavy lifting in promoting the book. A writer can’t just write. He has to be a savvy marketer as well.
And writers should also be realistic and be aware that we live in a world obsessed with celebrity and driven by mass media. Increasingly the books that are selling are the books that are getting media attention, books by personalities.
Sarah Palin’s rather mediocre book was the best-selling nonfiction book of 2009. All of the best selling fiction books last year were by name-brand authors. Chances are that if you don’t already have a mass following, your book will sell in modest numbers. The most difficult job I have as an agent is managing my clients’ expectations.
JRM: What qualities do you look for—and look to avoid—in a writer-client?
Andy Ross: It is always easier to sell a book by a writer with “platform”. Platform is a word you hear a lot in publishing. It means that you are famous or otherwise important and will have access to media and reviews.
A professor with an endowed chair at Harvard has platform. Anyone you see on the tabloids as you are checking out at Safeway has platform. Sarah Palin has platform. The Chilean miners have platform. Oprah’s hairdresser (or anyone else associated with Oprah) has platform. Writers, like everyone else, are all different. I try to be tolerant of their virtues and vices.
JRM: What should a writer look for—and avoid—in an agent?
Andy Ross: I hear a lot of myths about what is good and bad in an agent. I hear that it is always best to get an agent from a large prestigious New York agency. Certainly it is always nice to impress your friends by namedropping your celebrity agent, but it isn’t necessarily going to help your career. Some of these agents are pretty good. But they may not have much time to work with you. Some of them think that it is their job to flip contracts, rather than help the author develop her ideas into good and publishable projects.
A lot of authors think they need an agent, because they can’t get published without one. That is probably pretty realistic, at least with the major publishers. But no agent, no matter how prestigious, is going to be able to sell a book that would otherwise not interest a publisher.
A lot of writers think that an agent can get them a big deal with a big publisher and negotiate a very favorable contract. Agents generally have some knowledge about what to ask for in a deal and sometimes how to leverage a situation into getting a bigger advance. Some, but not all, agents know the pitfalls of publisher boilerplate contract language and can make some limited beneficial changes. But these are not really the most important parts of an agent’s job. You can check out my blog article about the book deal for more detail [link].
If you speak to published authors, most of them feel that their agents are essential and that the commissions are well-earned. But they also will tell you that the real value that the agent brings is to be a creative advisor, first line editor, business manager, intermediary with the publisher, a person who works to advance the writing career of the writer, and is sometimes a shoulder to cry on.
Watch out for agents who are not willing to go the distance to see your book get published. I have worked with a number of authors whose agents submitted their projects to six big houses, and then gave up after six rejections. Those are not good agents.
I was on an agent’s panel recently, and another agent had a very telling story. A novelist came to her because she was unhappy with her previous agent. She said that the agent had submitted her novel to 40 publishers and it was rejected by all of them. My agent friend advised her that if she could find an agent who would do that kind of work for her even after facing so many rejections, that was a sign of a very good agent.
That said, there are a lot of people selling themselves as literary agents. Some are pretty marginal and some are scammers. Never hire an agent who charges money up front or who accepts you as a client conditional on your being willing to pay for other services. A good agent works on commission only. Anything else is a red flag. So watch out.
It is always a good idea to find an agent with some experience behind them, some one for whom agenting is a full-time job. But new agents can be good too; I was a new agent about 30 months ago. New agents will take more risks and may very well be willing to work harder for you.