Have you ever wondered what happens behind closed doors at a Literary Agency? The lovely Elizabeth Fisher from Levine Greenberg Literary Agency has been gracious enough to answer this and other questions for us.
Elizabeth, welcome to the Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood!
Q: How did you start your career in publishing? Is it hard for agents to break in?
A: I came into publishing later than most. After trying my hand at various other things: bookseller, barista, waitress, nomad (to name just a few), I noticed that a lot of my friends were heading to grad school and coming to me to take a look at their entrance essays. It made me wonder if maybe I shouldn’t look into editing—which was the only job in publishing I knew existed at the time. I took an Intro to Publishing course at NYU with an instructor I immediately connected with. She was able to refer me to a literary agency looking for an intern to read unsolicited manuscripts. I couldn’t believe that someone would pay me (well, a stipend at least) for reading! That’s how I first learned about what an agent does and how a literary agency works. From there, I also first encountered subsidiary rights and all the various things that could happen to a book in its lifetime. My first full-time job was in the Subsidiary Rights department of a major publisher. But after a while, I missed the direct contact with authors that I had experienced at the agency and decided to go back to that side of things. I started at Levine Greenberg about six and a half years ago.
Is it hard for agents to break in? Yes and no. The beauty of being an agent is that anyone who has a head for what works and what doesn’t in the marketplace can fairly easily start a list. But building a strong list of clients is easier said than done. It’s hard to find new writers that have the talent and commercial viability to sell into the market. Mining through all the unsolicited manuscripts is a ton of work and very overwhelming. Once you have a few strong clients under your belt, you may start getting recommendations from clients and contacts in the industry or writers may approach you who write in the same vein, for instance. But before you sell a book, it’s hard to get your name out there and to get quality work in.
Q: Please tell us about Levine Greenberg. Is it an editorial agency? Do agents communicate with each other about their writers/query letters?
A: The great thing about LGLA is its collaborative spirit. We’re a mid-size agency now with several young agents in the process of building lists, but we were half the size when I started here. The agency works very hard to guide writers through the entire publishing process—from developing a strong proposal or manuscript for submission to publishers through publication, marketing, publicity and everything that makes up a book’s life. Our agents talk to each other all the time—we have a weekly editorial meeting where we hash out what we call “situations” and offer advice to help each other solve problems that we encounter along the way. We absolutely refer queries and writers to each other since everyone here, while able to work on whatever projects speak to us, also have a personal focus to our lists that reflect individual interests.
Q: What are your responsibilities as a Rights Manager? Are you still dealing directly with writers?
A: As the Rights Manager here, I am responsible for selling any subsidiary rights we might hold for a book: translation, audio, first serial, etc. Film would also fall under subsidiary rights, although agents typically handle film rights themselves or partner with a film agent. I often deal directly with writers to negotiate these deals or to help them coordinate international press, conferences, tours, etc.
Q: Do you also handle Foreign Rights?
A: Yes, most of my responsibilities involve translation rights for titles that we don’t sell those rights to the U.S. publisher. I work in conjunction with a network of agents around the world to help sell our titles into the international market. It’s a lot of coordination- I have to get the information about our books to our co-agents, who then submit to an appropriate list of publishers in their respective territories. We negotiate deals per territory and then help see the book through to publication. I also attend two international book fairs a year (London and Frankfurt) to meet with foreign publishers and agents. I also keep track of when books are published and when foreign licenses expire.
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about the process of selling American books to international publishers? What percentage of your writers end up selling their books to other markets? How about Film/TV rights?
A: One of the most interesting things about my job is learning about foreign markets- what works well where and what doesn’t work in some places. For instance, in my experience it’s incredibly difficult to sell American non-fiction into the French market. But I work hard to place our titles internationally and I would say that at least 80% of the books we have rights on sell at least one translation. A handful of titles have sold in over 30 territories!
Selling film rights is a bit trickier and MUCH more rare. I can only think of one title of ours that ever actually made it to the big screen and a handful that were developed into TV shows, specials or documentaries. Often, books can be optioned by studios or production companies and authors can make a little money from the interest, even if the film never gets made. Options can be renewed or studios can opt to purchase the rights down the line. If an author is very, very lucky, there could be a film at the end of it.
Q: Have you kept your client list or have you passed it on to another agent?
A: I never had a large client list, but I have passed many of my former clients along to colleagues here or referred them to other agents who I thought might be a good fit for them.
Q: Back when you were an agent, what did you look for in query letters?
A: If an author could write a short, succinct summary of what the book was about and why they think they were the right person to write the book (especially for non-fiction), that’s what would catch my eye. Anything that touched a personal interest is a plus of course. Queries that seemed to indicate that an author did his homework and that he/she was approaching me for a reason would also be a good way to get my attention.
Q: Any tips for writers on how to make their query letters stand out from the crowd?
A: Again, do your homework! Don’t just blanket the industry with your query. Research who would be the best agents for your particular project and work from there. A query from an author that obviously knew who I was, what books I worked on, what my personal interests were, etc. always were a much better fit than a generic letter with dozens of agents in the heading.
Q: As an agent, would you take on a client based on their potential even if you didn’t think their manuscript was ready for publication?
A: Absolutely. Manuscript and proposal development are part of a good agent’s job and authors should want to work with an agent who has a clear vision of how to shape the book.
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about the process from reading the query letter to signing a writer, and what the agent/client relationship is like in your agency? Do you meet your writers in person?
A: It’s not always necessary to meet authors in person, although if it’s convenient, it certainly doesn’t hurt. For fiction, it’s really about what’s on the page, what sings to a particular agent, and who they think (editorially) it will appeal to at a publishing house. Non-fiction can be a bit trickier. You need to ask: why is this the best person to write this book? What does the author bring to the table in terms of media? It is, more and more, about the dreaded “p” word: platform. Meeting an author who is going to promote a book can be a big factor and sometimes it’s even in the author’s interest to set up meetings with potential publishers to see how they click as well. It’s important along every step to work with people who have that clear vision for your book.
Q: Please help dispel some myths about agents. Is it true elderly and novice writers have a harder time getting an agent?
A: Neither one was true in my case. Even on my small client list, I had both.
Q: Is it true agents favor clients with platforms and who would be able to do their own marketing and handle their PR?
A: As I touched on above, it certainly makes a non-fiction proposal more appealing to publishers (and therefore agents) if an author has a strong platform with some kind of media hook to help promote the book. More and more, authors are expected to do the bulk of the publicity and marketing of their books and it’s always in the author’s best interest to be willing and able to advocate their work. It can really make a difference in the success of the book.
Q: What is the “in” genre right? What is the industry looking for?
Anything can be appealing if it jumps off the page and takes you somewhere. I used to say I was looking for something that will transport me to another place, another time, or another life when I must stay put.
Thank you, Elizabeth!
For more information about Levine Greenberg Literary Agency, please visit their website: http://www.levinegreenberg.com/