Sunday, December 2, 2012

Interview with my Agent Rachael Dugas

So thrilled to present this interview with my wonderful agent Rachael Dugas of Talcott Notch Literary Services. Rachael has been an agent for about a year and a half and has already made three deals (yay, Rachael!) I sat her down for a virtual cup of coffee (wish it could have been real) and picked her brain with questions about the publishing industry and what she looks for in a novel. Enjoy!

Rachael, welcome to the Diving Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood!

Q: What genres do you love the most? What genres/themes you do NOT represent?

A: My pet genres are definitely YA, middle grade, and women’s fiction. These are some of my favorite genres as a reader, so I’m not really surprised they seem to be where I’ve gravitated as an agent. The next level down (genres I also love, but not with QUITE the same fervor) would be romance, historical fiction, and commercial adult fiction that has something really unique to make it stand out. In terms of non-fiction, I have a serious interest in cookbooks and performing arts-related material.

I do try to keep an open mind and consider everything that passes through my inbox, but I am really not terribly interested in sci-fi, fantasy, horror, crime, inspirational fiction, or non-fiction books in the business, health, financial arenas. We also do not work with picture books at our agency. Fortunately, between fellow Talcott Notch agents Gina Panettieri, Paula Munier, and Sara D’Emic and myself, we represent just about everything else!

Q: What type of Women’s Fiction (or any of its subgenres) appeals to you the most?

A: I absolutely adore any sort of quirky women’s fiction. I love a WF novel with a flawed, yet loveable, protagonist with a proclivity for getting herself into zany situations with very little effort. I like books centered around strong women with big personalities and opinions. That being said, they do need to be relatively believable characters that manage to be fresh and interesting, but still realistic. I do also love a sensitive, charming, and attractive love interest that compliments the heroine and brings out the best in her. I have also noticed I gravitate towards slightly sarcastic narrators/tones, though this is not necessarily a requirement. I have always loved reading Meg Cabot’s women’s fiction and have developed a recent love for Jill Mansell and her amazingly fun and quirky characters, so that should definitely give you a feel for the kinds of women’s fiction I adore.

Q: I recently read that Women’s Fiction is becoming harder to sell. Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

A: That’s really interesting. As an agent just entering the field with in the last two years, the areas I’ve had the most success with so far are YA and romance, and I think that says a lot about what people, women especially, are reading right now. Romance sales have soared as e-readers have become ubiquitous, since readers no longer need to feel embarrassed about toting around the typically salacious covers. (Though what girl doesn’t enjoy seeing a good shirtless cowboy or highlander every now and then?) Though women’s fiction covers tend to be a lot tamer, if women are buying romance frequently, recommendations generated by sites like Amazon and proximity to romance titles on bookstore shelves should certainly point avid romance readers in the women’s fiction direction. Plus, there’s certainly a lot of crossover between the women’s fiction and romance—and if the readers are buying it, the publishers will continue to provide it. I also recently heard that the emerging genre “new adult” has been dubbed the new “chick lit”, so I think there’s a lot of speculation and potential misinformation floating around as people try to figure out the future of publishing and the “next big thing”. Whether or not it will come to fruition remains to be seen.

Q: Why do you think YA fiction has become so popular in the last few years? Do you think this trend will continue for much longer?

A: I think YA really started doing so amazingly well once grown-ups realized it was ok for them to read books for teens! With the mega-success of series like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, I think that reading teen literature well into your adult years is no longer taboo. This has also been compounded by the fact that you don’t have to walk into the teen paranormal romance section of Barnes & Noble if you are self-conscious, but can order YA novels online or download them to your e-reader. The audience has really become much broader.

That’s not to say we can dismiss the intended audience as a factor for the success of the genre, of course! Teens, unlike younger children, have the means to buy books for themselves and experience much less parental intervention in regards to their reading material. Teens who love read devour books, seek them out themselves, and are willing to pay for them in a way that adults aren’t always. Also, teens eat, sleep, and breathe social media. If they like a book, they will tell their friends about it, whether it’s through tweets, Facebook, Goodreads, or old-fashioned word-of-mouth—and, as everybody knows, that’s not only the cheapest kind of publicity a book can get, but also the best!

Q: What are your top three authors of all time? What are your top three books?

A: Oh, gosh, you know there’s no way in heck I could ever answer this, right? That’s like asking me to pick which of my pets I love best! I will say that there are certain books that have always stayed with me in a meaningful way, even as my tastes have changed over time, and the top three on that list are The Bell Jar, Little Women, and the Harry Potter series. These are books I can (and have) read a million times over and find something new to appreciate in their dog-eared pages each time.

Q: What do you think is the ideal number of clients for an agent?

A: I think that’s really too personal a preference to make a blanket generalization about. (Though it’s an excellent question!) A list that is too vast will become unmanageable, but a tiny one isn’t great either. Some agents may set a literal number, but I know all of us here at Talcott Notch keep it pretty flexible. When you find an amazing book and you just know that you need to have it, you’re not going to pass it by because you don’t have room for it. Conversely, you wouldn’t take a mediocre book just to meet a magic quota. It’s definitely a quality game versus a quantity one.

Q: Please tell us about your editorial internship at Sourcebooks, Inc. What did you do there and how do you think this experience prepared you to become a literary agent? 

A: My editorial internship with Sourcebooks was wonderful. I worked in one of their smaller offices, where I assisted with their romance, women’s fiction, and Jane Austen-related titles, so I had a really hands-on and personal experience. I had the opportunity to write cover copy, to work with the systems they used to prepare manuscripts for production, and to research the market and competitive titles, just to name some of my more typical tasks. I really learned a lot about both the specific market and the industry in general. For a brand-new graduate with a love of books, an English degree, and almost no clue about what the publishing industry was like, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.

I found all the skills I acquired translated really well to agenting. Publishing is really a hands-on business. You can prepare your knowledge and your base skills (talking about books, market awareness, etc.) in school, but it’s that actual field experience that really counts. I would advise any college students who think they may want to go into publishing to start looking for internships now. It’s what will really make a difference when you get out in the real world and start applying for jobs.

Q: What are the most common problems you see in the manuscripts you receive?

A: If there’s one general problem with the manuscripts I read, it’s simply that I am not 100% convinced that they will have the ability to stand out in a severely crowded marketplace. If you get as far as a request for a full from an agent, you have probably written something that a) demonstrates a fairly accomplished level of writing prowess and b) is rooted in a concept that seems interesting, unique, and marketable. The problem is that many—if not most—manuscripts fail to marry the two, and that the combination is really the magic formula that makes me snatch up the phone and make an offer. It’s the most heartbreaking thing, as an agent, to pick up a manuscript that had an amazing start and find that it just doesn’t deliver in the remaining pages, but it happens more often than not. Also, sometimes a writer might achieve this elusive ideal, and I can see it from an objective standpoint, but I just don’t have that ardent desire to work with the particular novel—it’s just missing something for me. As we discuss all the time around here, a rejection doesn’t necessarily mean your novel isn’t well-executed or saleable—it just might mean that we don’t see it working for us or for our agency.

Q: Writers are often times frustrated with how difficult it is to get the attention of industry professionals. What do you think is the most effective method for a writer to get noticed: conferences, blogs, query letters, contests?

A: Unfortunately, I think so much of getting noticed is really just luck of the draw. I would say any chance to meet an editor/agent face-to-face will improve your odds slightly over more impersonal querying, but it’s certainly not a guarantee. If you only knew how many people we meet at conferences, pitch events, etc., you’d understand! I can tell you a surefire way to improve your chances when querying, though: know your market and always be specific. You’d be surprised how many queries I receive with a subject line of “Query”… and that’s it. While we strive to read every e-mail that comes through our inboxes, the sheer volume works against us and sometimes we have to pick and choose which e-mails to open and which to wait on. When I have several hundred e-mails in my inbox and I am picking through to find interesting-looking submissions, an e-mail titled “query” is not going to draw my attention. If you list your title, genre, and word count in the subject line, however, I can get a pretty good snap idea of what I’m about to read. It really helps! My other biggest piece of advice is to be honest and don’t try to paint yourself or your novel as something they’re not. Lies always come out in the end.

Q: How important do you think blogs are for fiction writers?

A: I think they are great! Readers love a place to connect with authors and to go beyond the pages of the books they love, teens especially. I think all fiction writers should create that space where their fans can get to know them, and I think it never hurts to start building it as early as possible.

Q: A lot of writers are nervous about the impending merger between Random House and Penguin. Do you think that if this happens, books will become harder to sell?

A: Books are already hard to sell. I don’t necessarily think a merger like this will make them any harder. It seems like the ramifications of this union will most strongly impact the upper corporate workings of these companies. Though, in an industry where much of the power is already centralized, it is totally understandable that writers, agents, and independent publishers are a little nervous.

Q: Do you think e-books present a threat to traditional books or they can happily co-exist?

A: I think people who love books—that is, the literal, physical act of holding a book in your hand, smelling the binding, and turning the pages—will always buy books. I am one of these strange, obsessive creatures myself and I refuse to switch over to an e-reader, both on principle and because, after crashing so many computers over the years, I have a slight distrust of technology’s ability to retain my most beloved data. Until we find ourselves in some dystopian-esc world where we’ve killed too many trees and paper is an uber-precious commodity, I feel reasonably certain that book people will continue to feed their hunger for the printed word by buying printed books.

Additionally, I don’t so much view them as two separate commodities as two different ways to format the same content. In a world where self-publishing is so accessible, e-books can get a bit of a bad rap, but many, many e-books are the electronic version of existent, printed books. They still went through the acquisition, development, and editorial process that their paper counterparts experienced. To me, it’s just like buying an mp3 versus a CD—it’s just a format choice.

Thank you, Rachael, for these informative answers!

Side note to all my fellow NiNoWriMos: Congratulations to all winners and non-winners! This was my second time participating, but my first time reaching the goal (50,029 words!) and I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed the sense of camaraderie and support provided by the writing community. Best luck to all of you with your new projects and keep on writing!


  1. I’m very happy that Sister Lorena brought her agent over for virtual coffee. I would like to tell Ms Dugas that she is greatly loved in this blog for her insight in recognizing our Sister’s great novel, and her willingness to represent her.

    I have many questions, but I hope I don´t begin with something polemic. I grew up in USA in the 70’s when Women´s Fiction and Women Studies just developed (I’m sure that Women´s Fiction has existed since the Middle Ages, but it wasn’t labeled as such.) At the time, those terms felt like a victory of feminists’ standards. Nowadays, I hear a lot of people say the category Women’s Fiction is somewhat sexist, and I´ve heard neo-feminists labeling it as “misogynist!” How could you prove them wrong? Why is the category necessary? What makes Women´s Fiction different from a mainstream novel?

    When it comes to the heroine, what is your definition of strong personality? Lately,” strong” means badass girls who fight like men. We also have the “strong winner type”, the one that achieves every ambition, even trapping Mr. Right. Are any of those stereotypes close to your ideal protagonist?

    I agree with you that YA lit is getting to be much better than “adult” novels, but what are the genre´s caveats? Are there any limits in subject matter? Could YA novels deal with deep issues?

    Thank you very much for being here and thanks to Sister Lorena for her very clever questions.

    1. I also wonder about the necessity or usefulness of the term "women's fiction," and don't understand how it differs from mainstream fiction, commercial fiction, or literary fiction; except that it's any of those things except by & about women? Not clear on this either.

      On YA: I read a lot of it, and find that it actually deals better with deep issues than "adult" novels often do. I think because it puts you in the dramatic worldview of the adolescent. You get more latitude when you're in the teenage brain. "The Sky Is Everywhere" by Jandy Nelson is a great example: a book about a girl grieving for her big sister, who dies unexpectedly (not a spoiler). A lot of YA novels tackle the subject of grief, and do it very well. That book moved me to tears. "The Miseducation of Cameron Post" is a bestseller dealing with a girl falling in love with another girl. You can have similar stories from an adult perspective, but they won't have the same emotional impact. For teens, everything is happening to them for the first time: it's all huge.

  2. Congratulations on hitting your November writing goal! Lovely interview, Lorena. Thank you!

    1. Ditto Lore, I hope you are doing great. See you soon!

      Major H

  3. What a wonderful interview. As I get nearer to the query stage myself, I find agent interviews so helpful. Thank you to Ms. Dugas and to you, Lorena.

    Congratulations on hitting 50k in NaNo!

    1. Thank you, Kari, and congrats to you too!

  4. What a great interview: Thanks to Lorena for organizing it and to Rachael for such thoughtful answers! I am one of those adults who loves YA. I have a teenager, for one thing, and adolescence is such a fraught time of life -- it lends itself well to drama, which is what every novel relies on in the end. (Drama, tension, conflict, it's all there.) I especially love dystopian YA. I wonder if Orwell could ever have guessed he was spawning a type of novel that teenage girls (and their moms) would gobble up.

    It hadn't occurred to me that e-readers provide some measure of privacy for reading-material type. That's funny, and true!

    I want to second Malena's question about the term "women's fiction." How is it different than "chick lit?" I like Lorrie Moore and Jennifer Egan, for example, who are literary authors who happen to write about women and their lives. Novels about shopping and dating were once termed chick lit but now seem to be under that banner of women's fiction. Are these all lumped together now? Is "women's fiction" just anything about and by women? That seems so vague as to be not useful. Women read more novels than men, and a greater variety of them, so you'd think we'd have *more* categories for women, not fewer.

    1. I think it's so funny when I read "Light/Lighter Women's Fiction" because we all know that what they really mean is "chick lit"! But after this genre was desperately sought-after and beloved for a decade, it's now turned into a bad word in the world of publishing. I don't know how Rachael feels about this, but it is my understanding that Women's Fiction is drama and chick lit (excuse me, "light WF") is comedy. (Perhaps it's not always this clear cut, but you get the idea.)

      Here are a couple of definitions of Women's Fiction and the characteristics of the genre:

  5. Thanks for the interview, Lorena and Ms. Dugas! I wish I could come up with a good question, but I got nothin' at the moment.

    I will say I struggle with wanting to read YA. I don't particularly enjoy being in a teenager's head all the time, same as I never enjoyed being in a mega-shopper's head when it came to Chick Lit. In the end, it's always a matter of taste.

    Congrats on NaNoWriMo, Lorena!

    1. "I don't particularly enjoy being in a teenager's head all the time, same as I never enjoyed being in a mega-shopper's head when it came to Chick Lit."

      Ha ha ha!!! Love your honesty, Sister Mary.

  6. Hello Lorena! Hello Ms Dugas! How interesting this all was to read. It must be so hard to read so many mss, when I'm sure so few are snapping your synapses. Certainly a hard road to hoe for writers. :D

    1. Dear Denise, thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  7. Hi Lorena and Ms Dugas,

    Great interview with lot of information. I loved reading this insight from 'the other side!'
    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Welcome Romance Reader and thanks for your comment!

  8. How did I miss this??? Rachael is so darn awesome, as are you, Lorena! Honored to be your agent sister! I especially like the question regarding traditional books vs. ebooks. Although I love my Nook, I couldn't exist in a world without traditional books. Hope I'm long gone before that happens!

    1. I agree. I love books in paper format, but I love my Nook when I travel (it's also handy to read manuscripts!) Like Rachael says, it's a matter of preference but both serve a purpose and will probably co-exist for a long time.

      Thanks for stopping by, agent sister! :-)


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