Q and A with a literary Agent
Agents usually work behind the scenes with writers and publishers. But this week, Christopher Schelling, literary agent at Ralph M. Vicinanza Ltd., will speak on "A Literary Agent's Role" at the Sanibel Island Writers Conference and engage with writer Steve Almond in what's being promoted as a verbal smackdown. The topic: "Are Literary Agents Necessary?" Schelling has represented #1 New York Times bestselling authors Augusten Burroughs ("Running With Scissors") and Haven Kimmel ("A Girl Named Zippy"). He also represents Robert Wilder ("Tales From the Teacher's Lounge," "Daddy Needs a Drink"). Prior to being an agent, he was an executive editor at Dutton and HarperCollins.
FW: Why are you attending the Sanibel Writer's Conference? Is it to look for new writers, or to tell writers about the agent's role in publishing?
CS: It's a little bit of both. An agent is always on the lookout for new talent, and this conference does seem to attract a very good crowd. And I do enjoy talking with writers and demystifying the publishing process for them.
FW: It's been said that it's more difficult to get an agent than a publisher.
CS: I don't know there's a hard and fast formula like that. They may be equally difficult. Writers approach a bunch of agents, and hope that at least one of them will take them on. And maybe one says yes. When I take on a new client, I send them out to a dozen publishers and hope one of them will bite. It's a multi-tiered process, I don't know if one is more difficult. Securing the agent doesn't mean a book deal is a sure thing.
FW: Maybe it just seems that way for the writer, that it's more difficult to get an agent than publisher, because after they get one, the agent's doing the work of finding a publisher for them.
CS: Maybe. I hadn't thought of that. They don't feel the same day-to-day work going on that they did when they were submitting things themselves. It can be a faster process. Sometimes agents will ask to see work exclusively. Things work at a glacial pace then. When agents submit, it's simultaneously, many different houses at once. They're all reading simultaneously. If one reads it quickly and responds, the others have to read it quickly and not miss out on something.
FW: What are you looking for in a writer, in a proposal?
CS: I look for someone who can tell a good story, whether fiction or non-fiction, who can write well and understands the current market. With so many books being published all the time, it's no longer just about writing a good book. That book has to speak to a market as well. Writers have to first obey whatever creative muse they have, but also realize that soon the art bumps into commerce. They need to know there's a place for their work. It's always helpful if they've done lots of research: know the kind of book they're writing and what else is out there, to make comparisons to successful books. I'm not looking for a photocopy of another book that's out there, but it helps to know, for example, that there's a burgeoning genre, with two very popular books, and your book somehow fits between those. They also have to do research about the kind of books I represent. Don't approach me with a romance or a self-help book for instance. That would be a complete waste of everyone's time. I don't know the right editors to send those kind of books to. I like to get a sense of the person from the letter. Sometimes I feel that the query letter is more difficult to write than anything else. Mirror the tone of the book. I do like a little personality to emerge in that. It's about the voice. That's what I'm looking for first.
FW: You mentioned burgeoning genres -- memoirs have really taken off. They also seem very different in tone than they were 20 years ago. Why do you think that is?
CS: I think we live in a more confessional world, so people come to expect if someone is talking about their life or writing about it, they're going to give you a deep reveal. It goes off the tracks when you get to the Jerry Springer level, people who are desperate to tell every freakish detail. I represent Augusten Burroughs; when people who have had lives as bad or worse read his work, they feel that there's a way they can survive it. They can read it and get great comfort and feel "I'm not the only one." I feel there's real connection out there. It's the saddest thing to me, when people say, "I read 'Running With Scissors' or 'Dry,' and I lived through that same kind of thing." But it's great that there's something out there. It's cathartic for people, but above all, it's art, it's a way of combining all of those things. I think there are a couple other notable memoirs out there. Robert Wilder wrote "Tales From the Teacher's Lounge" and "Daddy Needs a Drink." He has a really fresh voice. It's within that subcategory of memoirs: the hispster dad, or, 'I used to be cool and now I'm changing diapers.' There are lots of those. He has a sharp, distinct, funny voice that would stand out in that crowd. He's also a high school English teacher, and the stories he tells are about him teaching, and watching his children maneuver through their own educational process.
FW: What grabbed you about Burroughs?
CS: With Burroughs, it was his novel, "Sellevision" that he first pitched, a brilliant satire on a home shopping network. His query that was one of the best query letters I've ever received. It perfectly set the tone for what the book was. It was a funny letter without trying too hard. So I requested the manuscript…I sent it to 14 or 15 publishers, and one made an offer. That has been his editor from the first day until now. At that point, we had no idea what his life had been like, or that he would write about it. I thought I was taking on this guy who writes funny novels.
FW: I've read about bad query letters: letters that are overly familiar or claim Oprah would love their book. Any suggestions on what not to do?
CS: I know a children's book editor whose last name is November. And I'm sure this happens 10 times a week. They write: "Dear Miss November, Were you a Playboy bunny?"
FW: Is attending conferences a good way to meet agents?
CS: Conferences are one of the really good ways to meet agents. I get tons of email queries and mail queries every week. It's impossible to answer every single one of those. It helps if a letter's been personalized, or if they say, "You work with so-andso, so I thought you might like my work." With conferences, you spend money and then there's the time commitment and traveling, but it brings you into contact with someone. It's more than just a name. You might feel, "This isn't someone I would be comfortable doing business with." But then again, someone who seemed unlikely on paper, a publisher or agent, might be a nice surprise in person.