Agent Monday: Memoirs with Meaning

Eyeglasses atop BooksHappy Agent Monday, everyone!  The LAST Monday in February. We’ve nearly made it through this bitterly cold month, and better days are a-coming. Hang in there!  Speaking of tough times and hope, I thought I’d weigh in on memoirs today. What makes them work, what makes them stumble, and what makes me as an agent interested in representing one.

So memoirs are tough. I’ve been looking for one to rep, and in the past few years, I’ve only made an offer of representation on one so far. And two others had merit, but weren’t right for me, so I passed them over to another agent in our firm. It’s not that I’m not getting memoir submissions. I am. And a number of these are even well-written. So what’s the problem?

Well, here’s the thing about memoirs. They need to be well-written, definitely. Simply put, many are not well-written, and the story isn’t spectacular enough to merit a ghost writer. (Publishers sometimes pull in a ghost writer for a high-profile memoir — such as a celebrity’s story.) A well-written memoir should be told in an accessible way, with a clear voice/personality, and revealed in a novel-like style that has a narrative flow.

Memoirs must also be about something remarkable. I get plenty of “I went on a trip” memoirs, or “I broke up with my husband” memoirs. Or “I had a baby” memoirs. While these are remarkable things in your life, they aren’t tales that will draw in someone who doesn’t personally know you. Are there exceptions to the more everyday sort of memoir? Sure. Look at Marley & Me, about, essentially, a boy and his dog. But this was written beautifully in a way that drew in the reader and made an everyday story truly remarkable. Not easy to do.

I also get, sadly, many a memoir where someone has gone through a terrible illness or addiction or abuse, or experienced the death of a loved one. Heart-wrenching, yes. But if that is all there is to the memoir, unfortunately I pass. It’s hard to send a rejection to someone who has gone through so much. But while I may feel sorry for what they’ve gone through, that still doesn’t make their memoir something that will succeed in the commercial marketplace.

Why? What’s missing? Well, in essence, something for the reader. What makes the reader care, feel involved, want to read this? What can the reader get out of this book other than a voyeuristic glimpse into suffering? These are key elements to a successful memoir.

So, a successful memoir needs to be well-written, reveal a remarkable life, AND offer something for the reader….a reason to care, something they can take away with them after they read it, an entertaining journey, and, I’d add, a new way to view their own lives.

Get all of this right, and you’ll have a memoir that transcends the “this is what happened to me” sort of manuscript and have a book that will matter to many. And it will matter to me. Send THAT memoir my way.  You can find my submission guidelines here.

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

 

Agent Monday: How Agents Sell Books

Chihuahua Wearing EyeglassesHappy Agent Monday, world! A few weeks back I asked folks to chime in with questions they’d like to see me answer from the agent’s point of view. I got a lot of great suggestions, and a bunch of those questions were answered here. Today, I’m answering questions sent in by Stacy, who wrote: “Though posts about craft and the market are always helpful, I am very curious about how an agent sells books.”

Stacy went on to list 5 specific questions related to this. I’m sure different agents do things differently. But here’s how I do things…

1. How do you package pieces to sell to an editor?

The first step is to always make sure the manuscript is as perfect as the writer can make it. I work with my author, reading through the pages, sending along notes and edits, until we are satisfied it is tight.

I do the same with the synopsis. I prefer to have a short synopsis, so we usually keep it to two pages, max. And we finalize the author’s bio. These steps can sometimes take close to no time at all (the manuscript comes in clean, and little work is needed), and sometimes it can take months (the author needs time to do a more extensive rewrite before we are ready to submit).

Next I create the pitch. This is one or two lines that capture the heart of the manuscript and hopefully the interest of the editor.

As soon as I first see a manuscript, I’m already starting to think of who would love to see this, which publishing houses would make the best home for it. Now it’s time for me to make a more final list. Over the years, I’ve collecting info on an extensive amount of publishers and editors, and I’ve kept track of who has moved where, and how their tastes have changed. Still, every manuscript is just a little different from one I’ve done before, and so I always research editors with fresh eyes.

How? I go through my own collected data to form an initial list of editors who seem a fit. Then I dig further into recent deals made and new developments, trends, imprints to see who else I should consider. Now I have a solid list of editors in hand.

I pick up the phone and start calling editors. My pitch is in front of me, but I don’t read it. By now I’ve internalized what I want to say. I have this wonderful novel… It’s about… It’s unique because… The author is amazing because… I think it’s right for you because…

The editor says, great! Send it! So I do, along with the bio and synopsis, and in the email that I send to the editor with these attachments, I further detail my pitch, plus outline some markets it would be great for — stuff than I want the editor to keep in mind as she reads, and that can help her to “sell” it to her publisher.

2. How do you analyze an editor’s preferences (how know what ms. will interest which editor)?

This is an ongoing process, ever-changing because editors’ wishes change, editors move to different houses, and imprints are ever-shifting. I call editors and ask them what they are looking for now. I meet with them for coffee and over lunches and at their offices to get to know them and their preferences. I talk with them at conferences. And I keep up with what’s reported online – new deals posted, new interviews with editors, etc. Even when I call an editor to pitch a manuscript, after that pitch is complete, I’ll ask them: have your editorial interests changed lately? What else are you looking for right now? The team of agents at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency is doing all of this constantly, and sharing this info with everyone else in our firm, so there’s a constant flow of information.

3. How do you analyze a publisher’s preferences?

Working frequently with a broad range of publishers, we know what their houses seek. One imprint skews literary, another skews highly commercial, still another is heavy on fantasy, while another is focusing on edgy contemporary. Again, I talk with the editors and do my research.

4. How do you handle rejection as an agent (you loved a manuscript, but the editors didn’t)?

Every rejection is a learning opportunity, in my view. Why did the editor pass? As an agent, I typically get details beyond the “no thanks.” This helps me to refine what to send that editor next time, and it helps my author and I in future rounds of submissions. If a number of editors pass for the same reason, perhaps the manuscript can be edited to correct this issue before it goes out again? Also, I’m reminded again and again that this is at times a highly subjective area. One editor rejects a book because she loves the plot but not the voice, while the very next day an editor rejects that book because she loves the voice but not the plot. And that very same book goes on to be sold at auction in a two book deal! So I never let rejection get me down.

5. What are the houses you work with often, and why?

This varies. Every manuscript is just a little bit different, and I represent a wide range of projects from children’s picture books, middle grade and YA through to adult fiction and memoir. (You can find my submission guidelines here.) I’m always looking for the right fit at a press that creates beautiful books. Often this is at one of the top commercial presses, but sometimes a smaller press that does award-winning titles is just right.

That’s a wrap! Have a great week, everyone, and special thanks to Stacy for all the great questions. If you have any burning questions you’d like to see answered in future posts, leave those in a comment below.

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Agent Monday: New Lit Agent Victoria Selvaggio!

0011Happy Agent Monday, everyone! Today, I’m excited to introduce you to a new Associate Literary Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency, Victoria A. Selvaggio!  With a strong background in business ownership, Victoria has also served several years as Regional Advisor for SCBWI: Northern Ohio. Vicki’s a writer herself (her most recent publication is in the 2015 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market), and she has been a valuable and skilled manuscript reader for the agency. Now she’s excited to read compelling manuscript submissions to shape her own list of clients.

Welcome Victoria! What types of submissions do you want to see?

I am currently looking for all genres (lyrical picture books, middle grade and young adult fiction, new adult, mysteries, suspense, thrillers, paranormal, fantasy, narrative nonfiction, adult fiction), but find I’m drawn to middle grade and young adult. I especially love thrillers and all elements of weird, creepy stuff. If it’s out of the box, and it will make me think and think, long after I’m done reading, send it to me! On the flip side, I yearn for books that make me laugh, cry and wonder about the world.

What are some of your favorite reads?

Some of my “older” favorites: THE GIVING TREE written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein. CHARLOTTE’S WEB by author E. B. White and illustrated by Garth Williams. THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE by C. S. Lewis. PET SEMATARY by Stephen King. THE TALISMAN by Stephen King and Peter Straub. And I could go on and on!

How should writers submit to you?

Please email a query to vselvaggio@windstream.net and put “Query” in the subject line of your email. For queries regarding children’s and adult fiction, please send the first twenty pages in the body of your email, along with a one-paragraph bio and a one-paragraph synopsis.

For queries regarding a non-fiction book, please attach the entire proposal as a Word document (the proposal should include a sample chapter), along with a one-paragraph bio and a one-paragraph synopsis of your book in the body of your email.

Thanks, Victoria, for stopping by and sharing your wish list here with us! For more info about our agency, visit the agency website by clicking here. And follow my website, marielamba.com, to catch every new Agent Monday post!

Agent Monday: Some Quick Answers to Your Questions

SnowflakeHappy Agent Monday, gang! Storm’s coming, Harry!!! Lots of snow on the way here. So, while I still have electricity and hot coffee in hand, let’s tackle some of your questions — quickly!

Last week, I’d asked readers for  questions they’d like to see me answer in future posts. Thanks to everyone who chimed in!  Some responses are worthy of their own posts (keep your eyes peeled for these in the near future), while others can be quickly answered in a short and sweet manner. So here goes…

Q.: How important would you say it is for a person to read their manuscript out loud before calling it finished?

A.: I’d say it’s critical. OF COURSE it’s critical for picture books, which are designed to be read aloud. But for any level of writing, the author simply must read their prose aloud. And listen to themselves. As an author myself, I always read my writing aloud as part of my revision process. It helps me to pick out when phrases are overused, or punctuation needs to be changed, or when pacing is off. And it helps to listen to dialogue – is it ringing true?

Q.: Does a historical setting automatically categorize a manuscript as being historical fiction? Is it acceptable to have a historical setting even if that history is not integral to the plot?

A.: Historical setting in a novel DOES make it historical fiction. If the setting doesn’t influence the thought of the characters, their actions and their challenges/life in some way, then why not set it in present day? It doesn’t need to be a moment for the history books, but it does need to belong in its time period. The exception? A time travel piece, which would make it fantasy or science fiction vs. historical. Even then, though your main character isn’t of that time, the time period would influence that character’s adventures, and the people surrounding him would be of that time.

Q. When an agent asks to see more manuscripts (picture book), is it advantageous to send in manuscripts that are consistent style-wise vs. showing a breadth of style?

A. First of all, it’s great that you have so many manuscripts completed that you have choices! Speaking from my own point of view, what I’d most want to see is your very best work – whatever the style. Unless the agent asked for more of a “type” of book from you, that would be your best rule of thumb.

Q. Have you ever rejected a manuscript because you were not “connecting” to the material, narrative arc, and/or the main character? What did that mean to you personally?

A. That happens often. What this means to me is that I’m just not personally excited by what the author is trying to do for some reason, or that I’m not finding myself feeling drawn in. This can be for many reasons, such as I like the idea of the plot, but find I’m not liking the main character. Or I like the character, but I find the plotting too obvious or too hard to believe. Or I don’t “get” why the main character is so upset or reacting the way she is. In short, something is stopping me from relating to things or feeling invested in the story. I have to really want to root for my authors and their writings – and you really want an agent who will do that. So keep querying and writing and polishing until you DO find someone who “gets” you.

So that’s it! Some quick answers to quick questions. Now it’s time for me to quickly use all the electricity I can while I still have it (makes mega-pot of coffee). Stay safe and warm, everyone!

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

 

Agent Monday: Ask Me Now!

Young Boy at School Raising His Hand to Answer in ClassHappy Agent Monday, everyone! Busy, busy, busy here. I’ve got lots of stuff to read, emails to answer, details to attend to, etc. I hate to skip an Agent Monday post, but sometimes I do. And usually it’s because I don’t have a topic that’s jumped out at me as a “must-do” for this site. I’ve covered a lot of things over the past few years – queries, conferences, etiquette, market tips, and so on. But I’m sure there are some subjects or details I haven’t touched on that YOU would like to know more about.

So here’s your chance to ask. Please leave a comment with a topic you’d like to have me do an Agent Monday post about in the near future, something you don’t think I’ve covered before.

Send those burning questions my way. And ask your fellow writers to chime in, too. I can’t promise I’ll cover them all, but I do promise to consider your suggestions.

Thanks so much for your input!

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

News!: I’m Now Officially a Picture Book Author

Dog with Birthday Hat and BalloonsHi everyone! Okay, so you may know me as a Young Adult novelist and a Literary Agent, but today I’m excited to announce that I’m also now officially a Picture Book author!!!

My husband, Landscape Architect Baldev Lamba and I have penned a picture book text titled GREEN, GREEN, which focuses in community gardening in a city.

 

Here’s the deal announcement in Publisher’s Marketplace:

January 15, 2015

Children’s:
Picture book
Literary agent and Young Adult author Marie Lamba and landscape architect Baldev Lamba’s debut GREEN, GREEN, a celebration of community gardening that reveals how green land grows into a vibrant city, and how an unused lot is made green again, to be illustrated by Eisner Award nominee and HERE I AM illustrator Sonia Sanchez, to Susan Dobinick at Farrar, Straus Children’s, by Jennifer DeChiara at The Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency (NA).

Baldev and I have collaborated on many an article in the past, all centered on garden design elements, and our pieces have appeared in national magazines including Gardens & Landscapes, Garden Design Magazine, and Your Home. It’s been a while since we’ve worked together on a piece, and this is our very first picture book together. Baldev is associate professor of Landscape Architecture at Temple University, and owner of Lamba Associates, Inc, an award-winning Landscape Architecture firm. Among his wide range of past projects are a number of urban gardens, including, most recently, the PHS Pops-Up urban garden in Center City, Philadelphia that grabbed a lot of attention. He’s also designed a number of Temple’s award-winning exhibits at The Philadelphia Flower Show, including one titled “Metromorphosis,” so urban renewal and community gardening has been floating around in both of our brains for a while now.

And speaking of “for a while,” it’s wonderful to be turning my mind back toward picture book writing after so many years. It’s where I started out, going to college to study writing and fine art and trying a few picture books, then I found myself penning novels instead. Picture book writing feels like coming home creatively for me, somehow — and I’ve got a few more in the works right now. Fingers crossed!

Special thanks go to our wonderful editor Susan Dobinick, our amazing agent Jennifer De Chiara, and to Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers for believing in this manuscript.

Young girl celebrating with confettiI think they are shooting for publication in Spring 2016. I’m SO EXCITED, and can’t wait to see the gorgeous illustrations Sonia Sanchez will produce to pull this all together.

Yippee!

 

Agent Monday: Your Assignment – Learn from Bookstore Shelves

Boy reading in the libraryHappy Agent Monday, everyone! Yes, it’s January and bleak and cold. BUT it’s also a shiny new year, and the days are growing LONGER. Yes! Time to get energized and kick your writing career into higher gear. If you are seeking a literary agent, that means you are writing something you hope will be commercially successful. Something that will land on the bookstore shelves all across the country. So here is a task you must all do without delay: Visit bookstores and see what is actually on their shelves right now. Why? There are vital lessons you can learn from a bookstore!

Visiting a bookstore and browsing for books is a vital part of being a writer, for sure. But I want you to actually go there now as a student of the commercial book market. Bring a small notebook, and keep in your mind where you think your own work in progress will fit on the shelf.

Now go to that shelf — first of all, does that shelf exist? If it’s a category that doesn’t exist, you’ve got a problem right there. As an agent, I can’t sell books that are so different or such a mash up that they don’t fit into a particular category when it comes to sales. Why? Because an editor can’t make an offer on such a book. Why? Because an editor can’t convince his or her publisher and sales team that a book without a category will sell. And why does that matter?

Because a book that won’t sell, will be a book that will fail to make any money. The publishing business is a business. And a successful book is one that sells. Yes, writing is an art. But once you are approaching an agent, you are approaching the commercial market. So step one in your bookstore bookshelf class is to figure out what shelf your book will belong on.

This is why saying your book is for all ages is a fail for you when you pitch. There is no shelf for that. What you CAN say is that your book is a YA with cross-over appeal. That means it’ll sit on the YA shelf, but that adults will also go to that shelf to find it. This is why saying there is no other book like yours is a fail when you pitch. It is like SOMETHING, it has SOME MAIN READER. You need to find these somethings and someones, so you can say it is, say, a romance, but unique because it features…  See the difference? Now you have a category, plus a unique sales hook that will help your title be found by readers.

Okay, so once you find your shelf, the next thing you need to do is to see what is already on it.

What’s on the end caps, what titles are face out, which ones have multiple copies on the shelf? Those are likely the “hits.” Good to be aware of these.

Look closely at the type of books elsewhere on your shelf. At the titles. At the covers. Which are the most effective and the most interesting to you? How does your own novel’s title compare? Can you imagine what the cover might be?

Which other books might the reader of your own novel also be drawn to? Have YOU read these? You should. Why? Because then you can have a current take on the market yourself. You can then honestly say in your query something like: Readers who love the high stakes and honest characterization of THIS POPULAR BOOK, will be drawn to WHAT’S IN YOUR BOOK.

Now, before you leave the bookstore, buy some books. Help your bookstore succeed. You want them to be thriving, don’t you? Someday they will be selling your books!

Visiting the bookstore, notebook in hand, gets you seeing the big picture. Where your book fits. Who your audience really is. What market an agent/editor/publisher can sell it to. Buying books is also an important part of the commercial cycle. A cycle that you want to fully involve you and your work.

Your homework will pay off in numerous ways:
– Now you’ll know without a doubt what your book’s category is.
– You’ll have a list of current competing titles (and of authors – who were THEIR agents?…not a bad list of agents to consider approaching, right?).
– You’ll have a more focused outlook overall about your novel, a more realistic idea of your market. This will all result in a better targeted query letter, and a commercial view of your book’s potential that agents and editors will appreciate.

*NB: Be grounded and realistic, too. Trust me, saying that this is the next HARRY POTTER will only make eyes roll. But saying that your work offers a twist on the middle grade fantasy, with an unusual magical theme that fans of Rowling should enjoy… well, you see the difference in the two statements, right?

Understanding all of this is an important step for you. Publishing is a business. YOUR business. So head on out there and study up.

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.