“Editors still love a chance at debut fiction,” says Manhattan literary agent Michelle Brower.
“If the book is unique and meaningful, the debut author doesn’t yet have a bad sales track record so we can look at their book with all of the rosiness of potential rather than reality”
That’s some of the good news for first-time authors from agents out there on the front lines.
The news is backed up by recent deals with major publishers for first novels, like Mango Bride by Marivi Soliven, an immigrant tale of two women, two cultures, family secrets and the fight to find a new life in America, sold to NAL this year by veteran agent Jill Marsal.
Two top dealmakers in debut fiction
I recently interviewed Brower and Marsal, both on the list of top dealmakers for debut fiction at Publisher’s Marketplace. They’re two hardworking agents, eager to go to bat for exciting new authors in an evolving market, and they agreed to share some of their insights and advice for writers here at The Book Deal. First, their details:
Michelle Brower is with Folio Literary Management in NYC, a major player among agencies. Her track record with emerging authors is impressive: She sold Believers, a first novel by Andrew Roe, in a preemptive deal to Algonquin Books, Cementville, a debut novel by Paulette Livers, to Counterpoint Press, and the upcoming Soy Sauce for Beginners by new novelist Kirsten Chen to Amazon Publishing. Brower says she loves working with authors “who aren’t afraid to get out there and promote their book once it is published. You’re always your own best publicity tool!”
Jill Marsal, an attorney and founding partner of the Marsal Lyon Agency in Solana Beach, CA, was for eight years an agent with the industry heavyweight Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. She represents a range of nonfiction as well as women’s fiction, mysteries, cozies, suspense, and thrillers “that keep the pages turning and have an original hook.” Marsal sold the forthcoming The Wedding Favor, a new contemporary romance series by debut author Lisa Connelly to Avon, and The Vanishing Thief, a new mystery series by first-timer Kate Parker, to Berkley Books.
What stood out about the books you’ve sold lately that helped seal the deal with publishers?
Michelle Brower: My most recent sales have had a story that immediately makes you want to find out more. But that’s not enough. Authors have to actually deliver on the premise with good writing that keeps a reader turning pages. In the books that sell, the core principles are heightened: You have to have a good story, and it has to be well told.
Jill Marsal: The books that sold had something that made them stand out from the pack: a unique voice, a compelling story hook that grabbed the reader and felt different from what’s already out there, or just really incredible writing. On the non-fiction side, I’ve had some great projects that sold from authors who have interesting topics, strong platforms, and engaging writing.
What do you think has changed in publishing — and what really hasn’t?
Michelle Brower: Authors have to be seen as “bigger” now. Gone are the days when the plan was to grow someone over the course of many books. The books that sell move toward either end of the spectrum — they are either small books that sell for a modest amount, or hotly buzzed books that sell for a lot. The middle is increasingly hard to find.
It’s also harder to sell as many print copies or make as much money off of e-book copies, so advances don’t tend be as high as they once were.
One of the things that hasn’t changed is that editors still love a chance at debut fiction.
Jill Marsal: What’s changed? There are a lot more opportunities for writers then there were five or ten years ago. E-publishing has opened up a lot of doors. Many traditional publishers are starting their own e-publishing lines. Some terrific traditional publishing opportunities have also been created for authors who have successfully self-published.
In marketing and promotion, the growth of social media means there are a lot more opportunities for writers to become more active partners in promoting their books and reaching their readership. And this has also helped to extend the life of many books. Since you are no longer dependent on just the two-to-four-week period that your books are “on shelves” in the bookstores, books continue to sell for longer periods.
What hasn’t changed is the need for a great book. The same basics should still be there: strong voice, great story, compelling characters, interesting plot that grabs readers, strong setting. These are the elements that will help a book succeed in any market.
What’s your opinion about self-publishing? Is there a role for agents?
Michelle Brower: Agents can give self-published authors advice on growing their careers across all the available platforms, from print rights to foreign translation to film rights. Any time you are faced with a contract, you should get either an agent or a lawyer on board to negotiate it on your behalf.
Jill Marsal: Our most recent big success in this area was J. Lynn, who self-published through our agency and hit #1 on the New York Times e-books bestseller list for her book Wait for You. Self-publishing can be a great way for writers to get their books out there, especially if the writer is well-connected and able to help promote the book. Agents can offer editorial input on manuscripts, help format the manuscript for the different e-platforms, help with uploading, strategize about pricing, and so on.
Is your agency expanding its services to authors, beyond trying to place books with publishers?
Michelle Brower: I’m a very editorial agent, but I don’t really look at it as a separate service: it’s just what I do in order to make a book better so that it will sell for more money. I generally advise my clients on a variety of issues — editing, publicity, help designing a website, getting started with blogs and social networking. But I see my one true purpose as being an advocate for an author: financially, emotionally, and editorially.
Jill Marsal: We really look at the author-agent relationship as a long-term partnership where we would like to help grow and develop an author’s career rather than just sell a book.
So, yes, we do offer services beyond selling a book. We offer editorial feedback to help writers make their manuscripts or proposals as strong as possible. It is a very interactive process to get a manuscript “ready for market.” Then, once a book has sold, we help authors think about marketing, branding, future books and strategize about what next to help grow their careers.
What advice would you give writers who are having trouble getting an agent?
Michelle Brower: Keep writing. If you are getting consistent critical feedback, go back to your manuscript and revise. If the feedback you’re getting isn’t very helpful or you’re just not getting any, start another project. It’ll take your mind off of the waiting, and it will force you to keep honing your craft and learning about yourself as an author. Published authors often have a manuscript (or two, or four) in the drawer.
Jill Marsal: If you’re not getting agents asking for your manuscript, then something in your query letter probably needs to be reworked. If you are getting manuscript requests but then not getting an agent, take a look at the opening 50 pages of your manuscript and really rework them. Set aside a week or two so you can reedit with fresh eyes, and ask a critique partner to give you feedback. Ask for specifics of what the reader thinks is NOT working so you have some guidance on areas to focus on for revisions.
Revisions are an important part of the writing process and can be key to taking a manuscript to the next level. Recently, an author and I went back and forth on probably four or five different ideas before landing on the one we took to market. And we sold that novel in just a few weeks.
Remember, even some of the bestsellers received many, many rejections before they found the right home. Don’t get discouraged.
More debut deals
Other recent examples of debut works literary agents have sold to traditional publishers:
We Are Not Ourselves, a novel by New York high school teacher Matthew Thomas, was sold at auction to editor Marysue Rucci at Simon & Schuster in a “major deal” by agent Bill Clegg at William Morris Endeavor.
The Wives of Los Alamos, a non-fiction history by Tarashea Nesbit was sold to editor Nancy Miller at Bloomsbury by agent Julie Barer of Barer Literary.
White Ginger, a mystery thriller by Thatcher Robinson, former CEO of an internet security firm, was sold in a two-book deal to editor Dan Mayer of Seventh Street Books by agent Kimberley Cameron at Kimberley Cameron & Associates.
Snapper, a first novel and winner of the first Janklow & Nesbit Bath Spa prize by Brian Kimberling, was sold to Pantheon by agent Will Francis at Janklow & Nesbit Associates. The book is a series of dark and funny tales about the disastrous love affair between a man, a place, and its people, narrated by a freelance birdwatcher in the backwaters of Indiana.
What about you?
Are you a first-time author in search of an agent? What kind of feedback have you gotten so far?
If you’re a debut author with a published novel, we’d love to hear about the role your agent played in the process. And if you’ve decided to self-publish, tell us what went into your decision.
I’ll watch for any questions here in comments.