Category Archives: what we’re looking for

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I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want

My clever colleagues Stacey and Jessica used this space to share their wish lists for the coming year and I’m going to avail myself of their example! Here are some of the categories I’m eager for right now:

Can’t put it down narrative non-fiction. Whether it’s a gripping personal narrative about key current events, or an exquisitely reported work of journalism, I want it! Send me your Five Days at Memorial or your Missoula, your Irritable Hearts or your A House In the Sky.

Tell me something I don’t know explanatory / exploratory non-fiction. Are you really good at something everyone is curious about right now? Do you have a new approach to save money or reset your memory, a new explanation of why we need love or what scares us most….and the platform to back it up? Rip it from the headlines and explain it to me. I’m not looking for gimmicks, but for accessible experts with fresh ways of looking at our world, the things we do, and what we care about most, like Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Scott Stossel’s My Age of Anxiety and Kate Bolick’s Spinster.

OMG! book club fiction. I will never not be hungry for character-driven page turners and well-written plots that keep you guessing. Got a closed community, like a boarding school or fishing village? Bring it on. Is a lifelong group of friends falling apart? Is a family struggling to keep a secret from the outside world…or from each other? YES PLEASE. Bring me your Big Little Lies, your Secret Histories, your Tana Frenches and Beatriz Williamses yearning to breathe free.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the types of writing I am interested in, so don’t be discouraged if the thing you’re working on doesn’t fall meet these descriptions. If you’ve done your research and think I’m right for it, send it to me – sometimes the favorite projects of all are ones we never would’ve thought to wish for…

And those of you who do fall into these categories…I can’t wait to read your work!

Books I wish I’d sold

New Year equals New Books. I generally start the new year feeling a bit overwhelmed at all there is to catch up on, but also excited and motivated with renewed enthusiasm for fresh starts and what’s to come. So many books, so little time to sell them all.

In addition to bestseller lists and book reviews, I like to read Publisher’s Marketplace and look over the recent deals. I am often amazed at how good so many of the books sound, so instead of making a general “wish list” of what kinds of books I’d like to see in my in-box, I thought it might be more useful to see a few examples of books that were recently published or recently sold that resonated with me for one reason or another.

This book that was written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist explores the story of a set of adopted identical twins (anything having to do with identical twins as the parent of a set is of interest to me), one of whom transitions their gender identity. It sounds fascinating and wonderfully researched and written over the course of four years, and it looks into a very important subject that is still underexplored.

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

Media personality and leading voice in brain health Max Lugavere’s COGNITION NUTRITION, a roadmap to optimal brain health and performance using what the latest science has discovered about food and diet recently sold and taps into two areas of interest – science and the brain. It’s an area that’s well covered (including my own upcoming title THE DISTRACTED MIND by neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry Rosen), but a new angle is always of interest.

Author of The ADHD EXPLOSION and THE TRIPLE BIND, Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley Stephen Hinshaw’s STIGMA: A Father and Son’s Journey Through the Mark of Mental Illness, which explores the burden of living in a family “loaded” with mental illness, with all the potential for insight and creativity as well as despair and isolation that entails, and in which he reveals his father’s (the distinguished philosopher Virgil Hinshaw, Jr.) and his own lifelong struggles with mental illness, the associated shame and stigma, and his evolving understanding of the social and public health dilemmas involved in the exploding mental illness crisis in America today. I’ve also had a strong interest in mental health issues and have books on my list which include PERFECT CHAOS, by Linea and Cinda Johnson, a powerful story about a daughter and her mom dealing with the daughter’s bipolar breakdown.

Finally, I’m having a love affair with children’s books at the moment. Both books I’m selling and books I’m reading with my girls. Sibling writing duo Heidi Lang and Kati Bartkowski’s debut LAILU LOGANBERRY’S MYSTIC COOKING, following the youngest master chef in 300 years in her efforts to open a restaurant where anyone, not only the wealthy, can feast on her fantastic cuisine including everything from kraken calamari to dragon steak; all the while she must help her absentee mentor pay back a vicious loan shark and avoid the notorious Elven mafia before the escalating conflict costs her the restaurant and possibly her life. Sounds unique and mixes my love of food and kids!

I could go on and on, but I’m hoping this gives you an idea of my interests and hoping I’ll see some project submissions from you in the near future. Feel free to reference this post if you contact me so I know you’ve been reading our blog!

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All I Want for Christmas, 2015 Edition

1512522_736265656401481_1811941197_nIn this time of festivity, merriment, and the Union Square Holiday Market, naturally my thoughts turn to myself. Time with family and friends is all well and good, but more important, what do I want them to give me? I know you’re all having trouble coming up with the perfect gift for me, the most important person on your list, so why not give me the perfect query this holiday season? I get many great queries, and I’m open to a fairly wide range of categories, but here are the things I want that I’m not already getting (or just not seeing enough of):

  • Books in just about any category that manage to combine my four favorite qualities: sense of humor, brisk pace, clever writing, and insightful but unobtrusive ideas.
  • Accessible literary novels that tread new ground. In particular, I’d love to see literary fiction that’s not about suburban malaise, 20- or 30-something angst, or family drama. I’m not against those things certainly (some of my favorite books are those things), but I feel like that covers a very high percentage of the literary fiction that comes my way, and I’d love something that feels really fresh and new.
  • A truly disturbing psychological thriller. The kind that makes you look at the people you know with suspicion while you’re reading it, because the book reminds you how untrustworthy people can be.
  • Unreliable narrators. They’re so tricky to pull off, but when it works, it’s just about my favorite thing.
  • Contemporary middle grade and YA with strong, fun, accessible voices, but also heart. I especially want characters who are badass, but not kicking ass.
  • Contemporary romance that fits well within the category but stands out from the crowd. I’d love to see more contemporary romance with heroes and heroines of color.
  • Novels about major historical events of the 20th and 21st centuries that don’t primarily involve Americans and Europeans. I’m looking for historical fiction about events I didn’t get taught in school…but probably should have been.
  • As I’ve said before (including right over there –> in that sidebar), I’m eager to find more underrepresented voices. Now that can mean many things, and I welcome you to send me whatever you think might fit the bill, but in particular I’m looking for:
    • books for young readers and middle graders featuring protagonists who are on the autism spectrum
    • novels set in large African cities: I’ve realized recently that almost every narrative I’ve seen of Africa, whether in books or otherwise, is about remote places and small villages. Lagos has almost as many people as New York City. There are stories to be told there, and I want to read them.
    • fiction or non-fiction about the experience of going from disadvantaged backgrounds to elite colleges
    • a YA novel that actively explores code switching
    • a novel set in the contemporary Middle East that isn’t a thriller or chiefly about politics
    • novels about the immigrant experience in the United States
    •  current affairs nonfiction on feminism, especially intersectional feminism

None of that to say you shouldn’t query me for other things, but these are the books that aren’t happening to come my way—and that I really wish would.

Does one of those describe your work? Hit me up with a query at labramo@dystel.com.

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First person vs. third person

It seems like I’ve been receiving a lot of manuscripts/sample chapters written in the first person lately, and while this is absolutely fine if it works for that particular story/genre, I wanted to use this blog post as an opportunity to explain some common misconceptions about the different narrative points of view.

  • The idea that a third person narrator is not as intimate as a first person narrator is false. When I ask authors why they chose to write in first person, the response usually has to do with telling an intimate story. A third person narrator can be just as intimate—he/she can express the thoughts, fears and dreams of the character, as well as take a bird’s eye view of the action, which leads me to my next point
  • First person isn’t easier to write than third person. In fact, you could argue the opposite. As mentioned, writing in the third person grants you a lot more freedom—it allows you to write a story from any perspective you want. On the other hand, first person narratives can severely limit the author’s options. The author can’t write about events that the character doesn’t witness or the emotions and thoughts of other characters. It can be restrictive. Worse yet, if a reader doesn’t connect with a character’s voice, that kills the book right there. But perhaps most difficult of all, I find that writers tend to overemphasize emotions, which quickly becomes unbearable. Don’t, I repeat, DON’T put me in a glass case of emotion.

 

will ferrell glass case of emotion

 

  • Third person isn’t necessarily better than first person. While it should seem clear by now that I prefer the third person, it is in no way, shape, or form the better point of view. Certain genres work very well in first person, particularly YA. Furthermore, some books just work in first person regardless of genre. Think about your classic unreliable narrator, Holden Caulfield (although The Catcher in the Rye would probably be considered YA nowadays). The Martian and The Bookseller, and The Rosie Project were great in the first person…or so I’ve heard (only actually read The Martian). First person can work, don’t get me wrong. I just prefer third person.

I’d like to hear from our readers. Which point of view do you prefer to read? To write? Why?

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What I’m Looking For

I’m always on the hunt for new and exciting projects, but what I’m looking for does shift and change a bit based on what I already rep, the market, and whatever I’m personally ruminating at the moment. Right now, that’s:

  • YA and MG novels that deal with faith, loss of faith, and other “big questions” kinds of books. I remember my teen years being about questioning and figuring out exactly what I believed in. I’d also love to see a novel about a kid exploring political issues, and perhaps how one’s political identity contrasts with one’s parents’.
  • I’d love to see some more ghosts. Ghost stories have always been a favorite of mine, and while there have been so many, I’d love to see something new and original. MG, YA, adult—it’s all good!
  • I’m still eager to find a great tennis novel. I’ve seen some good books over the years, but nothing that I connected with enough to take it on.
  • On the nonfiction side, I’m still very eager to find more pop science. I’d love a Sixth Extinction or a What If? I’d really love a book about the space program, particularly women involved with it.

That’s just a brief list of the things I’m most interested in at the moment, but as usual, if you’ve got something brilliant, I’d love to see it!

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Something for everyone

As a general rule, I’m wary when someone thinks that a book is for everyone.  It’s usually a red flag that people don’t know their market or haven’t thought about their category.  But in a different sense, it’s critical that books be for everyone, as this incredible piece by Mira Jacob illustrates.  (It’s fantastic. Go read it. I’ll wait here till you get back.) We need to have books for everyone. Books that reflect everyone’s experience.   Not all books need to be for all people, but no one should be unable to find themselves reflected back on the page.  And no one should be unable to love and enjoy and identify with a book only because it’s not written explicitly for them.  Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is pretty explicitly for his son and about the experience of being black and male, but it’s still one of the best books I’ve read this year, even though I am neither black nor male. We’re all drawing from the same well of human experience: joy, anger, fear, alienation, community, love, loneliness, etc.  There are things in the book I identified with, and things that were alien to me, but those too had value for me as a reader.  People need to be seen, and they also need to see.  People need to be heard, and they also need to listen.

The tie kills me.

Fidge looking for my name in the back of The Maze Runner.  He was delighted when he realized that my name is in books!

To that end, for the last several years I’ve made sure to take this into account when I consider who I want to represent.  I’m very interested in underrepresented voices, and if that describes you and you’re reading this in the course of your search for representation, I hope you’ll consider querying me.

There largely aren’t specific underrepresented voices I’m looking for, but I am on the lookout for books for young readers and middle graders featuring protagonists who are on the autism spectrum.   My nephew (I call him Fidge) is a voracious reader, one of my two favorite people on this earth alongside his little brother, and on the spectrum.  Reading is kind of our thing.   I already know he’s capable of loving books that don’t reflect that aspect of him, but I’d love to help bring books to the market that he would be able to find himself in.  He’s one of the world’s two best people—surely he deserves to feel seen and heard.

Characteristics of a great thriller

Publishing is trendy—as in, it’s an industry dominated by trends, like pretty much every other industry. It’s not hard to understand why. Demand for books in a certain genre increases. Publishers acquire more books in said genre. And right now, thriller is that genre.

Thrillers have always sold, but Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL hit the big screen last year and demand for the genre grew. THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins enjoyed some serious pre-publication buzz and came out of the gates at a full sprint this January. It’s been at, or near, the top of all bestseller lists since. Renee Knight’s debut, DISCLAIMER, comes out in a week, and it has drawn comparisons to both GONE GIRL and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. And on the eve of the London Book Fair this year, a professor at Oberlin College saw his debut thriller go for 7 figures in a two-book deal!

So clearly thrillers are hot. But what makes them great? What differentiates a top tier thriller from an average one? What do you think? Sound off in the comments.

Oh, and if you think you’ve written a top tier thriller, do send it my way. I wouldn’t hate reading it…

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A call for more sports literature

As some of you may know, I’m a little into sports, and as a fan of the Mets, Nets, and Jets, things are looking surprisingly good. The New York Mets own the best record in baseball, at least for now (probably won’t last…or will it?). The Brooklyn Nets beat the Atlanta Hawks last night to tie up the series at 2 games apiece against the best team in the Eastern Conference (though their chances of advancing are still small). And with the offseason moves the Jets have made, they are, in my opinion, just a decent quarterback away from being potential playoff contenders (a tall order, I know).

So, with that said, I’d like to request/plead for sports-related queries. If you have a novel or nonfiction work on sports, I would love to take a look at your material.

Fair warning: books about sports are tough to sell for a very simple reason: the market. Publishers won’t buy a book that they cannot definitively say will appear to X number of readers or Y demographic. It’s no secret that women tend to read more than men, and it also isn’t a secret that men tend to be more interested in sports than women. Except that—and this is a secret—neither are true. Well okay, maybe the former is, but I have male friends who read voraciously and female friends who bleed red and blue (NY Giants, NY Rangers).

Sports are universal. There is a market. And when books about sports work, they really, really work. In fact, they often work themselves onto the big screen. Yeah, I’m looking at you FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS by H.G. Bissinger, MONEYBALL and THE BLIND SIDE by Michael Lewis, and SEABISCUIT by Laura Hillenbrand. Oh, and novels can work too—case in point: THE ART OF FIELDING, Chad Harbach’s wildly successful debut and one of my favorite novels in recent years.

Notice any commonalities between any of those books mentioned above? They’re great sports stories, told beautifully, and aren’t really about sports. Query me if you think your book fits the bill.

Music in the air

Maybe it’s due to the long-awaited thaw here in NYC, but everywhere I turn this week it feels like music is in the air. And books about music are demanding to be heard…

First, the other night, my son Henry brought home PLAY, MOZART, PLAY by Peter Sis from school for his assigned reading. I adore Peter’s Sis’ MADLENKA and some of his other titles, but I didn’t know this one. It’s a very sweet (and bittersweet) depiction of Mozart the child prodigy, who spent his early years playing for kings and queens but missed out on being a kid. Not only did Henry ask to read it together, but since his class recently started writing book reviews, he asked me to write a blog post about it this week.

Since I obviously can’t refuse a request like that, I’ll just say that if you can find a copy, it’s worth a look as a fine example of how to write about music for kids. So many picture books with musical themes simply present song lyrics, and while there are some successful titles (THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND, for example), too often they fall flat without the musical accompaniment (sadly, Bob Marley’s ONE LOVE comes to mind immediately). With PLAY, MOZART, PLAY, Sis sidesteps any direct citation, instead letting Mozart’s imagination reflect the mood and themes of his music. It’s a much more successful technique, and one that I think registers strongly with readers, even if they don’t know Mozart’s music at all.

Then, on Wednesday night, I had the honor of attending the National Jewish Book Awards to support my client James A. Grymes, whose VIOLINS OF HOPE had won the award in the Holocaust category. VIOLINS OF HOPE chronicles the stories behind several violins that were played by Jewish musicians during WWII, mostly in concentration camps, and how these instruments eventually made their way to Amnon Weinstein, a violin restorer in Israel, who fixed them up for a travelling exhibition. A sobering subject, no doubt, so it was all the more enjoyable to toast Jay’s success last night.

Now, one of the many things I love about this book is that it a great example of using physical objects to tell a much larger story—throughout, the violins are used as a jumping-off point to discuss bigger themes, such as the treatment of musicians in concentration camps, the partisan movement, emigration to Israel, and so on. Taking a small element or story to tell a larger one is a narrative style that I personally love, and it can make for very successful popular nonfiction—Michael Lewis, anyone? So if anyone out there is working in that vein, especially with a musical connection, I’d love to see your work…

Finally, what were two of the big publishing stories this week? The sale of Chrissie Hynde’s memoir and Kim Gordon’s GIRL IN A BAND hitting #2 on the NY Times bestseller list. Seems like the musician memoir is still a hot commodity, and it’s especially exciting to see Gordon’s success, given how non-commercial so much of Sonic Youth’s output was. And it’s got an awesome jacket, too!

So, to paraphrase the Bard, “If music be the food of books, write on.” Let’s see what you can do!

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Query Turn-Offs

Now that you know what I’m looking for, here’s a follow-up on what I’m NOT looking for – a quick list of my query pet peeves!

These won’t be an automatic deal-breaker for you and your project, but they will make me a little sad; more importantly, they’ll make me wonder if you’ve done your research, and if you take your writing seriously. And your pitch and sample pages will have to work that much harder to win me over.

  •  “What’s her name? Shannon? Close enough.” While no one loves “Dear Agent” or “To Whom It May Concern,” it’s even worse to get a query addressed to “Dear [Coworker’s Name]”; “Dear Sarah” (you’d be surprised how often it happens), or even “Dear Mr. Spelletier.” You should be doing your research to make sure you’re querying agents who will be a good fit; in addition, messing up my name makes me wonder if you’ll take your time and pay attention to detail when we work together.
  •  “Pssht, guidelines don’t apply to me.” Yes they do, and they’re right here! So please follow them; don’t ask me to click on your website or download a file from Dropbox. I won’t buy your self-published e-book or look under a rock in Central Park for your hand-penned sample pages.
  •  “My book is the next GONE GIRL meets WILD!” It’s probably not, and those comps don’t do much to help me understand your book – what’s special about it, why you were the perfect person to write it, how it fits into the market. Of course you want to highlight how your book will fit in with what’s popular right now, but be specific, and show that you’ve read widely in your genre. If you’re querying me with a thriller about a time-traveling cheerleader who kidnaps the Lindbergh baby, mention The Shining Girls and Dare Me, not Gone Girl and Twilight.
  •  “Whatever, spellcheck probably caught it all.” Now I must admit that I am a grammar zealot, and my spam filter is set to automatically delete any email that omits the second attributive comma (just kidding – that’s only a dream of mine). I’m self-aware enough not to hold minor typos against you, and I might even let it slide if you use fiancé where fiancée should be. But fundamental writing errors like homophone confusion (isle ≠ aisle, discrete ≠ discreet), dangling participles, verbsubject disagreement, etc., are a red flag. Whether you need more time to learn the basics of your craft, or whether you just didn’t bother to give your letter a second read, grammar mistakes are signs that you might not be ready to work with an agent.
  •  “You’re making a huge mistake.” And please be nice. Be professional in your query, not arrogant or demeaning, and don’t write back rudely if I decline. Even if the project you’re querying isn’t for me, who knows when and where our paths might cross again – publishing is a small town!

 

Now you know what to double-check before hitting SEND on that fantastic project that’s exactly what I’m looking for. For more query tips, check out Jessica and Mike’s great insights recently.

Do you have any suggestions for making sure your queries are good to go? Any embarrassing mistakes you didn’t catch in time?