Category Archives: why we are agents

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How what we do is like golf

As many of you know, I am constantly trying to improve my golf game.  Each summer I spend hours on Saturdays and Sundays on the driving range, in lessons, and on the golf course practicing and playing.  This summer I started working with a new golf pro to completely change and improve my swing; it was a radical step that involved studying videos of my swing (something I’d never done before) and learning how to make adjustments based on the replays, but, in the end, after many hours of working on it  and lots of frustration, I am happy to report that I’m seeing some significant improvement.Golfing

Like golf, our agenting takes continual practice, both in choosing the projects we will represent and establishing a strategy to sell those projects.  As in golf, we find that we learn from our failures as much or more than from our successes and we are constantly tweaking our game—finding different publishers and editors to whom to submit and different approaches to developing the books we are representing.

This can be a very frustrating process, but as with golf, with enough “practice” we often succeed.

In fact, this summer I have done deals with at least three publishers who are entirely new to me.  After agenting for so many years, I still get a kick out of establishing relationships with new publishers and editors—it’s a very inspiring and exciting part of our business.

Changing things up every once in a while is something I love to do, both in golf and in life.  Do you have a hobby or sport you pursue that gives you perspective on your writing?

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Storytelling

As I look with something akin to terror at the icon telling me there are 24 manuscripts in my Urgent to read folder, I’m thinking, as I have been so much lately (this week, this month, this year, this last few years), about what it means to be an agent. When I moved back to New York after grad school, I only applied to two kinds of jobs: non-profits and publishing. You all know where I ended up (insert joke about profitability of publishing here), but I like to think that I’ve built a career where I can achieve the goals both those types of jobs represented: trying to do some good in the world and working with the written word. Beyond the ways in which books do, as a whole, make the world a better place, I also work hard to tailor my list to something that Alternate Universe Lauren who runs a non-profit would be proud of, whether I’m looking at serious non-fiction or commercial fiction and everything in between.

And in working on that project–on trying to make sure that my client list and the books I represent do good in the world in addition to telling compelling, enriching stories–I find myself coming back repeatedly to this Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the danger of a single story. It’s from 2009 and many people have seen it, but if you haven’t, I urge you to watch. It’s an important facet not just of publishing and reading, but of existing in a world that is in so many ways, from politics to news media to social media to advertising to memory to relationships, constructed on stories. As a person who commodifies stories for a living, I try to do justice to them, and the complex people behind them, and the complex people reading them. And I’m grateful to Adichie for telling this story in such a way that it’s crystallized in my brain to guide me.

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Dream Job

A few days ago, I signed a new client—a scientist and researcher who studies dreams, who is writing a smart, heady novel that draws upon the neuroscience of dreaming and pushes it just beyond the threshold of the possible. Think David Mitchell, the film Inception, with a dash of DaVinci Code.  The novel is built like a mystery and set against a dreamscape backdrop that beggars Freud.  The author interleaves both the science and the mythology of dreaming in a tale that is inventive, original and utterly spellbinding.    All this is by way of introduction to the idea that I love my job.   It’s like grad school, but this time without papers, politics or adjunct teaching. Agenting offers exposure to big ideas and the folks who think them, and the opportunity to keep learning pretty much all of the time across a dizzying range of subjects.

Since part of my job is to act as a stand in for a curious, bright-but-not expert reader, I get to ask innumerable questions, request clarifications, and read like mad–sometimes even an actual, published, bound-in-paper book. Other parts of my job are just as satisfying, but in different ways—matchmaking, negotiating, advocating, advising… and the gerunds continue.  Of course, there are plenty of downsides to this business, too; rejection is a constant, there are disappointing sales, difficult people and the always fragile ecosystem of publishers, but I’ll save the grim bits  for another post. On balance, I love the work I do.

And what does that work look like on a day to day basis? My lived version is not especially glamorous.  I was a rank disappointment to a client visiting New York for the first time, who imagined me kitted out in Louboutins and Armani, climbing in red-soled stilettos over the bodies of tourists.  Happily, she forgave me for my lack of resemblance to Anna Wintour or even Annie Hall.  As I’m writing this on Thursday, I’m dashing in sensible flats between meetings with editors from three different imprints, all in midtown. This evening I have two author events, novelist Beth Hahn, author of THE SINGING BONE, doing a reading at the terrific Spine Out series and Mychal Denzel Smith, author of INVISIBLE MAN, GOT THE WHOLE WORLD WATCHING in conversation with Melissa Harris Perry at B&N. Assuming the subways and my legs are functioning, I’ll attend both; the first on the lower east side, the second on the upper west.

Wednesday was a staff meeting in which all the agents in our office go over the projects presently on or near submission.  With more than a dozen agents in attendance, it’s lengthy but informative. This is always followed by an ideas meeting where we pitch potential book concepts. In the interstices, I edited a proposal, responded to countless e-mails, set up author meetings/phone calls for a project on submission, and conducted gently harassing follow-ups on behalf of other projects out in the world. Earlier in the week I learned a great deal about ground scanning radar technology on a conference call with an archeologist client, conferred with a film co-agent shopping the adaptation of a forthcoming work of narrative history, had a long editorial conversation with client/co-authors about a novel in progress,  and requested several projects from queries.  I also tried to glance at social media, the newspaper and the weather.  I managed two thirds of these, hence was umbrella-less on Wednesday when the skies opened up.

The downpour was actually useful. Trapped until the rain slackened with a rapidly draining iPhone battery and no computer, I did something I rarely do in the space of a work day;  I cracked open a book and read—which to me, is living the dream.

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That special something

Authors often lament—quite reasonably—that many of the rejections they receive are not specific. “I liked it but I didn’t love it,” the letters say, and offer no more feedback on why. And some of that is because there is only so much time in a day, so agents can’t offer feedback to all the projects they turn down and still actually have time to fulfill the obligations to the clients they’ve signed on. But it’s also true that sometimes that is simply the answer. The main characters seem well rounded enough, the premise compelling enough, the plot well-paced enough, the voice strong enough, the writing well composed enough. You read the book and you can imagine it being published by someone, but…you simply cannot say it’s a book that you love. You don’t have a vision for it. You don’t know what the spark is that’s missing, only that it’s missing. You don’t begrudge that book publication certainly, but you also don’t have the enthusiasm for it to tell other people they must read it, or to edit it, or to champion it in a million ways for years to come.  Even those of us who don’t read books for a living can probably think of books they felt this way about—the book was fine, you suppose, but also you didn’t feel compelled to recommend it to anyone.

But the flip side of this is when an author turns in a revised manuscript, and it’s like they’ve flipped a switch. Maybe it’s one big edit, maybe it’s a million tiny edits, but that perfect, beautiful book that you thought you saw hiding inside the previous draft is right there, shiny and on display. It’s not magic, it’s the result of hard and often tedious and sometimes quite exhausting work, but that special extra spark changes everything. And as an agent, you feel a degree of excitement that it’s hard to properly convey—because now you get to go out and champion this perfect, beautiful thing in a million ways for years to come.

Fortunately for us all, whether or not a person sees that spark is completely subjective. That manuscript an agent passed on because they just weren’t head over heels? Someone else is telling every single person they speak to how much they adore it.

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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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Uncovering ideas for books

One of the things most agents do is come up with ideas for books, and we come up with them in a bunch of different places.

HOTHOUSEThe first example of a book idea I just stumbled upon was a story I came across in the New York Times Obituaries a number of years ago.  Robert Giroux, one of the founders of Farrar, Straus and Giroux had died and the piece written about him was filled with colorful stories and  characters.  I immediately thought there was a book about the publishing business in that era and I approached Boris Kachka, who agreed to write it.  Boris made the idea his own, of course, and the result was HOTHOUSE: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art in America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House Farrar Straus.

DON'T PEEA number of years ago now, I was watching 60 Minutes (which I do every week) and I saw a family court judge profiled who was incredibly colorful, opinionated and somewhat outrageous.  I found out how to reach that judge and suggested she write a book.  That became DON’T PEE ON MY LEG AND TELL ME IT’S RAINING and the author became television’s beloved Judge Judy.

Then, last year when I vacationed in Kenya, I learned about how various animals are disappearing and I approached a science writer to do a book that might be titled THE WORLD WITHOUT ANIMALS.

I have found many true crime book ideas in the pages of People magazine or in the newspaper. One of the most recent LOST GIRLSand a book that is doing very well is THE LOST GIRLS by John Glatt, about the three young women who were imprisoned in a house in Cleveland for ten years.

Three years ago I went to Florence on vacation and learned for the first time of the great flood in the 1950s that threatened to destroy all of the city’s incredible art and how people came from all over the world to help save it.  While in Rome on that same trip, I met a journalist who is now working on a book about this fascinating event.

Finding ideas is like discovering treasure.  We are always looking for them wherever we go.  I wonder where you get your book ideas and whether you would like to tell me about them.  Maybe we will uncover something new together.

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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.

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Ten Years

As of tomorrow, I’ll have been at DGLM for ten years.  Since that’s such a pleasingly round number, it feels like a good time to name ten of the best things about the last ten years at DGLM.  In no particular order:

  • We’re not in midtown.  Union Square is pretty much the ideal publishing location.  Between agencies, publishers, and scouts there are enough of us congregated around here, lots of great restaurants, a solid subway hub, and we’re nowhere near Times Square.  If you’re not a New Yorker, this might not resonate for you, but I’ve gotten to spend the last decade below 23rd street, which was more or less my life goal as an NYU student.
  •  I used to work in bookstores.  I have stood in those same places where I used to stock the shelves and read my own name inside books.  I have also made my family members endure this ritual of narcissism pretty much any time we’ve been in a place that sells books.  Given that they’re all book nerds, too, it’s kind of huge.
  •  I spend time on every vacation playing Spot the DGLM Client in foreign bookstores.  About 1/5 of my vacation photos are books I sold in translation.  I have almost no shame.
  • This is an office full of people who actually like each other.  From what I gather from friends, family, and years of sitcom watching, that’s kind of rare.  Our office meetings are usually way more hilarious than office meetings have any right to be. We work collaboratively, and even though we’re pretty ambitious, any internal competition is motivating rather than cutthroat.
  • Okay, so “reading books for a living” is much more the fantasy of agent life than the reality (I’m pretty sure I answer emails for a living, if you want to boil it down to one thing), but I do get to excuse myself from having a budget for books.  Buying books with reckless disregard for personal finance is just the responsible thing to do.
  • bookcasesAnd on a related note, I finally achieved the bookcase wall of my dreams.  (Goal for the next 10 years: rolling ladder.)
  • I get to turn the things I’m most excited about into my job.  If something’s been occupying my attention, there’s a way to publish a book on it.  Whether that’s putting out the call for a novel on the subject or tracking down a writer to cover it, from Serial to soccer, I get to make my passions my work. That’s even better than being able to make your favorite indulgences tax deductible.
  • I’ve learned from some of the best agents in the business.  If there’s anything the DGLM team can’t figure out about publishing between them, I’ve never encountered it.  There is always someone to learn from on every subject.
  • I’ve gone from Jane’s assistant to Subsidiary Rights Director, and I’m empowered to sign up anything I want.  That’s an amount of encouragement, opportunity, and support that I could only have dreamed of the day I shot my resume off to Michael, and I’m so incredibly grateful for it.
  • I work with amazing authors.  Sometimes I get to be the first person to tell an author she’s hit the New York Times bestseller list for the very first time. Someone I once made laugh on the phone is now president of this country.  On my last birthday, I had dinner with an author the week a movie adaptation of his book opened at #1 at the box office.  I tell extremely talented creative people what I think of their work, and they actually listen to me.  On a regular basis, I get to give people news so good it makes them cry.  I get paid to bring the most important tool of entertainment, education, enlightenment, and empathy the world has to offer to as many people as I possibly can.  Was that overly sincere?  I don’t even care.  It’s an extraordinary privilege to help shepherd books into the world.

And for those keeping track, yes, every person that worked at DGLM on my Day 1—Jane, Miriam, Stacey, Michael, & Jim—is still here on Day 3652.  Thanks to them and everyone else on Team DGLM for a fantastic 10 years.  Here’s to 10 more!

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The job of a literary agent

Last week I began thinking about what the technical responsibilities of a literary agent are compared to what we at DGLM do for our clients.  I researched the subject and I also asked our staff what they thought.  The results are interesting and I wanted to share those with you, our readers.

First, I found this definition of the responsibilities of a literary agent online:

Literary agents represent authors in the publishing world. Authors rely on literary agents to manage the business aspect of publishing for them. Agents negotiate contracts regarding publishing rights, advances and royalties. They represent authors to book publishers and other companies that may be interested in publishing an author’s work.

It turns out that this is a good definition but it doesn’t cover nearly all of the things we do for our clients at our agency.

This weekend for example Miriam and I have been working on amending an exciting movie/TV contract for one of our clients who had previously committed to this project without really realizing what she was getting into.  In fact, working with our clients on weekends and after office hours is something we do all the time.

We also do many things that other agencies do not do:

  • We send out  adult and childrens’ book  newsletters three times per year announcing the books we will be selling in the following four months and those we have sold in the previous four months.
  •  We have a digital book program with its own manager whereby we help clients self-publish their work—either new projects or those where the rights have reverted.
  • We have an extensive, informative website which we are constantly updating.
  • We have author social media guides for all kinds of situations.
  • We are very hands on in career management, advising our authors not just in the book space, but also in film/TV, newspapers and periodicals, and in whatever other career category they require our help.

We  also often go above and beyond, by helping clients with legal issues on for other parts of their lives, helping them to get mortgages or refinance their homes, even helping them to get jobs when we are able, and, perhaps more importantly,  providing a constant source of advice and support.

Above all else, and as I have said very recently in this space, we never give up until we really believe we have hit a wall and that it is best for our client to move on to the next project.  What is your experience and your expectations of literary agents?

I am sure I have overlooked some of the things we do that go above and beyond that tight definition of the responsibilities of the agent but this will give you a very good idea of the kind of agency Dystel & Goderich Literary Management is.

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A book can change your life

The title of this post might be overly dramatic, but if you look hard enough you will find some pretty incredible stories about people whose lives were changed by books and reading.

One of those amazing stories comes from YA author Matt de la Peña, whose piece this week in NPR is well worth your time. He touches on so many moments in his own life that were altered by books, and then when he goes into talking about his dad and how his life was changed by reading, well, I was in tears by that point so that tells you what kind of piece this is. In simple prose, he taps into why words and books and reading matter, and how the power of the written word can literally change your life. And I believe almost always for the better.

A love of reading doesn’t have to start early, either. Matt’s life-changing moment came in his second year of college. And you know what else I love about this article? That teacher. That amazing teacher who saw something in this young man and knew he had potential and needed a nudge so she gave him a copy of The Color Purple and asked him to read it before he graduated and then come talk with her about it.

I’m sorry for the way things go for Joshua, a tough young kid profiled here with a secret writing habit, and I hope that de la Peña or someone else can help him find his way through his writing, and through books. When I read pieces like this, it’s so validating to think that the work that we are all doing can make a difference, and in some cases, all the difference.

Do you have any stories to share about how a book changed your life, or the life of someone you know? Please share. And pass this article on too. It’s a great read, and an inspiring one.