Ask the Secret Agent: installment #1

Questions for the Secret Agent are already pouring in, so I guess we should get this show on the road.

As I explained yesterday, the Secret Agent is an agent with a small, but well-regarded, literary agency in Manhattan. In this short interview, the Secret Agent will answer my own questions, but after this week all responses will be to selections from your inquiries about New York City publishing.

No question is off-limits (particularly if the Secret Agent is drunk).

I’m sure bad cover letters and manuscripts come in all forms, but can you describe one or two particularly terrible ones?

I’m always fascinated by people who feel they can antagonize me into representing them. Asking me if I have the guts to take on their legal suspense novel, describing me as a “miserable person” who needs a 15-page Mt. Rushmore conspiracy theory (created by a glacier 1,000 years ago, fifth face sandblasted off by the government) coffee table book to make my career (not a joke), threatening hellfire and/or brimstone should I not participate in getting the screed to the masses. These make me long for the simplicity of a wretchedly misspelled, grammatically abominable, yet touchingly polite Crayola-written query.

What are some of the most common problems with the manuscripts you receive?

In fiction, the majority of the manuscripts we receive — or at least half, I would say — are first novels. First novels often have the same problems: stiff dialogue, too much desribing the action when it should be shown, weak openings or endings. There are others, but I’d say these are the three big ones. In nonfiction, it’s all about the audience and the competition. Are there really enough people out there willing to spend $24.95 on your book? Are there already 100 other books out there trying to reach them? One thing I will say is that if you can put together a really good marketing plan, then you’re halfway there.

You’ve been at this for a while now. How have your expectations changed in the years since you started?

When I first started working at an agency, editors had a lot more say over what they could buy. Now, even the most senior editors can be overruled by marketing, even if they desperately want something and only have to pay $20,000. So, unfortunately, I’m almost never 100% sure anymore that something will sell, and that’s the biggest change.

Katharine Viner, a judge for Britain’s Orange prize, complained in June about reading, for the contest:

a run of books about nothing. These were usually by authors from the US, who have attended prestigious creative writing courses. . . . They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce.

What’s your reaction to her complaint?

Heh. You sure you didn’t say that, Maud? [Ed. note: Nah, Viner said it, but I’ll admit I like the sound of it. I’m always trotting out the tea-towel thing at the end of the night, in bars, when everyone wants to go home. No doubt that’s why it sounds familiar to you.] I agree, but fiction is so subjective. I grow impatient easily with fiction, and I have never liked the type of person who talks OR writes for the sake of hearing or seeing their own voice. Self-indulgence is tedious to me. But I also do want subtlety. So for me, if you can illustrate a profound shift with a paragraph rather than a chapter, then please do. Any good writer should be able to do this, in my opinion.

How many pages does an author have to grab your attention?

I would say it depends on the concept. If it’s another mystery or thriller, probably less than 10 pages. If it’s a really unique conceit, though, I want to give it a chance to come together. To be honest, you better be strong from page one, and if you’re going to get weaker, do it in the middle, once I’m hooked. Then I’m more likely to plow through it than if the manuscript’s already not working after page three.

Is it true that it’s much harder to sell novels than it used to be?

Absolutely. The public reads less fiction than ever, yet there are more people trying to write it than ever, and the big publishers tend to concentrate the majority of their money on their already established writers. It’s simple and sad.

Small advance and placement on a major publisher’s midlist or equal advance but top of the list at a smaller house: which is better?

This also depends. Who will be able to distribute the book better? Who will put more time and/or money into promoting it? Who gets better review attention? How big would the first printing be at each? How do you get on with your editor? Really it comes down to determining the publisher’s commitment to you, and it can go either way at a big or a small house.

How much do a writer’s age and headshot matter to a publisher?

I don’t think the headshot usually matters all that much. I mean, if an author is exceptionally attractive, then it’s a positive, but if they’re fugly, I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative. It does depend on what kind of book we’re talking about. Medieval fantasy? Go on and get fugly then. Book on dressing for success? You should probably fit the bill.

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