Thursday, August 18, 2011

Literary Agent Rebecca Strauss

KD: Thank you, Rebecca, for joining us today at The Rock. We’re so looking forward to getting to meet you at the RMFW Colorado Gold Conference in September. Thanks so much for agreeing to an interview so that folks can get to know a little more about you.

RS: It’s my pleasure! I’m thrilled to be participating in the Colorado Gold conference. I’ve heard wonderful stories and can’t wait to meet everyone!

How long have you been with McIntosh and Otis? What did you do before becoming an agent?

I’ve been at McIntosh & Otis for nearly 6 years. The daughter of two English professors, I got my start in publishing during college by interning at Algonquin Books and Duke University Press. After graduation, I moved from North Carolina to NYC and worked in pharmaceutical PR. It provided a wonderful opportunity to pitch to journalists, but—unsurprisingly—I was not as excited and passionate about what I was pitching. And, I knew that I needed to return to my true obsession-- books.

I was introduced to the world of the literary agency at Trident Media Group where I worked on foreign rights. After Trident, I explored how books translated in different forms and moved to Sony, working as a development assistant and book scout for TV movies and miniseries. Quite fun! Though, I greatly missed working directly with authors.

When I came to M&O, I realized that I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. The job of an agent encompassed so many aspects of my interests. I love working with authors to polish their work and I adore convincing editors that I have the next FABULOUS book that they must read! And, of course, there’s so much more to the job. We usher authors through every stage of the publishing process, managing their relationship with editors, etc… I could go on and on!

How many queries do you receive a week or month on average? Have you noticed an increase over the past couple of years? Do you think more people have taken up writing fiction and if so, why do you think that is?

I probably receive a few hundred a month. There does seem to be an increase in submissions. I think NaNoWriMo might have something to do with it! We receive a ton of submissions in December and January. That said, there are probably several factors at work. There’s so much available information online about agents and it’s easier to query with online submissions. These advancements have taken some of the guess work out of the process.

I’m not sure if more people are writing fiction these days. I personally can’t get enough fiction. I think it can serve so many important and fun purposes—from examining the human condition to providing pure entertainment. So, continue sending great novels!!

What are four of the biggest mistakes you see writers make in their queries and beginning manuscript pages? What immediately makes you say "no" and alternately, what hooks you?

You’ll probably have heard many of these before. There’s a reason, though… ☺

  1. Not researching submission guidelines. Did you send the right materials? Email? Snail mail? Attachments?
  2. Not researching what an agent represents. For example, I’m clueless about picture books!
  3. Misspelling an agent or agency’s name. That’s not an automatic no, but it’s not going to make us smile.
  4. Typos. We can ignore/forgive a few typos in a 300+ page manuscript. But in a 1 page query letter? That’s pretty tough. You should show that letter to dozens of people to get feedback. People you’re not married to, related to or who work for you. People who will tell the unvarnished truth!!
My other note might sound a little contrary. Allow the tone of your voice in the book to come through in the query letter. We can definitely tell the query letters that have been workshopped to death. They become cold, dull and monotone. AND, they don’t fit what you’ve written. Be short and sweet in your letter, but if it’s a humorous book, it would be nice to see a little of that in the letter. This doesn’t need to be a gimmick —- make it authentic. Get me excited about what I’m going to read.

What hooks me? Having done your research. A short, straightforward letter that clearly and eloquently tells me about your story and yourself. I don’t need bells and whistles. You don’t need to apologize for taking my time. I’m eager to find new projects and always hoping to read something amazing. Just jump right into the good stuff!!

When you're considering a new client, how much do you take market into account? If you receive a great manuscript that's not in a “hot” market, do you pass on it? Or does a good story always sell?

That’s a tough one. If I’ve fallen in love with a book, I’ve fallen in love and will want to talk with the author no matter what. However, it’s part of an author’s and an agent’s job to be aware of the market. For example, when chick lit got very hard to sell, even the most fabulous books were nearly impossible to place. But—you’ve likely heard this—what’s hot now probably won’t be hot in the 12-18 months it will take to publish your book. So, writing to the trend that’s on bookshelves right now is not the smart way to go. Write the story that you’re compelled to write.

What genres seem to be most popular right now? What trends or themes do you see as being in high demand among publishers?

Whenever people say that they want ‘big’ books, we roll our eyes. However, it’s quite challenging to sell quiet, literary gems these days. There’s a devoted audience for them—and I love and represent them! But it’s tough. ‘Big’ books often mean something that’s commercial and high concept. And, high concept books can be pitched in just a couple sentences and have a big hook.

How has the fluctuating climate in publishing (both due to a struggling economy and changing technologies) impacted how you do your job?

We’re still trying to gauge how the recent closing of Borders will change business. Right now, we’re anticipating—and already seeing-- a decrease in first printing numbers.

And, of course, the sea change that resulted from the advent of the ebook is still developing. I think that agents are looking for interesting opportunities for authors to reach the ebook-buying audience. Among other possibilities, we’re exploring our authors participating in digital short story programs and anthologies. And, of course, the blog tours and ebook book clubs can be invaluable.

What would an ideal author-agent relationship be for you?

Professional and friendly. This is a business relationship, but it’s also an incredibly intimate relationship. We’re working to place your beloved book. And, it’s a book with which I’m completely obsessed!! I sound like a self-help fanatic, but communication is key to any relationship, and that’s true here. I want the process to be transparent and I want my authors to understand every step that we’re taking. It’s a wonderful and exciting journey and we need to be partners.

Are you taking submissions? Anything in particular you'd love to see right now?

Definitely!! I’d love to see so many categories. Touching, funny women’s fiction. Gorgeous literary fiction. Thrilling mysteries. Steampunk. Original urban fantasy. Fabulously fun romance. Intriguing YA. Informative and innovative nonfiction. Engaging pop culture.


Thank you so much, Rebecca! You can learn more about the McIntosh & Otis Literary Agency by visiting their website. Better yet, why not meet Rebecca in person at this year's Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference. There's still space available, but it's filling up fast so if you haven't registered yet, what are you waiting for? This is one of the best writers' conferences in the country. We hope to see you there!

Karen Duvall


Patricia Stoltey said...

Rebecca, thanks for sharing so much valuable information with us and for joining us in Denver for Colorado Gold. I think you'll enjoy your experience there very much.

Great interview, Karen. Thanks!

Rebecca Strauss said...

Hi writers! I'm here to answer your questions today. Give me a shout!

Rebecca Strauss said...

Thanks so much, Patricia.

Shannon said...

Hi Rebecca. So glad you'll be joining us for the conference. Is there a common length of time it would take you to sell a book and how do you know when you've taken it as far as it will go? If you need to give up, what does that usually do to your relationship with the author?

Chiseled in Rock said...

Great encouragement, Rebecca.

Gusto Dave Jackson here. Please tell me something isn’t so.

Psyched more than I’ve ever been because all my published friends have told me what a great premise my latest title has (yeah, I know shameless plug--but it’s true…and authors are hard to impress), I geared up to query one of my favorite agencies. To my horror, I found that none of the agents in that office were representing urban fantasy anymore. Of course, I noticed that you accept UF submissions, but has there been a shift in the market that would cause an agency, known for representing this genre, to shut that door?

Rebecca Strauss said...

Hi Shannon!

Thanks for stopping by. The time it takes to place a book can vary greatly. A sale can happen at any point-- from a few days after a project is submitted-- to several months later. Strategy differs based on the project, but I typically submit work in rounds. So, I'll send it to a group of fabulous editors at one time. If we don't find a home with that first group, we'll continue to submit to the next wonderful batch.

If I'm in love with a project (and those are the only projects I take on!) it's very hard to stop working with it. However, there are times when the first manuscript you shop for a client just doesn't sell. That does provide you with an opportunity to review why editors passed on the project. There may be ways for the writing to be improved and to make the next book even more successful.

In terms of knowing when you've taken a book as far as it will go-- that happens only when I've approached each and every editor I think would be appropriate for the work. If the first book doesn't find a home, we re-group and discuss strategy. My clients know that we're a team and that I'm passionate about their writing. So, we work together to find the perfect next step. This is a long-term relationship. I'm not looking to place only 1 manuscript . I want to grow an author's career.

Terry Wright said...

Hi Rebecca,
I run the Colorado Gold Writing Contest, which you are the final judge for the Mainstream category. In doing so, are you hoping to find a manuscript and new author to represent?

Rebecca Strauss said...

Hi Gusto Dave Jackson!

Congrats on the great feedback re: your premise! And, smart to check the agency website for their guidelines.

It's true that agents and editors can burn out on certain genres. That said, UF is still selling-- just not at the previous insane pace. You can check Publishers Marketplace to confirm. From what I've seen, dystopian is still selling and epic fantasy seems to be on the rise. However, I love a good UF and many editors are still open to it. It just needs to be fresh.


Rebecca Strauss said...

Hi Terry,

I'm ALWAYS looking for new clients! So, I would absolutely love to fall for one of the finalists. :)


Whitley Gray said...

Hello, Rebecca. Kelly here.
We hear that vampire books are an oversaturated market. Do you feel that's true?
What would you like to see more of (other than literary fiction)? With the trend toward ebooks, a lot of indie publishers are popping up. Do you see the publishing trend shifting from New York to more of these small start-ups, especially for first time authors?
Cheers, Kelly
w/a Whitley Gray

Rebecca Strauss said...

Hi Kelly!

Good question. Vampire books are definitely harder to sell these days. That said, there are exceptions. Again, if you have a fresh concept and amazing writing, it could still work. But it's very tough.

Like I said in the interview, I'd love to see more of so many genres! I’m very open. :) Of course, addictive book club books are always a favorite...

That's a huge question re: the evolution of publishing. I think there are so many opportunities for writers these days. And, I'd say that working with an agent can help you navigate the changing market. It completely depends on the author – and the specific project-- as to what the best home for the work would be. For example, I’m on submission with a debut novel for one of my YA authors at the big NY houses. At the same time, she also wrote a fun novella that I’ve submitted to a fabulous ebook publisher. Different projects are appropriate for different outlets. And, it’s exciting to find the best fit!

Giles Hash said...

Rebecca, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today! :D

From an insider perspective, does it appear to you that publishers are trying to embrace ebook technology?

I remember when the music industry started to fight the digital age (hence the RIAA), and it appears to me that publishers are attempting to at least try to fit digital media into their business model. Is that the impression you get? And do you think more companies will come out with interactive books like the Alice in Wonderland app that came out for the iPad?

Incidentally, a friend of mine is published through Trap Door Books, and they're trying to put together a ton of digital bonuses for their ebooks.

Rebecca Strauss said...

Hi Giles!

Yes, I think that publishers are desperately trying to integrate ebook technology. They saw how the music industry suffered when they put their heads in the sand. Of course, that's not to say publishers have it all figured out at this point. No one does...

And, I do think that enhanced ebooks and apps are on the rise. Publishers are reaching out to readers in every possible way. And, something that engages the audience can help!


Jessica said...

Hi Rebecca,

Great info in the interview! Very timely for me as I'm currently querying.

I saw you mentioned anthologies and short story collections as one way to help your authors thrive in a grown e-market. Does this mean that agents might start to entertain queries for short stories? I've tried querying shorts and novellas in the past and met with comments like, "We only represent categry or full length works."

Mostly I'm just curious because I haven't found a lot of info out there on how to query shorter works.



Rebecca Strauss said...

Hi Jessica!

Good luck querying!

As to your question, for my established authors who have been asked to participate in anthologies or digital short story programs, I’m happy to review contracts. It’s a service I provide my clients.

However, I’m afraid that the majority of agents are still not representing individual short stories. Most authors handle these submissions on their own. Financially, short stories aren’t really viable projects for agents.

Short story collections (although much beloved by agents and authors) are also very difficult to place. Publishers typically like to pair short story collection with a novel. Of course, there are exceptions, but they’re rare.

The bottom line for me is that I take on clients for their full length works. Then, if they have other interests, we discuss and create a plan that makes sense.


Marlena Cassidy said...

This is a great interview filled with superb advice. It's been bookmarked for further reference.

That said, what do you generally look for in a literary fiction genre? Is there a certain characteristic you find yourself gravitating towards?

Rebecca Strauss said...

Hi Marlena!

Thanks for your note.

With literary fiction, it almost goes without saying that the writing has to be superb. However, there also has to be a plot. :) I get literary fiction submissions that have gorgeous language. Really stunning. But all too often nothing happens. They're too quiet. That makes a book very difficult to place. Even with literary fiction, I want to be on the edge of my seat. I want to be engrossed.


j. a. kazimer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
j.a. kazimer said...

Thank you Karen and Rebecca. It's so great to hear an agent so excited about fiction. Rebecca, can you tell us about upcoming books that you're excited to read?

Karen Duvall said...

It was so great having Rebecca with us today. What a rare treat! Those of us lucky enough to be attending conference this year (me me me!) will get to see her in person in just a few weeks. I can hardly wait! :)

Rachel Brooks said...

A few hundred queries a month! It still amazes me that agents don't drown in emails. Agents are so hard working and busy! I can't even imagine juggling everything they have to. Great post!

Also, I’m a new follower— wonderful blog! Stop by my blog and follow me too? :)