Wednesday, May 11, 2011

An Interview with Sara Megibow of the Nelson Agency

Interviewed by Tamela Buhrke

Okay kiddies, we have a very special treat for you today. The vivacious Sara Megibow of the Nelson Agency is here to give us her insights into the business of writing.

For those who are in the mood to publish, Sara is enthusiastically accepting new clients. She represents young adult and middle grade fiction, romance, science fiction, and fantasy, commercial and women's fiction (including chick lit) and high concept literary fiction.

If you plan to attend the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Gold Conference on September 9, 10 and 11th, Sara will be available for pitch sessions; be sure to sign up early to snag a spot in front of her.

CIR (Tamela): Most people stumble over my first and last name, so my first question is meant to help all those people who may want to introduce themselves to you at the RMFW Gold Conference this September; how do you pronounce your last name?

Sara: MEG-uh-bow (MEG like Meg Ryan - UH like duh - BOW like the bow in a little girl's hair) :) It's Russian (we think)

CIR: As the Associate Agent at Nelson Literary Agency, you represent commercial fiction, women’s fiction, romance, young adult and middle grade, as well as science fiction and fantasy. On your bio, you mention that you’d personally love to work on more science fiction and fantasy. What kind of scifi/fantasy manuscript would you like to see come across your desk?

Sara: OOOoooo - all kinds of science fiction or fantasy! I love futuristic, space opera, dystopian, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal - you name it, I love it. In fact, I love sf/f for adult books AND young adult books, so I am particularly greedy.

I'd say that the number one reason I end up passing on an sf/f submission is because a writer hasn't mastered the art (yet) of showing a unique world to the reader in an organic way. A shorter way of saying that? World building. World building is, to me, the most important aspect of sf/f - I am hunting for books that are unique and spectacularly well-written (like HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS by NK Jemisin, ASH by Malinda Lo, THE IRON DUKE by Meljean Brook and DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth).

I'd like to see more gorgeous epic heroic fantasy (like, of course, NAME OF THE WIND by Patrick Rothfuss or THE WAY OF KINGS by Brandon Sanderson) or high energy blockbuster fantasy (like THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA by Scott Lynch). I'd like to see science fiction novels that really tackle moral as well as physical issues - so not just overpopulation and martial law, but also fertility, first contact and terraforming (like SONG OF SCARABAEUS by Sara Creasy). I'd also love to see some really off the wall characters - pirates, scientists, Indiana-Jones-esque adventure heroes and heroines. I don't want to see just gun-toting alpha males and alpha females, but characters with complexity and irony.

CIR: With those genres being in a bit of slump, what do you think would revitalize them?

Sara: I don't think sf/f is in a slump. I think books like Patrick Rothfuss's THE WISE MAN'S FEAR, Gail Carriger's SOULLESS, Paolo Bacagalupi's THE WINDUP GIRL, Cherie Priest's BONESHAKER, Joe Abercrombie's THE HEROES etc. prove that sf/f is vibrant and exciting.

Also, if someone says "slump" - what does that mean? Are sales numbers down? (no) Are units sold down? (no) Is visibility down? (no) Or, is this just a reaction to the feeling that breaking in to sf/f as a debut author is hard (yes)? There are fewer sf/f novels on the shelves than, say, romance novels, but that's always been true. There are, perhaps, fewer imprints to submit to as a debut sf/f author, but that's always been true too. So, slump? no. Hard? yes.

CIR: You recently taught writing classes and offered agent critiques as part of a charity drive. When working with new writers, what do you find are the most common misconceptions about becoming an author? What traits should new writers cultivate to help them become publish-worthy.

Sara: There is a difference between writing and publishing. Creating literature is an art and people who write should enjoy the writing. It's a WONDERFUL skill - one that I envy very much!

Publishing, however, is a business - filled with contracts, royalties, lawyers, deadlines, profit and loss statements, etc. If a writer finds him/herself in a position of being interested in publishing, then there are three major traits to adopt in order to take that step towards publication:

1) The writer must have a completed, professional, superior and unique book.

2) The writer should then invest time in learning about the business. Our website ( has a link called "submit manuscript" loaded with resources, FAQs, sample query letters, etc. If one were to spend an hour a week reading everything we post there, then that person would be lightyears ahead, in terms of knowledge

3) The writer should invest NOW in a professional author website - short bio, a headshot, a bit about what you write, a link to your blog or other social media

Finally, there are a ton of common misconceptions about publishing. It would be super nice if everyone understood the process before signing the agent-client agreement. But, that's ok - we all learn as we go. I try to help my clients acclimate to this weird new world. :)

First of all - it's a job. There are expectations (like deadlines), rules of the game (like contracts), time commitments (like writing and marketing). Our agency believes that publishing should make you money not cost you money, so we try to encourage authors to save. Still, there are some financial investments (like conferences, website and perhaps some marketing materials). Also, a NY publishing contract is a serious legal document - there is an element of "losing control" of your work if you decide/agree to publish - the publishing house has the final say on content, cover, back cover copy, release date, your next book, positioning your book, etc etc etc. We hope for "meaningful consultation" but, like I said, a publishing contract is a serious legal document and some of the most common, unfortunate, misconceptions come from misunderstanding legal rights. An agent helps a writer navigate these waters but all new authors go through a bit of a culture shock.

CIR: No agent interview would be complete without touching on the dreaded query letter. Do you have a process for filtering the query letters you receive? Do experience and references help or is it primarily the story that interests you?

Sara: *big smile* I totally understand the strain and worry that writers feel when they compose that query letter. If it makes you all feel any better, I compose a query letter when I submit a book to an editor!

Let's see - the process? We read 150-200 query letters a day. To be honest, a writer has seconds to stand out in the slush pile. Yes, we read carefully (we have to, right? If I pick the wrong clients and can't sell books then I have no job). But really and truly what I am looking for in a query letter is superior writing. Concept is important, although I will still pass on a great concept is the writing isn't strong enough. Listing contest wins, publishing history, experience, etc. catches my eye. Ultimately it's always the quality of the writing though.

I will say that meeting me at a conference, especially if you have a pitch session with me, is usually a good way to convince me to read a work!.

CIR: Most agent interviews focus on how new writers can get their big break. Here’s a bit of a twist. What advice would you give published authors who are trying to break through to the best seller’s list?

Sara: If there were a formula for getting on a bestsellers list, I would be a rich woman. :)

However, I will say that writing breath-taking books is the first place to start. Yes, make soul-scorchingly good books! That's step one.

Then the next step is platform. The question, of course, becomes "should I spend my time marketing or spend my time writing?" Another question to which I don't have the crystal-ball answer. Self promotions does affect book sales, though, so if you're serious, serious, serious about your career I would recommend finding time to write and market. Have a blog (Roni Loren whose debut contemporary erotic romance comes out in January was running her blog long before she signed with me. It's GENIUS!

Have a professional author website - clean, interesting, updated (Ashley March has been running guest blogs, giveaways, contests and interviews on her website with tremendous results! Her books are selling very well and her active website has driven incredible brand name recognition. ( A writer may also twitter or Facebook or speak at conferences or at libraries. All of these things help recognition and sales.

Third, don't burn bridges. Publishing is changing so rapidly right now - if you want to grow a career it's impossible to say who your best friend will be in 5 years. Also, publishing is a small business - we all know each other, so if you make unprofessional choices - we'll know about it!

Finally, yes - look at your options. Anything I write here today may be 100% different even tomorrow. As of today, a writer can publish a book using the traditional method of distribution (traditional publishing which, as of today, includes print books and ebooks) or by self publishing (which is typically just ebooks, but likely will be changing also). Both methods are legitimate forms of distribution - the savvy author asks "how can I leverage the strengths of traditional publishing AND the strengths of self-publishing within the legal bounds of each. In these "gold rush" times where self publishing ebooks can feel like the ticket out of the slush pile, it will be important for authors to make good business decisions and NOT emotional decisions. Research, evaluate, listen to experienced people from all sides of the business and be smart. "But I could make more money in self-publishing" is not a good reason to self-publish. "self publishing ebooks is a legitimate form of distribution" is a good reason. Conversely "but I want to hold a print book in my hand" is not a good reason to traditionally publish. But "traditional publishing is a legitimate form of distribution" is a good reason. See the difference?

So - my final answer? To break out in your career - write amazing books, build platform, don't burn bridges and make educated distribution decisions.

CIR: A few months ago, when Amanda Hocking’s success at self-publishing was announced, you tweeted that someone sent you statements suggesting that agents had become irrelevant. Now that Ms. Hocking has signed a deal with a major publisher, I suspect they may be regretting that. With the publishing industry changing so unpredictably, how do you see your role as an agent transforming?

Sara: My role as an agent is changing fundamentally. To be honest, it's 100% true that authors do not need agents. A savvy author can hire an entertainment lawyer to negotiate their contract, hire a publicity company to market their book, pay a professional editor (with all the layoffs in NY, there are plenty of great editors looking for work) and find a truly spectacular cover artist. Many writers don't want those responsibilities (plus auditing the royalty statements, tracking sales, selling foreign rights, selling audio rights, pursuing film options, etc etc etc). But, there exists another large segment of the population who DO want complete control over their career. Those authors likely will go on their own.

For the authors that still want a business partner, I'll still be here, and still tackling all the rights/contracts/marketing/publicity/editing that I always have! Incidentally, I am a marketing maniac! I'm a walking billboard for my clients. That's for sure one of my strengths as an agent. :)

CIR: Finally, we at CIR like to throw in at least one unexpected question into our interviews. A little bird told me that you are a Browncoat (a fan of the show Firefly). Browncoats (like me!) have been trying to find a way to bring the show back for years. If it were to be resurrected, what storyline would you like to see explored?

Sara: Oh geez - that is a tricky one! I loved the whole series and wanted more more more more! Of everything! I have a lucky coffee mug that says "My Firefly can beat up your Federation Starship" and I have a lucky hat that says "Shiny, Let's Be Bad Guys." :)

CIR: Thank you so much for sharing your time with us. We look forward to seeing you in the fall.

Note to self: Find out where Sara gets her Firefly paraphernalia.

To learn more about Nelson Agency and Sara Megibow, you can find her lurking at these fine internet establishments:
Twitter:  @SaraMegibow


Dean K Miller said...

First wanted to send her my pitch, so excited at her readiness. Then wanted to hide as the gloomy world of publishing seemed so scary. Thirdly, decided I am just going to keep being a writer, and see where that takes me.

What a great, in-depth interview. Tons of insight. Maybe in future years I can benefit from it even more.

Thanks. That was worth the time to read.

Patricia Stoltey said...

A great Q&A, Tamela and Sara. Thanks for all the great information!

Tamela Buhrke said...

Isn't Sara fun?! I can't wait to meet her in September. I highly recommend following her tweets.

j.a. kazimer said...


Great interview. Good question on making the bestseller list. Also, I'm so happy to know you are a browncoat. One of my favorite lines is "Shiney, let's be bad guys". This made my rainy day.