Friday, August 5, 2011

Interactive Interview with an Agent: Meredith Barnes

Interview today! And it’s interactive! (Seems like it’s been a while since we’ve had a good, old-fashioned installment of “Interview with an Agent.”) Today’s interviewee is Meredith Barnes of Lowenstein Associates. She maintains an awesome blog, the beautifully titled La Vie en Prose, so after you read the interview (and leave your questions in the comments), definitely go and check that out.

KV: How often does a query intrigue you enough to look at the included pages? And how often do those pages intrigue you enough to request the manuscript?

MB: I almost always look at the pages included with a query. Query writing is hard, so I like to take a look at the writing itself. Typically, I’ll read the first few lines of the query, get a sense of the category, length, and plot. Then I skip to the pages and read a few lines. If the pages are good, I just read them all and make a decision to request more from there. If they’re iffy, I’ll skip back up and read the rest of the query to see if there are any saving graces (like a unique plot twist or an author with a really stellar online presence). But in almost all cases, if the pages don’t wow, from word one, it will be a rejection, unfortunately.

KV: What are you looking for in a requested manuscript?

MB: First, voice. Voice is a very high indicator of a talented writer. So that means that the main character especially (but the other ones, too, of course) feels real. Under that rubric falls good dialog, showing instead of telling, etc. If a writer is able to bring their characters to life with distinctive and realistic voices, the most common faults (stilted dialog, telling) won’t happen. And they’re more likely to be able to revise.

Second is a good plot. Something that moves along at a quick pace. Contrary to popular belief, this is not only applicable to commercial fiction like thrillers. Even “literary fiction” has to have, as one of my creative writing professors put it, “People doing stuff.” (Actually, that’s edited. He used a curse word.) Even if the changes, the “moving along at a quick pace,” are happening emotionally on the inside of the character, there still have to be things happening. This requirement is a reaction against overwriting, that terrible sludgy writing filled with adjectives and inverted, extra clauses.

KV: What are some of the most common problems you see in the manuscripts you request?

MB: The inverses of what I’m looking for in a request: characters that don’t jump off the page because the dialog is stiff or the voice is inauthentic (so common in YA submissions), telling me someone feels uncomfortable instead of showing me how they fidget and cut their eyes, and overwritten “flowery” manuscripts where no one does anything.

KV: When you come across a manuscript you really like/love, how do you decide whether to request revisions or offer representation?

MB: Very, very rarely is anything ready right out of a full request. There are almost always revisions to be made, typically I want to see that before I’ll make a formal offer.

Usually, I’ll send a formal editorial letter to someone that I’m seriously considering, see how they take it (Argue? Not really know how to take the direction?) and then wait to read the revision. Revising is very different from writing--some writers can get it down on paper fairly well but can’t go back in and do the analysis to revise. I like to know I’m working with someone who can do both before signing them (Not that I won’t sign them if they struggle with revision, but one likes to know what one is getting into:) ).

Sometimes, though, something is JUST TOO GOOD to wait on, and I’ll send an offer with my editorial letter. That way the author can see what I’d change when initially deciding whether or not to go on with me. I’ll move faster if I know an editor that’s dying to see that project or I personally have really wanted that sort of thing. I do a lot of nonfiction, so if a sample chapter is really good and the proposal is polished, I’ll sign that right off, usually. And, of course, sometimes you have to make a snap decision if the author is considering another offer. First I have to consider if I really want it, and once I do it’s all cylinders go, letter, phone call, offer all pretty quickly.

KV: When you do make that Call, you’re probably going to ask the writer if she has any questions. What sorts of questions should she ask?

MB: Ooh! This is a good one. Authors should always ask, first and foremost, about revisions that an agent wants made. If you haven’t seen a letter before your phone call (I think it’s easier to send one then schedule the call, so those revision can be discussed more in-depth), ask what revisions they’d request. How do those sit with you? If you have seen an editorial letter and have reservations, talk that through. Just as much as some authors don’t want their work critiqued, some agents get huffy if you question their notes, and you should know that ahead of time. There are times when you have to go with your agent’s gut, but revisions have to be collaborative.

You should also ask about communication style. Does the agent do a regular check in with everyone? Do they pretty much only get in touch if there’s news or something specific to discuss? Which do you want? Differences in this category are probably the most frequent reason agents and authors have trouble, so it’s an important one!!

Lastly, ask your agent what their overall Plan is for your book. Books are not just books anymore. They could become apps or enhanced ebooks or have cool interactive elements like game websites. There are cool marketing techniques that your book might lend itself to (I, for instance, have a book in which music features prominently, so playlists will be a big thing for our marketing). Are they thinking outside the box? Can they talk about this stuff? These days, they should be able to.

KV: And now for a few quick questions from the normal interview. What client work do you have coming out soon? What drew you to those writers and/or projects?

MB: I have some really exciting projects coming up, but none that are web-ready yet!! You know, don’t want to spoil the pre-empt I’m aiming for:)

I can tell you that the next two things I have coming up, one fiction and one non, both had very unique concepts, great voices, digitally savvy authors who are open to my quirky ideas on digital elements and marketing, and both projects lend themselves to all the book+ that’s going on: apps, multimedia enhancements, and unique marketing.

KV: Is there something you haven’t been seeing lately in the slush pile that you wish you were? What are you tired of seeing at the moment?

MB: I’m a little YA’d out, honestly, although I am still biting for the sci-fi and thrillers…but just no more paranormal, please. A really unique YA contemporary might catch my eye, too. Something with rock and roll in it.

I’d love to see some great literary fiction, something like a Jennifer Egan/A Visit from the Goon Squad.

I also just finished Galveston by the inestimable Nic Pizzolatto…please someone be another him and query me. It’s highly literary but extraordinarily paced (see #2 in this interview). Same for Will Lavender’s work (Obedience, Dominance). These are both of the crime persuasion, but I’d love to see a sci-fi thriller that was written as well as these are.

For nonfiction: always blog-to-book. Of course, platform is a huge consideration in nonfiction. Be honest with yourself about your platform: think in the thousands, not hundreds when you're talking about blog followers, etc. If you're not there, WAIT. It's better to take some time to build your platform before you query.

I’m also looking for amazing stories and a sassy relationship or fashion expert who would reach this demographic:


KV: What’s the best way to query you?

MB: You can find Lowenstein Associates’ submission guidelines here: lowensteinassociates.com/submission.html, or on my blog: merbarnes.blogspot.com!! The worst way to query me is to do anything other than that--don’t get cute.

And there you have it. Thanks again, Ms. Barnes, for all of this FANTASTIC information. We almost don’t need to do the interactive part…

But we will! Because I’m sure you savvy readers have a lot of savvy questions. Feel free to leave them in the comments section below. Ms. Barnes will pop in throughout the day and leave her answers in the comments, too. We’ll wrap things up at 3:00 p.m. EDT (which is 12:00 noon PDT), just so Ms. Barnes can enjoy her Friday night. Until then, ask away!

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey Meredith,

Great interview. Very informative. Thank you! Hope to hear from you soon on my submission :) Got that red pen out and am ready to revise! ;)

Keith Yatsuhashi

Matthew MacNish said...

Great stuff! Thanks, Krista and Meredith.

Jenilyn Tolley said...

Thanks for the great interview! I saw on your blog that you are not interested in early readers. Do you represent middle grade books or do you prefer books for an older audience?

Meredith Barnes said...

Jenilyn,

"Early Reader" is a specific age group: from about age 7 to 10. "Middle Grade" is the next age bracket, from 11 to about 13. Then YA takes over from there to about 18.

So an "Early Reader" would be one of those easy chapter books. A book teaching a kid to read. I'm not interested in that. But MG and YA are welcome! (Although I'm pretty YA'd out. I am more focused on my adult list).

M

Krista V. said...

Great question, Jeni, and even greater answer, Meredith:) (I didn't realize you repped MG!)

Here's one last question from the Krista gallery: How can a writer get the most out of the Internet at each stage of the writing journey (pre-agent, post-agent, pre-book release, post-book release)?

Anonymous said...

You know, Meredith--I've been thinking about the once standard serialization. Digital publishing puts a new spin on it and makes it viable again. Not a bad way to build an audience--cliffhangers work for a reason. Some publishers release the first few chapters of a book for free to hook a reader, but suppose with certain titles, you go back to the serial model. Roll out a few chapters at a time at less than a $$ per. Build tension, build demand. Readers go for the page turner, what if they needed to buy that next page? The less-than-a-dollar price point is like a door-buster, used to get the customer in the door. Not a big investment, but if you hook your customer, you've got them. iTunes does this for music, and the format worked once. It might work again.

Keith Yatsuhashi

Toby Speed said...

Krista, thanks for another wonderful agent interview. I've been happily making my way through your archives.

Meredith, I'm wondering what kinds of crime fiction/mysteries you particularly enjoy reading--puzzles, humorous mysteries, scary stuff, amateur sleuths, would be a few examples. Any favorite authors (not necessarily clients) you'd like to share? Thanks for your time today.

Meredith Barnes said...

Krista! Great question, and one that I deal with a lot on ze blog. That's a bit too big of a question to answer in-depth here, but I'll do a blog on this on Monday, OK?

Short answer: research, relationships, and information pre-pub; major publicity and marketing reach when the book comes out, and permanent retailer presence post-pub.

For stage one, you have to abide by the rules of the road: relationship building does not mean stalking, and you MUST follow sub guidelines, even if you consider yourself "buddies." (hint: you're not. You Tweet at each other)

Stage two involves a lot of strategy and a lot of time. Marketing a product of any kind is hard. You will have an in-house publicist for the few months surrounding your launch, but then you have to get creative (PS, this is not evility on the publisher's part. It's just the way of things. There's another book launching after yours). Many agencies, including LA, are offering marketing services to clients--make sure you find out about that in your agent call before you accept representation.

Stage three is pretty much true even if you do nothing to promote the book--Amazon will always carry it. :) But if you've done your work in step 2, you'll have a platform to build on for the life of your book. You will have already gathered an audience that you can *keep* talking to (not just about your book, btw).

m. christine weber said...

Lovely interview! And super informative. Thanks to you both. Um…my question is in regards to an author working well with an agent. There are a lot of suggestions in the blogosphere for attracting agents, but what are the things you like to see (besides fabulous writing) in an author that makes you think, “Oh hell yeah, I can definitely work with this person for the long term”?

Meredith Barnes said...

Keith (Anonymous, you sneak :))

I agree with you in a lot of what you said, but the number one road block for serialization is attention spans.

These days a spot on The TODAY show isn't even enough to sell a bunch of books because once people turn off the TV and go about their day, they *forget.* The title, the author, the whole segment. Expecting a reader to remember that they liked a short, what it's called, when the next one is coming out, and to GO ONLINE and shell out another $1.99 is tough.

In order for serialization to work, the reader would have to pay on a subscription basis: so they pay a flat rate to have weekly (or whatever) installments delivered automatically. It has to be convenient.

And a slightly less-relevant note about "Serialization:" Authors, if you're looking to go the traditional publishing route, DO NOT put significant portions of your book online. Not all at once, not once a week. Don't do it.

Not only is it risky (you're going to do edits with your agent, and then with your editor--this is not publication-ready, no matter what), you're PUBLISHING that material!

That means that you've already breached a publishing contract you haven't even signed. The warranties and indemnities section of a contract promises that your material has not been previously published. Publishing more than 1,000 words of your work online could be construed to constitute a breach if someone really wanted to.

Just query. I know you think you're being fancy and that some agent is just going to stumble onto your blog (unlikely) and fall in love with the pages you've posted (without a query to give context, also highly unlikely).

Trust me on this one.

Meredith Barnes said...

Toby, I listed some authors I'm enamored of above (Will Lavender and Nic Pizzolatto write crime/mystery stuff) and I'll add Tom Franklin to that list. Will Lavender's OBEDIENCE is a delightfully "puzzle-type" book.

Basically I want my crime and mystery that are very well written, almost literary. My biggest beef with lit fic is that it doesn't have any plot. Framing a wonderfully written book with a crime/mystery to solve often solves that problem.

Of course, thrillers will never be literary, neither will cozies. I'm open to both of those too.

Meredith Barnes said...

M. Christine,

Well, really nothing is more important than fabulous writing. If you write a book that sells a billion copies and gets great reviews and pays my rent (not paid until you are, remember), I can deal with almost anything.

I think the number one thing after great writing is communication style. I am fairly communicative and like to touch base once every two weeks. I prefer email and HATE being randomly called by clients, as if my work day is pause-able.

Other agents email only when there's news or a deadline. There are authors that prefer both and I'd probably make some of the authors that prefer the latter feel really paranoid. Like "OMG EMAIL FROM AGENT WHAT'S HAPP--Oh. It's just saying Hi."

After that is openness to revision and revision skill. I hate justifying or arguing about revisions--though sometimes it's inevitable. I'm totally OK with an author saying "You know, I just don't know about this but let me play around with it." But saying "No." or, worse, just not doing it, like I won't notice, is silly.

Once you take the agent's notes and start doing the revision, you may see what they're asking for more clearly. Or you may find a very clear reason why their suggestion WILL NOT work. Authors that come to me and say "I see what you're saying, but because of __ I don't think it'll work." have a much easier time getting off the hook.

m. christine weber said...

Got it! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Hey Meredith,

Keith again. Not trying to be sneaky, just logging in the only way I know :) I understand what you're saying about attention span. Add to that the incredible digital competition out there for everyone's attention. Even as I'm typing, I'm getting emails, the phone's going off, someone's texting me. I still thinks serialization's viable, though it would probably only work very well established authors or the really savvy ones. A good guerrilla marketing campaign (no, I don't have one...yet) could create buzz. Nothing draws people in better than curiosity. Sex sells, true, but if you really want to get someone's attention, give them a puzzle. Something that sticks in their head until they find the answer to it. I remember some movie promotion in which the add was asks if you know what 'x' is. A few weeks later it was...'x' is coming are you ready. That was it. Got people talking, trying to figure out what 'x' was. Darn it, now I'll spend the day pondering something unrelated to work :) And I have a deadline--putting together a proposal for Reed Expo's to get a USA Pavilion at next year's London Book Fair. Not as much fun as talking sales and PR :)

All this aside, the changes taking place in publishing are fascinating. In all entertainment, really. The question is how to get noticed in all the clutter.

Speaking of which--hope we can chat about my submission at some point ;) You've seen it come along, so you KNOW I take input and revise accordingly. I'm a marketing guy, I know that putting out a quality product is what counts, and input and guidance is essential in doing that. OMG, that was a pitch...sorry. Sort of :) I'll stop doing that now. Promise.

Keith Yatsuhashi

Lydia said...

Two parter: First; we know what you WANT to see hitting ye olde query inbox; what specifically are you over/not open to in fiction and non-fiction?

What genres are showing wear and tear right now, and what genres are glowing hot in the marketplace?

kbaumeister said...

Hi Meredith,

Besides lack of plot, are there other problem tendencies you see in writers coming out of MFA programs? Do you have a general opinion on the MFA? Is the credential a positive or negative when you sit down to look at a query/ms?

Thanks,

Kurt Baumeister

Melodie said...

Thanks for the interview, Krista and Meredith!

My question is about personalizing queries. Meredith mentioned skipping over the first graphs to get to the heart of the query. If faced w/ 250 Qs per day, I'd so the same. Written personalization takes so much time...not to say I wouldn't cyber-stalk/check agent's list before submitting, but
how important is it that I schmooze a little before getting to business?
A little? A lot? Not at all important?
Thanks!

Meredith Barnes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Meredith Barnes said...

Lydia,

I am not now and have never been the agent for paranormal YA. I find this a fault with myself rather than with the genre--a lot of people like it. So anything with vampires, werewolves, angels, demons, etc. is not my bag. Also contemporary YA not my thing--it would have to include rock-and-roll. Or be hysterical.

I like secret societies only in the Dan Brown-esque coming-to-get-you-and-end-the-world sense. YA, MG (if you can pull it off), or Adult for that. I'd like to see a Dan Brown or Stieg Larsen-type thriller for the YA

Meredith Barnes said...

kbaumeister,

An MFA is certainly not a bad thing...but it's not necessarily good in general for you as a writer.

An MFA tends to sequester you with your own writing for years on end; most MFA writers I talk to have not read much commercial or contemporarily published fiction in YEARS. And it shows in the writing...in having no plot (but THE LANGUAGE!! No.), being reductive, or just being horribly horrible overwritten.

You want to sell your book to a wide audience. Even the biggest literary snobs, if they were honest, want to sell books. In order to do so you have to write something a lot of people want to read.

I think getting out in the world, having some EXPERIENCES (aside from going to class) and reading what your future readership thinks is great will better prepare you to write that book than an MFA in nearly all cases.

Jamie Wyman said...

Hi, Meredith. Thanks for doing this today. So, I had an agent for my book, but things happened and that fell apart. When re-querying to find a new agent, should I mention that or leave that for later conversation? Also, two publishers have my full manuscript. Is that something I should mention in my queries as well?

Thanks again for your insight.

-J.

Jamie Wyman said...

Oh, I should mention that the 2 publishers that have my book do so because of my work, not that of the ex-agent.

Meredith Barnes said...

Melodie,

First off, personalizing a query should be no more difficult than using my name in the greeting, spelled correctly.

But if you choose to do more, ther personalization should never be a roadblock to "getting to business."

Since I prefer the title, category, and wordcount to come at the beginning, I'm hopefully not skipping your opening paragraphs.

I typically skip the late middle of the query to skip to the pages (remember, the thing's not that long...there's not much I can skip).

So I'd advise personalizing only simply: "Dear Meredith, I saw on Twitter ___ so I though you'd like my XX word [CATEGORY/GENRE], [TITLE]." It's not preventing us getting to business at all.

If you don't have anything special that triggered you to query the agent (aka you have nothing personal to say) don't reach. It's awkward and you end up having to explain yourself and take up time. Just use the agent's name in the greeting.

Everyone says they read the blog, so you can leave that out if you want.

I'll tell you what I definitely hate, the opposite of personalizing, is when someone doesn't follow my submission guidelines. That's when I know that the only thing you know about me is my email address.

Meredith Barnes said...

Jamie Wyman,

I'd say leave it out, although you should definitely tell an offering agent in the phone call. Just query the book. You should also be sure that you've got hard copy proof of the former agent's releasing you *and* your work.

As for the two publishers with your ms: BEWARE! First of all (don't answer this online) who are they? Major NYC publishers? Reputable indie presses? How close are you to a deal? If you sign a contract without representation, you take some serious risks--I've seen people sign contracts that don't even specify who has what rights.

I would advise strongly that you 1. hire an *entertainment* or *publishing* lawyer to do the contract with you or 2. wait for an agent. You will, for sure, get a better deal than if you were alone.

If there's no deal in sight, email the publisher and ask where they stand with the ms and try to get a concrete timeframe. If no deal's in sight, it's OK to bide your time--just keep querying. But if you're looking at a deal in the next little bit, I'd strongly advise you to consider the press, consider what their marketing will be like, what other books they've published have done. If they wouldn't be your dream publisher, withdraw your submission.

Yep, I said that.

Too many authors jump the gun on their first offer, of publication or of representation. But if your vision doesn't jive with the agent or publisher, you're setting yourself up for disappointment.

Waiting for an agent will give you a better opportunity to have the whole story (and keep some rights!) when you have offers to consider. If that means you let this one go, that's OK.

Anonymous said...

Hi Meredith,

I pitched several agents at a conference this summer, and they all requested materials. I sent two partials and a full, and am still waiting to hear back. Is it okay to send out query letters while they have my material? Should I mention that fact in the query?

Thanks,
Sharon

Meredith Barnes said...

Sharon,

Yep, totally OK to query up until the moment someone offers you representation--or if you make arrangements for an exclusive while someone works with you on revisions. Personally, I don't demand that revisions be exclusive (so authors can keep querying).

Of course, if someone does offer you rep, it's courteous to go to the agents you queried and tell them so--and, unless you're hook line and sinker for the one who offered, give everyone a week to make their decisions.

Don't mention the conference requests in the query.

Good luck!

Meredith Barnes said...

Everyone, really enjoyed it!! Thanks for the questions!!

Mer

Krista V. said...

And that's a wrap! Thank you, everyone, for all your questions. And an extra big thank-you to you, Meredith, for spending the day with us.

Lorena said...

Great interview, thanks to both!

Krista V. said...

You're welcome, Lorena! Thanks for stopping by!