Monday, February 21, 2011

An Agent's View: Talking with Jennifer Laughran

Okay, I know I promised you practical tools for managing online information but I was just SO DANGED thrilled about this interview that I decided it couldn't wait another week, while practical online tips most definitely could.

I am HUGELY excited to share with you an interview with Jennifer Laughran of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, better known to those of you on Twitter as @Literaticat.

In an industry that can often overwhelm and confuse, Jennifer is an invaluable, accessible source of publishing insight and helpful information. After reading her blog and following her on Twitter for lo these many months, I felt sure that many Shrinking Violet readers would benefit greatly from some of that insight...

SVP: Are you an introvert? How about your clients, would you say a large number of the writers you’ve met are introverts?

I am sort of a mixture. I can be quite outgoing, "on" - I am quite noisy and confident when in this mode, and I'm OK with talking to large groups or strangers. But I do need a lot of time to decompress afterward. I'd say for every hour of "on" I need two of quiet alone-time.  I am not sure how my clients would define themselves in this regard. I'd imagine that most of them are kind of like me - able to be lively raconteurs, but possibly work better in solitude.

SVP: Your client list is widely varied and includes debut authors, those who have published a few books, and those who’ve been publishing for years. Can you pinpoint what qualities those authors or their writing have in common that drew you to them?

JL:  They are all at the top of their form. Their work is all totally different, but always fun to read. They are all pretty much straightforward and open communicators.

SVP: What is your agenting style? Are you a hands on agent editorially? A shark?

JL: I do read and give notes, but the are likely to be big-picture or "Meta Notes." Like, I might tell you that I feel the main character seems too young to be credible and ask you to consider aging her up a bit. But I am unlikely to give detailed line-edits or copy-edit type notes. My authors tend to give me pretty polished work (and if it wasn't almost ready, I wouldn't have taken it on to begin with.) So, yeah. I consider myself a SELLING agent.

SVP: What do you think aspiring authors would be most surprised to hear about agents in general or you in particular? 
JL: I think there is a lot of mystique surrounding agents. In fact, we are quite normal, and rarely drink writer blood.

SVP: What is the one biggest misconception authors seem to have about the publishing business?

JL: Many people think (quite erroneously) that there is some easy shortcut to publication that nobody is telling them, and that once they are published everything will be covered in rainbows and sparkledust.

In fact, getting published is mostly a very long, very slow, at times quite painful, slog. It is HARD WORK to be a great writer. Publishing is SLOW and AWFUL much of the time. I mean, don't get me wrong, it is probably better than digging ditches, and there can be moments of profound glory, but it isn't a get-rich-quick scheme by any stretch, and it won't make you happier or more fulfilled if you aren't those things to begin with. 

SVP: You are not only a literary agent, but a bookseller as well. Did one lead to the other? In what ways does the bookselling inform your agenting?

JL: Well, I've worked in bookstores since I was twelve or so. My older sister owned a bookstore for many years and I was raised in a very booksellery family. I worked in children's bookstores throughout school and college. Then when I got older, I became a buyer and events coordinator for an awesome big indie in San Francisco. All of this has definitely informed my agenting - first of all, I came to agenting already knowing a ton of people in publishing, a ton about how publishing works, and A TON about kids books. Also, a bookseller is a tastemaker. Booksellers are evangelists for books that they love and handsell them to (often initially reluctant) customers. This is basically the same thing I do now, just on a different scale.

SVP: What is the biggest mistake you see beginning authors make? 
JL: Beginning authors tend to torture themselves so much with the most minute and ridiculous things. Like endless stressing over word count, and how to format this and that and blah blah blah. While the internet is great and allows getting information to be easy, it is also awful because getting MISINFORMATION, or conflicting information, is just as easy, so many authors wind themselves up in knots. Here's the deal: Be a good writer, with good ideas. Follow the directions as best you can. When in doubt, use common sense and common courtesy. Stop freaking out. Here's a good blog post on the subject:

SVP: Other than having a website, what other online activities and platforms do you think authors should participate in?  If an author could only do three things to promote and market their work, what, in your opinion, should those be?
JL: I feel like authors should focus on their writing FIRST AND FOREMOST. If that means that they do less self-promotion, well, that's just the way it crumbles. I do think it is awesome and amazing when authors are great bloggers, or have entertaining and enlightening twitter-streams, or whatever... but maybe that isn't you.

I think that if you want an online presence but are not naturally internet-savvy, it is worth exploring the options (blogging? facebook? active forum participant? twitter? vlogging? group blogging? teaching online classes?  a combo, or something else entirely?), then picking just a couple to really focus your energy on, rather than trying to become great at everything. If you have a blog you never update or that you clearly hate writing on, or a boring, self-congratulatory or irritating tweet-stream, it hurts you more than it helps you.

FURTHER, I think that when everybody does the same things to try to get attention, nobody gets attention. So while it is nice to say "yay, I am a debut author, I'm in a marketing group!" - look, there are 75 others just like you in the same "marketing group", and that kind of loses its impact. Not to say you oughtn't be in it - but I would really spend time focused on playing to your own unique strengths, and what makes your book and your point of view DIFFERENT from the other stuff out there.  (Sort of like how you have done with Shrinking Violets!)

So three things... hm. Personally, I'd get to know real live booksellers and librarians and work on really building up my mailing list with quality folk. I'd have a fun and informative website. I'd probably have a blog and twitter, because I like doing them. But your three things might be totally different - and that is a GOOD thing.

SVP: Can you tell us what author platform means to you and how much of a factor that is when deciding whether or not to take on an author? Do you see an author’s platform affecting how an editor/publisher responds to a submission? Does that vary from publisher to publisher?

JL: Platform is really something that matters a lot when you are talking about nonfiction. Like, if you have written a book about polar bear rescues, and you are the president of the Polar Bear Society and have access to their mailing list of 2 million Polar Bear devotees, this is definitely important and worth mentioning up front.

For fiction, though, I am not convinced that platform really matters all that much. Sure if you are FAMOUS (have a TV show, or a show on NPR, or similar) that is awesome and will definitely help you immensely - but other than that?  Nah.  It can be a nice bit of extra sauce to a publicity package if, for example, you've written a thriller about kids dealing with climate change and megastorms, and you are an expert in that field - but it wouldn't convince a publisher to go for the book, if the book wasn't worthy on its own.

SVP: In what way has the rise of social media and increased online avenues benefited authors? In what ways has it made things more difficult?
JL: Social media gives people a chance to put themselves out there more easily. But it also gives people a chance to put themselves out there TOO easily.  Sometimes the conversations we have online feel like a handful of great friends gossiping and gabbing in your kitchen... but in fact, you are in public, not at a sleepover. Personality definitely shines through and will help you stand out, but you have to figure out how to be personable and personal without being weird or offputting. It's a fine line sometimes. :-)

SVP: One thing writers hear a lot from agents is the recommendation to not compare yourself to others. While that’s most excellent advice, it is often hard to follow. Do you have any words of wisdom or tips to offer writers how to specifically guard against those unhelpful comparisons? Are there concrete ways that comparing can be detrimental, not just demoralizing?

JL: The thing to remember is, every book has its own path. Literally NO books that I have agented have been bought or published the same way. Some take a long time and lots of hard work to sell, some get snapped up in a hurry at auction. Some get a huge advance, some... don't. Some are rushed to press with very little in the way of work done, some take years. Sometimes books with a huge advance get a lot of publicity... but sometimes they get ignored. Some books are orphaned or ignored, but go on to be big successes. There is just no way to predict what will happen with any given book when you start out, and especially not once it is published and sent out into the world.

It kills me when authors compare themselves others, "my editor took longer to get back to me than she did with so-and-so, so she hates my book" or "I didn't get a good advance, so I'm doomed" or "I didn't get a pre-pub tour/get invited to BEA/have a tour set up for me, so my publisher doesn't believe in me" or whatever other insanity (and I have heard a LOT of insanity!). Authors have a tendency to be neurotic at the best of times, and the free access to too much information (via other author blogs, marketing groups, or similar) seems to exacerbate the neuroses for a lot of people, to the point where even very smart authors can make themselves sick, or stop being able to produce good work.

If you are caught up in the envy-paranoia-despair trap, I strongly recommend this blog post by Lisa Schroeder:

SVP:  What three authors, other than your own, living or dead, would you like to have dinner with?

JL: E. Nesbit, Bertolt Brecht and Oscar Wilde. I don't know if they'd get along, but it would amuse the heck out of me.

SVP: What was the moment you realized you wanted to be an agent?

JL: From being around the book business, of course I knew that agents existed, but I honestly didn't know what they did exactly and didn't think too much about it. Then I met a very cool agent at a book event and we went out for drinks and food after with a bunch of his clients. A bunch of happy writers and a fun, funny and smart agent. YAY! His enthusiasms and interests seemed aligned with my own and he clearly had a total dream job. So, I looked more closely at it, got an internship, worked hard (for years. for free.) while learning the ropes, and it turned out to be a really good, natural fit for me.
SVP: Do you believe that cream rises? That great writing will always find a home? Or in some cases does great writing overlooked due to the realities of the marketplace?

JL: I honestly think that great writing will find a home, provided it is accompanied by ingenuity, perseverance, patience and flexibility.

A person can be a talented writer, but if their work is old-fashioned and they won't or can't revise it ... or if they don't have the gumption to actually send their work out... or try another story if the first one doesn't sell... or if they get too freaked out by uncertainty or can't handle critique... well those folks might be better off in a different line of work.


Kristine Asselin said...

Great interview! Thanks for sharing it.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

This is fabulous, especially the portion about finding your own niche on the Internet. I sometimes feel like the only author not on Twitter, and while I know I'm missing out on some discussions, I don't want to commit to another on-line activity. I want to do what I do well, and, you know, write.

Wild About Words said...

Awesome interview! Thanks for sharing your experience and expertise.

Amanda Hoving said...

This was great! Thanks for answering these questions so honestly and thoughtfully, Jennifer.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

A fun interview, and the information is consistent with what I've seen of the publishing world so far. One of the advantages of social networking with other authors is that you do get to see how different everyone's journeys are; you see how many different ways things can go. There isn't just one right way or one successful path.

Kirk Kraft said...

Great interview. I found her comments about new writers focusing on minute things pretty funny. I can see why some writers might do this. I'm pretty organized and focused, but I don't bash myself over the small details at this stage. First and foremost I want to write a fabulous story.

Laurie L Young said...

Great questions! I love the reminder that writing is hard work. Sometimes harder than digging ditches, in my opinion, but ultimately cleaner. Thanks for a very informative and encouraging post.

Becky Levine said...

Jenn, if E. Nesbit shows up for dinner, I'm coming, too!

Great interview. Thanks. :)

Margie Gelbwasser said...

Great interview! The part about not comparing yourself with other writers really spoke to me.

Theresa Milstein said...

I really enjoyed this interview. I've been lucky enough to have two critiques from Jennifer Laughran. Both times, I learned a lot about my writing.

"...great writing will find a home, provided it is accompanied by ingenuity, perseverance, patience and flexibility." I'm going to remember this quote.

Anne R. Allen said...

Nice, in depth interview. I love the idea of Oscar Wilde, E. Nesbit and Herr Brecht in a room together. How about adding Dorothy Parker to the mix? Of course, the bon mots might dazzle us to death.

I'm interested that Jennifer says platform still isn't important for fiction. Some agents insist on it. One agency has posted on their website that they won't look at novels without a strong platform, and another says she won't ask for a partial unless the author is at least on Facebook, Twitter and has a blog with a decent number of followers. They're probably dealing with different marketing departments.

And as Jennifer says, there's a lot of blather and conflicting information out here in Cyberia, so I guess it's always best to check with individual agent websites and recent comments from QueryTracker and Absolute Write. It seems as if things can change pretty fast.

R.L. LaFevers said...

I'm so glad you all thought the interview was as awesome as I did!

And Becky, yes, if E. Nesbit shows up, I am *so* there!

Anne, as for Jenn's comments about platform, I think that's the sort of thing we take into consideration when we're shopping for an agent: which agent's views are the most closely aligned with our own. At least, I would. :-)

Literaticat said...

But... having a facebook and a twitter isn't "platform". It's nice, but it doesn't automatically sell books. My mom has a facebook... that doesn't make her the toast of NY publishing.

NPR is a platform. Nationally syndicated TV shows or newspaper columns are a platform.

A facebook page? Who cares, unless you also have like 30,000 followers who will actually DO the things that you ask them to do.

I mean - I have almost 10,000 followers. But how many of those are actually followers who will DO WHAT I SAY and PAY MONEY for things? Like, 3 maybe?

Literaticat said...

PS: I read this interesting article today, on the topic of social media as "platform" -

Bluejun said...

As a long-time fan of Jen's, the fact that all the advice above is wildly sane does not surprise me. Great interview.

R.L. LaFevers said...

Jen, thanks so much for those great link! Yours is the interview that keeps on giving! :-)

And I so agree with your point about platforms!

nutschell said...

I love this interview. I had the chance to meet Jennifer at last year's Big Sur Writing Workshop. She is as awesome in real life as she is in this interview.

The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

E Nesbit, Oscar Wilde and Robert Heinlein. I just lucked out and found some E Nesbit short stories I'd never read before at the Santa Monica Library.

Your words relieve me. This is the only comment I will make today. I am going to spend my time writing.
Thanks for the interview!