Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Novel Road Interview: Jeff Kleinman

80 weeks
on the
New York Times bestseller list...
and counting
   So you’ve written a book… Friends and beta readers love it. It’s time to unveil your brilliance to a literary agent so your work may begin to find its way to bookstores everywhere. The next step is writing the perfect query letter right? Wrong.
  The first step is to research and make a list of which agents represent your genre and similar books. Then you pare the list down to who has the best chance at bringing you success in the highly competitive world of publishing.
  At the tippy top of most lists is the name of my guest today on The Novel Road : Jeff Kleinman, of Folio Literary Management.
Let’s see how he comes out on The Novel Road agent checklist:
The scale is one to five + signs, +++++ being best:
Knowledge of publishing: +++++
Sales track record: +++++
Client opinion: +++++
Works with author to make the book the best it can be: +++++
Respect level in the publishing world: +++++
Loves e-mails: + (this will be explained later)
But first, a little about my guest…
    Jeff is one of the founders of Folio Literary Management, LLC. He wanted to establish an agency that is forward-thinking and able to offer services that “traditional” literary agents don’t provide, so in 2006 he joined with his partners to establish Folio.
I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee   Over the course of his career, he’s represented many successful books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, The Widow of the South and A Separate Country by Robert Hicks, Mockingbird by Charles Shields, and The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty. He has also had the privilege of representing the critically acclaimed Finn by Jon Clinch, Sacco & Vanzetti by Bruce Watson, and Enslaved by Ducks by Bob Tarte. His list is comprised of projects with unusual premises; books that offer up some new perspective on something he thought he already knew or never dreamed existed; and wonderful, character-driven novels. That’s what he’s looking for.
    Since he spent a great deal of his life in an academic setting (he has a B.A. in Modern Studies from the University of Virginia, an M.A. in Italian from the University of Chicago, and a J.D. from the Case Western Reserve University School of Law), he often enjoys narratives revolving around a distinct community. History has always been a passion, so he’s on the lookout for something that brings the past to life and makes it relevant. Animals are another interest: he grew up in a house that had a lot of animals underfoot, so not surprisingly he find himself doing a lot of animal-oriented books today. He became an agent because he loves books and believe that good writing and smart ideas can transform our world. So he’s selective about what he represents.
Some of the novels he represents include:
        What He’s Looking For:
Escape stories that take us totally out of our world and into another. (But keep in mind that he doesn’t represent science fiction or fantasy.)
Happy, upbeat subjects. Jeff believes a lot of misery memoirs, terrorists bent on destroying civilization, and post-apocalyptic disasters are going to be difficult to sell.
Inspirational stories. Books that celebrate some aspect of life, or inspire people to try harder and work more. This doesn’t mean saccharine stuff, which he steers clear of – but he does like well-written, solid stories that inspire and charm.
Nonfiction: Do you have a nonfiction idea and/or proposal?
For nonfiction, his interests are divided into two areas: “narrative” (a nonfiction story) and “prescriptive” (“how-to”):
Narrative: He’s particularly interested in narrative nonfiction, and has sold projects in a wide variety of subjects. Some of his areas of particular interest include, in no particular order: art, history, espionage, military, business, memoir, animals (especially equestrian, but certainly dogs and exotics, too), nature, biography, humor, crime, health, and any unique, intriguing subject.
Prescriptive: He’s particularly interested in parenting (for instance, he’s done books about dealing with your kids in cyberspace, toddlers, pregnancy, Alzheimer’s, overweight kids, and a bunch of others) health and fitness, psychology, pop-culture, self-help, celebrity books, pets, some business, and other unique, intriguing subjects.
Fiction: Have you written a novel?
There’s no doubt about it – fiction is definitely harder to sell. He love novels, and does represent fiction. He’s looking for extremely well-written, character-driven books that make him absolutely fall in love with the characters and their world.
For fiction, he represent the following areas: upmarket commercial (but not genre commercial, like mysteries or romances), and literary; including thriller, suspense, legal, and historical.
Your novel should be between 70,000 and 120,000 words in length.
He does not represent Children’s, Young Adult, Christian, Poetry, or genre commercial fiction (Science Fiction and/or Fantasy, Westerns, Mysteries, and/or romances), or Prescriptive (“How to”) Travel books; nor does he represent original plays, teleplays, or screenplays.
I am pleased to welcome Jeff Kleinman to The Novel Road…

Jeff Kleinman

Me: Tell us about your typical work day, from start to finish. 
Jeff: Alarm clock goes off.  Wake up, take the dogs out, check email from the night before (first moment of feeling utterly overwhelmed).  Go running.  Shower.  Get to office.  Sit down at computer.  Answer email.  Read.  Make/answer phone calls.  Answer more email.  Answer more email.  Try to read but get stuck reading more email instead.  Grab lunch.  Get back to desk to find, with delight, find more email which need to be answered.  Read a page but get derailed when 30 more emails hit my inbox.  Talk to / IM with colleagues while answering more email.  Go home, grab dinner, answer more email, read, get yelled at by wife for not spending time with family, answer more email, read bedtime story to kid, answer more email, take a shower, answer more email, climb into bed, drag laptop into bed, answer more email, close computer and lie in bed, thinking about the email that I forgot to answer, get up, answer the email I forgot to answer, lie back down, close eyes, fall asleep, dream of email.

Me: As a literary agent, you look for what you are passionate about, as well as what will sell. Has there been a time when you found a book you loved, but knew it wouldn’t sell?
Jeff: Nope.  I’m the eternal optimist.  I’m certain that if *I* love the book then everybody else will, too.  (They don’t, always, though.)  I don’t really understand the “I know it won’t sell” philosophy – if I fall head-over-heels, I cheerfully believe everyone else will, too.

Me: Authors hiring freelance editors before finding an agent. Your thoughts?
Jeff: Assuming we’re talking about novels, and about first-time authors here.  In such a case, this is absolutely the author’s decision.  I could care less.  What I *do* care about, though, is that the author be capable of helping with flapcopy, marketing, press releases, blog interviews, whatever – so if the author’s writing skills aren’t up to par, it would make more sense to me that the author first really learns how to write, rather than taking a short-cut and finding someone else to help the author write the book for him/her.

Me: How high on your list is narrative voice and distance when you are considering a manuscript? The importance of each?

Jeff: Voice is becoming more and more critical in novels – I suspect it’s quite possibly one of the most important elements I’m looking for.  Narrative distance, however, I couldn’t care less about.  That’s those authors’ problems.  They can sort that kind of stuff out; I’m just the crass salesman.  All I care about is that the book works.

Learning to Speak Alzheimer's: A Groundbreaking Approach for Everyone Dealing with the Disease
Me: I send you a 150,000-word manuscript. It’s a mess, the title is even misspelled , but you read the first page and it catches your interest. Do you send it back with a note explaining, “Spell Check”, margins and sentence fragments, or do you keep it? What state do you like to see a manuscript in before you work on it?
Jeff: Of course I’m like everybody else here – I’m ridiculously lazy.  Ideally I like to see the manuscript perfectly prepared and formatted before it comes anywhere near me!
That said, there are generally three things I look for in a manuscript: (1) a terrific premise; (2) a distinctive, interesting voice; and (3) very strong narrative urgency.  If (1) and (2) are in place, I’ll very often try to work with the author to polish/hone/tweak the manuscript some more.  But if the writing skills aren’t there to begin with, there’s nothing I can do to make it work.

Product DetailsMe: Do you have a character, from a manuscript you have taken on, that has left a mark on you?
Jeff: I do, actually.  Enzo the dog from Garth Stein’s "The Art of Racing in the Rain".  This is part of the cover letter that I enclosed when I was sending the manuscript out.  The highlight is mine, to specifically answer your question:

"It’s a Dog Book.  I guess.  But it’s not, really.  It’s a book with a message: that it takes an animal to really know what it means to be human.  To tell us what unconditional love means.   What family means.  It’s a blueprint for compassion, and determination, and heart.  Just read the opening ten pages, and if they don’t hook you, send the manuscript back (and don’t buy any pets.  Ever.)."
    I keep thinking, as I’ve read and re-read The Art of Racing in the Rain, that this – this manuscript – is why I work in publishing.  This is why people love books.  To be taken out of ourselves, to be introduced to an entirely new way of seeing and understanding.  So that, when we come to the last page and fall back into reality, our world is different – or we are.  I feel wiser and more compassionate for having read this manuscript.  And I hope you will, too.

Me: Have you ever had an intuition that one of your client’s books was special book. One that seems destined to huge sales or a place in literary history. Among the books you have worked with, what made your “I knew it” list? 
Jeff: I feel all my books are special.  There are a few that have stood out:
Product DetailsRon McLarty’s "Memory of Running"
Robert Hicks’s "The Widow of the South"
Charles Shields’s "Mockingbird"
Garth Stein’s "The Art of Racing in the Rain"
And upcoming:
Charles Shields’s "And So it Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, a Life"
Elizabeth Letts’s "The Eighty Dollar Champion: Snowman,
                                the Horse that Inspired a Nation"
Neil Abramson’s "Unsaid"

Product DetailsMe: Lunch with you and any author you choose from throughout literary history or present, and why.
Jeff: JD Salinger, of course, and we would both order the chicken salad, and not touch a bite of it.  And we’d talk about McMansions and Lexuses, and whether he found any answers in the end.  Why?  Dunno; he seems like someone cool to have lunch with.  John Milton’s a close second, but I worry that he would be a bore, and always finding fault (we’d of course be going to somewhere like Ponderosa’s or Golden Corral’s all-you-can-eat food bar, and Milton would be appalled.).
Product DetailsMe: We at the edge of the publishing fray, make our guesses as to what will happen in different segments of the industry. Is it possible that Literary agency could morph into E-Publishers, using their vast social networks to market authors from start to finish?
 Jeff: I’m sure some of ‘em will.  My suspicion, though, is that agents will become rights managers, and print book publishing will simply be one of the rights – perhaps a fairly minor one.

Product DetailsMe: I’ve written a post on literary agents, in an ongoing series I call “Writer’s Angst”. In it, I try to describe how tough the literary agent business can be on each agent as an individual. What would you like every author to know about literary agents?
Jeff: Dunno. It feels like most of my colleagues do a splendid job at airing dirty linen.  I think this is a completely fun job, most of the time, and I’m terrified that one day someone will smack me on the head and tell me that they’ve caught me out, no more hiding, I now have to be a corporate banker.

Product DetailsMe: The Publishing Industry is facing enormous challenges in the not so distant future. A number of smaller Houses have closed, Literary Agencies are taking on fewer, if not more select clients. Paint us a picture of the Publishing Industry five years from now.
Jeff:  Authors: sought-after commodities, especially the brand names.  Their “Works” (can’t call ‘em books anymore) are appearing in all different types of media; they’re even more of a brand than they are today.
Publishers: content managers, focusing on that small niche of hard-copy print books, as well as ebooks.
App Developers: working like film companies, hiring the writers, the actors, the camera crews, the designers, to create extraordinary new media that we can barely even conceive of at present.
Agents: the only folk who can maneuver through the crazily complex world of rights and rights management.
Readers: having a huge variety of choices and possibilities; the “written” (I use this term loosely, because it might also be spoken, tasted, seen, or smelled) word has never been so important to a civilization.

Me: You wake up one day and decide to pitch it all to write a great book. What would the subject be?
Jeff: The subject would be me being beaten about the head and shoulders by my wife, who would absolutely shoot me if I decided to so such a thing.  Perish the thought.

Me: I told a new author not to even look the term up “Query Letter” until he’s done with his manuscript. I think many would be authors get wound up in writing the perfect query at the cost of their MS. Is this a fair statement?
Jeff: I think the problem is that people just don’t spend the time really writing their book.  They want to be published, they don’t want to write.  I had one author who wrote a really cool book; I was re-reading it, right before I put it out on submission, and I found a problem in one paragraph – the character was acting out of character.  So I called the author, told him about the problem, and asked him to change that paragraph.  “No,” he told me, “the problem isn’t that paragraph – it’s in the six chapters before that paragraph.  I didn’t do a good enough job really delineating the character’s motivation.”  Now that – that – is a writer.  Most writers would have just changed the paragraph and been done with  it.

Me: Is there anything you would like to say to new authors breaking into the business?
Jeff: Learn the craft.  Really learn how to write.  Write an important, urgent story.  Really write.  Learn how to write really, really well.  Don’t think you can write just because you speak English – it’s a real craft.  Learn it.  Learn how to write.  Really really well.  Really.
I'd like to thank Jeff for his time and insights. To all lucky enough to have Jeff in their corner as their agent... Stop sending him so many e-mails. Just send one really, really long one. Really...
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