An author should look at a number of things when they start searching for an agent. Their client’s opinions (once you know the agent actually represents your genre) is the absolute benchmark, the Holy Grail on which to base your decision. Clients like agents that sell, return phone calls and work with you - not just for you.
In this – Advantage Michelle
Here is a bit about my guest from her website:
“Michelle holds a BA from Dartmouth College and an MBA from New York University. Prior to forming her own agency, Michelle spent two years with Artists & Artisans, Inc. and two years with Ralph Vicinanza, Ltd. Before that, she spent several years working outside of publishing, in non-profit and then finance, and she brings the skills she learned there plus a lifetime love of reading to the table as an agent.”
I’m pleased to welcome Literary Agent Michelle Wolfson to The Novel Road…
With non-fiction, I think it’s a little different. I am not a big non-fiction reader myself so I approach these a little differently, trying to assess the market for the topic, comparing it to what’s out there, and of course, how big the author’s platform is. And finally, is it a topic I find interesting. Even in non-fiction, I’m really only interested in representing books that I really love.
In any case, as often happens with agents and authors, someone said to Travis, I have a friend you should meet—he’s got a great story to tell. And so Travis met Tchicaya and spent the first of countless hours with him hearing some of Tchicaya’s horrifying and awe-inspiring tales. Travis wrote about 40 pages after that meeting and sent them to me and I was hooked. About two months later I was in California and I met with them in person, and once you meet Tchicaya, you’re pretty much in it for the long haul.
They were meticulous in their work; Tchicaya basically told Travis his entire life story in interviews and then Travis wrote it and Tchicaya would help clarify details. It was really an incredible process to watch.
Tchicaya makes people feel proud to be American. He makes people appreciate what they have and not take anything for granted. Tchicaya may have been born in the Congo, but in my mind, he’s the very embodiment of the American Dream.
Michelle: Are you sure they weren’t crying because you’re referring to them as the “Team Team”?
FYI, Mr. XYZ’s name became something of a joke between me and Travis, so the day eventually came when I received another query telling me—you guessed it—my manuscript has been professionally edited by Mr. XYZ. Despite the fact that the topic was only of marginal interest to me, I felt I had to request pages. A silent homage to Mr. XYZ. Alas, I passed on the manuscript.
I’m not exactly sure what the moral is here. But maybe you can draw some grand conclusions from it. I don’t know that big name, freelance editors (if any exist) contribute much to your query. Ultimately I’m going to make my own decision. I think plenty of people get a lot out of critique groups and other forums. But that’s a personal decision.
Why are we talking about such a personal topic? Let’s move on already.
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?
Michelle: So I once took on a client whose manuscript was a whopping 175,000 words. But nothing else really applied and it was a work of brilliance and one of my most devastating non-sales ever.
Guidelines are just that—guidelines. Same goes for generalizations. But most of the time I find that when a manuscript is way too long, it’s not because it just had to be that long to tell the story; it’s because there wasn’t enough editing.
As for whether it can be a mess and I can mold it into brilliance—well, once again, I’ve seen it done. I’ve heard of it being done. I’ve even worked with agents who have done it. But I’m probably not your gal.
Me: Do you have a character, from a manuscript you have taken on, that has left a mark on you?
Michelle: I don’t know if this is cheating, but I will say that Tchicaya Missamou’s story in IN THE SHADOW OF FREEDOM, not to mention meeting and working with him in real life, has made a lasting impression on me. I am not even talking about the horrors he witnessed as a child soldier in the Congo, but rather Tchicaya’s unbelievable perseverance. Tchicaya has steamrolled through obstacles his entire life to achieve incredible things, and yet remains grateful for the simple freedoms and pleasures that those of us who were born here take for granted every day. I don’t know a single person who read his book or who met Tchicaya and did not feel inspired by him and I’m no different.
Me: 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?
Michelle: I think it would be great if writers remembered that literary agents are on your side.
Me: 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.
Michelle: I envision a world where publishers call me up every day begging to look at the next manuscript by my clients. They make offers and then before I can respond, they call me back and say, “You know what? We don’t think that’s enough. Let us offer you some more money and go over our 42 point marketing plan to support the launch of this future best-seller.”
Me: Is there anything you would like to say to new authors breaking into the business?
Michelle: Hmm, my first three attempts to answer this came out really depressing. I say trust your instincts. And if you love it, then do it. And stick with it until it happens.
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?
Michelle: I’ve never really thought about this to be perfectly honest. I don’t know why you would start writing your query letter before your manuscript is done. To me it feels a little like writing a cover letter for a job application before you’re even done with college. But I think that while writing, you can/should be educating yourself about the industry, and part of that is querying. I don’t think the perfect query letter will get a crappy manuscript published. But likewise, a perfect manuscript may not get published without at least a decent query letter.
What I do think is important is to think about the commercial viability of your work, and I don’t mean writing to trends. Again, I mean learning something about the business of publishing. Query letter writing is a part of the business. I think it behooves you to know what it’s about. You wouldn’t apply for a job after scrawling down your past employment on a bar napkin. Why wouldn’t you take the time to research the proper way to approach agents and then spend some time to get it right? When you do it is up to you.
That feels like a depressing and downbeat end to the interview, even though I’m aware that Doug may very well change the order of the questions. But just in case, let me end with saying that it can happen for you. I’ve seen amazing stories happen. Authors plucked from the slush who have soared to the New York Times bestseller list. I’ve even had authors who have done that. And it’s been a longer, bumpier road for others. But the years are going to pass anyway. You might as well have worked towards what you wanted in the meantime, with the hopes that you’ll accomplish something great. I believe you can do it.
|Did you know Michelle is in a band?|
I'd like to thank Michelle Wolfson for doing this interview and the very best to you Michelle, always!