How long have you been agent and how did you get your start Ellen?
I have been an agent for about 2 years – it's actually a second career for me. I started out a few years ago as assistant and foreign rights person at The Graybill and English, working with Jeff Kleinman, Elaine English and Nina Graybill. That was the best education I could have asked for – they're all great agents who taught me a lot about the business. While at G&E I made a lot of foreign sales and worked on many of Jeff's proposals and fiction projects.
I don't know that it's so different – I think we're all looking for the same things – great writers writing marketable books and who have some career longevity. A few things may make me somewhat different -- I have a law degree which means I can get to the bottom of your contract problems quickly, I am very editorial and hands-on – I always carefully edit my projects – and I am loyal to my clients – I am always looking for writers whose careers I can help develop, and I will not drop talented authors if their first novels don't sell – as long as they are willing to learn and grow and have more books in the works.
I'm definitely looking for well-crafted fiction – good story structure seems to be the hardest thing to find, along with credible character development. I would also love to see more originality – there is a tendency to rehash the same tired plots, characters and situations. Overall, I'd like to see more work that is well thought out and carefully crafted, regardless of genre. Genre-wise, lately I am leaning towards women's fiction – romance, erotica, high fantasy and horror.– historical, mystery, as well as general commercial and . I am not as interested in things like techno-thrillers, war novels, science fiction,
I get impatient with a few things –
Recently I got a query that said basically, "I have no interest in figuring out how to market my books, I leave that to the agent to arrange and submit to me for approval." First of all, that shows a lack of understanding of how the publishing business works – I will make the publishing deal for the author but marketing is primarily up to the publisher and author, not the agent. Second, it's just arrogant. I do get tired of writers who act like they're doing me a favor sending me their queries or people who send angry replies to politely worded rejections. I know it's hard for writers but we agents are absolutely inundated with material all the time and the weeding out process is going to be tough, unfortunately. I try my best to treat everyone with respect, but the hard truth is that I do end up turning down work that is well written if the subject matter doesn't appeal to me or I don't think there's a market for it. I think most people understand that, but there are those who become angry and rude about it – that just puts me off wanting to work with them even more, even if their work is good. Patience, good humor and respect go a long way with me, and with every other agent out there.
I also find a great many would-be authors just haven't done enough work and their books just aren't ready yet – often the story lacks originality or hasn't been well thought through or the writing needs more work.
And I will almost always turn down episodic "memoir"-style life stories – many writers seem to think that because something happened to them that they thought was interesting, it's going to be interesting enough to appeal to a mass audience – that just isn't often the case. It is possible to write a successful memoir -- the key is that the story needs to be as carefully structured and beautifully written as a work of fiction.
I also don't like to get queries addressed to another agent or with the entire list of email addresses they've sent theto. And I appreciate people sending me their self -published books, but understand that unless I've asked for it I am unlikely to read it, simply due to time constraints, so please query me first.
How can a new writer get your attention in a good way?
I am favorably impressed when someone takes the time to visit my website and actually follow my guidelines – which are simple: email me your query and include the first 5 pages in the body of the message. You'd be surprised how many people don't do that – they either send me snail mail which gets lost under my desk, or they call me and try to pitch over the phone, or they send an attachment which I'm reluctant to open, or a short and uninformative query without the sample pages. If you must send me snail mail, please remember the SASE and don't send a bunch of chapters, fancy folders, etc. I do end up recycling everything. And in an email query, particularly a very brief one, if the first five pages aren't there I don't have enough to go on as far as deciding if I want to see more – and so unless the query is amazing and the person has great credentials -- I often won't ask for more.
Also, I like to see other writing credentials if possible, particularly in the same genre that they are submitting (short story publications if writing fiction, etc.). And of course, most importantly, an original idea with a unique or clever hook, and the writing to back it up.
I am careful about who I choose to work with --besides talent and a great piece of work, personal rapport is important to me, plus the sense that this is a team effort – so I don't often have this problem. I think if both agent and author are respectful of each other – in terms of time constraints, deadlines and editorial opinions -- and agree on the end goal, the relationship should work fine. I take a very editorial approach with my clients and the end product often is the result of a lot of collaborative effort.
I'm based in DC, so one thing people may not always understand is that agents outside of New York are often just as capable, hard-working and connected as those in NYC. I do travel regularly to meet with New York publishers and I have great phone/email relationships with many editors both in and out of NYC.