Sunday, November 9, 2008

RichWriters Interview with Friedrich Literary Agent, Paul Cirone

Jeff Rivera:                              Alright, we are ready to rock and roll.


Paul Cirone:                             Great. How are you doing?


Jeff Rivera:                              How are you doing?


Paul Cirone:                             I am very well.


Jeff Rivera:                              Well, I am glad to have you be a part of this. This is very cool.


Paul Cirone:                             Well, thank you for asking me.


Jeff Rivera:                              So first off, let us start with some basic questions. What is your first and last name and what is your official title?


Paul Cirone:                             My name is Paul Cirone. I work for the Friedrich Agency and I have a dual role here. I am a literary agent but I'm also the foreign rights manager, so I sell the foreign rights, translation rights, to the majority of our books to foreign publishers.


Jeff Rivera:                              That is great. So how does the process begin? How did you become an agent?


Paul Cirone:                             Well, I started out as an English major at NYU and in my junior year, one of my professors recommended me for the internship at the Aaron Priest Agency. At the time I did not even know what a literary agent was. I just said yes, which I think you should always do when opportunities arise - just say yes. And so I started interning at the Aaron Priest Agency in my senior year, and I pretty much worked my way up. It was a small agency but I started out in the mail room and then upon graduation I was Molly Friedrich's assistant and from there I rose up in the ranks. Two years ago, she started her own company and took me with her and I have been an agent full time ever since.


Jeff Rivera:                              That is awesome.


Paul Cirone:                             Yes.


Jeff Rivera:                              That is really cool. And so you like it?


Paul Cirone:                             Yes, it is really great. I love it. It's a wonderful place to work. I think I am in a great position where I am lucky in two instances. I think in this business it's very important to find a mentor and I was very lucky to find someone who is a great teacher and who is charismatic and who is a maverick in the business. Molly is an aggressive agent but she's also unbelievably fair. She taught me a great deal. Also, since I sell foreign rights, I can be selective and take on the things that I love. So I am extremely lucky in that way.


Jeff Rivera:                              That is great. So where do you see yourself in the next five to ten years?


Paul Cirone:                             Just growing my list and having a list that I can be extremely proud of. I think maybe even being a partner at the agency and really just continuing to grow and to learn more and be the best agent that I can be. I have learned a lot and I still think there is a little bit more room for me to grow.


Jeff Rivera:                              What do you love about agenting in particular?


Paul Cirone:                             Well, what I love about it is what I think everybody else who goes into this business loves about it: you have this deep and abiding love for books. I think that is the first thing that draws people into the business. I discovered that I fell into the perfect role for me, because I think as an agent it allows more professional freedom. You do not have a committee of people saying what you can and cannot acquire. So it allows us a sense of freedom in that way, and that spoke to me.


Jeff Rivera:                              What type of products, what type of clients or what type of projects are you currently seeking?


Paul Cirone:                             I am looking for a little bit of everything in the beginning because you kind of really exercise your muscle. I started off really trying to acquire a lot of literary fiction. I represent Leif Enger who is a bestselling novelist who wrote PEACE LIKE A RIVER, which has gone on to sell over a million copies in all editions. His latest book, SO BRAVE, YOUNG, AND HANDSOME, just came out this past May by Grove Atlantic.


                                                Now, since the fiction market is so tough, I've been gravitating towards selling more non-fiction, narrative non-fiction and memoir, but essentially nonfiction that reads like fiction.   I repped SERVICE INCLUDED by Phoebe Damrosch, published by Morrow, which is an inner glimpse into fine dining, and it did really well.  I recently sold an inspirational memoir by a guy named Josh Sundquist and it is called THE SUM OF MY PARTS. When he was nine years old, he was diagnosed with cancer and had to have his leg amputated.  In spite of that he went on to ski in the Paralympics.   It's written from the point of view of a nine-year-old - very much in the vein of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, for its tone and deceptive simplicity.


Basically, if the story moves me, and both the writing and the voice are there, it's time for me to sit up straight.  When I'm both edified and entertained, that's the golden ticket.


Jeff Rivera:                              You mentioned that you feel like it is a fact that literary fiction is a shrinking market. What do you mean by that and why do you think that it is?


Paul Cirone:                             Because when you study the list, with the exception EDGAR SAWTELLE--for which I am extremely happy--the presence of literary fiction is pretty absent. Everything there is celebrity driven or a brand or comes with a platform. The economy is hurting, and buying hardcover books is the first luxury item to suffer.  I have heard from some of my authors that people are going to book readings, but gas prices are so high that once they get there they don't buy the book.


Jeff Rivera:                              If I am a literary author or writer, should I throw in the towel?


Paul Cirone:                             Absolutely not. No. I am not saying that at all. I am just saying it's become increasingly more difficult. Look at Junot Diaz, look at EDGAR SAWTELLE, it can happen. There is a market out there. It is just these are really difficult times right now.


Jeff Rivera:                              So what is selling now like hotcakes?


Paul Cirone:                             Nonfiction. Nonfiction is selling really well. I went to a lunch with an editor a couple weeks ago and asked, "So what are you looking for?" She said, "I am looking for best sellers. I am looking for books with a built-in audience.  I am looking for books by authors who have an amazing platform." And I thought, "Oh god. Okay. Let me get right on that." So yes, unfortunately what is selling now is the celebrity books, the books where the author can immediately get booked on the Jon Stewart show.


Jeff Rivera:                              Let us talk about platform a little bit. What is the platform specifically and if I do not have a platform or I do not think I have a platform, how do I create one?


Paul Cirone:                             A platform basically means that you are the leading authority on the topic that you are writing. If you are writing a book on salt, then you better be the person who invented salt, the leading authority.  A platform is also that you have a built-in audience or fan-base; a way of doing that in our information age is obviously by blogging. And if you have a blog where there are a lot of hits, then you can prove that people know your name. In many ways the tail is wagging the dog in publishing these days.  In other words, the name has to be out there first, and then the book deal. 


Writers used to just have to write the book and they were done.     Now, they really have to be tireless self-promoters of themselves, of the book, the brand. There has to be something that makes people go to the bookstores and say, "Oh, I know that person. I heard him on NPR." Or "Oh, I know that person. I love their blog."


Jeff Rivera:                              Now, when you said blogging, you said you need to have a lot of hits. What does that specifically mean? How many is a lot?


Paul Cirone:                             How many is a lot?


Jeff Rivera:                              Well I should say how many is the minimum before you say, "Yes, that is enough it should be in two weeks."


Paul Cirone:                             I do not really know specific numbers but when you get into the hundreds of thousands I think. There was this great blog called "Things that White People Like." I do not know if you have heard of it.


Jeff Rivera:                              Yes, I have.


Paul Cirone:                             It is really funny. It was something that obviously a lot of people were talking about it.  By the time two very separate friends had suggested it to me, I realized it had reached that critical mass. It had reached its tipping point.


Jeff Rivera:                              The reason why I am asking this is because someone might read this article and say, "Well, I have a blog." How much of the audience or following do they need to have before you can see this is a viable platform?


Paul Cirone:                             It really has to reach the point of, say, a million hits on Youtube, or something like that.


Jeff Rivera:                              Now, let me ask you this, what if somebody has a column in a magazine or a column in a newsletter? How many subscribers would be a viable platform?


Paul Cirone:                             Again, I am not sure of the definite numbers but if you have a column in the New York Times, obviously, then we are in business. If it is a regional small town newspaper with a very small circulation, it is harder. It is all about how many readers you reach. I could not tell you specifics.


Jeff Rivera:                              Yes. I know that you cannot really say, "Oh, exactly such and such amount," like an idea because this is something that is possibly posed to me all the time. So for example, someone who has a mechanic book and they have a column syndicated with a combined total of people who read the column is 50,000 people that can be impressive to you?


Paul Cirone:                             It depends. There are many factors involved. It is probably not enough of a platform on its own but if the writing is there and it's the full package then that starts to become more interesting to me.


Jeff Rivera:                              Okay, great. What type of writing do you receive a lot that if you receive it one more time you are going to barf in terms of submissions?


Paul Cirone:                             Well, if I read another query that says, "I am the next EAT PRAY LOVE," I will probably vomit. Gilbert comes from NPR and she is an exceptional writer. She has the platform and the talent. She's the full package. Not everyone's path to enlightenment is worth reading about, I'm afraid. If you are just Joe Blow and you went to Italy and Paris or wherever and wrote about it why should I care if you're only a marginally decent writer? I get all kinds of really bad queries. For awhile there, everybody wanted to recreate Da Vinci Code and so there where a lot of thrillers with secret texts embedded in them and things like that.


Jeff Rivera:                              What would you like to see more of?


Paul Cirone:                             Good writing with a strong original voice and a good plot. Those are really the three key ingredients for me. It is hard to get at once. You can have the character-driven novel and not much plot, but if you really have everything, you have the characters and the writing and the original voice. The original voice is probably the most important thing because there are maybe six or seven plots that are recycled over and over again. If you can find a fresh and original way of saying something that's what everybody is looking for.


Jeff Rivera:                              So let us talk about clients from hell.


Paul Cirone:                             The clients from hell, okay.


Jeff Rivera:                              Clients from hell: Once you have signed somebody, what are some things that you have heard of or maybe experienced that you really wished that clients will realize the things that they do that you would wish they would stop doing?


Paul Cirone:                             Well I think the client from hell is the high-maintenance client, the one who wants an explanation of every single solitary clause in the contract, the one who does not really trust your judgments, and the one who second guesses your choices. You really need to trust that I know what I am doing and that I am doing my job well.



Jeff Rivera:                              Sometimes writers say, "Why wouldn't my agent return my phone calls?" Why is that from an agent's perspective?


Paul Cirone:                             Well it depends how many times they are calling. It could be that your agent is extremely busy or your agent does have not the answer. It is important to be tenacious and to be persistent, but not too persistent. It depends. You cannot generalize an answer for that because for every book there is a completely different set of circumstances. There is no formula. Sometimes everything goes your way and things fall into line and it's bliss---and then sometimes it does not and it is impossible to anticipate what that is going to be. Or it's possible that the agent is just incompetent.