Tuesday, March 29, 2011

New York Writers' Workshop Fiction Pitch: Meet the Agents

I’ve been feeling and sounding more intelligent lately, at least as far as it relates to the publishing industry. No, I didn’t take a special pill that enabled me to know that the line about only using 10 percent of our brains is a bunch of BS — I knew that already. It’s actually because I recently had an opportunity to attend an agent panel session of the New York Writers’ Workshop Fiction Pitch earlier this month.

Let me just say, if you’re in the NYC area, you should check out their "perfect pitch" conferences. They offer writers opportunities to workshop their pitches with folks who are active in the industry. The workshop is the teaching division of an organization called New York Writers’ Resources, and they also have a webzine called Ducts that publishes personal stories — both fiction and nonfiction — and a publishing arm called Greenpoint Press, which is about to publish The House on Crash Corner and Other Unavoidable Calamities.

Anyway, the agent panel that morning brought together three agents who shared their insights on what’s happening in the industry. Being one of those annoying reporter types, I asked a bunch of questions — especially during the "meet the agents" discussion afterward. I came away feeling that I learned a lot more than I knew going in, and I don’t think of myself as ignorant.

The agents were Jenny Bent, Erin Cox, and Sarah Dickman. Bent, who set out her own shingle — the Bent Agency — after working at a few places, has been an agent since the mid-'90s. But she was no industry curmudgeon; rather, she struck me as being very much on top of how things are changing. In fact, since attending this workshop, I started following her on Twitter (@jennybent) and have found her to have interesting things to say and share about "independent publishing" (a term she prefers to "self-publishing"; don’t you prefer driving a "pre-owned" vehicle to a "used car"?) as well as about traditional publishing.

Like the other agents on the panel, Bent stressed the importance of voice in the manuscript. She also loves comp titles. (Who doesn’t?) She made a few interesting comments that led me to believe she foresees some major changes happening. One question was raised about the importance of agents as the industry changes; she commented that agents aren’t as vulnerable as publishers are in this new era of e-publishing. And she also called the e-publishing and digital revolution "the Wild Wild West" a view I hold also, but it means a lot more coming from her.

Erin Cox hasn’t been an agent for very long, but she’s been in and around the book industry for more than a decade. She’s with Rob Weisbach Creative Management and has been a publicist for several years after working in advertising. In fact, she’s still does freelance publicity on the side. The Weisbach group sounds very intriguing to me.

Apparently, Rob Weisbach was a publisher and wanted to provide more for the writers he worked with to help them advance their careers — and presumably his own — so he went to the agent side to create a team with a variety of talents (such as publicists) to help train writers for the long haul in the industry. Sounds good to me!

Cox said that about 75 percent of her authors are first-timers. She, too, was looking for a great voice in the work. She spoke of needing to love the work. "And you can’t just write. You need to sell yourself to me." And she’s willing to find out quickly if there’s chemistry. She said writers should send their whole manuscript right off the bat. If she’s intrigued by the query, she doesn’t want to have to wait.

Speaking one-on-one with her, Cox sounded as though she thought e-publishing was just about to burst. She said she expects that it won't be long before it's a major area within publishing. Frankly, I've been seeing changes in the weeks since I met her.

Dickman works for the Nicholas Ellison Agency, and if I’m reading their website correctly, they represent one of my favorite writers, Christopher Moore. (And they inked a movie deal for his vampire trilogy of Bloodsucking Fiends, You Suck and Bite Me. I can’t wait.) The thing that really sank in for me about what she said was that Ellison is absolutely concentrating on traditional publishers at this point, as that’s where the money is. It’s an honest answer, and she didn’t share any insight as to how long she thinks things will stay that way.

"There’s a decrease in profit margin, and the volume of e-books hasn’t caught up with digital rights," she said. But given what Cox and Bent were saying about e-publishing and digital rights, I have to believe Dickman and the Ellison Agency are preparing for the future too.

Overall, I found the workshop very informative and helpful. I think it had something to do with the caliber of the agents as well as the people attending. You could tell by the questions that these were writers with experience, and some were looking to learn about what pioneering might look like in the Wild Wild West of e-publishing.

When it comes to taking on unpublished or "debut" authors, they couched their answers a little: Bent readily admitted that she takes on "fewer (debut authors) than other people," but she also spoke about how exciting it is for her to help new authors get their initial sales. I was impressed by Bent in general, but I think she was trying to put a sunny smile on the debut author thing. She's been in the industry for a good fifteen years and she probably doesn't have to work with anyone she doesn't want to work with (which I think says something for the NYWW group, frankly).

With fewer years as agents, the other two were far more likely to take on first-time authors. Cox said 75-80 percent of her writers were pitching their debut and the numbers were a little lower for Dickman but in the same ballpark. But both of them might receive requests after they've been vetted by an assistant.

Even if an author gets signed, getting their books sold is difficult. I happened to ride down the elevator with Cox and the man who moderated the panel. She reps one of his nonfiction writers and she's having a very difficult time selling the woman's book. She thinks the woman has a decent platform, but publishers aren't buying it.

During the Q&A, I asked Cox about the agency model and how it's different than most agencies. While she talked about how Weisbach wants to develop writers for the long haul, I also had the sense that they were able to manage costs differently by having a variety of talented people involved when needed. I didn't have a chance to delve too deeply into the cost structures of the services they provide their writers, but I do think it's something that deserves more investigation.

Still Cox talked about the challenges that were going on in the industry: smaller royalties, fewer payments, which meaning a different cash flow for authors and it probably means the cash flow is a challenge for the agency.

I can't help but wonder what the industry will be like by the time the fall event comes around.


Caroline Hagood said...

Wow, it sounds like you really got a lot out of this. And now so did I.

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, Caroline. I did. And I have the impression that the organization really knows what it's doing. The other writers attending also impressed me.