June 17, 2015

An Afternoon with Literary Agent, Lindsay Edgecombe

 Lindsay_and_Cindy.jpg

The Distinguished Columbian Guest Speaker Program

of the Columbia Fiction Foundry

with the support of the Columbia Alumni Association

Presents Lindsay Edgecombe, Barnard ‘04

Literary Agent with Levine, Greenberg, Rostan Literary Agency (LGR)

Ms. Edgecombe was interviewed on January 10, 2015 by Cynthia Mullock, ’04 Law, ’04 Bus., at the Alumni Welcome Center, 622 West 113th Street.

 Lindsay_and_Cindy.jpg

The Distinguished Columbian Guest Speaker Program

of the Columbia Fiction Foundry

with the support of the Columbia Alumni Association

Presents Lindsay Edgecombe, Barnard ‘04

Literary Agent with Levine, Greenberg, Rostan Literary Agency (LGR)

Ms. Edgecombe was interviewed on January 10, 2015 by Cynthia Mullock, ’04 Law, ’04 Bus., at the Alumni Welcome Center, 622 West 113th Street.

 

Cynthia         

Today we’re fortunate to have with us Lindsay Edgecombe of the Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency.  Lindsay, ’04 Barnard, was Phi Beta Kappa, Summa cum Laude, and edited The Columbia Review.  Lindsay represents journalists, scientists, internationally bestselling novelists, and debut novelists so a lot of us in the room are very interested in hearing from her.  Lindsay, please tell us a little about how you become a literary agent and how you reach the authors you work with. 

 

Lindsay

First I’m really thrilled to be here with you.  Thanks to you all for having me so much.  I’m really excited to talk to you and you can throw anything at me.  

How did I become an agent?  I have been at this agency for ten years and it’s a terrific place to be.  Like many, I sort of fell into this career; and have stayed because I find it so fulfilling. I loved school. When I interviewed with my boss and mentor, Jim Levine, who is an incredible agent, he told me that being a literary agent is a bit like continuing your liberal arts education because you keep learning about so many things.  So I’m this bizarre person who is still at my first job.  I love it here.  It’s a job where I get to wear a lot of hats and it’s never boring.  I’ve mostly done non-fiction but I’ve represented some fiction as well.  And for me fiction is about a passion project.  They’re novels that I fall in love with and really need to represent.

 

Cynthia

How would you differentiate Levine Greenberg Rostan from other agencies and yourself from other agents?

 

Lindsay

There are a number of good agents and agencies out there, but here’s what’s true for me.  When I take on an author it’s a complete collaboration. We really are working together editorially to develop a proposal or revise a novel, and I am very transparent throughout the selling and negotiating process,  I expect authors to push back if I lead them in a direction that’s not right.  LGR works the same internally.  It’s a highly collaborative organization and I always rely on my colleagues for reads and advice and feedback.  Publishing is an intensely subjective process—the whole way through—so I like to get my colleagues’ feedback because it mirrors the feedback I will get from editors when I go out on submission.  That sense of camaraderie and collaboration really lights me up.  I find it to be crucial to sustaining creative work and I’m grateful for it.

 

Cynthia

How does the process work?  Let’s say you find a book you like.  What do you do next?

 

Lindsay

This is an interesting question.  For me it’s kind of a gut feeling, especially with fiction.  There’s a moment where I know in a visceral way that I really want to work on something.  I work alone initially and I have total freedom to sign up whom I like.  I do extensive editorial work before I submit the material to publishers and that’s where I seek reads.  Does that make sense?

 

Cynthia

Yeah it does.  So you have no problem sending an author back to work before you consider representing them?  Can you tell us how old were you when you sold book?

 

Lindsay

I was 24.  I’m 32 now and finally at an age when clients have stopped asking how old I am.

 

Cindy

Tell us a little about that process.  How do you select your projects?

 

Lindsay

With a novel, I really have to trust the author’s voice on the page.  And it’s interesting selling both fiction and non-fiction because I think most people will agree that fiction is so much harder.  After all you’re going to be working so hard to get editors to fall in love with the book so you’ve got to love it yourself.  The process varies book to book.  There’s a novelist I represent and am getting ready to submit (who I am obsessed with) and I’ve spent countless hours working with her.  I’ve given her maybe three rounds of notes.  But I trust her to follow her own instinct about the plot and structure and pace, so I am much less bossy than I might be with a non-fiction client working on a proposal.  I hope to be her advocate in many ways, but my goal isn’t to edit the novel in the way that I’d like to see it, but to help her get to a place where editors will want to publish it and go through the editorial process themselves.  I’ve learned not to take on fiction if I don’t have that implicit trust for the voice on the page and want to alter a novel too much.  But every book is different.

 

Cynthia

What’s the logic of an agent providing feedback before offering representation?

 

Lindsay

I try to get clear with myself about how I feel about the book as I’m reading it, and which editors would be a good fit for it.  Once I sign someone, I will put in a lot of editorial work, but I want to be confident that I can place the book first.  I want to know that I can get my part of the job done for you—otherwise, my feedback isn’t very useful. 

 

Cynthia

What’s your agency’s forte or sweet spot or category? It seems as though there are several.

 

Lindsay

We’re sort of a medium sized agency, which is funny to say because we’re about a dozen people, but we work in almost every category.  I like narrative non-fiction, science, and illustrated books.  Daniel Greenberg does a lot of humor and pop culture, as does Monika Verma.  Jim Levine does business and science.  Stephanie does a lot of women’s fiction.  Victoria Skurnick, who ran Book of the Month Club, does a lot of literary fiction and women’s fiction.  Danielle Svetcov does a lot of cookbooks.  Kerry Sparks does YA and kids.  We all have our areas of specialty but we all take on projects we love and there’s no sense of competition among us.

 

Cynthia

Let’s talk about the selection process, slush versus other sources.  How do you find authors?  Who reads the slush?

 

Lindsay 

The major point I want to make is that we agents are hungry for great projects. 

Non-fiction authors are mostly referred to me or they’re authors I go after.  In fiction a connection can happen in any way.  I’ve definitely sold books for a lot of money that came in through the slush pile.  Agents really are reading that.  Slush gets read.  Yes we do have assistants and interns who read material, but with unsolicited queries, it’s all about responding to the good stuff fast enough.  You want to be the first or second agent to respond.  We’re all hungry for the next great book.  We want to find great material.  If you can get a referral that’s a really good thing—it means that you’ll get read—but having a great pitch is very important and maybe more important. 

 

Cynthia

How does the submission process to publishers work?  How do you decide who to send to?

 

Lindsay

It’s actually quite fun.  Agents meeting with editors all the time and part of our job is knowing them well.  It’s an art to know who has a hole in their fall fifteen list they’re looking to fill.  Who’s interested in what sports, who loves what types of novels.  You need to develop a felt sense of who might fall in love with this book. Editors are always jumping from one house to another so the personal connection is vital.  Coming up with the right submission list is a big part of my job.  I take it quite seriously.  It often involves close collaboration with my colleagues.  I want to go to editors who are really going to pay attention to what I send them and who are going to be partners for my authors and flight for them.

 

Cynthia

Are you approaching your own contacts among editors, or do you leverage the firm’s network?

 

Lindsay

Definitely both. It’s nice to be with such a well known agency because through my colleagues I have access to a very large number of editors. 

 

Cynthia

Let’s move into pitching.  I’m sure you must get tired about talking about query letters but we’d appreciate knowing what you think gives them punch.

 

Lindsay

I don’t get tired of it.  It’s important.  I really wish I could read you some of the average, quite bad queries we get.  

A great query will get read.  The first thing is do your research about the agent.  Submit to a few who you relate to or admire most.  If you write to me directly; address me by first name (Ms. Edgecombe does feel a bit form letter-y, though others may disagree), and show me that you know something about my list, you already stand out. 

I was at another conference and I heard an agent use this great mnemonic for a fiction query, and he had borrowed it from another agent::the hook, the book, and the cook.  The hook is the big idea, what grabs attention.  Your first or second paragraph.  The next piece is what’s the book about, the setting?  This is the hardest part.  Find a way to describe your book that doesn’t involve summarizing the plot.  Plot summaries are kind of like hearing someone talk about their dreams—only interesting to the dreamer.  The cook part is what you bring to the book.  Why are you the right person to be writing this book?  What’s your platform?  Who you are matters a lot, and even if you feel like you’re bragging, it’s important to list everything relevant about yourself. 

Selling a book is so hard and promoting a book is even harder, perhaps the most broken piece of the publishing industry, so help us.  Everything you bring to this book is really important to mention in the query.  Another thing; some agents ask for an exclusive.  We don’t.  I rarely give an exclusive to editors.  Multiple submission is good for you, because you can leverage interest.  Don’t pitch everyone at once, but try a small group of agents who are at the top of your list.  Then if someone you really like asks for an exclusive, you can consider it.  Is that useful?

 

Cynthia

Very useful.  In keeping with the promotion aspect, how important is starting promotion while you’re still writing the book?  Platform, getting published elsewhere – what are you seeing?

 

Lindsay

I have two responses: First, it’s really hard to promote fiction in a lot of cases.  It’s mainly about the strength of the writing.  Know that that’s what sells fiction.  

The smartest way to think about building a platform for yourself as a novelist is thinking about community.  What communities are you a part of?  Like this one, for instance.  It’s smart to think about becoming a member of a community that can help you.  Writers groups and spaces can be so powerful.  The second thing, in terms of queries, which is getting in the door, mention your credentials; mention the Columbia Fiction Foundry. I want to know about your credentials up front. 

 

Cynthia

A couple of more questions before we open it up to the floor.  How do your most successful authors come to your attention?  Okay, there’s slush but what else?

 

Lindsay

Three groups.  First  I go after people who I think are talented.  I try to be ambitious about scouting, and from every conceivable place you can imagine—magazines, newspapers, websites, blogs, etc.  Second, many of my authors are referred to me by other authors, by editors, etc.  Third, some come to me completely unsolicited with a great query.  I’ve sold from all those channels.

 

Cynthia

How many first-time fiction writers have you represented?

 

Lindsay

I represent mostly debut authors in fiction.  There’s one author I represent in translation who was previously published but my other clients are debut novelists.

 

Cynthia

Let’s look at the business side.  You’ve signed someone; you’ve sent out your submission letter.  What’s next?  Can you tell us about the negotiations?

 

Lindsay

Let’s start at the beginning.  So I sign an author.  I think our agency has a very author-friendly agreement, but I will say that I’ve seen some other agreements that have some yucky clauses in them.  If you sign an agreement that limits you, for instance in how the agreement is terminated, that can have really negative effects on you down the line.  

There are many ways to sell a book.  There are different ways to hold an auction.  And getting competing offers is great, but I could also show you a shelf of books at the agency that got one modest offer and went on to become bestsellers and classics. 

There are others that had a big bidding war and which don’t sell well.  There are no guarantees.  It’s a complicated process and each book is different.   

Your agent should be very up front with you about the plan for submission, the offers that come in, and rejections if you want them.  You should have access to as much information as you want.  You should be on the same page about what you want from the major deal points.  You should understand your contract.  One of the nicest things an author has written about me was that I negotiated terms that were best for him even though those didn’t put money in my pocket.

 

Cynthia

What’s the relationship between the publisher’s marketing budget and the advance?

 

Lindsay

That’s interesting.  It is connected to the advance but it’s pretty meaningless. I’ve seen publishers pay a small fortune and not get much with marketing and publicity.  I’ve seen them work really hard for a smaller deal, too, where they all love the book and get traction with media. 

Publicity and marketing is the very hardest piece of publishing. I don’t say this to slight publishers, either.  It’s hard to get meaningful publicity for a book and there are some very good, very hard-working publicists but the results don’t always reflect their efforts.  And to be honest, there are some mediocre publicity departments, too, that shuffle books through pub date, hoping some books will work.  It’s a tough process all around.  

The more an author can bring to the table and thinks about this issue in advance the better position you’re in. 

 

Cynthia Mullock then opened it up to questions from other members of the Columbia Fiction Foundry in the audience.

 

CFF Member

What proportion of the books you sign don’t get sold and why does that happen?  How do you handle rejection?

 

Lindsay

There are a handful and they really grate at my soul.  Last year I probably sold more than ninety-something percent of the books I signed.  I want to take risks, though.  There is lots of rejection at every step of this process, and I have tried to really cultivate an attitude where I take rejection with a grain of salt.  Only the good news matters.   Going out on submissions with editors is a roller coaster ride, even for me.  I mean, look, sometimes even I get angry at editors when I get rejection--though I hope it’s not obvious to those editors.  I think that being professional is pretty important. 

How much attention should you pay to rejections?  Some rejections involve lengthy, meaningful explanations, by email or conversations—and those I get value out of.  Otherwise I have to take them with a grain of salt.  Most comments that come in with rejections don’t warrant a close read.

 

CFF Member

Is it important to have a complete manuscript before querying for my novel?

 

Lindsay

I think so.  Most of the time you’ll want to submit a great, finished novel.  If you have a reason for not doing that then go for it, but mostly editors need a completed manuscript to buy a novel.

 

CFF Member

I’m Indian and there’s a well developed publishing industry in India.  Should I have a preference between publishing in America or India?

 

Lindsay

I don’t think there’s one right answer.  You should really think about what you want and where your platform is.  Without knowing much about you I’d recommend pursuing all markets.  If you land a successful book in a foreign country that’s better leverage when you want to sell one here.  The most important thing to keep in mind is that you don’t want that foreign deal to tie you up.  Make sure that it’s only for that one country, not for worldwide English rights.  I’d say start with U.S.-based agents, and then pursue other opportunities as they make sense to you. 

 

CFF Member

Is there a word count sweet spot for a debut novel?  Mine’s about twenty percent longer than I’ve heard is ideal.  Should I cut it back?

 

Lindsay

Again, there’s not one right answer.  I mean sixty to eighty thousand words is a standard novel.  I like shorter novels.  I like forty thousand words.  If I get a query that says the novel is three hundred thousand words it makes me feel tired.  If your book is on the longer side, you might be asked to cut some of it. 

 

CFF Member

My book is a collection of novellas.  Any words of advice?  Like do I have to complete all of them?

 

Lindsay

Novellas are harder to sell than a novel.  And a collection of novellas doesn’t make it easier.  If they’re related then I think it makes sense to pitch them together.

 

CFF Member

What’s the word count on a novella?

 

Lindsay

I think of a novella as being between fifteen and thiry.  Does that sound right to you?  I mean twenty is a Kindle single. 

 

CFF Member

What’s more important for you, the quality of the writing or the likely market reception?

 

Lindsay

Well those are the two sides of a scale in evaluating fiction.  It’s a necessary tension.  For me falling in love with it is the most important thing.  If it has limited commercial potential the writing has to be fantastic. 

 

CFF Member

I have this concept of the big five publishers as having the deepest pockets, the greatest appetite, and the largest publicity budgets.  I want my novel to go to one of the big houses.  On the other hand when the agent is reading it she’s thinking of which editor would be the most receptive.  It’s nice if these two criteria overlap on her submission list.  Do you concur that the greatest commercial potential is with the big five and wouldn’t you always want to submit to their editors? 

 

Lindsay

Not necessarily.  On the other hand I’ve never taken on a project thinking it’s only saleable to a tiny, indie press for tiny money.  No one knows what can happen.  My lists are usually a mix of larger houses and some smaller houses that do a really good job…and honestly, it’s nice to get a big advance but that’s not a guarantee at the five.  Sometimes a smaller house will grow you in a way that’s helpful for selling future work.  Think of it as being a big fish in a small pond.  If you’re a successful person coming out of a smaller press, that’s a nice way to set yourself up for selling future books.  Whereas if you got a big, splashy advance from a large house, that can be a challenge to be overcome for selling the next book.

 

CFF Member

Is there a standard royalty percentage and does that percentage change with the amount of the advance?  

 

Lindsay

In general your royalty rates and advances are not related.  The best royalty rates are paid on list price rather than net of discounts and returns.  Sometimes the smaller houses offer less favorable terms, for instance their royalties are paid on net rather than list or their author contracts might be less author-friendly than the big five.  It’s surprising, but indie presses aren’t necessarily the most author-friendly.  There are several permutations and the large houses will also maintain a reserve against returns.

 

CFF Member

You’ve shattered my impression of agents.  I’ve had such bad experiences with agents I thought they must all be horrid people but you’re so nice.

 

Lindsay

That makes my day.  A word of advice on avoiding bad experiences – I suggest that in targeting agents you research their appetites and make every effort to get the right one and to make it clear why you’re approaching them. 

 

CFF Member

My stories have been published in small journals, say Salamander and Ploughshares.  Is that important?

 

Lindsay

Put everything in that “cook” portion of the query list that you can think of.  It’s important for us to know what you’ve published.

 

CFF Member

When you’re away from all of this, say on a Caribbean island…

Lindsay

That sounds nice, especially today.

CFF Member

…what do you take along to read?

 

Lindsay

I just did that over the break.  I’m a really voracious reader.  I try to read for fun even though I also read for work.  Over the break I read Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life.  She’s amazing.  And I also stayed up until three in the morning reading a Jojo Moyes novel. 

 

CFF Member

Who reads manuscripts at your agency?  And do you ask for a partial or a full?

 

Lindsay

I always ask for a full since it’s all done by email.  Why not have the whole thing?  Even if I’m really backed up I always read the first page before I hand it off for a read and I try to look at everything I request and get back soon; I mean that’s good manners, right?  I wouldn’t decline a manuscript solely on the basis of another reader’s feedback.  It’s useful to have another read but I need to know what I think about it too. 

 

CFF Member

I’m translating a book which has been successful overseas.  Do translators need an agent?

 

Lindsay

The translation market is a difficult one.  There are a handful of publishers working on translations.  Many translators do have agents, but they tend to be the ones who are already quite successful.  I think more translators should be using agents, though it can be hard to find them because translation deals are often quite small.  Often, the best terms for translators are a fee or portion of the advance and a portion of royalties.

 

CFF Member

I’m writing a series of short stories related as parables.  Think The Alchemist.  Is there appetite for that currently?

 

Lindsay

Yeah.  Totally.  There’s appetite for everything in fiction.  There are trends.  The Alchemist is probably a good comp title.

 

Cynthia

Can you give us some do’s and don’ts about comp titles?

 

Lindsay

I have very concrete advice here.  The longer I work in publishing the more convinced I am that the comp title is an art form.  The right comp works beautifully.  What you want to do, and this is as much your agent’s job as yours, you want to get the book that’s the sleeper hit.  Not Eat Pray Love, not Gone Girl, not the megabook of the moment.  It’s better not to use a comp than to use one of those.  We see them all the time.  It doesn’t take a lot of work to compare your book’s potential to the Bible.  How is that useful?  

If you’re debut, you want to find a book that publishers didn’t expect to be successful.  That’s your comp title.  That’s harder for you to find since you don’t have BookScan data but you do have Amazon rankings and reviews and other books of the moment that are performing beyond expectations.  I’m seeing everyone saying that they’re the next Mary Roach. 

 

CFF Member

How about digital publishing.  Do we need agents for that too?

 

Lindsay

Some agencies have started working as digital publishers.  I mean there’s Diversion, right?  As an agency, we are very interested in digital publishing.  My colleague, Kerry Sparks, is our e-book manager.  She’s spends a certain part of her time shepherding very selective books through digital publishing.  My bread and butter is in traditional publishing deals so far but this is a rapidly changing world and some authors are best off going digital.  I’m all for it.  Everyone should pursue the best markets for them.

 

CFF Member

How about novels set in the publishing industry?  I’ve heard they don’t do well.

 

Lindsay

The thing about publishing is that it sort of forces you to think about categories.  I mean I sometimes wish I could be a fly on the wall at editorial meetings at a publishing house watching a discussion about how green covers don’t work because their last green cover was a flop.  Or how books about the publishing industry aren’t working.  Then a book comes along about – pick anything – it was a massive best seller and all of a sudden vampires or Stieg Larsson-style translations are hot.  There are no rules.  Everyone‘s trying to figure out what the next big book is.

 

CFF Member

I’m writing a novel which is less than savory and I’m a middle school teacher.  I’m thinking of using a pseudonym. 

 

Lindsay

When you’re querying agents write the query as yourself and add a line saying that you’re planning to publish under a pseudonym. 

 

CFF Member

Is there ever a legitimate reason to pitch directly to a publisher?

 

Lindsay

Hmm.  Ever?  I think you should not be submitting to the big five on your own but you can offer your project to the smaller presses and it can help you get an agent if you are able to get a first offer on your own.  You could try this if you’re not finding a match with an agent after pursuing them.

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