An Afternoon with Literary Agent, Miriam Goderich
June 6, 2015
Columbia Fiction Foundry
Interviewer: Shanan Essick (SE)
Transcriber: Ralph White (RW)
An Afternoon with Literary Agent, Miriam Goderich
June 6, 2015
Columbia Fiction Foundry
Interviewer: Shanan Essick (SE)
Transcriber: Ralph White (RW)
SE: For those of you who don’t know her, Miriam Goderich has been partnering with Jane Dystel at Dystel and Goderich since 2001. Both Miriam’s undergraduate and graduate degrees are from Columbia. I’ll start off with what you’ll probably think of as FAQs, then open it up to the group. Let me start by asking what genres you represent. What’s your sweet spot?
MG: Well, everything. You’ll see from our client list that we cover almost everything. Including Jane’s predecessor firms, we’ve been in business over twenty years and it shows. Jane and I started with one assistant and now we have eleven agents. We have two agents in our West Coast office. I encourage you to read our agents’ personal essays on our website and direct your query to the most appropriate one. When we started we probably did 90% non-fiction and the reason is that it is a lot easier to sell than fiction. I’m sorry to tell you but it’s a horrifying fact of the publishing industry. That was always Jane’s specialty from her early days in the industry. And then I came along and I just liked fiction. We cover almost everything except poetry. We like children’s books, young adults, middle grade, cookbooks and lifestyle, some celebrity books. Our non-fiction is very strong. Last year one of our books won the Pulitzer. We represent a range of authors from very commercial to very literary. So there’s no real sweet spot. Our sweet spot is basically what we can sell. We’re not wrong often; we sell between 150 to 175 books a year, which is a lot. The reason is that we’re very careful about what we take on and we put a lot of energy into each and every project.
SE: Speaking of your selectivity, how much do agents collaborate and how do you decide what is sourced from the slush pile versus other sources. How is the decision made to ask for a full manuscript?
MG: That is a very good question. First of all, everything starts in the slush pile, unless it comes from a direct referral. My mother recently referred the granddaughter of a woman at her gym in Miami and it turned out she was really talented. Or Judge Judy will call us and say, “I’ve got someone you have to look at.” We welcome those referrals from existing clients; they get an automatic entrée. The others come from email, Twitter, Facebook, from stalking us at conferences, however they can get to us. That is technically all slush. We weed through all of that and choose what we want to represent. So, how do we do that? We have interns who are reading for us. We have a great internship program and we vet these people on how they report on what they read. So everything gets looked at. So how do you go from getting an intern to look at it to getting me to look at it? Writers make it easy for us to do the first cut: they get our names wrong; they make mistakes on the first line. And then it gets trickier. It might look interesting but we’re not dying to see more. We will consult with one another. I get about 150 emails a day and many of them are queries. If something catches my eye I’ll read it myself. For instance queries from the Columbia Fiction Foundry I’ll read myself. But even with unsolicited material sometimes it will look so engaging and charismatic that I just have to look at it myself. So that’s really the way to get seen. We make fun of Hollywood but they are very smart about the whole high concept thing. They have the same problem we do. You have to sum up the whole high concept thing up front and do it really well. “This is Jaws meets Star Wars.” I’m not suggesting you make it overly facile or silly. You have to work on describing your project really well. You’re trying to get our attention so don’t make us read through three dense paragraphs to find out what’s going to happen. You have a very small window of attention to get your message across. So that’s the biggest thing, to try to figure out a way to pitch your project so that it grabs people’s attention. If you can do that you’re going to get a request for more and that’s half the battle right there.
SE: What would the typical next steps be, after you’ve read the manuscript?
MG: Well, if it’s something that we want to represent we’ll be in touch and sign you up. With fiction we often offer a lot of editorial feedback. Then we send it to an editor, who may have other editorial ideas. It’s not science. We usually do a multiple submission. With fiction we go to a smaller group than we would with non-fiction because we want the feedback. They almost always give us a reason for declining. And so we pass those comments on to the author and ask, “Do you want to make these changes? Do they make sense to you?” It’s the author’s call and we go from there.
SE: How about “rounds?”
MG: We start with the first group of editors and get their feedback then either go back to them once their issues are addressed or move on to others. We start with the best houses. We’re looking for the most money for our authors. We want a house with the best resources to get the project out into the market. So it’s not just about money but also about getting it sold well. So, not just the right editorial fit, but also a house that puts some money behind it.
SE: Let’s take a few questions from other members of the Fiction Foundry.
Julia Kite: How do you predict what might be hot in the future? I understand that it can be a matter of years between signing and publication so I was wondering how you figure out what might be selling in two years?
MG: You don’t. You’d drive yourself crazy. Ten years ago “chick lit” was hot. Now you can’t even say the words “chick lit.” I mean it’s the same thing as “women’s fiction.” There are these bubbles; I mean a ton of vampire YA will sell then there’s a glut and the market is saturated. You really can’t predict. You have to follow your gut. I wouldn’t want to try to follow or predict the trends. That said, I think it’s really important for authors to be aware what the market is these days. Especially if you’re a genre writer in, say, science fiction or thrillers, you really do want to know what’s working in the market. After all, genres change. The kind of mystery that worked ten years ago isn’t necessarily the kind of thing that works today.
SE: How should aspiring writers like us go about selecting an agent or agency to represent us?
MG: I wish it were that simple. I wish you all had a choice. [Laughter] Sometimes you do of course but that’s not typical. Actually one of our agents, Jim McCarthy did a post on our site describing how one of his clients went to 127 agents, and everyone passed. Jim said, “I really like your voice but you’ve got some work to do.” She did what he suggested and he signed her. Now she’s written thirty books with him. There are so many resources on the Internet now: Publishers’ Marketplace, there’s a site called “Predators and Editors.” There is so much talk you can follow. They key things you need to think about are how well the agent is going to communicate with you, how much information they’re going to share with you, whether they’re going to return your phone calls and emails. When you get that offer of representation you should have some questions prepared. How do you see my work, my career; what’s your vision. Take a step back and consider the relationship. And that tension exists on both sides. Ask if you can contact other clients to see how they feel about the agent. If you’ve studied this person in advance, you can go ahead and sign. People sign agreements which are onerous in the best of times and horrific in the worst and they live to regret it. Just make sure you know what you’re getting into. The Author’s Guild is a great resource. They give free legal advice and the membership isn’t that expensive. The Association of Authors Representatives is a policing group for agents. If anybody asks you for money to read your material don’t give it to them. Agents charge a commission and if anyone says, “I need fifty bucks to read your manuscript,” they’re not an agent in good standing so don’t go there.
Linda Trice: How do you decide which agent in the agency to give the manuscript to?
MG: How do we decide or how do you decide? Usually it’s not our decision. Usually the author goes directly to the agent based on their own taste. Actually it’s a very good question because we are a very collegial group; most of us have been together over ten years, which is rare in publishing. And so we all know one another’s tastes very well. Let’s say I get something which has great writing but I just don’t get it; I’ll send it to Jim McCarthy, because he’s the King of Weird Fiction. So if something has all the elements but it just doesn’t speak to me, I can pass it on to somebody. I would ask, though, that you not query all of us at once. That tends to make us all kinds of crazy and we’ll just say no. If you send it to one agent and if they see value in it but it’s not for them they’ll send it to someone else.
Nancy Kern: I’m interested in etiquette, or do’s and don’ts in our interactions with agents. I’m thinking follow ups, partials, that kind of thing.
MG: Are you thinking queries, or material. Both? Well, first thing you should know is that we have a spam filter which is powered by Satan…and it takes as many real emails as it leaves spam. It has a mind of its own. I check my junk folder about once a month and I always find stuff that should have been answered right away. If you haven’t heard about a query you’ve sent to us in, say, two weeks, then it’s okay to email us. Or call even. If we’re talking about material, you should absolutely follow up and make sure we got it. There’s nothing wrong with following up on your material. How long we take with manuscripts depends on a lot of factors, like time of year. In January-February we get about 65 manuscripts at once. That is about everybody’s New Year’s Resolution. [Laughter] You think I’m being funny. It happens every single year. September 7th, the same thing. Kids are back in school and moms have time again. All of a sudden we are bombarded with stuff. I read on Sundays, at night; I was reading when I was in labor; there is no time off for an agent. I love the ones where I can read a paragraph and know it’s no good. [Laughter] But anything that’s remotely good I’m going to keep reading and it takes time. If I request a full manuscript I should be getting back to you in two weeks to a month.
Ralph White: One tip you gave us last time to make sure our queries got read was to put “Columbia Fiction Foundry” in the subject line.
Karishma Kheskwani: I wanted to ask you about word count. Do you take that into consideration?
MG: It shouldn’t make a difference unless the novel is too short or too long. If you have a novel which is 40 thousand words that’s a novella, not a novel. We can’t really sell that. On the other hand if the manuscript is 250 thousand words, and it’s not an epic fantasy, then it’s a problem. So anywhere between 80 thousand and 140 thousand words is okay, but if you’re inching toward the very long, I urge you to take a look at editing.
Rochana Rapkins: I’m wondering about the importance of social platform and how do you determine the quality of platform.
MG: Not so much with fiction, which is a lovely thing with fiction. A strong social media platform is only important in fiction once the book is about to be published because you want to draw attention to the book. Platform isn’t that helpful to sell the book to publishers. Quality is, as you suspected, important. You don’t want the 10 thousand followers whom you bought for a buck and a half. You want tastemakers who are going to recommend your book to others. You want relationships with other authors in your category because they’re the ones who are going to chat your book up. Social media is time-consuming and tedious but it’s an investment in your career.
Bill Marden: Obviously a lot of people come to you. Do you ever go out there prospecting for clients?
MG: More with non-fiction. It’s harder with fiction.
SE: I’m interested in this somewhat-tension between commercial and literary fiction. I mean literary fiction can be incredibly mind-altering, whereas commercial is entertaining.
MG: When I first started at what was then Acton and Dystel I looked up and there was a picture of James Baldwin on one wall and a picture of Willy Mays on the other and I’m like, I’m home; this is it. And I had just gotten my masters at Columbia. I’m going to be working with real literature, with a capital “L.” And Jay Acton and put a stack of romance novels on my desk, and said, “Read those; this is what makes us money.” My heart fell. How can you do this to me? And then I looked at those books and found that there was real craft, real skill, real storytelling. Not all romance writers are brilliant but I can name a handful who are good enough to write anything. We are looking for something that grabs us. Publishers, editors, agents don’t make such a distinction. Authors think there is this big wall between literary and commercial. I mean there are plenty of literary novels which are best sellers and plenty of commerical novels which go bust. For us, if it works it works, in any category.
Ralph White: We have some dedicated short story writers. Do you do anthologies?
MG: Short stories are tough. With short stories getting published in other journals is really key, and not obscure literary journals. It is so difficult to sell a short story collection as a first book. We do sell them but usually it’s the author’s second book or as part of a two book deal. We have a client, Valery Trueblood, who is an excellent story writer, and who has won awards. But the market is not strong in general. And thematically linked stories are best if you’re going to sell an anthology.
Karishma Kheskwani: Getting back to the query letter – and I’ve read your blog on the Elusive Perfect Query Letter – but I still want to know how do we craft that one sentence that gets your attention.
MG: I think you really need to workshop it. Getting that high concept statement right takes a lot of input. Something that’s neither overly grandiose nor overly diffident. Just try find the most striking thing about your work and lead with that.
Bill Marden: Okay, so you’ve got the full manuscript and you’re going to devote some time to reading the thing, tell us about your internal checklist that tells you, yeah, we’re ready to do something with this author.
MG: It has to work all the way though. So often a manuscript opens with promise and then loses it, or it might start slow and then pick up steam. We can work with smaller problems but not large structural problems. That’s going to be a no.
Jack Burger: I have two questions, let’s suppose you are going on a two week vacation…
MG: So this is a fantasy…[Laughter]
JB: What books would you take along to read for your own pleasure?
MG: Books for me to read? I’m easy; I read everything. I love a really good thriller; I love speculative fiction; I love women’s fiction; I love baseball novels. I’m on a thing with baseball now because my kid is a Little Leaguer. I will read anything. Something buzzworthy.
JB: My second question is, you’ve been to the Columbia Fiction Foundry before and you obviously found it a good experience. [Laughter] Why did you come back? [Laughter]
MG: Wow! I guess because I got invited. We’re cheap dates. It’s a Saturday. It’s local. Ralph invited me – he’s a client – full disclosure – and Columbia’s my alma mater.
Nancy Kern: Do you prefer hard copy or digital?
MG: Everything is done digitally these days. I only use hard copy if I want to line edit but that’s rare these days. We prefer Word not PDF because you’re able to manipulate it better. No one in publishing likes PDFs.
Melissa Bell: I’m thinking in terms of piracy.
MG: The publishing industry wouldn’t exist if everyone were worried about ripping each other off. You just have to have faith. A lot of people will look at it. You can’t worry too much about it. Copyright it.
Ralph White: The best protection against piracy is bad writing. [Laughter] I do have a question about your agency. I have the impression that your agency differs from some others in that you originate projects and Jane distributes them. Does that hold for the other agents in the agency?
MG: Jane and I run the agency so we oversee everybody. All of the other agents are autonomous on their own projects. They have their own relationships with their own editors. Jane and I work as a team. She takes the lead in putting the material in front of publishers. I’m a more editorial and development person.
Julia Kite: Let’s say you sign someone and it just doesn’t sell. At what point do you call it quits?
MG: We are pretty stubborn. We’ve been known to go to 47 editors. We’re not getting paid until it sells. Everything before that we’re doing for free. We have had that happen but it’s not that common. If your book doesn’t sell then go on to the next one and we’ll work on that with you. It’s a long game. It’s about building careers.
Karishma Kheskwani: How easy is it to switch between fiction and non-fiction?
MG: If you can write, you can write. It’s not an issue, though it can depend on the category. We even love it when an author can write in more than one category because it gives us multiple series to present to the market. Generally this is done under different names to avoid cannibalizing your own sales. Also you don’t want to confuse readers.
Nancy Kern: Talk about pseudonyms, please.
MG: You can do anything you want but if the pseudonym works you’re going to want to stick with it. It used to be a disadvantage when there was a physical presence but these days there isn’t as much money for author tours so it’s not as much of a concern.
Ralph White: Can you talk a little about foreign rights and film rights in the context of revenues to the author?
MG: Sure. Foreign rights are a great source of revenue. There are two basic ways to sell foreign rights. You can sell worldwide rights to a publisher, and if you’re a debut novelist you’re going to give them worldwide rights. You are going to get 75% of what the publisher gets. 80% for the British market. We may also decide to retain foreign rights and sell them separately. We have an amazing, brilliant agent who sells foreign rights. In this case you get 100% of the proceeds. With your first book you have very little leverage. So we prefer to keep those foreign rights but we may not be able to. Another reason for retaining rights is that in the future you might be famous and those rights might be worth a lot more. We also have a very good track record with film options. We probably sell 50 or 60 film options every year but that doesn’t guarantee that your book will become a film. Last year we had two of those made into films. There are so many variables with Hollywood.
SE: What are the odds that our debut novel will become a bestseller?
MG: It’s like catching lightning. Consider the number of books published every year and how few are on the bestseller list and you can work it out.
Jonathan Hull: What’s a typical timeline for a book getting from an agent to a publisher and into print?
MG: We don’t make money until the author makes money so we’re pushing to get it out there fairly quickly. Some editors are quick about getting back to us and some, it’s like a big, giant black hole. Some books take more time and others don’t. There’s really no standard time frame for the process.
SE: How about books about supposedly taboo subjects. How are they handled?
MG: That’s a really good question but a tough one to answer. The good thing about publishing people is that we’re pretty, um, we’re inured to anything. Nothing is going to shock us. You do have to think about what the repercussions might be for you, for your credibility, and the chance you might make people really angry. We do draw lines – the OJ book comes to mind. Sometimes it’s personal. If I’m offended I’m not going to be a good advocate. Try to deal with the subject respectfully and not be exploitative. That said, difficult issues have to be tackled in literature.
SE: So thank you so much for your time. You’ve been fantastic. [Applause]
Ralph White: I’d like to put I a word for Miriam and for Dystel and Goderich. I’ve had a great experience working with them. I’ve workshopped four novels around this table and I got a lot of help from my Fiction Foundry colleagues, then I got a lot more help from Miriam and her colleagues. I found the agency and Miriam to be highly responsive and when I started getting feedback from them it was highly constructive and I didn’t disagree with anything they asked me to do. I’m not being paid to say this…
MG: He just wants to get his book published…[Laughter]
RW: I’ve tried to stay away from questions that dealt with my own specific case. I can also say, in respect of Shanan’s last question, that my book deals with some free speech issues and it’s going to rub a lot of people the wrong way. And Dystel and Goderich did not shy away from that, God bless them.
MG: Ralph is kind of our ideal client because he does take feedback so well, and he is very patient and respectful of the process. And that is more rare than you can imagine. The fact is that we all want to sell the book so having a client who is collaborative is great.
RW: I fine-tuned that skill around this table. [Laughter] I should add that the comments I got from Beth deGuzman at Grand Central were also very good. Thanks again for coming, Miriam. [Applause]