NEFF: Erin, you've worked in the past with some pretty big players in the Los Angeles agency bz. What motivated you to take that freedom flight and start Erin Reel Literary Agency?
ERIN: I believed I could do a better job of representing the interests of writers, getting their work published and making more money for them. That's the foundational premise of ERLA - I believe if my agency does a better job of focusing on the interests of my writers, it will be more successful than if it were focused on itself. I believe it's the writers that make an agency great, not the deal makers.
NEFF: How did you acquire the confidence to do it, i.e., did you start fresh or bring some clients with you, and/or do you feel your publishing house contacts are extensive? In other words, why is Erin Reel betting her child will be a success?
ERIN: Right up front, it's important to acknowledge that I'm a youngster in this business. The great agents have hundreds of contacts, and I'm just starting out. However, there are young people looking to make their mark throughout the publishing industry, and I may relate to them better than the agents and editors from the generation before us. It's cyclical. Thirty years from now, I'll be the one at the end of my cycle having difficulty relating to the work of the next generation.
Confidence? I don't really know where it came from. Anyone who knows me would tell you, it isn't really like me to be so bold. I just felt strongly there was a niche I could fill, and I went for it. But, I guess I did have a big rooting section encouraging my decision to go out on my own. As a matter of fact, two of my initial clients were recommended by an editor at one of the major houses.
I have three clients who broke their contracts with my former agency when they heard I opened my own shop. I didn't encourage any of them. They were already on their way out the door for their own reasons.
NEFF: You've made reference at other times to "the good and the ugly" of agenting in L.A. Will you please elaborate on this for the sake of our readers who need to be forewarned? For example, you note on your website that some agents are "more exploitive" than others.
ERIN: One of my more experienced L.A. clients - he's published a novel, sold several screenplays and directed, he's a really good guy - once told me, "It's like a right of passage for writers to get screwed in their first L.A. contract." There are just a lot of people in this town that are all about themselves and not about the people they represent. What to look for? All the best writers' websites tell you what to look for. The problem is, writers are usually so happy that someone shows interest in them, they are willing to sign anything. That's their first mistake. They forget they have value. It's not their fault. They are reminded so often how lucky they are to have an agent, they just forget their importance to the process. It's ridiculous! If the work is exceptional and marketable, the agent is lucky to have you, not the other way around.
A little plug: I have a piece that will be published by The Writer on this subject next spring in Making The Perfect Pitch. It should be up on my website in a week or two - depending on my website guy. In any event, the main point to remember is that publishing is a business not a dream machine. Pay attention to the details just like you would when you buy a house.
NEFF: Is it difficult to run a "books only" business in L.A., a town that focuses so much on film? How do you compensate for not being in NYC?
L.A. is a huge city with hundreds of brilliant writers, maybe even more than New York. If a writer here, who normally specializes in screen writing, needs someone to help them sell a book, it makes sense to go to someone who specializes in books. That's my niche, I'm the L.A. agent who specializes in books, and I'm betting that will make sense to L.A. writers. How many times did I say books? Books! Books! Books!
As far as New York goes, I'm planning three or four trips a year. I'll spend a week and pack meetings in back to back. Coming in from out of town, I may get more face time with editors than someone who actually works in Manhattan. But really, communications are so good today, there are excellent agents doing business all over the country. It really doesn't make that much difference anymore.
NEFF: You've said you want to run an "old school" agency. Can you define what that means?
ERIN: Sure, when the agenting business was young, agents signed a writer with a handshake and told the client he expected his percentage when the deal was done. Publishing contracts are designed to include the interests of the publisher, writer and agent. They are very detailed and spell out the terms very clearly. There really isn't any need for a contract between agent and writer. It's redundant.
The big agencies have always found it necessary to use contracts, because they have such a wide array of services. It makes sense for them. And, many very reputable agents use contracts, because, well, we live in litigious times. But, many of the less than desirable agents use contracts to bind add-on charges they intend to gouge their clients with when they get a book published. Sometimes they even leave out an escape clause so the writer is forced to get an attorney to get out of it.
At ERLA, when we "sign" a writer, we send a letter of understanding to our clients clearly spelling-out what he or she can expect - more-or-less a formalized handshake. They are not required to sign anything. It's just documentation of what they can expect from us. ERLA picks-up all promotional charges. We charge nothing back to the clients, and we have no "reading" or "processing fees." All we expect in return is 15 percent when we make a deal, and that's clearly spelled out from the beginning. That's the "Old School" way, and we believe in it.
NEFF: How many clients do you have right now and can you tell us what types of novels they've written? Genre? Literary?
ERIN: We have thirteen clients - eight of them are professional writers who have, either already been published or work as writers in another medium. Three of them have never been published, and two are friends from college that I think are particularly gifted writers.
As we develop, we are looking for balance to some degree. We don't simply want to be known for one specialty. The projects we have in the works now include: political; business; women's issues; pop culture; and social non-fiction. In the fiction category, we have psychological suspense, literary, black comedy and military - all with a wide audience appeal. As soon as I can get our website guy to get to work, we'll have details up on each of them.
NEFF: What does ERLA look for in a novel? Can you be specific? Do you scorebox manuscripts in some manner? Do you read all the manuscripts yourself?
ERIN: We look for good writing with an interesting style that has an identifiable market. The truth is it's often an emotional decision. If we like it, we like it. We don't exclude much out-of-hand, but we have to see a market. I read a copy of Diary by Chuck Palahniuk the other day, and I just fell in love. I was absorbed by the story, the characters and was dazzled by his brave choice of narration. That's what I love to see - good story and gutsy choices.
Right now, either my husband or I read all manuscripts. If we spot a query we like with an interesting angle, we request it. We don't request a lot of material, because our primary focus is always the clients we already have. We're very picky about how we invest our time. If we take the time to request something, we're serious about its potential, and we're actually a little sad if something isn't as good as we'd hoped.
NEFF: How many manuscripts do you get each month? Are they mostly genre or literary?
We receive hundreds of queries a month, but as I said, we only request what we absolutely want to see. I'd say we request about twenty a month. For some reason right now, we are getting really good material. I don't know if it's because we're only listed on the internet and only the better writers are finding out about us, or some other reason. It's kind of nice though. We're not wasting a lot of time wading through slush piles.
NEFF: You note further on your site that you have three piles of manuscripts. To quote here: "If we think a manuscript is particularly well written, we put it in pile "A" for a more thorough reading. If we continue to think it is well written, and it has a good massage, good story or good purpose, we advance it to pile "B". And, finally, if we think we can sell it, we advance it to pile "C."
Okay, this seems fairly straightforward, but do you really A-B-C every ms? Isn't it possible to ABC the ms almost immediately, i.e., to know pdq if the ms is the right stuff? If you gauntlet-ize the process, aren't you running a risk of looking for reasons not to do it rather than ways to make it work? I'm asking this because I know a few writers in LA who have worked as readers and they tell me the culture is very negative.
ERIN: I know exactly what you mean, and it really goes back to my foundational premise. We're all about the writing so the only negativity around here comes from outside sources. We don't have any boxes that are labeled A, B, and C, but we really do follow that basic approach. It goes something like this: We only take manuscripts that have first been queried, and we won't even open one if it shows up un-requested. The query needs to be carefully planned and written, because we don't ask for anything we aren't interested in. If we ask for a ms, you've made it to pile "A."
Making it to pile "B" requires talent. When we get a ms, we try to read the first ten pages fairly soon. If the first page isn't spectacular and the following nine pages aren't wonderful, we pass. Most agents and editors will tell you about the same thing. If it doesn't sing in the first ten pages, it doesn't go on to pile "B." Ninety percent of agents' submissions don't make it to pile "B."
As both my husband and I have academic backgrounds in literature, we tend to view pile "B" in fairly classic terms - is there good character development, plot, setting, etc. Usually, we know right away whether we think a ms has merit, but sometimes we pass it back and forth. Pile "C" is always the most haunting, because it has the least to do with talent and the most to do with business. Pile "C" is all about whether or not we think we can sell it. It's a tough business, and if we don't think we can sell it - it's out.
When you ask if we're looking for ways to knock something out, it's the other way around here. We're looking for ways to keep things in, and when we don't think we can make it work, we feel rotten and do our best to be compassionate and understanding when we pass.
NEFF: How important is story concept to you? If a writer has a great story and is a fairly good writer, will you work with this person to beef up the latter for the sake of the former? I know that several agencies do this for writers and manuscripts they believe have promise.
ERIN: Story concept is important, but I think how the author chooses to tell it is much more important. The foundations of all great stories have been around since the first storytellers sat around their fires - love, revenge, jealousy, etc. What makes stories work over and over is the unique way it is told or written - the art. Right now, both my husband and I are working with different authors to improve their projects. We're doing it, because we believe in the essence of the project and look on the time we spend as an investment in its eventual success. So yes, we do work with writers occasionally, but we have to be careful. You can get too involved in the work and forget your job is the business.
NEFF: Many writers will be reading this interview. Do you want to tell them what kind of qualifications they need to approach ERLA?
A non-fiction writer must be an expert in the field. The buzz word with nonfiction is "platform" meaning, how visible you are as an expert on your subject matter. If you feel you are highly qualified to write what you've written, show us because we will need all that information to pass along to publishers. Too much information is better than too little.
If a fiction writer is able to tell a compelling story with an interesting, effective and tight narration, we'll most likely be interested. You don't need any special qualifications or an MFA to write a novel.
Finally, and this is just because it happened to me last week, recognize that for those involved in the publishing process, this is business and not art. We're involved in the sale of art, not its creation. That's the writer's job. Don't allow yourself to become your own worst enemy. Last week, I read a wonderful story that was edgy and clever and really tight. I was so excited and called the author immediately and discussed signing him. Spurred on by my excitement, he started telling me about how much he hated this publisher and that editor, and mentioned that he had "harassed" different people in the industry that hadn't liked his work. I dropped him so fast I forgot his name before I hung up the phone. All agents, editors and publishers want to work with nice people, so having a really great attitude is a spectacular qualification. Wait until you've sold a million books or so before you get the Joyce Complex.
About the Interviewer
Michael Neff is the Director of WDS and Algonkian Workshops. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org