NEFF: Barbara, do you feel your agency differs in any way from other literary agencies. If so, how?
BJ: Yes, I specialize in discovering new writers from all over the world who have never been published before. And, I work very closely with each author I represent for the long haul - for years sometimes, while a book is being written. I take on authors who have written, maybe a five page proposal, and help them through the entire writing process both with development and editing, way before we even present the work to a publisher. I also work with writers from every country and sell books in foreign languages and really have become an international agent who is based in NYC. I sell more work and rights in the foreign market than America and often I sell books in the foreign market before America. I also deal directly in Hollywood, which is different than most. My agency has a film production division and so I have a personal experience with filmmaking, Hollywood studios and an inside track.
NEFF: Where do your tastes run? What types of work do you feel comfortable representing?
BJ: My forte is commercial fiction and narrative non fiction and I like writing that has a strong, unique voice and point of view. I am attracted to writers who tell bigger than life stories of ordinary people, if you know what I mean and who have a sense of humor, a wry way of writing. I like writing that is lean and might appear simple, yet is actually complex, metaphorical and has universal appeal. I am intrigued by unusual yet accessible stories from all over the world - work that can speak to someone in Ho Chi Minh City as well as St. Petersburg and NYC. I think the authors I represent do have international qualities and think in terms of issues and ideas that all people grapple with - one way or another - you can see that because I am successful at selling authors' foreign rights all over the world.
NEFF: In this tough fiction market, what criteria do you use to select manuscripts by first-time authors for possible representation?
BJ: Firstly, I read everything that comes in to my agency, myself - no one reads for me. I have an open mind to anything -- so, I might have some pre-conceived ideas of what I would take on, but then I simply fall in love - if I read and I fall in love with what I am reading - I will take on the author. That's my first and most important criteria. Then I have to think about, if the work is very literary and small such as Daniel Wagner's A MOVIE AND A BOOK, which I sold to Knopf, which editor would love this? What publisher will publish this book? If a book is very unusual and might have a small market and I love it, the biggest challenge is to find a powerful enough editor or publisher who will publish the work. Otherwise, I am always looking for a really smart thriller or mystery (still haven't found a new one yet!), women's fiction, literary fiction, narrative non fiction -- travel memoirs.....
NEFF: What makes this market for first-time authors fundamentally different than the 1970's or '80s?
BJ: Well - I wasn't an agent until about 12 years ago, so I wasn't around in the 70's and 80's but I can say that since I have been an agent - everything has changed and publishing has become totally corporate and it is marketing driven. Also with the internet and sales figures available at the tap of a finger, it is very difficult to promote an author's second book, if the first one didn't earn out.
Today, authors and/or agents have to create a hook( real or imagined- it's a marketing tool) , a platform- meaning - does anyone in the world or blogosphere know the author and if not, you must spin a first time author in a special way, package a book, do a marketing and sales pitch, create and tell the publishers how to sell the book, sometimes do mock-up of the cover-art, create a website and blog etc. Writers can also try and get reviewing jobs for major newspapers and magazine and review other books and get their name in print. Authors can try and sell short stories, write essays or pieces and get published. They can teach, attend writing workshops, go to literary functions and participate and MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL: Know and visit all the bookstores where you live and where your book will be sold. Make friends with the people who are going to put your book in someone's hand - bookselling is still a big word of mouth business.
In order to really succeed in selling books, it is essential for the author to become personally involved in the selling of it - there are exceptions to every rule today but most authors have websites, hire their own publicists and pay for their own authors' tours.
I, as the agent, have to help a writer, package themselves and their book and position it in the marketplace so that the publishers will say YES and they can go to their corporate board and other colleague in sales and marketing and publicity with a book that has many elements there already. It is very difficult today to just send a ms: unbound , double spaced, typed pages on numbered paper and say it's a great book. Every editor will ask - who wrote it? What do they do? What do they look like? Do they have a column, a website, are the movie rights sold and is the movie in production, etc. etc. etc.
Any first time author can be made to look "fabulous" -- it's all about how an agent, author and publisher present the author. Every author has a background and a story, which can be told to the booksellers and public in a boring way or a way that is spectacular. It all depends on who is "packaging" the author and how they are making something out of what the author's real life and experiences are. If the work is good, then that is what matters and the cosmetic presentation that publishers so desperately want is really easy to create. That's why GOD invented Madison Avenue and advertising! One just has to apply it to authors and their books today. No matter what book is considered - the pressure and insistence by publishers for "known quantities and already discovered work" makes it much more difficult. So, what I try and do is create a package, buzz, excitement, sometimes foreign sales, and a movie sale for a first time book and I get involved in helping in many ways to make a first time book stand out and be accepted.
NEFF: Many of us in the business think it horrible that a writer can spend many years on a project only to have it "rejected" by an intern whose job it is to "flush the slush" at the end of the day. Do you feel it is beneficial or hazardous for agencies and publishers to use young readers or interns to be the point guards on the pile?
BJ: Usually hazardous, most especially with agents... I read everything myself because only I can know what is good and only I have the vision to read 5 pages of something and talk to a writer and know that his/her book can be great and worth taking on. The same goes for editors and publishers, which is why I try to only work and submit to editors that I have relationships with and who personally read the books I send them. Again -- I don't represent quantity so I can read everything and work with authors...and when I submit a book - an editor can know that if I give it my stamp of approval, it is probably worth them looking at themselves. It is preferable if an agent works with the top tier of publishing executives and has long standing relationships so that their books are looked at quickly and with priority, not delegated to a first time intern. But sometimes,actually, again -there are first time editors low on the totem pole like David Gernet, who bought John Grisham's first book - the rest is history; he became the head of Doubleday and finally Grisham's agent. So, you never know... interns can discover something and make something happen too.
NEFF: If you represent a first-time author who is dropped by the publisher because he or she did not earn out on his or her first novel, what is the strategy at that point? Is this circumstance happening more often than ten years ago?
BJ: I would definitely take on a writer with a second book if I loved it. Just because their book didn't earn out , doesn't mean the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th or 5th book won't be a breakout bestseller. The truth here is that most books don't earn out. Most publishers earn their rent on one or two big books. Grisham keeps Doubleday afloat, for instance -- and Doubleday can do many many books which they need to publish and want to publish, but which they know will never earn out their advances. The truth is that most first, second, and third books don't earn out. The issue is how much did the publisher pay for the book and how much did they lose. If a publisher bought a book for 5 million dollars and it sold 12 copies -- yeah, it will probably be difficult to sell book 2. On the other hand, another publisher might think: "Hey, publisher #1 paid 5 million so it must be good and they did a terrible job of publishing." So when the agent comes to them and agrees to sell book 2 for 1 million or even $300,000 to keep the authors career going, the new publisher might think book 2 is better and they are getting a big bargain.
So, the issues of earning out on a first book is not really a big issue frankly. It's something publishers say when they want a way out of doing an author's book. That's my opinion. Publishers will go to bat and continue publishing writers who never earn out because they love the work -- and they believe that one day this one author will break through. There are many many examples of writers like this.
NEFF: Who are your favorite contemporary authors? Who would you recommend to young writers as sources of inspiration?
BJ: I think we must find our own inspirations. What inspires each of us is very personal. But, Graham Greene is my favorite author and I never get tired of reading him, thinking of his characters and stories and imagining myself in one.
NEFF: What is the future for BJ?
BJ: BJ will hopefully find many, many new and exciting authors to represent from all over the world. She anticipates opening an office in Barcelona sometime in the next two years. BJ is developing the film producing arm of her work, and acting as a producer of some of her clients' books and also working on her own film projects. BJ is also developing and co-writing books with authors, which have originated from her own ideas. BJ is interested in more book development with authors of their ideas and is also going to go solo, one of these days, and write herself.
About the Interviewer
Michael Neff is the Director of WDS and Algonkian Workshops. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org