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Only The Best
     by Michael Neff

An Interview with Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York, which he founded in 1980. He represents more than one hundred fiction writers and sells more than one hundred novels per year to top publishers in America and overseas. Recently, he obtained six-and-seven-figure advances from publishers such as Warner, Ballantine, Penguin Putnam and others for authors like mystery writer Anne Perry, fantasy author David Zindell and science fiction writers David Feintuch and Todd McCaffrey.

Author of seventeen novels and of the books The Career Novelist and Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass has more than twenty years of experience as a literary agent, representing dozens of novelists in the science fiction, fantasy, crime, mystery, romance, and thriller categories. He speaks at writing conferences throughout the country and lives in New York City. He is on the board of advisors for Writer's Digest magazine and is also the former president of the Association of Authors' Representatives.

NEFF: Don, you've got to be one of the more energetic human beings on this planet. You've written over a dozen novels, plus non-fiction work, founded and directed your own extremely successful literary agency, and now you're touring with your novel workshops. But back to the writing for a moment. What types of novels did you create in bygone times? And do you miss those times?

MAASS: When I was getting my agency going in the 80's, I supported myself writing fiction. It was romance at first, including one of the launch novels for Silhouette Books, and later young adult, including four in a long-running series about a famous girl detective. I enjoyed writing those novels (14 in all), and learned a lot. If I were to take up fiction again today—and who knows, I may, since as you point out I have so much free time—it would be very different. I would write it on a "breakout" scale. That won't surprise anyone who has read my book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.

NEFF: What made you decide to become an agent?

MAASS: It was better than being an editor. I got to work more often and more directly with authors.

NEFF: Your agency accepts submissions primarily for general fiction, mystery, romance, and SF/Fantasy and you sell more than one hundred novels per year to major publishers. Can you give our readers a rough percentage breakdown between the genres, or does it vary from year to year?

MAASS: These days we sell about equal numbers of SF/fantasy, mystery, suspense, romance and women's fiction. In smaller numbers we sell historical, mainstream, YA and literary. I wouldn't say that any area is more lucrative than any other. We can hit it big in any of them, and do.

NEFF: Has any one genre over the past five or ten years gained a greater share of the market? For example, have sci-fi total book sales increased a few points? Any trends to be aware of?

MAASS: Unit sales of Science Fiction have declined dramatically over the last ten years. Fantasy has been more popular. Romance and women's fiction continues to command half or more of the paperback market, though its mix has changed greatly. Mysteries and thrillers remain popular and ever-changing, too. In all, though, I would say that in every category it is harder to win an audience and easier to be dropped by publishers. Only great storytellers last more than a few books.

NEFF: What exactly is meant by "general fiction"? Is it harder to break into than SF or mystery, e.g.?

MAASS: General fiction, to my mind, is the stuff that doesn't fit into any category, or is written on such a scale that it "transcends" category. Have you noticed how mystery writers, say, who hit the bestseller lists no longer have the word "mystery" printed on the spines of their books? Instead the hardcover edition will simply say "a novel." Funny about that. Actually, category lists and category sections in bookstores can be great places to grow. There are dedicated readers, magazines and awards to help build an author's career. The general "fiction" section of the bookstore, in contrast, can be a very lonely place.

NEFF: You've obtained six and seven figure advances for several of your writers, including Todd McCaffery (science fiction) and Anne Perry (mystery). Is this business as usual for writers you represent?

MAASS: Uh-huh, sure. Happens every day. Seriously, this year our number of titles sold is down but the bottom-line dollar sum for those sales is way up. In other words, we're selling fewer titles but getting higher advances for them; sometimes much, much higher. Just this week I closed a high six-figure deal for a new historical trilogy—and that was for Canadian rights only.

NEFF: Does your agency handle movie rights also or do you work with someone in LA?

MAASS: We usually partner (co-agent) with L.A. agents; which one depends on the property and our target: studio film, independent film or TV.

NEFF: Let me get back on track. It's well known that the number of major publishing houses inclined to take a chance on new writers is dwindling. Given that current successful authors were the first novelists of yesterday, where does corporate publishing imagine the authors of tomorrow will come from if they're unwilling to let them in the door today? Are they planning to clone?

MAASS: Well, I disagree with your premise. It is not more difficult to sell first fiction today than it ever has been. What is more difficult is to sell a third or fourth novel. Unless an author today finds a sizeable audience very quickly, they will be washed out—and, thanks to computerized inventory tracking by bookstore chains, washed out without hope of a second chance with a new publisher. You have to start good and get better, fast. That is why we do so much advance editorial work with our clients, and why I wrote WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL: to show authors how to write novels that feel larger and deeper; novels that have a greater impact and thus generate greater word-of-mouth.

NEFF: I know you keep up with the latest publishing trends. How do you now weigh the future value of eBooks and print-on-demand as alternative modes of publishing?

MAASS: After years of hype, eBook sales today are miniscule and, I'm sorry, I do not see improved screen technology, or whatever, changing that. Where consumer books like novels are concerned, I forecast that eBooks will remain a tiny business.

NEFF: Okay, new tangent! You are obviously a powerful and well respected agent, as well as an accomplished novelist. What made you decide to do the two day workshop, "Writing the Breakout Novel"?

MAASS: In the summer of 2000 I created a four-hour workshop for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference to promote WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, which I had just turned in to Writers Digest Press. The response to that workshop was overwhelmingly positive. It really seemed to fill a need for published novelists who wanted to know how to get to the next level. I began to offer the workshop at other writers' conferences, expanded it, and today offer stand-alone, weekend-long Breakout Novel workshops. (For info, visit the website www.free-expressions.com) So popular have these workshops been that next year my publisher will bring out my WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK, which will have in it the 30-plus developmental writing exercises that I teach, as well as many chapters of analysis of current breakout novels to show how breakout techniques can work.

NEFF: Does the workshop bring new writers to the agency?

MAASS: Many of the workshop participants are published novelists who already have representation so, no, I actually don't get many new clients that way.

NEFF: I'm curious. Out of the total number of novels sold to publishers by your agency, about what percent are first novels?

MAASS: 10% or less. I expect that percentage to go up, though, thanks to the addition to my staff of two very sharp young agents: Andrea Somberg and Rachel Vater, both of whom are aggressively building lists.

NEFF: Come 2004, from what genre field(s) will you be harvesting most of your new voices? Any special emphasis?

MAASS: That's hard to say. I care less about category than about the level of storytelling. Is an author writing a layered novel with strong characters who are beset by powerful inner conflicts? In other words, are they writing on a breakout scale? That's what I care about. That's what succeeds.

NEFF: Aside from manuscripts with sympathetic characters, original story and theme, plenty of conflict, and interesting setting, anything else the fiction writer should be concerned about?

MAASS: Oh, my gosh: tons! See my book!

NEFF: Any final words of encouragement for our yet-to-be published readers?

MAASS: The industry makes it hard for new writers to succeed, but remember that many do. It's all about great storytelling…and that's the one thing that's under your control.

About the Interviewer
Michael Neff is the Director of WDS and Algonkian Workshops. His email is editor@webdelsol.com


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