NEFF: Jeff, to say you are an up-and-coming star in the literary agent business is an understatement, especially in light of your recent sale of MEMORY OF RUNNING by Ron McLarty to Viking/Penguin. But more on that later. Let's start with you telling us how and why you decided to start agenting. And why Graybill and English in Washington, D.C.?
KLEINMAN: I'm not sure about the "up-and-coming star" stuff. As for why I started agenting, I had a background in English and writing, and also had a law degree. My lawfirm was affiliated with the firm where Nina Graybill was; when my firm split, I ended up going to work with her. As for DC as opposed to NY, I'm more of a country boy, and have a fairly nice setup here in Northern Virginia. I also think that not being in NY has its advantages - it sets me apart from many other agents, and I don't get too caught up in the culture the way that some people do.
NEFF: Into basics for a moment. You've stated elsewhere that a well written query letter is key to snagging an agent's attention. Can you briefly explain what components the ideal query should include? Also, should the writer attach a page or two of prose just so the agent can get a feel for writer's ability?
KLEINMAN: How's this? Single Page. The first paragraph, a catchy but professional introduction. How you heard of agent, great plot idea, and so forth. Then paragraph 2, your experience, credentials for writing the book, professional and/or personal experience. Your credentials are crucial for nonfiction, and may be less important for fiction where the quality of the writing is paramount--but sell yourself. Nobody thinks it's bragging ... Paragraph three, a description of the project in one or two sentences. If fiction, one or two sentence "log line," plus word count, and if nonfiction, a brief description of the project, plus finish this sentence: "My book is the first book that I ..." ALWAYS include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE), as well as all other means of contacting you (phone, fax, email). And always include the first sample pages (or chapters). If fiction, then include the first page of the book along with the cover letter.
NEFF: When you visit our Algonkian workshop you often stress that short fiction credentials are important to a writer trying to get her or his first novel published. Can you tell us why that is so? It's been my overwhelming experience that most writers toiling away on a first novel neglect to dip into short fiction.
KLEINMAN: Every publisher's looking for the next new author whose career is taking off. This may mean publishing short stories in prestigious literary journals, appearing frequently in the media, or getting an advanced degree on the subject. Just imagine looking at the author's bio on the back of the book - does the bio alone induce an unknown reader to plunk down $30 for the book?
NEFF: Okay, let's say a writer pens a query that is sharp and demonstrates adequate credentials plus unique and/or provocative story concept, and the writing sample he or she includes is tres ooo la la, is it safe to say that such a package will persuade just about any agent in the lit biz to give the writer a green for sending the whole manuscript?
KLEINMAN: I can't speak for every agent, of course, but I do suspect you'll hear quickly from those who are interested - and probably a lot of people will be interested.
NEFF: Now, back to the big time. You represent Ron McLarty and his Cinderella tale that includes MEMORY OF RUNNING recently sold to Viking/Penguin for over $2 million. Can you tell us the anecdote about his success and your early experiences with his work?
KLEINMAN: I heard Ron's book three years ago as a Recorded Books "original" recording, and fell in love with it. He already had an agent who had tried unsuccessfully to sell the book. When I contacted him three years ago, he was reluctant to step back in the publishing game; he contacted me last spring, however, and we decided to go out with the book. In the process, we decided to pursue endorsements ahead of time, so Ron sent the recorded book to Stephen King - who loved it. King asked if he could write a column in Entertainment Weekly about it - the column began, "This is the best book you won't read this year." Certainly the column made the publishing world sit up and pay attention, but Ron kept their interest: he wrote a really amazingly lovely book. It absolutely deserves all the praise I hope it receives.
NEFF: Just prior to the McLarty book, you sold THE GROVE to Warner Books for six figures and bonuses. The story of your discovery and triumph here is also absorbing. Please tell us about it, and the book.
KLEINMAN: The author, Robert Hicks, came to me several years ago with an absolutely astonishing, and true, story. He worked on the book for several years, through multiple revisions, before we decided that it was ready to go. Warner Books picked it up in a pre-empt within about a week of receiving the package.
NEFF: Your taste in books is obviously eclectic based on the genre categories you are willing to represent, including commercial, literary, thriller, historical, and science fiction/fantasy. That's a lot to juggle. What particular qualities do you look for in work by a new SF/Fantasy writer, for example?
KLEINMAN: The same as in any other kind of work: I look for extremely well-written, character-driven books that make me absolutely fall in love with the characters and their world.
NEFF: And for historical fiction writers? Literary writers? Do you demand the prose style or voice for literary writers be a notch in quality above the genre writers, or does it just depend on the story and subject matter?
KLEINMAN: See above. I have basically two criteria for taking on a book of any type [and I get these criteria from the famous and wonderful Pat Lobrutto, one of the smartest guys in the book business]: first, I miss my subway stop reading the book (i.e., the book has some kind of "unputdownable" quality to it); and second, I gush about it to any poor slob who will listen (because books are still sold via word of mouth).
NEFF: Who are your favorite "commercial" fiction writers and how would you define that market for our readers? Don't the lines between literary and commercial sometimes blur, or is it just my vision?
KLEINMAN: I like Margaret Atwood, John Irving, Wally Lamb, Michael Chabon, and many others - usually those books have some kind of "literary" sensibility. I think the line definitely blurs all the time - but I think publishers, and the general public, like some kind of very well written book that has enough plot and character to really keep the interest riveted.
NEFF: Where do you see the thriller fiction market going from here? Is it drying up or searching for new territory? I've heard that "literary thrillers" are getting press. Any other category thrillers making news?
KLEINMAN: Literary thrillers and mysteries certainly seem to have renewed life these days. I think it's probably a good idea to try writing to a specific trend, though - by the time the writer writes the book and the publisher publishes it, the trend is long over.
NEFF: Do you perceive the market for historical fiction generally getting better or has it stabilized? Are there sub-genres within historical fiction that are heating up? In other words, if I were a writer who loved historical fiction, where might I best concentrate my efforts?
KLEINMAN: No clue. I'd find some kind of wonderful character in a compelling time period that we may know a little less about, and tell us the story of their world through that fabulously conceived character's perspective. Again, I think it's a huge mistake trying to write for a trend - write what you care about.
NEFF: Overall, what is your opinion on the overall climate for first novels? Does it vary according to genre? And if so, what are the differences?
KLEINMAN: I think publishers and the public will always have a curiosity about first novels. It's probably easier, though, to break into genres (mysteries, SF&F, romance, etc.), rather than trying to tackle the "commercial mainstream fiction" angle - that is certainly the toughest market to break into.
NEFF: Thanks, Jeff!
About the Interviewer
Michael Neff is the Director of WDS and Algonkian Workshops. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org