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IBPA Roundtable: Attracting Literary Agents

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PUBLISHED MARCH 2016

by Lynn Rosen, IBPA Independent contributing editor


Below, literary agents share with IBPA Independent’s contributing editor, Lynn Rosen, what they hope indie publishers bring to the table, and more.


Lowenstein Associates
SPECIALTY: We specialize in commercial and literary fiction as well as nonfiction by experts in their fields who have a built-in platform, including engagement on all social media platforms.

What are the top characteristics that make a new book project or proposal marketable?

For fiction, the query should have a clear overview of the plot and characters. Too many queries suffer from a vague and long-winded treatment that deaden rather than pique interest. For nonfiction, being a key expert in your field and presenting your readership base and the social media platform you have to reach that base is essential. The same things that get a good agent interested in your book are the things that will get readers interested in your book.

Do you work with small and/or indie publishers? If so, what are you looking for in a small press on behalf of your clients?

We are looking for small presses and indie publishers that nurture writers and work with them through the whole publishing process from start to finish. That means going through several rounds of edits to ensure the manuscript is the best it can be to helping with social media and promotion. Be willing to go the extra mile to get the writer’s name and work some attention in the world.

There has been a lot of press lately about the growing profitability of the indie publishing world. How might this affect the work you do? Can you envision yourself working with indie publishers more frequently in the future?

Yes, we can see ourselves working more frequently with indie publishers in the future. As the “Big Five” become increasingly risk averse, indie publishers are often those discovering and debuting exciting new talent—for example Scott McClanahan through Two Dollar Radio, Atticus Lish through Tyrant Books, and Amelia Gray through Featherproof Books. We look forward to working with independent publishers to help bring new talent to the world.

What advice would you give to a small or new publisher seeking to acquire books from literary agents?

Get specific as to the things you will do in working with the writer and the agent that make you and your press the most appealing option—an option that might even be better for the writer at this stage of his/her career than a large press.


Denise Marcil Literary Agency
SPECIALTY: I represent commercial fiction, particularly women’s fiction and suspense and practical nonfiction, intelligent self-help in the areas of parenting, health and wellness, psychology, personal growth, and some business books—books that help people’s lives with information and/or inspiration.

Do you work with small and/or indie publishers? If so, what are you looking for in a small press on behalf of your clients?

I work with the larger indie publishers Workman and Kensington and with indie Viva Publications. I look for a commitment to the author for the long term, not just a specific book. I want the same type of commitment from an indie publisher as a Big Five publisher: I want a collaborative working experience with the trio of publisher, author, and myself. I want the publisher to listen to the author, who often truly knows his/her audience better than a publisher. I want a thoughtful and smart marketing strategy for each book, the most appropriate and best cover and cover copy, and wide distribution. I want a publisher to stick with a book even if it does not sell the anticipated number of copies in the first eight weeks of publication. This is a quality that indie publishers are more likely to have or could have unlike the larger publishers. Flexibility, creativity, and focus on the making the backlist sell can be a strong suit and should be for indie publishers.

Can you tell us about a specific small press book you have worked on?

Anne Marie O’Farrell and I sold The 10 Minutes Total Body Workout to Workman. It sold well, but modestly by everyone’s expectations. About a year after the initial publication, the editor came to us with an idea to republish the book in a different format, remove the special color illustration section, shorten the text and retitle the book. Amazing! That’s never happened in my 30-plus years as an agent. Brilliant, too. Workman made the new book, Burst, a lead title on one of its fall lists and it continues to sell well.

There has been a lot of press lately about the growing profitability of the indie publishing world. How might this affect the work you do?

If I could have more experiences such as the one described with Workman, I’d love to work with other indie houses. Again, those houses have the flexibility to be creative.

What advice would you give to a small or new publisher seeking to acquire books from literary agents?

Simple, take the time and have the courtesy of answering each email and call from literary agents, even if you don’t know them. One reason I’ve worked with fewer indie publishers is that while I have pitched many, many editors at indie publishers with emails and follow-up calls, few, very few, editors reply. I don’t know if they haven’t read my email, if the book isn’t right for their list, or if it doesn’t appeal to that specific editor. When I am ignored, I’m not inclined to go back to that editor or publisher again. Comparing experiences with other agents (and I am a big networker who knows a lot of agents), I’ve found that it’s a common complaint. So publishers and editorial directors would be wise to advise and mentor their editors to reply to all email inquiries or pitches from agents, even if it’s a simple “Thanks, but this one doesn’t fit my list, but please keep trying.”


Zachary Schuster Harmsworth
SPECIALTY: I allow my curiosity to lead me as a reader and also an agent. The result is that my list is quite varied. I represent authors who write memoir, science, psychology, health and diet, cookbooks, history, business books, parenting, books about big ideas, narrative nonfiction, and fiction. In the realm of fiction, I love what I think of as book club fiction—great stories that have a lot of themes to talk about—women’s and literary fiction as well as great thrillers. I am also interested in representing books for children of all ages.

Do you work with small and/or indie publishers? If so, what are you looking for in a small press on behalf of your clients?

I see my role as an agent to find the right home for my client’s work and in working with small or independent publishers, I look for houses that have successfully published in the area my client is writing about. So if it is a cookbook, I might try Storey Press or Fair Winds Press; if it is a book about science, I might approach Pegasus, Prometheus, or Bellevue Press.

What advice would you give to a small or new publisher seeking to acquire books from literary agents?

Reach out and tell agents what you are publishing, what you’d like to see, and about your successes.


DeFiore and Company and Literary Management Inc.
SPECIALTY: I specialize in literary and commercial fiction and nonfiction focusing on lifestyle, fitness, health and beauty, parenting, relationships, and memoirs.

Do you work with small and/or indie publishers? If so, what are you looking for in a small press on behalf of your clients?

I am very open to working with indie publishers, and while I did not make the sale, have recently had a wonderful experience with Sarabande. My author, Amy Gustine, has a collection of short stories coming out in a month, and Sarabande has worked tirelessly to get her publicity and reviews. I would publish with them again in a heartbeat!


Sheree Bykofsky Associates, Inc.
SPECIALTY: Adult nonfiction as well as literary and commercial fiction.

Can you tell us about a specific small press book you have worked on?

When it comes to small publishers, Milky Way Press comes to mind. A new electronic publisher that seeks previously published child-oriented titles, Milky Way has recently acquired two of my authors. They focus on books for kids and are also interested in a category I like very much, namely books for adults that benefit children—such as Sharla Feldscher’s KidFun—400 Fun and Easy Ideas for Kids Ages Two to Eight (January 2016).

KidFun was originally published by Harper in 1990. Though more than a quarter of a century has passed, KidFun is timeless because children have not changed. Despite our world’s technological advances, kids have not lost their innocence and wonder. They are still enthusiastic explorers and are excited about the many creative activities suggested in my author’s book. (Feldscher has, however, updated KidFun wherever something almost obsolete—such as a typewriter—is mentioned.)

KidFun appeals to parents because many of the activities listed require no equipment, cost nothing, and are fueled by imagination.

Milky Way Press embraces books that invite imagination—such as author Leslie Rule-Scott’s The Secret Twins (February 2016). Rule-Scott, a longtime client of mine whose previous successes include best-selling nonfiction book Coast to Coast Ghosts, has written for many genres, but takes special delight in The Secret Twins, a chapter book (ages 8 to 12) about nine-year-old twins, Ester and Betsy. The sisters are identical in every way but one. Betsy is only half an inch tall! Betsy lives in the top drawer of Ester’s dresser. Her kitchen table is made from a jelly lid, and she sleeps in a matchbox bed.

Kept hidden from the world because her parents fear they will be hounded by the media if the secret of their unusual family is revealed, Betsy is frustrated that she can’t go to school with Ester. But one day, she ventures out on her own, and is nearly lost forever.

There has been a lot of press lately about the growing profitability of the indie publishing world. How might this affect the work you do? Can you envision yourself working with indie publishers more frequently in the future?

The fact is the publishing world has changed and is continuing to change, and for agents to survive, they must be willing to go with the flow. We are seeing an increasing number of small publishers, and many of them are thriving. This is largely due to the electronic age, and the popularity of e-books. In the old days, it took money and influence for a publisher to place their books in the brick-and-mortar bookstores. Online stores have taken over, and traditional stores are falling by the wayside. Online venues such as Amazon are monopolizing the market. While this explosion of the electronic literary world has been the downfall of some traditional publishers and bookstores, it has created opportunities for new authors and indie publishers because it is now affordable to publish. Print books are costly to produce, while publishing e-books is far more affordable.


Anne Edelstein Literary Agency LLC
SPECIALTY: Narrative nonfiction, literary fiction, Spanish translation, occasional illustrated books.

What do you think are the top characteristics that make a new book project or proposal marketable?

Beautiful writing, an original idea, books that I think will be worthwhile to have in the world.

Do you work with small and/or indie publishers?

I have, and would like to do more. I certainly can imagine doing plenty of work with indie publishers; in translation, for instance, they seem to be much more open to publishing new and original writing than the mainstream publishers. I will absolutely continue to submit to indie publishers.

Can you tell us about a specific small press book you have worked on?

I recently sold a book to MIT Press, and am so far impressed by the attention the editor is paying to the details, and to what seems to be an understanding of the market and how to get the book to that market. A few years ago, Bellevue Literary Press published a novel I represented, and Bellevue went on to truly get the right attention for that book publicity-wise, and review-wise. Ultimately the book won an important prize, and while the initial advance was small, the prize money and attention paid off in a larger way than might have happened with a larger house.

What advice would you give to a small or new publisher seeking to acquire books from literary agents?

Advice for new indie publishers: Take real care of the book—where a novel, for instance, might get lost in a major house, the indie can have the ability to see the book through in a much more careful and attentive way. The real thing that can give the indie book an edge is when the publisher concerns itself with marketing and distribution. I like seeing indies include their titles in roundups of upcoming books (in PW, for example) etc., along with those of the larger publishers. Also it’s great when the books are submitted for appropriate prizes. In general, the edge the indie can have in publishing is to give the book the attention that a published book deserves.


Lynn Rosen is co-owner of the indie Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Rosen was previously editorial director of Book Business magazine and director of Graduate Publishing Programs at Rosemont College. Lynn is the author of Elements of the Table: A Simple Guide for Hosts and Guests and currently serves as editorial consultant for IBPA Independent.

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