He is looking for: debut literary fiction, crime fiction and literary thrillers, middle grade and young adult fiction, and pop culture, humor, and narrative nonfiction.
GLA: How did you become an agent?
AG: I was a bookworm as a kid and always gravitated to stories and the written word. That continued through high school and college, but I didn’t realize it could have anything do with a career until I was a second-semester senior in college, when I took a creative writing course on a whim.
After graduation I tried several different jobs related to writing and publishing. I worked at a major publishing house in the marketing department, got an MFA in fiction writing, worked as a writing teacher, worked in nonprofit literature, worked in a bookstore. In 2001, I became the assistant to Robert Gottlieb, the founder and chairman of Trident Media Group, and I’ve been here ever since.
I love being an agent because it gives me the freedom to work on any kind of book projects I want and champion the novels and nonfiction ideas I believe in. My list is very diverse and eclectic and reflects my sensibilities, and I think that this is one of the few publishing careers that allows you that freedom.
GLA: What’s the most recent thing you’ve sold?
AG: One recent deal is Jay Clark’s first YA novel, The Edumacation of Jay Clark, which was sold at auction and will be published by Christy Ottaviano Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. Another is Stegner Fellow and O’Henry Award-winner Eddie Chuculate’s first book, a story collection entitled Cheyenne Madonna, which will be published by David R. Godine.
GLA: What are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you pray
for when tackling the slush pile?
AG: I am always looking for a transporting first novel. A book that engages my attention from start to finish and has enough of those elements—originality, emotional resonance, compelling subject matter, innovative writing—to set itself apart from the crowd as deserving of a wide audience.
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GLA: One area in which you specialize is debut literary fiction. What advice do you have for writers looking to break into this tough category? Is it just about the writing, or are there other factors you often see overlooked?
AG: I think authors can drive themselves crazy worrying about genre and marketability. I don’t think new fiction authors are going to connect with readers unless they write about something that’s meaningful to them. Writing for the market usually doesn’t work. To me, the most important thing when looking at a debut novel that doesn’t fall into an obvious commercial genre is how well and deeply it engages the reader.
Does it grip the reader from the beginning and make it impossible for us to put it down? Literary fiction does not equal boring fiction; it must be infused with the same kind of forward momentum and narrative pull that a commercial novel has. Does it provide a transporting reading experience and make the reader forget we’re reading a book and take us fully into another world? Does it create a strong emotional reaction in the reader? Is it funny? Do I care enough about the characters? Does the book stay with me after I put it down? If the answers to enough of those questions are yes, it doesn’t matter if the book doesn’t have a big one-sentence pitch or a big marketing angle.
So how do you break into the “literary fiction” category. If a literary novel is one that relies on the quality of the writing, it stands to reason that you’ll want to show agents some proof up front of the quality of your writing, the same way a thriller writer might lead with the strength of their concept. So if your novel is about a family in a farmhouse in Missouri or a twenty-something guy coming of age in the city, don’t despair. But to make up for your “small canvas” or the fact that your story sounds quiet or familiar, you have to figure out other ways to get my attention.
With a literary novel, the way to do that is to have your talent validated elsewhere first, and come with a calling card and some credentials. Submit short stories to journals and magazines. Go to conferences. Apply for grants and awards. Take continuing education writing classes, join writer’s groups, hone your craft. Network. Meet other authors and people who can introduce you to agents. If you have a short story published in a literary magazine I’ve heard of, or have an endorsement from a writer I’ve heard of, it can make the difference between a query deleted and a query taken seriously.
There are so many hopeful first novelists that come in that I have to be able to filter them—there is not enough time to consider them all—and if your idea sounds small or everyday and you have no credentials, it’s tough to get in the door. A referral can be invaluable. Given that so much is asked of writers now when the book is actually published, as far as self-promoting and getting involved in publicity and marketing, why not start at the very beginning in your search for an agent?
GLA: Tell us about your interest in crime fiction and literary thrillers. What draws you to these categories? What are some subjects you see as overdone in these areas?
AG: I love crime fiction. There’s nothing like a great fast-paced read with a lot of action, and I especially like the pulling-back-the-lid-on-a-subculture aspect. Cops and criminals and people living on the fringes of society are a fascinating subculture.
An author who can bring the reader into that world, create compelling characters who live there, and make us root for them, (while at the same time taking the reader on a rip-roaring yarn) is the best. The market has room for lots of different kinds of detective novels and crime fiction and thrillers, and the subgenres are constantly rotating in and out of favor.
My favorite are the tough-guy anti-hero novels and books that expose the dark underbelly of society—some favorites are John D. MacDonald, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, Stephen Hunter, and one of my own to watch out for, Dennis Tafoya. His second novel, The Wolves in Fairmount Park is due out next year from St. Martin’s Minotaur.
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- Feb. 11, 2017: Writers Conference of Minnesota (St. Paul, MN)
- Feb. 16–19, 2017: San Francisco Writers Conference (San Francisco, CA)
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Other writing/publishing articles and links for you:
- Notes to the First-Time Novelist.
- “How I Got My Agent,” by Novelist Holly LeCraw.
- Literary Agent Interview: Jessica Sinsheimer of Sarah Jane Freymann Literary.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Writer Platform.
- Write Now, Edit Later.
- Do You Need 1 Agent or More Than 1?
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and how to write a query letter.
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