Agent Advice: Byrd Leavell of Waxman Literary Agency

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Byrd Leavell of Waxman Literary Agency) is a series of quick interviews with literary agents and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else. This series has more than 170 interviews so far with reps from great literary agencies. This collection of interviews is a great place to start if you are just starting your research on literary agents.
This installment features Byrd Leavell of Waxman Literary Agency.Byrd began his career at Carlisle & Company and then served as an agent at InkWell Management and Venture Literary. Byrd says: “As a literary agent I believe in representing works that carve out new territory and authors who are committed to creating books that succeed in the marketplace. I specialize in working with authors who have established a following on the Internet, athletes, celebrities, journalists, and first-time writers who are bound for glory. I love narrative nonfiction that pushes the envelope and finds new audiences, talented fiction that is a blast to read, and anything written by a motivated, confident, unapologetic author with a story to tell.”

He is looking for
: General fiction, Mystery, Reference, Biography, Business/investing/finance, History, Health, Travel, Sports, Horror, Humor, Memoir, Pop-culture.
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GLA: How did you become an agent?

BL: I graduated from UVA, attended The Radcliffe Publishing course in Boston, caught a ride to New York, and then landed a job as Michael Carlisle’s assistant. I worked at Carlisle & Company for the next four years and made the jump to handling my own clients during that period.

GLA: What’s the most recent thing you’ve sold?

BL: I just sold a hilarious book by Justin Halpern, the writer behind Shit My Dad Says (on Twitter), to Kate Hamill at IT books. Mark my words, it is going to be on bestseller lists next Father’s day.

GLA: From what I can gather, you are pretty open as to what you accept concerning nonfiction, and there are even some novels in your repertoire.  Can you help readers  better understand what you are looking for in fiction vs. categories you don’t represent?

BL: With fiction, I don’t want to rule anything out; if it’s good, it’s good, but I tend to gravitate toward the end of the spectrum where smart and commercial overlap. I only sign a couple novels a year, and it’s always because something leapt out of my inbox to the point that I couldn’t stop reading it.

GLA: You look for authors who have used the Internet to creative a unique and wide platform.  Can you give us some examples of how clients have done this prior to you signing them. This may help writers understand how to cultivate a fan base before approaching an agent.

BL: I do indeed. Tucker Max (I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell) was one of the first clients I signed, and as I pitched his book to publishers, he had X amount of visitors each month – a huge fan base, etc. I realized I had hit on a formula that I completely identified with and believed in.

Since I’ve been in the industry, publishing has gone through a couple different stages as it has tried to figure out what can make the jump from the web to the bookshelves. For a while, if you had a great blog, you could land a deal. Traffic was maybe mentioned in the third paragraph of the Author Bio section. And then none of those worked. Then for a while, if you had some insane amount of traffic and a big web presence, you could land a deal. But none of those really worked either (Fark, Perez, others). Now, editors seemed to be focused on Twitter, and after that, it will be the next thing. How many people hang out with your 3-D image at their house, etc.

The key is this: You have to have lots of fans who will actually want to buy your book, and then you have to write a book that can succeed on its own in the marketplace, without any support from those fans whatsoever. Look at Clay Travis. He has a great web presence, but the guy writes terrific books about SEC football that sell to a very receptive audience. Other authors in his position usually make the mistake of trying to do sports humor books that they think their online readership will buy, and none of them sell more than 8,000 copies.

 

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GLA: Speaking of Tucker Max, that book is approaching one million sales and the movie is coming out – congrats.  You represent memoirs.  A lot of people like to write memoirs or vignettes about their own life, but most don’t get sold let alone sell a million copies. What can people learn from Tucker’s writing and his success?

BL: That Tucker is a force of nature, knew that his book was going to be huge when I first spoke to him while he was sleeping on a friend’s couch, and the level of success of IHTSBIH is a reflection of this more than anything else.

Tucker’s book also worked because it was the first to appeal to an audience that publishing had decided would never buy books and because he is a great storyteller. No one ever gives him any credit for this, but it is the main reason his book has stayed on the list for the last two years and will hit the #1 spot for the first time next week. If you want to write a memoir, you need to create something that appeals to an audience and not just your own need to write about yourself. (For the record, if you are reading this, don’t start your query with “I am the next Tucker Max.” I will just delete it.)

GLA: I see several sports books on your list – one from a journalist, two others by sports celebrities.  Are you looking for more sports submissions by journalists?  Something specific perhaps?

BL: We represent some of the best sports writers in the business and are always looking for submissions from journalists.

GLA: Most common problems you see in a query letter?

BL: A general lack of professionalism. That and writing three paragraphs about the plot.

GLA: What are you praying for when you tackle the slush pile?  Specifically, what are you looking for that no one seems to send?

BL: Good question. Most of my clients are actually people I have tracked down on my own. The one thing I never see, that I would love to find, is an author that has sold a large number of their self-published book, (think above 30,000) completely on their own. (I represent Once a Runner, and by the time I reached out to the author he had single-handedly sold more than 100,000 copies.)

GLA: When you get a narrative nonfiction submission, do you want to see a proposal? The whole ms?

BL: I usually just want the first couple pages pasted below the query.

GLA: Will you be at any upcoming conferences where writers can meet/pitch you?

BL: I’ll be on a panel at the Digital Book World Conference called “The New Farm System: Scouting Blogs and Self-Publishers for Commercial Books.” The event is Jan. 26-27, 2010, in NYC.

GLA: What’s something writers would be surprised to learn about you personally?

BL: Pass.

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t discussed?

BL: Read more books. And the novel you are sending out isn’t ready yet.

 

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