“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Irene Goodman of the Irene Goodman 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 yo We are interested in practical nonfiction (business, health and wellness, psychology, parenting, technology) by authors with smart, unique perspectives and established platforms who are committed to actively marketing and promoting their books. We love compelling, inspiring narrative nonfiction in the areas of memoir, biography, history, pop culture, current affairs/women’s interest, sports, and social trends. On the fiction side, we consider a very selective amount of literary fiction and women’s upmarket fiction.”u are just starting your research on literary agents.
This installment features Irene Goodman of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency. Irene’s clients are regulars on the New York Times, USA Today, Walden, Publishers Weekly, and Bookscan bestseller lists. Together with her dynamic staff, her agency represents over 80 authors. Originally from the Midwest, Irene has a B.A. and a master’s degree from the University of Michigan. She divides her time between New York and the Berkshires. Her personal passions include opera, Doonesbury, Mark Twain, theatre, and children. She also auctions off manuscript critiques for charity (see more below).
She is seeking: memoir, narrative history, music, social issues and commentary, animals, parenting, food, Judaica, Anglophilia, Francophilia, crafts, and lifestyle. Her fiction list includes historical fiction, women’s fiction, thrillers, literary fiction, and mysteries.
GLA: How did you become an agent?
IG: I’ve always enjoyed breaking through red tape and doing my own thing. When I first came to New York to work for a book publisher, I got a chance to see up close what agents do. And I said to myself, “I would be good at that.” So my next job was working for an agent. What motivates me is that it’s endlessly exciting. In our office, we all look forward to Mondays. We have comradeship, and we have joy. Sometimes we go on “class trips” to the theatre or the beach, but we never stop talking shop.
GLA: Before we get into the interview, about a month ago, I blogged about you doing a critique auction for charity. How did that go?
IG: It was amazing! I auctioned off critiques of 25 partial manuscripts on eBay, and the response was fantastic. The top bid came in at $1025.00. We raised over $15,000 altogether, all of which will go directly to the Foundation Fighting Blindness and the Deafness Research Foundation.
I intend to keep doing these auctions for as long as I can. There will be two auctions a month (one per foundation), every month, with another big marathon each year in December. The next eBay auction starts today (Feb. 1, 2010) at 3 p.m. Pacific time, and there are 4 auctions for various causes. Auctions will continue every month. Anyone who wants to participate or get more information should go to my web site www.irenegoodman.com, where they will find a link to the auction pages.
GLA: What are some things you’ve sold recently that you’re excited about?
IG: I sold a trilogy of novels about the life of Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey that went to Ballantine, at auction. The first book is called Becoming Marie Antoinette, and it covers the high stakes makeover that the pre-teen underwent before she went to France. The second book will be about the queen years, and the third book will cover her untimely end. (Or as the author likes the sum up the three books—teen, queen, guillotine.)
Another one that looks very promising is Shakespeare Undead by NY Times bestseller Lori Handleland, that sold to St. Martin’s. Did you know that the Bard was a necromancer in his spare time, chasing down zombie armies? Or, as Anne Hathaway put it, “No wonder he was never home.”
GLA: What’s something that was recently released that you are excited about?
IG: Susan Donovan’s Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, a contemporary romance novel that pushes the boundaries and delivers the author’s trademark intelligence and wit. It made #21 on the NY Times Extended list. Since it’s the first of a trilogy, the next books are sure to go over the top.
Another one that’s coming up is And God Said by the foremost translator of ancient Hebrew, Joel Hoffman. If you think you know what the most famous verses in the bible mean, you are probably wrong. Centuries of mistranslation have turned incorrect concepts and words into icons that aren’t what you think they are.
GLA: Historical fiction can cover a lot of ground. Do you find yourself drawn to anything in particular? For example, would you consider an epic book set in Rome?
IG: Rome is a tough sell, but anything is possible. However, I focus more on European stories with a strong hook. Female subjects work best. The court of Henry VIII has been very well mined, but there are plenty of other delicious people in history whose stories are begging to be told.
GLA: Let’s say you’re reading a partial for a mystery or thriller. Tell me about some bad openings you see time and time again – what are some Chapter 1 cliches?
IG: The most common opening is a grisly murder scene told from the killer’s point of view. While this usually holds the reader’s attention, the narrative drive often doesn’t last once we get into the meat of the story. A catchy opening scene is great, but all too often it falls apart after the initial pages. I often refer people to the opening of Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin, which is about nothing more than a young couple getting an apartment. It is masterfully written and yet it doesn’t appear to be about anything sinister at all. And it keeps you reading.
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GLA: Barbara Poelle at your agency once told me that you had a great habit of finding nonfiction projects that were off the beaten path. What did she mean by this?
IG: Well, not too long ago, an odd little self-published book came in the mail called Their Last Suppers by Andrew Caldwell. It’s about famous people in history, their colorful ends, and their last meals, including recipes. The author was traveling all over the country promoting it at wine stores and restaurants, including theme dinners (i.e. the last supper on the Titanic). I loved this quirky idea, and went wide with the manuscript. Three publishers offered on it, and it went to Andrews McMeel.
GLA: You rep a lot of nonfiction projects. What are you looking for and not getting?
IG: Nonfiction is less about what people send me than it is about what I go after. I’ll get an idea for a nonfiction project, find the right author with the right platform or attach a big name to it, and get a writer if necessary. That works a lot better than sitting around waiting to see what comes in. Most unsolicited nonfiction submissions lack the necessary platform that would make them worthwhile.
GLA: According to your website, you have an interest in books about Britain and France. Why this interest? Do you also look for fiction books perhaps set in these countries?
IG: Britain? There will always be an England. France? Are you kidding? Go to France, have one meal there, and then come back and tell me if you still have that question. The French know how to love life and love themselves. They know how to take pleasure seriously. I sold a book called French Women Don’t Sleep Alone by Jamie Callan, about how to get a guy the French girl way. (Hint: Dating is so American.)
GLA: You’ve agented for decades and seen the publishing landscape change. Do you have any advice for authors on how they can be prepared for whatever lies ahead?
IG: Look for the loopholes in the system that weren’t there before. Consider the case of Boyd Morrison, who posted his unpublished thriller, The Ark, on Amazon, available only as an e-book. The readers found it on their own and it quickly became a Kindle #1 bestseller. Using that base, I was able to sell it to Simon & Schuster, where it now headlines the Touchstone list. Our brilliant foreign rights agent, Danny Baror, has made major sales in over 15 countries (and counting).
GLA: Something personal about yourself people might be surprised to know?
IG: My favorite movie of all time is The Godfather (both I & II). I have seen them both countless times, and manage to find something new each time. I will go toe to toe with anyone on Godfather trivia. It is also one of the best business books ever written. Seriously. One of the most quoted lines is “It’s just business, not personal.” But what people often forget is what Michael says later on, which is that everything is personal.
GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t discussed?
IG: There’s an old proverb: “If you are like him, who will be like you?” Be bold. Be yourself. Write the book that only you could write. Technology changes, but the fundamentals don’t. Human beings have had a driving need to tell stories since they lived in caves. The earliest storytellers enthralled listeners around campfires. Chaucer entertained the court by telling them the Canterbury Tales. In the 19th century, people lined up for blocks to get the next installment of the new Dickens story. Today, teenagers in Tokyo are downloading the latest vampire saga onto their phones. So no matter what format becomes the norm, a great story is still what it’s all about. Hone your craft, learn the techniques of telling a great story, and the rest will come.
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Other writing/publishing articles and links for you:
- New Literary Agent Seeking Clients: Rachel Hecht of Foundry Media.
- A Literary Agent True or False Quiz.
- See How a Literary Fiction Debut Gets Published: An Interview With Author John Kenney.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Writer Platform.
- Query Letter Writing Tips.
- 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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