“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Jason Yarn of Paradigm 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, writers conferences, 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 Jason Yarn of Paradigm Agency.
He is seeking: Literary and commercial fiction in the areas of science fiction, chick lit, fantasy, humor/satire, historical fiction, young adult, thrillers/suspense, adventure, gay & lesbian, military/espionage, graphic novels, mystery, short story collections, and women’s fiction. For nonfiction, history, sports, celebrity, biography, food & lifestyle, politics, medical, science, parenting, how-to, drama/music, multicultural, cookbooks, memoirs, travel, adventure/true story, dating/relationships, current affairs, business, pop culture, narrative, psychology, nature/ecology, gay & lesbian, military, film & entertainment, technology, humor, journalism, health & fitness, and gift books.
GLA: How did you become an agent?
JY: After college, I moved to L.A. and worked for a producer who had a deal with Miramax. I enjoyed my job and got to work on some movies, but I ultimately never got into the L.A. scene (I just missed weather—of any kind—too much) and moved back east. I moved to NYC, got a job as a temp at Writers and Artists agency and ended up the assistant to the head of the book department, Lydia Wills. Lydia was a great teacher and let me grow very quickly. When WA was absorbed by Paradigm, I got the chance to be an agent on my own and really start building a list.
GLA: What’s something you’ve sold that comes out now/soon that you’re excited about?
JY: Mind Storm by K.M. Ruiz, out from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press in 2011 (originally titled Pandora’s Box). We only opened ourselves up to queries officially a year ago, and this is the first book I sold out of the process. It’s a great sci-fi/thriller that ended up being described as “Blade Runner meets the X-Men”, a description which got the book announcement noticed on io9. This is the first book of many from the cool sci-fi and fantasy ideas in K.M.’s brain.
GLA: Besides “good writing,” and “voice,” what are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?
JY: Something more. I’m sorry that’s so vague, but beyond writing and voice, there’s an element that just elevates some books above others—it’s like pornography, I just know it when I see it. I can’t say what it is, because it is really individual to the write; it has to come out of them and make their writing or voice or a combination unique to them.
What I pray for when clicking through queries is differentiation. Something that sets the books apart from one another and the characters within a book from each other. All too often, I feel like I could set up ten titles from the same genre next to each other, and it feels like the same person could have written each one.
This is not to say the writing abilities don’t vary or the voices don’t have some quirks, but it’s not strong enough. I want an author to take over my mind. When I read most queries, I am in “agent mode,” quickly getting a feel, seeing if something is cool enough to warrant further inspection, etc. Rarely, I will suddenly realize that I’ve stopped reading in my own voice and have been taken over by the author’s. That’s when I know it’s something special. It has to have an effect on my mind, invade it, and make me its bitch, or something to that effect.
As to how an author can get there—again, it’s different for everyone. I would recommend you look to your own favorite authors and see not only their technique, but try and feel how they get into your head. You won’t be able to emulate them, not exactly, but hopefully you can get a sense of how your writing would do that to a random stranger who has never met you and is only giving you a brief moment in time to grab their attention.
GLA: Your agency handles clients in a variety of areas (from motion pictures to music to theater and more). How big is your literary/book publishing department? (How many literary clients, etc.) Also, is there anything the Web site doesn’t say about that division that you’d like to add here?
JY: Paradigm is a very large agency, with multiple offices, but the book department is relatively small, with only three agents: myself, Alyssa Reuben, and the head of the department, Lydia Wills. This allows us to both be focused on our clients and give them personal attention, while, at the same time, have the backup of a large agency and all the benefits it brings (business affairs, accounting, agents who specialize in film/television, etc.).
We have a large client list specifically on the book side (I can’t say the total number), but I can tell you that for myself, at any given time, I have about 20-25 clients/projects actively rolling. It’s constantly fluctuating, depending on the status of a work, whether I’m editing it, or it’s gone back to an author for revisions, or it’s out on submission, or has sold and the author is off in that process with a publisher.
In regards to Paradigm’s website, since it is such a large company, the standard policy is no unsolicited queries, and that’s why I made sure to note on my profiles elsewhere that I do get back to everyone. Unlike other areas of media, books really depend on getting queries, and I just know I would want to hear if I was querying agents.
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GLA: You have a wide range interests. Other than having a “soft spot” for graphic novels, are there any subgenres that particularly grab you in any of your preferred fiction categories?
JY: My soft spot for graphic novels comes out of my long love affair with comics (going back to the late ’80s and ’90s, where I bagged and boxed for hours), but that means I turn an even more cynical eye on graphic novel proposals. Similarly, I guess I do the same with humorous fantasy novels, due to my undying love of Terry Prachett. If you’re trying to send me something like that, it had better be damn good.
Apart from that, I’d say that cool new twists on robots, artificial intelligence, Cthullu, non-dragon fantasy monsters and things of that ilk catch my eye in reading a query letter. Also, kick-ass protagonists with a real sense of humor.
(Meet more graphic novel agents.)
GLA: Going along with the previous question, what subject areas are you sick of seeing?
JY: Nothing really—going along with my wide-ranging interests, I never like to shut any area down. Sure, there are the usual overdone things *cough*vampires*cough*, but that doesn’t mean the next author down the pike doesn’t have a fantastic new take on something.
GLA: Going back to your interest in graphic novels, what does your dream graphic novel submission look like?
JY: More than other writers, graphic novelists need to have a clear view of the industry because it is tougher to break in on that route. This is a generalization, but you need to think about where your work is best suited: mainstream book publishers, indie book publishers, indie comic book publishers, or mainstream comic publishers. If it’s the last one, and it’s a “tights-and-fights” superhero book, I’m not your guy. Marvel and DC have a bit of a stranglehold there, and so I keep that kind of material as strictly a hobby.
As to the rest, I’m looking for works that cry out to be told in an illustrative medium. It shouldn’t be a book that you decided to draw because you thought it would look cool, but a story with elements you felt you could only get across visually. And though it is visual, you still need all the elements you would have in a novel—a well-told story, narrative arc, character development, etc.—you can just find different ways to express them with your artwork.
Finally, be bold with how you present your work. Learn about the medium of working within panels, and then break those standards down to advance your story.
GLA: Let’s say you’re teaching a class called “What Not to Do in a Nonfiction Proposal.” What would you include as your main talking points?
JY: 1. Don’t tell me what you plan to do for a media platform (or at least not just that), tell me what you can deliver on RIGHT NOW. A lot of authors only have pipe dreams to offer in their media platform sections—Everyone is willing to work to get their book out once it’s been bought; it’s your specific connections that you can depend on now that count to publishers.
2. Don’t forget to tell me a story. Narrative is the buzzword, but all too often I find myself reading nonfiction works, especially memoirs, that read like a diary. “I did this, then I did that, then this happened.” That’s as interesting as a formica desk, even if you were a triple Medal of Honor winner.
I heard something like this suggested by another agent once (sorry, I forget the attribution): forget your story. Forget that this is your life and that you lived it. Write as though you are creating this amazing story from scratch and, every moment, it is surprising you just as much as it should the reader.
3. Don’t skimp on the sample chapter/chapters. A proposal is great and a big part of the battle, but for me, seeing how it all comes together on the page as though it were the finished book is even more important. Imagine that you weren’t doing a proposal, but, like a novelist, had to deliver the entire book. This will help you not depend on the proposal to back up your sample, as it shouldn’t—it should stand on its own, as best as it possible can, depending on what material you have before the book is sold.
GLA: What impresses you in terms of an author platform? Does the same hold true for fiction and nonfiction writers?
JY: Looking at platform is a mercenary exercise. Fiction authors can rely on less to get noticed, and it’s always nice if they’ve sold some short pieces to various publications or for anthologies. I admit that there are dwindling returns if they have already published a book, whether it’s via self-publishing, through a small house, or even a big house. It always raises the specter in mind of a publisher looking at sales figures, and then I have to wonder about another set of concerns for this author. Usually this is not a big concern, but it does flash across my mind.
(Learn how to build a writer platform to impress agents.)
Nonfiction is kind of the reverse, as the media platform can be so important, whether it’s in P.R. or in credentials. If you don’t have either of these, you need to question why you are writing the book and focus on why you are the only person who can do it. In the case of a memoir, if you believe the writing and story are able to carry the book, then you have to approach it as though it was a novel, with everything resting on the read.
GLA: What should new writers do to keep up with the publishing industry?
JY: New writers should get their hands on every agent, editor, or publisher’s blog they can. There are many of them out there, and the best ones talk to each other, so you can tell which ones are legit. I’ve got 30 in my RSS feed that I follow, though I don’t get the chance to check them all that often. There is a wealth of information out there, and there’s no excuse not to know what’s going on.
Also, I think reading books in different areas can be a big help. New writers are usually good about reading in their chosen genre, but I would suggest they occasionally go out of their comfort zone of books, either fiction or non-, and check out other trends in the industry. You never know when a good idea in one area will give you a unique take on something in yours.
GLA: What is something personal about you writers would be surprised to hear?
JY: Back in college, I was a theatre geek (hence the –re) and directed Taming of the Shrew and Amadeus, and acted in Pippin and Pal Joey. Directing taught me a lot about editing, and acting taught me a lot about the abject terror of putting yourself out there creatively for others to judge (especially when you’re in a musical and can’t really sing/dance).
GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t talked about yet?
JY: Keep reaching for those stars! Also, it’s a well-known tip, but be sure to already be working on your second novel when you query your first. If I like it and call you, I want to hear you’ve got other projects not just brewing, but actively in process. I don’t want to be in business with one-hit wonders, because if that first novel doesn’t sell, I’d like to be able to get your next book out asap.
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Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers Conferences:
- Feb. 11, 2017: Writers Conference of Minnesota (St. Paul, MN)
- Feb. 16–19, 2017: San Francisco Writers Conference (San Francisco, CA)
- Feb. 24, 2017: The Alabama Writers Conference (Birmingham, AL)
- Feb. 25, 2017: Atlanta Writing Workshop (Atlanta, GA)
- March 25, 2017: Michigan Writers Conference (Detroit, MI)
- March 25, 2017: Kansas City Writing Workshop (Kansas City, MO)
- April 8, 2017: Philadelphia Writing Workshop (Philadelphia, PA)
- April 22, 2017: Get Published in Kentucky Conference (Louisville, KY)
- April 22, 2017: New Orleans Writers Conference (New Orleans, LA)
- May 6, 2017: Seattle Writers Conference (Seattle, WA)
- May 19–21, 2017: PennWriters Conference (Pittsburgh, PA)
- June 24, 2017: The Writing Workshop of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
- Aug. 18–20, 2017: Writer’s Digest Conference (New York, NY)
Other writing/publishing articles and links for you:
- Should You Sign With a New Agent?
- Literary Agent Interview: Kate Testerman of KT Literary.
- How to Write a Great Opening Line.
- NEW Literary Agent Seeking Clients: Adriana Dominguez of Full Circle Literary.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Writer Platform.
- 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.