Agent Advice: Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich) 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 Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich. Jim interned for DGLM while studying urban design at New York University.
Seeking: “literary and commercial works. He is particularly interested in literary women’s fiction, underrepresented voices, mysteries, romance, paranormal fiction, and anything unusual or unexpected. In addition to fiction he is also interested in narrative nonfiction, humor, memoir, paranormal nonfiction, and anything related to architecture, planning, or real estate.” His e-mail address is To contact him, enclose a cover letter, outline or brief synopsis of the work (with word count if possible), a sample chapter, and SASE for our response. Please type all of your correspondence and double space everything other than the cover letter. E-mail queries are fine (no attachments). Please be sure to query only one agent at this agency.


GLA: How did you become an agent?

JM: I really stumbled into the industry. I was studying Urban Design at NYU and needed a part-time job. Stacey Glick, my now colleague, was the first person to call me back from the forty resumes I sent out. I didn’t even know what a literary agent was at the time. Ten years later, I know it was a hell of a lucky break.

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

JM: One of my most exciting recent sales was for a literary novel called Yield by a young writer, Lee Houck. I originally signed it on in 2006. It sold last month to Kensington. It was a long, long process, but it’s a book I’ve always adored, and I’m thrilled that it will be seen in print. I also just sold seven new young adult titles by the outstanding (and New York Times bestselling) Richelle Mead to Razorbill.

GLA: I’m very curious.  What constitutes these “underrepresented voices” you seek?

JM: This is very open for interpretation. What I really mean is that I want to see stories that aren’t being told. I think there are a lot of groups that don’t necessarily see themselves represented in the literary market as much as they should: whether that means underrepresented ethnic, religious, or even geographic narratives or simply people who feel like they fall out of the mainstream, I’d love to have a look.

GLA: When you’re looking at a submission for a literary novel, how much stock do you put into queries and synopses?

JM: I always want to see samples when I’m looking at literary queries. There are tons of books that I probably wouldn’t be especially interested in just based on a synopsis that I ultimately end up loving. Coetzee’s Disgrace is a great example. The plot didn’t appeal to me, but the book was dazzling. Once I see that something is literary, I tend to skip to the sample to see if the voice grabs me.

GLA: When I think of paranormal romance, I think of vampires and more vampires. What other things do you see would classify the fiction writing to be in this category?

JM: Well, I certainly do love my vampire romances. And zombies, succubi, werewolves, and all of those other glorious fantastical creatures. But what I’m seeing a lot of (and am really encouraged by) is that the boundaries of the subgenre are being stretched. I love fiction that is fantastical–alternate worlds, alternative realities, that sort of thing. It isn’t so much about the entities you’re writing about as it is the ability to create a world that feels wholly realized and entirely believable in its own right.


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GLA: We met recently at the Las Vegas Writers Conference.  You took a lot of pitches.  What were the most common mistakes you saw writers doing concerning in-person pitches?

JM: Fear. Writers get so caught up in making sure they capture everything about their book in as short a time as possible that they get really worked up and flustered. I’m not looking for a synopsis of everything that happens in a book when I’m getting pitched. I just want to hear someone talk about why they wrote their book and what excites them about it. It should be a much more natural process than a lot of people are ready for it to be.

GLA: Concerning the mystery and romance genres, do you seek anything specific here?  Do you have particular “likes” (subgenres, etc)?

JM: I’m really open to anything, but I particularly love serial killer thrillers, ghost stories, and anything hardboiled in mystery. I’d love to find my very own Chelsea Cain or Charlie Huston. On the flipside, I adore a good cozy mystery series, particularly if there is an element of humor. In terms of romance, I skew more contemporary than historical, still love a good sense of humor, and am always on the lookout for writers who pull off sexy really well (it’s tougher than it sounds!).

GLA: On the same subject, what do you pray for when tackling the slush pile? What do you keep looking for and not getting?

JM: I always used to answer this question by saying that if someone would write a novel about Elvis, vampires, and road trips, I would definitely sign it on. Happily, someone finally took me up on it! So now I’m dying to find some great big Gothic thriller or romance. A 21st Century The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is my current dream project.

GLA: I’ve been talking a lot about memoir on the blog recently.  Is there anything you can add when talking to writers about writing and submitting memoirs, since so many people are doing so?

JM: Two bullet points I’d throw out there: first, make sure you’re ready to share your story on a major scale. I’ve seen people write their memoirs and then pull them from consideration and, once, even from publication, when they realized that they weren’t prepared to deal with the emotional effects of sharing something so intimate. It’s something you really need to be sure you explore personally before you take that step. And when you do decide to write it, my second piece of advice is to find your framing mechanism. It isn’t usually enough to just present a snapshot of your life. You need to find a narrative in there–something with a beginning, middle, and end. It doesn’t have to be chronological, but you need to give the reader structure. I always find myself recommending three memoirs that I think do this especially well: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, Strip City by Lily Burana, and the amazingly funny (and truly moving) I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell.

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

JM: I’ll be at PNWA in Seattle from July 30-August 2, and at the South Carolina Writers Workshop conference October 23-25.

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

: If you think you can give up writing, then give it up. If you can’t … if you know that no matter how much stress or rejection or frustration you face, that you can never stop writing? In that case, never give up. Publishing is too hard to face if you aren’t in it for the right reasons. But it’s not too hard to break into if it’s what you need to do.


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