Agent Advice: John Willig of Literary Services, Inc.

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent John Willig of Literary Services, Inc.) 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 agent John Willig of Literary Services, Inc. in Barnegat, N.J.  John specializes in all things nonfiction and has been in publishing for more than 30 years.


John Willig

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

JW: We have recently enjoyed a number of excellent deals. Jim Trippon’s Becoming Your Own China Stock Guru (to John Wiley & Sons), Beverly Smallwood’s This Isn’t Supposed to Happen to Me! (which was managed by my associate, Cynthia Zigmund, who is based in Chicago) and Hector Seda’s Home $weet Home: 151 Guaranteed Projects to Increase the Value of Your Greatest Investment (to Adams Media) stand out. Above and beyond the financials, we were happy to find editors who were genuinely excited about each book’s topic potential and working with the author. These authors/clients of ours will be working with great champions of their work, which I believe will ultimately have a very positive impact on their publishing experience and outcomes.

GLA: If an author envisions a five-book series for his story and even has three manuscripts completed, is it still best to query you regarding the first one only? Will the “series talk” come later?

JW: We’ve been seeing a lot more of these types of “series” presentations lately—the feeling being that the author needs to present a future “franchise” for the agent and publisher to get them more interested in representation and publishing their work. This is not necessarily the case. In fact, it may send up a red flag about the author’s expectations.

I always try to downplay the series pitch unless there has already been a strong brand presence established in the marketplace. My advice is to sell the first one; when it sells well, the editor and publisher will be very happy to listen to ideas for books two and three. Oftentimes, the idea for the next book is actually embedded in the current book and it’s up to the author and editor to listen to the marketplace and know what topic is garnering more attention than others. Also, feedback can come from the publisher’s sales and marketing teams, who will suggest (based on the success of book one) that the author write another book or make a series out of the original.

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GLA: What’s the difference between a literary agent and a literary scout?

JW: Great question. I have many friends who do one or the other and/or a little bit of both. I think it is analogous to how a ghostwriter works vs. how an author works.

The ghost is working primarily as a “work for hire” and does not necessarily want to be involved with promotion, publicity, etc. An author is obviously consumed with all these issues as they affect outcomes and careers. These matters also concern the author’s agent, who’s an advocate throughout the publishing process, be it for legal contractual matters or for giving guidance on cover designs, publicity campaigns, etc. Our inboxes are filled each day with these types of concerns and challenges for our authors and clients. It being a client-based relationship, the agent is actively involved in all aspects of the author’s book and, many times, well being!

Now, this is where one needs to be careful in this discussion because, in publishing, there are always exceptions. But for the most part, I think literary scouts feel that since they are going to be paid primarily from the publisher, there may not be as much as a vested interest in the outcome. Being paid a flat fee for performance (like a ghostwriter) vs. being paid an agent’s commission (similar to writers’ royalties) can define one’s level of future involvement and responsibilities to the project.

GLA: You specialize in nonfiction. If you have a client who wants to try her hand at fiction, should she approach you and ask for your blessing in finding a second agent? Also, how would it work when the next nonfiction book comes along? Would there be conflict between you and Agent 2?

JW: Since the author and agent have a client-based relationship that, hopefully, will be longstanding, I think it’s always best for a writer to let me know what’s going on with their projects and if there’s a fiction book in the works. I like to know about (all my clients’) projects even though I work exclusively with nonfiction writers. Sometimes I’ll review samples, make recommendations, and suggest fiction agents. The agreement the author makes with the fiction agent can be exclusive to fiction or to a particular genre. It’s always best to get these things out front and in the open and clarified in the agreement to represent.

GLA: What conferences will you be at this year?  Will you be taking pitches?

JW: I try to attend a variety of publishing and professional conferences each year, such as the Writer’s Digest Books Writers’ Conference, Author 101/MEGA Book, ASJA, etc. I’m always open to pitches, whether in person or via e-mail. On our Web site,, we have posted our submission guidelines and questions.

John Willig is a literary agent and a member of the Author’s Guild. He specializes in nonfiction books, seeking a variety of subjects, including  art, biography, business, parenting, cooking, crafts, health, history, how-to, humor, language, money, New Age, pop culture, psychology, science, self-help, true crime and sports.
He does not want to receive fiction, children’s books, religion, memoirs or poetry.

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