“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Lucy Carson of The Friedrich 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 Lucy Carson of The Friedrich Agency. She worked in the editorial department of Bloomsbury UK and later in the production department of The Weinstein Company in Los Angeles before she joined The Friedrich Agency in early 2008, as an associate agent. There, she has worked with such authors as Sue Grafton, Frank McCourt, Lisa Scottoline, Joseph Finder, Terry McMillan, and Jane Smiley. Check her out on her agency’s blog or follow her on Twitter.
She is seeking: commercial and literary fiction in the areas of chick lit, women’s fiction, humor/satire, young adult, and mystery. She also accepts biography, memoir, celebrity, pop culture, music, film & entertainment, humor & gift books, and narrative nonfiction.
GLA: How did you become an agent? How much of an impact did your mother’s career as an agent (Molly Friedrich herself!) have on you wanting to get into the publishing industry? I read an interview with her where she said her father (who was also in the industry) wasn’t too keen on her going that route. What was your experience?
LC: Actually, I never intended to join the agency, because like any prideful and independently ambitious child, I didn’t want such a tough act to follow!
My degree from the University of Michigan is in Film Studies, and I had several job offers for positions in Los Angeles, which I planned to pursue on graduation. This was put on hold when Molly’s (Mom’s) then-assistant announced her pregnancy. Because our agency is so tiny, the “assistant” position covers a wide range of job responsibilities, realistically it’s a job for three different people—so Mom/Molly was terrified of hiring a temp to cover her assistant’s maternity leave.
When I asked about the due date, it turned out to be my graduation date. So I came home directly after my last exam, skipped the graduation ceremony in the Big House, and began “filling in” for my mom’s assistant. It was a natural fit—I had 22 years of listening to “auction stories” during family dinners, and a lifetime of reading backlist titles that were entirely inappropriate for my age. Even over a four-month period, I had begun to develop relationships in the industry and with our authors that I couldn’t imagine walking away from.
I had already decided to pursue a career elsewhere in publishing, when the assistant who had been on maternity leave decided to take another job. So Molly shyly asked if I would ever consider staying on, and I happily accepted! I’ve come to believe that as part of a younger, tech-savvy generation, I have a lot to bring to the agency as we move forward, and my earlier insecurity about following Molly’s example has been laid to rest.
GLA: What’s something you’ve sold that comes out soon that you’re excited about?
LC: A few weeks ago, [You] Ruined It For Everyone came out from Softskull Press, and even though our pub date was only days before Softskull closed their NY office, the book is doing very well! It’s a collection of humorous essays about various people and companies who have ruined something for the rest of society—such as the diamond company De Beers, who are responsible for the “one month salary” rule when buying engagement rings.
The author, Matthew Vincent, got almost all of the publicity from his own enterprising efforts, and we worked together on pitch letters and website design to really capitalize on all guerilla possibilities. It’s paid off, and I’m excited to see the book in Urban Outfitters and on Fox News. Makes a great gift for a disgruntled friend!
GLA: One of the categories you seek is young adult. Besides “good writing,” and “voice,” what are you looking for in a YA manuscript right now and not getting?
LC: The YA writing that I’ve seen recently has all the bells and whistles of good storytelling—they’re high concept, engaging and marketable to a certain degree. But what I see again and again (to my dismay) is an ignorance on the author’s part about exactly where their novel fits within the YA subcategories. The editors who buy YA fiction are really experts on each age group, and there are pretty strict rules that define these groups.
If your writing style is middle-grade and clean, why is your protagonist applying to college? A lot of authors absolutely have what it takes to break into this market, but they need to educate themselves on where to draw the boundaries, and be respectful about that, because the first priority for an acquiring editor is—where does this fit?
GLA: I also read you are actively building your adult fiction list. Other than women’s fiction (which you specify as an area of interest), what subgenres do you tend to gravitate toward or shy away from?
LC: I’m generally a bit more wide-ranging in my taste than Molly and Paul (Cirone) are, so I tend to gravitate towards the more commercial fiction, since they both tend to prefer the literary. I love literary, too! But if I grow, I should grow in a non-competitive direction, I feel. So since I’m an indiscriminate reader, I’m building in a more high-concept, commercial direction. I’d say the only subgenres I’m less interested in are speculative and erotica.
GLA: On the nonfiction side, literary agents who accept memoir seem to be inundated with these kinds of projects at the moment. How healthy is that market right now, and why do you think this is so? As well, do you think it will stay that way?
(Look through our growing list of nonfiction agents.)
LC: On one level, I think the onslaught of memoir queries is just a natural, albeit delayed, response to the memoir genre, which is really only a few decades old. However, I also believe that in this troubled economic period, people are still somehow convinced that writing a book can be a financial savior. There are a lot of folks losing their jobs who are now thinking, “How can I create a product that might provide me with some income?” And if they turn to writing, they write what they know, which is always the first advice they hear when they begin a manuscript.
Regarding the market, I don’t think most editors are actively looking for memoir, but I do think that a good story, well told, will always find its audience. If it comes in memoir form but could stand on its own merit as a story, then there’s most certainly a market for that.
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GLA: Sticking with memoir, what topics are, in your opinion, saturated? What are you tired of seeing in memoir proposals?
LC: It depends on how much the memoir leans on its “subject” as opposed to its writing and voice. If the memoir relies heavily upon a concept at the detriment of other elements, you’re in trouble.
That said, if I had to be more specific about saturated topics, I’d point to addiction and disease memoirs. Writers of memoir tend to pitch their stories by pointing to the number of people in the United States who are struggling with x (whether x is a drug addiction, a personality disorder, or debilitating diseases) as if they are all automatic book-buyers to account for in the marketing of this book.
The fact is, it just doesn’t play out that way. People who are plagued by something often want to escape from it, or learn how to deal with it—not necessarily to read about someone else’s struggles with the same thing. It’s like saying, “I’ve written a book about a French man living in the United States, and there are 300,000 French expatriates living here, so that is 300,000 copies sold.” The pitch does not compute.
But for great writing (and can I say “great” one more time?) there simply is no saturation point!
GLA: In your agency’s submission guidelines, it states that the Friedrich Agency’s interest in a project depends on the synopsis. Does this mean you prefer a synopsis with queries? Going along with that, what is your personal stance on synopses? How much should writers stress over them?
LC: This is definitely worth clarifying.
So, for The Friedrich Agency, we consider synopses to be one feature of a query letter. This definition of query letter is pretty traditional—your letter should introduce you to the agent formally, providing a balance of information about your writing experience, any life experience that relates to your writing, and the project itself. Therefore, the “synopsis” aspect here should be a matter of several sentences, no more than two paragraphs, as the full letter shouldn’t be much longer than a page.
These guidelines are our way of trying to be sure we have enough information to decide, while still respecting the time that we have to look over unsolicited correspondence. We receive hundreds per week and only read them after hours.
I would advise writers to place ultimate emphasis on the synopsis aspect, not only for the purposes of working with an agent, but for the sake of learning how to pitch their work effectively for all steps of the publishing process. It’s paramount.
GLA: I saw you speak at a conference in October, where you participated in a live first-pages critique (fantastic, by the way!). Could you please talk about some page one/chapter one “no-nos” you encounter daily? What are the most cringe-worthy offenses in those early pages?
LC: I hate to be such a stickler about this because I know how many writers are frustrated by the concept, but grammatical errors are a red flag when they appear on that first page. It’s not about their errors themselves—we’re all human, and even agents know that—it’s about the sloppiness of neglecting to proofread before you submit.
Do you respect your writing and do you respect an agent’s time? That’s what it is in question when we see a glaring error on page one.
GLA: At the same conference, you sat on a “changes in publishing” panel. What are your feelings on e-publishing and the future of the industry? Any projections for what 2011 will bring?
LC: It’s so hard to compose a general answer for such huge questions. It reminds me of the panel that MediaBistro put together last December (2009) on this very topic, wherein most of the panels were targeted, but the panelists themselves were all vague in their discussions.
We just don’t know what 2011 will bring. We know that e-books will continue to grow, and my personal hope is for publishers and authors to find an equitable distribution of royalties (at the time of this interview, standard rates are 25% of net).
I think we’ll see Amazon take a cooperative position with independent booksellers, for more control of the market and because the indies have claimed an important role within many communities. I think short fiction will find its way back into the market via e-book originals, more and more. I think, unfortunately, publishers will continue to pay astronomical advances for books that have platforms (specifically celebrity generated), even when the advance has no chance of earning out. And I think that a lot of the businesses (agencies, publishers, booksellers) that have retained their traditional models will begin to shift and morph in various new (sometimes clever, sometimes disastrous) ways.
You’ll see some agencies starting “e-pub” imprints for their unsold manuscripts. You’ll see some booksellers bringing in ever more non-literary product. The only thing to do is watch and take notes, stay on your toes and be ready to adapt with, and not against, the reading public.
GLA: Speaking of writers conferences, will you be at any upcoming events where writers can meet and pitch you?
LC: Due to the volume of work we are currently receiving on submission, I am taking the next year off (2011) from conferences. It’s much easier to schedule five or six conferences when you’re an agent with a larger company, and when you’re hungrier for contact with writers.
I do read every query letter very carefully though, and I often respond with advice and feedback even for projects that I’ve chosen not to pursue. I would encourage any prospective writers to craft a thoughtful pitch in writing, and to contact me directly.
GLA: What is something about you writers would be surprised to hear?
LC: I think writers often assume that publishing professionals all wanted to write, or still want to write, but have been somehow thwarted. In fact, I’ve never wanted to be a writer. I’m a reader, through and through, but don’t have the itch to tell my own story.
However, I am an amateur singer, actress, painter, and chef. I think that if I were truly a writer at heart, I wouldn’t be as capable of remaining objective in editorial evaluation, although I know others who can juggle both.
GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t talked about yet?
LC: Well, since you asked, I’d like to say a brief word on the submissions process.
I used to write personal letters when I was rejecting authors who had submitted to me, and almost every time I crafted a personal response, I was rewarded with more correspondence from that author, who having gotten my attention, was more than reluctant to let it go. It felt like doing a good deed was never simply thanked, it was considered an “open door.” Now, having switched our agency’s policy to form letters (we still read every query before responding) there are often responses in the form of anger or accusation, or thinly veiled “suggestions” on how we could reject someone more thoughtfully.
There is no good way to deliver bad news. At the end of the day, the agent either likes it and wants more, or it’s a pass. And if it’s a pass, you’re not going to be happy to hear it, no matter how it is presented.
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Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
- When Can You Call Yourself a Writer?
- Read a Query That Worked and Snagged an Agent.
- “How I Got My Agent,” by Novelist Carsen Morton.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Author Platform.
- Literary Agent Interview: Peter McGuigan of Foundry Literary.
- 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.