“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Matt Bialer of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates) 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.
He is looking for: fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, and mysteries as well as a select group of literary writers. He represents many veteran authors, but also enjoys finding unique new voices. He also loves smart narrative nonfiction including books about current events, popular culture, biography, history, music, race, and sports. See full submission guidelines here.
GLA: How did you become an agent?
MB: I had been an English major at Vassar College. I thought I might pursue being an academic, but then I realized I wanted to be out in the “real world,” so to speak. It was 1985. I sent my resume to publishers. But then a dear friend of mine (an assistant to an editor at Crown) told me that a literary agency was looking for an assistant. I didn’t even know what a literary agency was! So Jane von Mehren (she is a VP and head of trade paperbacks at Random House—the assistant grew up) helped me get my first job, and it was at Curtis Brown, Ltd. in New York. I was Perry Knowlton’s assistant. And then, I went on to William Morris for many years, and I eventually became a book agent there. But to answer your question, I kind of fell in to being an agent and being on that side of the fence. I realized that I enjoyed it and that we offer a kind of stability for authors, and I can take on whatever projects I please. I enjoy the freedom. I enjoy handling all different kinds of books. And I get paid for it, too.
GLA: What’s the most recent thing you’ve sold?
MB: I just sold a big, new prehistory project by my clients W. Michael and Kathleen O’Neal Gear to Tor/Forge. Mike and Kathy are masters of the prehistory genre, and they have sold many copies of their books over the years. I also sold an exciting new series by Tad Williams to DAW Books titled Sleeping Late on Judgement Day. It is a fantastical noir about a dead man caught in a war between heaven and hell. I sold a first novel titled High Before Homework by Maya Sloan. It’s a riot. It’s about a boy named Doug in a small town in Oklahoma. He is pretty bored and cynical and wise beyond his years. He works at a shopping mall and has crush on a girl named Laurilee who works at the mall, too. She likes all of the stupid big guys. So what does Doug do? He becomes a crystal meth addict so he can get put in rehab, impress Laurilee, and live happily ever after.
GLA: What are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?
MB: I am looking for something supernatural that fits into this whole paranormal craze going on. But I want something fresh and with a world pretty mapped out. I found something in the slush titled Mark of the Demon by Diana Rowland. Well, my assistant Lindsay Ribar, found it. We sold it to Bantam. But I like what is really good and new. I always like a great fantasy or a great thriller that has a new twist on something. In thrillers, I like either the Harlan Coban kind of domestic suspense (ordinary people in trouble), or I am looking for thrillers that have some crossover into the fantastic or supernatural. I like literary fiction, too, but that is a tricky area. I think novels that take place in more exotic places are what sell in that area.
GLA: One area of interest for you is women’s fiction. What draws you to this category?
MB: It is a healthy area of publishing, and a career can be nourished and grow. It also deals with “real issues” that women face in their everyday lives often crossed with an element that make the story more surprising.
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GLA: You also seek multicultural pieces in both fiction and nonfiction. What subjects are you tired of seeing in this category? Are there any subjects you feel are untapped and would, therefore, be a refreshing change from the typical multicultural manuscript or proposal?
MB: In more upscale fiction, I like stories set in more exotic locales. I think it is no surprise that some of the better selling literary fiction is written outside of this country or set outside of here. In nonfiction, I am struggling with that question myself. I think reader taste here has grown more inward due to what has been going on. I am not sure if there is the same interest in reading about other cultures, unless it is a form of escape.
GLA: What are three things that make you stop reading every time they crop up in a manuscript?
MB: The story is not grabbing me. The writing is flat. I feel like I have read this too many times before.
GLA: In a query or book proposal?
MB: A lack of knowledge about the publishing world. Many people just put on their blinders and shotgun their queries out there. It shows. I think it is good for a writer to come across like they follow trends, they know what sells, who they would compare their work to, why they chose to write to me in particular. Presentation makes a big difference. Only a small percentage of queries have a savvy.
GLA: Specifically within science fiction, what themes that particularly hook you—such as time travel, post-apocalyptic, or first contact?
MB: I think post-apocalyptic stories can have possibility if the story is set in a world that is not too far a stretch from the world we live in now. I always believe in science fiction stories that can cross over into mainstream. They’re rare, but they do happen. Look at Michael Crichton or The Traveler. A time travel book can always sell if it is really good and fresh. I would love to sell a great time travel book. I still love Time and Again. Editors would love to see a story like that.
GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers’ conferences where writers can meet and pitch you?
GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t talked about yet?
MB: Just keep writing. And pay attention to the business. If something becomes a bestseller, check it out and ask yourself why. But the most important thing to do is to keep writing. It might not happen with your first or even second or third novel. You have to develop. I think one of the biggest changes in the business over the years is that there isn’t really a “farm system” for writers anymore. It’s like you make it to the Majors or you don’t. That means the writer has to develop a good game and let yourself mature as a writer. It takes time to develop the skills.
freelance writer and coordinator of
Shenandoah Writers in VA. Visit her blog
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Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
- What’s In a Title? Everything.
- NEW Agent Seeking Clients: Rachel Dugas of Talcott Notch Literary.
- Find Out What Writing Events Host Literary Agents as well as Sessions on Pitching.
- Discussing Credentials in a Nonfiction Book Proposal.
- Literary Agent Interview: Lori Perkins, Founder of L. Perkins Associates.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Author 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.
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