Literary Agent Interview: Russell Galen of Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Russell Galen) 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 agencies.

This installment features Russell Galen of Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency. Russell is a graduate of Brandeis University. He started within days as an apprentice to “the most colorful and successful agent of his era,” Scott Meredith, and he made his first sale within a month. When Scott died in 1993, he joined with the two other top agents there, Ted Chichak and Jack Scovil, to found Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency.

He is seeking: In fiction, his passion lies within novels that stretch the bounds of reality. A novel needs to take him some place you can’t get to in a car, whether it be the past, the future, a fantasy world, an alternate historical track, a world in which our world touches another that is hidden or rarely seen, or one which has been changed by some new technology, event, or idea. In nonfiction, he seeks strong, serious books on almost any subject—as long as they teach him something. He’s interested in science, history, journalism, biography, business, memoir, nature, politics, sports, contemporary culture, literary nonfiction, etc.



GLA: In your agency bio, you say you’re the only literary agent you know of who grew up wanting to be one. What drew you to the job? And how did you become an agent?

RG: Studying F. Scott Fitzgerald in high school freshman English, I became obsessed and read everything I could get my hands on about the man, not just the books. This included a collection of his letters, which was organized by recipient. One section had letters to Zelda, one to his daughter (which contain some great writing advice, by the way), one to his renowned editor Max Perkins, and one to his agent, Harold Ober. I had never heard of Ober but I was immediately attracted to the writer/agent relationship depicted there: a long-term relationship of emotional support and editorial encouragement. It seemed to me that the editor was focused on the bookthe writingand the agent was focused on the manthe writer.  The latter seemed more like the kind of thing I would find satisfying. As I nursed my literary dreams over the next eight years, I thought about becoming a literary agent. When I got out of college, I just started calling up literary agencies until I found one that need a new slave.

I have never regretted it in the subsequent 32 years despite forming a great deal of admiration for certain editors, and even being envious of some of some of the things they get to do in their jobs. Being an editor would not have been for me and I don’t think I would have survived this long, or long at all, in that job.

GLA: What’s something you’ve sold that comes out now/soon that you’re excited about?

RG: Nonfiction: The Secrets of Life by Sean B. Carroll (forthcoming from Crown). When I sold this book I said, “I can die now, my work is done. The ultimate Russell Galen book, it sums up everything that matters to me.”  It’s a joint biography of three men: Albert Camus, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist; Jacques Monod, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist; and Paul Jacob, also a Nobel Prize-winning biologist. The three were best friends in the years after World War II, each one stimulating the other to breakthroughs that would not have been possible in isolation. It is a book that depicts literature and science as synergistically related.

In fiction, I have three upcoming books that exemplify everything I’ve said elsewhere in this interview about series with long-running characters. James Rollins’ newest thriller about the men and women of the Sigma Force, The Devil Colony (Morrow), which will be followed by the new Richard and Kahlan novel by Terry Goodkind, The Omen Machine (Tor), followed by the eighth and as yet untitled novel in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon (Delacorte Press).

GLA: What subjects are you tired of seeing in sci-fi and fantasy queries?

RG: I never tire of reading about familiar tropes: vampires, wizards, magic swords, zombies, galactic empires, starships, aliens, time travel. There are no tired subjects. The problem with much fiction is not tired subjects, but characters who are not true individuals.

I don’t think in terms of “subjects” at all. I think in terms of the protagonist’s life journey. Thirty billion Homo sapiens have lived on earth, each with a unique persona. A conventional plot about a tired theme, but with a three-dimensional character who badly wants something that develops naturally out of this unique individuality: I’m fine with that.

GLA: How healthy it this area of the market (SF/F), and why do you think this is so? Do you foresee that changing in the near future?

RG: If 2006 saw 100 million SF/F copies sold and this year there were 90 million, that suggests a decline. But what if 2006 saw only three New York Times bestsellers and 2011 had twelve? Meaning the genre was having a greater influence on culture, and those twelve novels (plus 50 near-bestsellers) generated more profit for their authors and publishers than did all the 2006 novels put together?

The genre is merging into what we think of as mainstream, like ethnic groups that eventually become Americans rather than Jews, Poles, Indonesians, whatever. So we can’t “see” its success, the way we can’t always tell whether our neighbor comes from old money or is one generation removed from the boat.
I am selling fewer genre novels than before and many of them are putting up disappointing sales. But I have had many huge hits, books which have sold millions of copies and been translated into 35 languages and shifted the world on its axis. These are books with major, crucial science fiction and/or fantasy elements.  I am not complaining.

GLA: One of the nonfiction areas you represent is biography. Is there anyone in particular about whom you’d love to see a biography written? F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps?

RG: I don’t have a specific candidate, but I am fond of a specific type of biography, namely the person who changed the world, of whom you have never heard. A Beautiful Mind, for instance.


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GLA: What are three instant turnoffs you often encounter in book proposals?

RG: 1. Lack of a story arc. Many failed nonfiction proposals are mere surveys of a subject. The books that sell have strong characters who are engaged in some project that eventually is resolved. Don’t do a book about slime mold. Do a book about the Slime Mold Guy who solved the mystery of slime mold. Don’t do a book about the Internet. Do a book about the Internet Guy who built this thing that made a big difference.

2. Skimpiness. I like big fat proposals. Writers worry too much about how much reading editors have to do and they self-defeatingly try to keep proposals short. Busy editors are not the problem. A great proposal will hook a reader within a few pages and keep that reader spellbound until the last page no matter how long. Short, skimpy proposals often quit before they can get me, or an editor, truly immersed and engaged. You aren’t just informing us about your book; you are recruiting us into joining you on what is going to be a long and expensive expedition. If crazy, fire-eyed Christopher Columbus wants me to join him on his trip to the “Here Be Monsters” part of the ocean, I’d like to inspect his ships very, very carefully before I set sail. Editors are scared to buy books because they are so often wrong. Thoroughness builds confidence.

3. Extrapolation. Many proposals say, in effect, “I don’t know all that much about this subject but give me a six-figure contract and I will go and find out everything there is to know.” I understand the problem writers face: How are they supposed to master a subject until after they’ve done the travels, interviews, and research?  Nevertheless, unless you are already an established writer, you can’t simply promise to master your subject. Book contracts go to those who have already mastered a subject. If you haven’t mastered your subject but you really think you deserve a book contract, try to get a magazine assignment so that you can do at least some of the necessary research, funded by the magazine. But if you’re just winging it, I probably can’t help you unless you have a superb platform.

GLA: In June 2010, you did a guest blog post over at Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop about the lasting power of the series. Does this mean you are more accepting of writers querying with a series than perhaps other agents? (Many seem to shy away from this.) Along those same lines, when do you like writers to mention a project is a series or has series potential? Right in the query? Not until “the phone call”?

RG: I’d just as soon a writer came right out and pitched me a series. However, I do handle all kinds of fiction: if it’s a salable standalone, that’s fine; I sell those too. Often the writer hasn’t thought about the series potential. I’ll suggest that the book be expanded into a series, and then ask the writer to develop a series bible before I approach editors.

GLA: What do you consider to be the best way writers can build their platforms?  What should all newbies be doing? And how much does that differ, for you, in terms of writers of fiction vs. writers of nonfiction?

RG: Be out there at whatever level you are able to reach. If you can get on “The Daily Show” or sell a story to The New Yorker, of course you should do that, and if they say no, you should try again and again and again.
But if you can’t, go for everything you can to expose your name. Send stuff out to magazines big and small
the biggest you can find but settle for the best you can get. Blog, maintain a website and update it regularly, seek speaking engagements and panel appearances, get a lot of Facebook friends, tweet. Seek avenues of publication even if they are web-only, and then use those credits to worm your way into print publications.

The most important thing is to maintain a web presence that is regularly updated so that anyone who stumbles on it will become hooked and return for your fresh content.

Platform building is the work of a lifetime, not something you start to think about after you’ve finished a book and suddenly realize no one wants to read it. On the day you start thinking, “I want to write books,” you should simultaneously start thinking, “I also need to build my platform by publishing widely in areas that are relevant to the kinds of books I want to write.”

You should be like the overachieving parent of a newborn who says, “I want my kid to get into an Ivy eighteen years from now, so I need to start him at the right pre-school and make sure he masters a foreign language, a sport, and a musical instrument while still in elementary school.”

GLA: This might be a bit tough, but what is your outlook on the future of the publishing industry? Bright or bleak—and why?

RG: In every field, there is no single answer as to whether the future will be “bright or bleak.” It will be bright for those who figure out how to survive in the new environment and bleak for everyone else.

I am a science fiction fan. Growing up in nineteen-friggin-sixty-eight I already knew everyone would one day be reading on portable screen of some kind. The people today who say, “I love the feel of the paper and the smell of the ink” are a shrinking pool and will vanish. I see about five dark years of accelerating decline followed by a new Golden Age once everyone owns an electronic reading device.

When that day comes, we’ll have more books and readers than ever before, and writers will have brighter opportunities than ever before. Books will be fine.

In the future, just like today, a few writers will flourish and the majority will barely get by. Money may flow to them in ways that are very different from today. I think we’ll see low prices for ebooks, resulting in more units being sold for less profit per unit. Again, that will benefit some books and not others, but the overall impact on the book industry will be a wash at worst, and maybe a sharp improvement.

Clearly book publishing can never go back to what it was in my childhood when your choice of home entertainment was a book, a magazine, or whatever was on the three TV networks. New media are a powerful competitor. But we have two weaponsone new, one oldto counter that:

1. Online sales of print books and ebooks make it vastly easier to sell backlist and other niche books. Many new books by midlist authors will sell half of what they would have once sold, but the industry can make up for that by selling books that would not have stayed in print at all.

2. The book-length text is coded in our DNA and will never go away; it is the written version of the oral myths and histories told on consecutive nights around campfires for 80,000 years. In each new generation, roughly the same percentage of people is born with this mutation: the need to be immersed in a long story told entirely through words.

GLA: What is something personal about you writers would be surprised to hear?

RG: I am modest, which is probably not a quality that writers expect to find in this profession, which requires balls-out confidence 24 hours a day. I don’t think of myself as super-smart, super-eloquent, super-aggressive, or super-anything. I think of myself as an ordinary person who has overcome ordinariness by being persistent, willing to work inhuman hours, not having much of a life outside work, and unwilling to back down if I know I am right about an author or a book. I have a zeal for my clients’ work that seems to make up for my other failings. If I don’t feel the zeal, I can’t make the deal. Woody Allen said that “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.” That’s me. I always show up.

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t talked about yet?

RG: If you are planning to write a certain kind of book, fiction or nonfiction, you should have read 100 or 200 or 500 of the best books in that field. I often find that writers are not well read in their own field, which is a disgrace and a sure recipe for mediocrity.

But it goes beyond that. Authors tend to read books the way laymen do, allowing themselves pure enjoyment. No! This is work. You are not here to enjoy yourself.  There’s a novel you think is great? Read it twice, the way an editor reads a manuscript. Once for the plot, the magic, to be transported. The second time, bring your scalpel and dissect. You cried in Chapter 11? Why?


This guest column by Ricki Schultz,
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6 thoughts on “Literary Agent Interview: Russell Galen of Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency

  1. Matthew Rivett

    I queried Russel about four years ago and sent him off my manuscript. While enticed by my concept and story idea, he gave me a very honest and helpful critique of my work that did me a world of good. I spent the next 1.5 years overhauling the thing line-by-line and began the query process over again. Low and behold, I managed to land an NYC agent the next go around. He definitely gave me a window into what sort of writing was expected of a publishable manuscript. Thanks Russell.

  2. Murr Brewster

    I can vouch for the man’s work ethic. He once read my first book in its entirety only because a friend, whose agent he is, was enthusiastic about me. He wasn’t interested, but he told me why, in great and helpful detail. I can’t wait to inflict my first novel on him. He’s clearly a peach.

  3. CarmenFerreiro

    Thank you for the interview. Great advice.
    My favorite:
    Read twice. One for enjoyment. One to learn.
    So true.
    Sometimes I miss the time when reading was just escape. I’m too critical now. On the other hand, when a book works, it is so much more satisfying.

  4. Kristan

    Love the parent analogy (put your kid in preschool to get him into college) and the answer to the "something personal" question. I’d love to have an agent with that kind of passion, even if doesn’t come off as "balls-out." 😛


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