Agent Advice: Scott Mendel of the Mendel Media Group

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Scott Mendel of Mendel Media Group) 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 Scott Mendel of the Mendel Media Group. With a background in academia, Scott has worked in publishing since the early 1990s. In November 2002, he opened the Mendel Media Group in New York. He is a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, the Author’s Guild, the Mystery Writers of America, the Romance Writers of America, the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, the Modern Language Association, and the American Association of University Professors

He is seeking: In adult nonfiction: biography, current affairs, economics, history, humor/gift, religious topics, media/entertainment, mind/body/spirit, politics, popular science, self-help/how-to. In adult fiction: inspirational, literary fiction, multicultural, mysteries/thrillers, women’s. In kids books: picture books, chapter books, young adult fiction, young adult nonfiction.



GLA: Briefly, how did you become an agent?

SM: I was teaching at the University of Chicago (where I did my graduate work) and at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and had decided I wanted to leave academia to work in publishing. I’d worked in magazine publishing, but didn’t want to go back to that. I met the late Jane Jordan Browne, who had been an agent for decades in Chicago, and learned the business from her. Agenting gives me the autonomy I loved about academia, and the engagement in the world of ideas.

GLA: What’s something coming out now you repped that you’re excited about?

SM: My author Mark Mustian’s amazing novel, The Gendarme, is the lead title at Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam this fall. It was published Sept. 2, 2010. It was the sales force’s Fall Pick from across all the Penguin Group’s imprints this fall, and has been made an IndieBound/Indy Next selection for September by the American Booksellers Association, which means a lot of independent bookstore owners and employees read it in advance galleys and loved it. [Note from Chuck: It’s also being featured in the Jan. 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest.] It is the story of a very old man who was a Turkish policeman and a perpetrator of the Armenian genocide during WWI, who moved to America and raised a family, and who at the end of his life becomes haunted by memories of his crimes. He decides to track down a young Armenian woman he sheltered during the violence and who be believes also came to America, to beg for her forgiveness. The catch is, since he’s never told his family about his past, he can’t tell anyone what he is up to. I know this description makes the book sound dark, and parts of it are—but it is really a story about love, and about the possibility of redemption.

Another novel coming out this fall that I am really happy about is Stacey Ballis’ fifth, Good Enough to Eat, from Berkley on September 7, 2010. Stacey’s previous novels were clever novels for women in their twenties and thirties, but her new novel is a real departure. It’s a more mainstream women’s fiction, for an older readership, the story of a woman who loses half her body weight and starts a new business, when her husband leaves her for a woman twice her size. Now, at forty, she’s starting over with a new body, a new career, and new friends and relationships. Her decisions about what to bring along with her from her old life, and what to leave behind, will resonate with many women at midlife. The novel signals a new direction in the author’s career, and one that I think will bring her to the attention of new readers.

GLA: You represent authors in many, many areas of nonfiction, fiction and kids fiction. This is rare in an agent, considering that plenty specialize. What do you like about taking on so many categories? Does it make life touger as an agent?

SM: I like reading all sorts of books. My own background is pretty wonky, journalistic, academic, and literary. So I do represent a lot of serious nonfiction authors—professors, working journalists, and author-experts. But I don’t see any reason not to run my agency so that it reflects the range of my own interests. I understand the urge to specialize, but that’s never been my modus operandi as an agent. And I’ve been doing this long enough to have strong relationships with editors of all sorts of books, so I don’t believe any of my clients suffer for having a generalist as an agent.

GLA: I see from your personal details that you went to school in Maine, have lectured in Jewish studies, and wrote a book about prosecution. Do you have a soft spot for Maine-based tales, Jewish life and/or law/crime nonfiction?

SM: Yes, if Michael Chabon hasn’t set his excellent The Yiddish Policeman’s Union in Alaska first, I would have been forced to write a version of that book set on the Maine coast. My hero would have, at some point, delivered the line, “Me ken in der emesn zen ayzland fun erd do in meyn.” (For your non-Yiddish-reading readers, that’s “You can actually see Iceland from land here in Maine.”) So I suppose Chabon did me a big favor, since clearly I would have lost 30% or so of my potential readers with such silliness.

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GLA: I see numerous multicultural areas that you want to see books in. Is this one of your most sought-out fiction genres?

SM: I’m never prouder than when I can introduce a new author whose books cross cultures and interest readers of many backgrounds. That’s probably why I love selling my authors’ foreign rights so much. Just one recent example of the kind of book I have in mind is by a new novelist named Rashad Harrison, whose first novel I sold to Atria Books/Simon & Schuster earlier this month. The novel, called Our Man in the Dark, is a noir crime novel (based on historical fact) about an accountant at Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference who the FBI observes embezzling funds, and flips him to become an informant on Dr. King and his inner circle. It’s the kind of novel that is both ripping entertainment and also a provocative study of crime and punishment, of the cost of our most intimate betrayals, and of the darkness that lurks deep inside all of us. It won’t be published until 2011, but I hope your readers will put it on their future reading lists.

GLA: You seek biography but not memoir. So you only want proposals from writers who wish to write about others—perhaps someone famous?

SM: It’s true that I represent a lot of biography, but I actually represent both biography and memoir with equal enthusiasm. In just the last year or so, I’ve sold memoirs like comedian Julie Klausner’s I Don’t Care About Your Band: What I Learned From Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Faux-Sensitive Hipsters, Felons And Other Guys I’ve Dated (which I just sold to Will Ferrell and Adam McKay for development as an HBO comedy series, with Lizzy Caplan attached to play Julie Klausner’s role); Sara Benincasa’s Agorafabulous!, about her struggles with panic disorder and agoraphobia, which will be published by William Morrow next year; and, heading into more historical territory, Auschwitz survivor Livia Bitton-Jackson’s latest memoir, Saving What Remains, which was recently published by Lyons Press.

GLA: Three most common problems you see in a book proposal?

SM: Poor writing and/or sloppy editing. Inadequate author credentials for the project being proposed. Unsalable book idea. That probably covers the waterfront.

GLA: You rep all areas of kids. What draws to the world of children’s writing?

SM: I rarely have an opportunity to quote Whitney Houston (whose biography my client Mark Bego wrote), so here we go: I, um, believe that children are our future.

(Look over our growing list of young adult literary agents.)

GLA: You also take kids nonfiction, which, again, is kind of rarity. Does it work the same as adult nonfiction—start with a proposal?

SM: The market for kids nonfiction has been dramatically attenuated by the collapse of library and school accession budgets over the last decade, so it really takes something special to get my attention in this area—basically, this has become a category almost exclusively for passion projects. For example, my author Glennette Tilley Turner just published Fort Mose: And The Story Of The Man Who Built The First Free Black Settlement In Colonial America with Abrams. It is the first book about a totally forgotten chapter in American, African-American, and Spanish history. When Glennette told me about Fort Mose, and said she wanted to write the first book about it, we both knew it wasn’t going to be a bestseller. But all I could say to her was, “Do it!”

GLA: You’ve agented for a good amount of time and sold to countless publishers. Without getting too into the nitty-gritty, can you tell us a little about how you’ve seen the industry change over your time agenting?

SM: You’ve seen the carnival game, Whack-a-Mole? I’ve watched a lot of editors get whacked by their employers during the last several years. Commercial publishing used to attract and reward editors who took quirky, intuitive, and sometimes-risky leaps of faith, who were willing to stand up at acquisition meetings and say, “I want you to trust me on this one.” Nowadays, the process of acquisitions is much more about getting lots of people to sign off in advance on a decision. This is not true everywhere, or in every case. There are still rebels and dreamers in book publishing, probably more than in most other segments of the media. But there is far less room for risk-taking nowadays than there was even a decade ago.

GLA: Best way to submit to you?

SM: There are detailed guidelines at the agency’s website. They are there for a reason. The worst thing to do is call or fax to pitch a project.

GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers conferences where writers can meet/pitch you? (See a list of writers conferences.)

SM: I go to writers conferences very, very rarely these days.

GLA: Something personal about you writers may be surprised to know?

SM: Although I am a bred-in-the-bone New Yorker, I actually spent my childhood in Miami and Miami Beach during the 1970s, where I learned to hate mosquitoes and overnight camping in the Everglades, but love Caribbean food and canoeing the mangrove forests and coral reefs of John Pennekamp State Park (“America’s first undersea park!”).

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

SM: Dream big, swing for the fences, but—to misquote Gandhi—exercise the kind of impulse control that you wish to see in the world.

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