Ask the Pro: Literary Agent Chris Richman

Agent Chris Richman shares the best query he ever received, his biggest pet peeve and his dream project. by Kara Gebhart Uhl
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BEST QUERY RECEIVED: It began, “Dear Mr. Richman: It is our duty to inform you that your death is scheduled to occur on the early morning of October 17, 2008. Your cooperation in this matter is greatly appreciated. Have a pleasant day.” Now, I’m not really one for gimmicks when it comes to writing queries, but for this project, a book about a world where everyone receives a similar letter the day before they die, it totally worked and I was completely hooked. I wound up signing the project and selling it; The Deathday Letter by Shaun David Hutchinson comes out this summer from Simon Pulse.

WORST QUERY RECEIVED: There are lots to choose from, but the worst was a submission about sex patents. Like, devices this writer had dreamt up for use in the bedroom, complete with diagrams and detailed instructions to eventually submit, I assume, to the U.S. Patent Office. I have no idea how this writer picked me—an agent relatively new to the business at the time, and only interested in children’s books—or how he saw this “book” being published. Of course I rejected the project, but I kept the manual and perfected some of his original concepts: Look for the Richman Swing to debut next fall.

BEST PUBLISHING ADVICE RECEIVED: The best advice I’ve received, and unfortunately it’s something I’ve had to repeat a few times to writers whose work I’ve passed on, was, “If it’s a maybe, it’s a no.” In other words, if I’m not completely on fire about a project, I shouldn’t sign it. This advice has been great, because an agent’s enthusiasm for a work comes across to editors and translates to more deals. People can usually tell when you’re trying to shine up a piece of glass and call it a diamond.

FAVORITE CONVERSATION WHEN AGREEING TO WORK WITH A NEW CLIENT: They’ve actually all been pretty great, but the best ones, for me, are with authors who have revised based on my suggestions before I offered representation, because that means they were able to nail a work that initially piqued my interest but may have fallen a little short. Those conversations are great because I’m usually just as excited as they are.

Maybe it’s because I’m still new, but I get really irked when people in publishing, be they editors, writers or agents, start to take their great jobs for granted. I consider myself extremely lucky to have landed a job in this industry, and I hope to never lose sight of how wonderful it is to work with books and writers.

DREAM PROJECT: I’d love to work with a Frankenstein’s monster hybrid of the best parts of all my favorites: Roald Dahl, Annie Dillard, J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen King, Shakespeare and many, many more. The best part is when this monster client gets out of line, I’d merely wave a flaming torch in front of his face to make him see things my way.

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