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Agent Advice: Dan Conaway of Writers House

This installment features Dan Conaway of Writers House. Dan has been Executive Editor at Putnam, Executive Editor at HarperCollins, Director of Literary Acquisitions at PolyGram Films, Story Editor at Citadel/HBO, Creative Executive at Tribeca Films, and Associate Editor at W.W. Norton. He is looking for: literary fiction, true crime, commercial fiction, historical fiction, thrillers/suspense; and his nonfiction interests include history, pop culture, narrative, and journalism.

Agent Interview by

contributor Ricki Schultz.

“Agent Advice”(this installment featuring agent Dan Conaway of Writers House) 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 Dan Conaway of Writers House. Dan has been Executive Editor at Putnam, Executive Editor at HarperCollins, Director of Literary Acquisitions at PolyGram Films, Story Editor at Citadel/HBO, Creative Executive at Tribeca Films, and Associate Editor at W.W. Norton.

He is looking for: literary fiction, true crime, commercial fiction, historical fiction, thrillers/suspense; and his nonfiction interests include history, pop culture, narrative, and journalism. He does not accept e-mail queries. See full submission guidelines here.

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GLA: How did you become an agent?

DC: When I was an editor at HarperCollins and at Putnam, the agent I did the most business with—Simon Lipskar at Writers House—had become pretty much my best friend in the world. And one of our many standing jokes (our favorite: “friends don’t let friends write books”) was that how when (not if) I got fired, I’d come work for him.

GLA: Does that mean you were on the verge of being fired when you left Putnam in 2007?

DC: No—at least, not that I'm aware of! But I've always had this paranoid fixation with the number 52—that being the age at which I always figured my corporate superiors would at last judge me too expensive relative to my productivity, and cut me loose, leaving me to wander about aimlessly like some gray-suited ad-man in a John Cheever short story. And what happens to editors when they get fired—and they all get fired, eventually, don’t they?—is, they become agents. At the time I left Putnam, I’d published or had acquired bestsellers by Ridley Pearson, Martha Raddatz, David Stone, and Steve Lopez, and had published some other pretty amazing books along the way. So I wasn't feeling vulnerable at that time. But I did a little math and realized that 52 corresponded with another number: 17, as in the age my three triplet daughters would be when I turned 52. Three college educations to pay for? That seemed like a particularly bad year to get fired.

So, long story short, it occurred to me that my stock probably wasn’t going to get much higher than it was right then, and that if I really imagined I wouldn't survive to get my gold watch at the age of 65, maybe I should make the move to becoming an agent preemptively. Writers House was looking to grow the agency, so I was invited to come aboard. That was about two and half years ago.

GLA: What’s the most recent thing you’ve sold?

DCThe End of Everything by Megan Abbott, sold to Reagan Arthur for her eponymous imprint at Little, Brown. A two-book contract; and we've since sold the book in a number of foreign countries, too.

GLA: What are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?

DC: Slush or not, I keep my prayers simple: Let's start with a handful of really wonderful sentences strung together just so. "Just so," of course, speaks to the impossibly subjective nature of this racket.

GLA: You used to be the anonymous voice behind Mad Max Perkins of the now-inactive BookAngst 101, the blog that started out as a way to candidly discuss the industry with other editors and publishing types but emerged as a resource for writers. Do you miss it? Have you found another outlet for such conversations?

DC: I do miss it! BookAngst 101 was a wonderful experience, for a whole bunch of reasons. As time passed, it became less about industry stuff and more just my riffing on one thing or another, kinda self-indulgent, I suspect, but it was a uniquely satisfying outlet for me. But ultimately the energy I put into Mad Max is work that is more profitably channeled to my clients, with whom, in many cases, I'm allowed a great deal of creative input.

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GLA: In an interview you did last year for Susan Henderson’s LitPark, you said you weren’t looking to take on any new clients. Still true?

DC: Kinda yes, kinda no. I will take on new clients when I'm bowled over.

GLA: Do you notice any trends in what you tend to represent in historical fiction? Elements that particularly grab you?

DC: First off, I'm never interested in anything but beautiful writing; engaging, urgent storytelling; characters you fall in love with—above all, voice. I'm reading a new novel right now by Robyn Young, a huge bestseller in the UK; the novel is called Insurrection, the first in a new series about Robert the Bruce and the wars for Scottish independence, and it's blowing me away on all these fronts.

GLA: What draws you to a true crime story?

DC: How annoying would it be if were to give you essentially the same answer? And yet it's true: I'm always looking for basically the same thing! Regardless of genre—thrillers, narrative nonfiction, anything—it's the writing and the voice and so on that are the determining factors for me.

True crime is a particular publishing challenge, because the phrase itself signals down-market crap-ola, and yet, so many of the most beloved and enduring works of narrative nonfiction could be categorized as such. The reason there will always be interest in good true crime stories is the same reason that dramatic adventure stories like The Perfect Storm or Into Thin Air continue to resonate: They're real stories, often about communities in crisis, dealing with matters of life and death. For more than a decade, I've wished I could find a new category tag/euphemism that would allow people to publish what we mean by "true crime" without the stigma the phrase connotes. If you come up with one, let me know.

GLA: If you were teaching a class on nonfiction writing & submitting, what would be item number one on your syllabus?

DC: On the submitting side, I'd say: Keep the pitch short and to the point. On the writing side, I'd say: When you think you're done—that is, after you've rewritten it a couple of times, set it aside, wait a while—then sit down and rewrite it again. Whatever you submit, it needs to be as good as you're capable of making it.

GLA: Concerning your nonfiction interests, what are three topics you would classify as overdone?

DC: For me, execution is everything, so anything handled the right way can still be interesting. We may not have another seafaring story quite so big as The Perfect Storm, but great stories told well, regardless of category, are likely going to find interest. One category that seems especially tough, though, is military memoir regarding Iraq and Afghanistan.

GLA: What would writers be surprised to know about you?

DC: What a terribly slow reader I am.

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

DC: It's not advice, really, but perspective: This really is a profoundly subjective business. Editors and agents respond to what they respond to—not so much to whether there might be a market for something, but whether they themselves are sufficiently moved by something to be the right person to help find that market. There's lots of good writing that doesn't quite light my fire; that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with it—it's just that it's not right for me.

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This agent interview by Ricki Schultz,
freelance writer and coordinator of
Shenandoah Writers in VA. Visit her blog
or follow her on Twitter.

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