Literary Agent Interview: Deborah Grosvenor of Grosvenor Literary Agency

This installment features Deborah Grosvenor of Grosvenor Literary Agency. Formerly with Kneerim & Williams, Deborah reopened Grosvenor Literary Agency in January 2011. With more than 25 years’ experience in the book publishing business as an agent and editor, she has edited or represented several hundred books—and her best-known fiction acquisition is Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. She is seeking: Grosvenor is interested in narrative nonfiction in the categories of history, biography, politics, current and foreign affairs, memoir, food, health, the environment and travel. For fiction, she is simply interested in great storytelling, especially in an historical context.
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“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Deborah Grosvenor) 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 Deborah Grosvenor of Grosvenor Literary Agency. Formerly with Kneerim & Williams, Deborah reopened Grosvenor Literary Agency in January 2011. With more than 25 years’ experience in the book publishing business as an agent and editor, she has edited or represented several hundred books—and her best-known fiction acquisition is Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. She is also the recipient of the TWIN award (Tribute to Women in Industry), an award given by the YWCA and industry to "outstanding women who have made significant contributions to their companies in managerial and executive positions." She also Tweets.

She is seeking: Grosvenor is interested in narrative nonfiction in the categories of history, biography, politics, current and foreign affairs, memoir, food, health, the environment and travel. For fiction, she is simply interested in great storytelling, especially in an historical context.

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GLA: Why did you become an agent?

: Many years ago, I fell into book publishing by chance, and I’ve never looked back. I love the industry because I love books and love to read.

I worked on the publishing side for many years as an acquisitions editor before becoming an agent in the late ’90s. As an agent, I use many of the same skills I used as an acquisitions editor. I particularly like the independence of being an agent, of being my own boss, of having the freedom to choose which projects I’m going to work on, and of having the opportunity to work with so many bright people in this business, both writers and editors.

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

DG: The Lies of Sarah Palin (St. Martins; May 2011) by Geoffrey Dunn, incredibly well researched and well written account of Sarah Palin.

Ethan Allen: His Life and Times by Willard Randall (WW Norton; Aug. 2011)—starred Publishers Weekly review and main selection of the History Book Club.

The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox by Nina Burleigh (Broadway; Aug. 2011) Gorgeously written account that captures the nuances of this case and the complexity of the country—Italy—in which it takes place.

Into the Heart of the Amazon: In Search of the Last Hidden Tribes by Scott Wallace (Crown) Lush, suspenseful journey of adventure and exploration.

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

: My slush pile largely consists of fiction. So when tackling that, I pray for great, high-concept storytelling, works that have a big vision. I pray for a first sentence and a first page that just knocks me out, and then keeps going.

Probably the most disappointing thing I find in the slush pile is a query or sample that initially seems to promise the very book I’ve been looking for—but then doesn’t deliver. It’s akin to the anticipation one feels when opening a beautifully wrapped present at Christmas—what magical gift could be inside?—only to find it empty.

GLA: Do you notice any trends in what you tend to represent on the fiction side? Your Publishers Marketplace page says you’re interested in “general fiction,” but are there particular genres that grab you? Any from which you tend to shy away?

DG: I love fiction that allows me to travel to a different time or place, so I particularly like fiction with an historical context or historical characters or set in foreign lands. I love fiction that not only provides escape through its storytelling but also teaches me something about the real world. Particularly special are novels that etch their characters so deeply into my consciousness that they become people I will remember and miss for years as if they were real. A few ideal novels of this type come to mind: Cutting for Stone, A Fine Balance, Lonesome Dove and Olive Kitteridge, to name a few.

I am not looking for genre fiction, with the exception of some mysteries, as I am an avid mystery reader of such writers as Elizabeth George, Deborah Crombie, Henning Mankell and Donna Leon.

GLA: One of your topics of interest on your Publishers Marketplace page is sports. Any favorites in particular?

: So far, all of my sports books have been about baseball. These are not books about today’s games, statistics, or celebrity players, but rather memoir and history that involve baseball.

Some examples include Tom Oliphant’s bestselling memoir,Praying for Gil Hodges, as well as two upcoming books, a biography of baseball owner Bill Veeck by Paul Dickson and a narrative of one of the first integrated teams and their magical winning season during the height of the Great Depression by Tom Dunkel.

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GLA: You discovered Tom Clancy by acquiring his first novel, The Hunt for Red October, when you were an acquisitions editor at Naval Institute Press. I read in an interview that it was an unsolicited submission. Do you remember that query letter? What made you request the manuscript? Anything newbies can apply to their own queries?

DG: I actually don’t recall a query letter for The Hunt for Red October. Clancy had sent the entire manuscript into an editor he knew on our magazine side, who had simply walked down the hall and handed the whole thing over to me.

But just a few comments on query letters: New writers should remember that the purpose of the query letter is to convince the agent to ask to see more. The query letter is very, very important, and it really is worth spending the time to do it right. It is the first big hurdle in the process of getting one’s book published.
The query letter roughly consists of three parts. First is a straightforward introduction of the writer and the project, and why the writer is sending it to that particular agent. If the writer has a referral from someone whose name the agent would recognize, it should be cited right up front.

Next in the letter is a description of the book in 1-2 paragraphs. I think that great models for query letter book descriptions are publishers’ catalogue copy, flap copy, and back of book descriptions. This carefully crafted copy is designed to do exactly what a query should do: intrigue readers, motivate them to want to see more, and not give away the ending.

The writer should also include what genre the book is, and to what titles—preferably bestselling—the book could be reasonably compared. The writer should conclude the query with any other relevant information not included in the introduction of the letter—such as degrees, awards, published work, etc—and by thanking the agent for taking the time to consider the query.

GLA: What’s your biggest chapter one no-no—or the one you see the most often?

DG: Overwriting and over-explaining. I sometimes just want to slash and burn my way through the thicket of adjectives that impede the narrative, as well as cut every unnecessary explanatory tag I see. Once I find myself doing that, it’s usually over for that submission.

GLA: To you, what is the best way aspiring authors can build platform?

DG: Well, social media, TV, radio, and print are the big ways to get name recognition as someone knowledgeable about a subject. But you can also have a platform for a nonfiction subject by having an advanced academic degree in that subject, through public speaking, college lectures and op-eds, and by writing about the subject for academic venues.

I just sold a terrific project at auction to a major house wherein the author’s platform grew out of several books he’d written for academic publishers on various aspects of the same subject.

GLA: How have you found the role of agent to be changing as the industry changes? Any projections for what’s to come?

DG: My impression has always been that today’s agents play more of an editorial role than they did in the past as editors’ time to edit gets squeezed by corporate pressures. But the real changes today stem from rapidly changing technology that affects how books are produced and sold. Now more than ever, agents need to stay abreast of trends in the electronic market and media, as well as monitor publishers’ contracts that are being revamped to reflect the changing economics of book publishing.

The publishing business has weathered many perceived threats: first, it was television that was going to turn us into a nation of non-reading dunces; then mass-market paperbacks, discounted book-club editions, and discount bookstore chains that were going to undercut the entire industry; and now electronic books that are going to end the print book altogether.

With the exception of television, all of these things actually enable more people to read more books. And every new reader produces several more readers, as books are still largely sold by word of mouth. As long as we can sort out the economics of the e-book, so that the industry remains economically viable, then I think that anything that gives people greater access to books has to be a good thing.

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

DG: That I’ve figured out how to read a book while in the shower. Not an e-book of course!

GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers conferences where writers can meet and pitch you?

DG: I’m attending the Compleat Biographers Conference in Washington, DC, on May 20-21.

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

DG: I think that it's important to remember that book publishing is a professional as well as creative business. Most agents are inundated with submissions. In order to stand out from the crowd, therefore, everything about your submission must be outstanding, from the way it reads to the way it looks to what you bring to the table in terms of credentials. It is increasingly important to educate yourself about the publishing industry and understand the importance of selling and marketing yourself and your ideas. If I had to name five things I’d look for in a prospective writer, they would be:

  1. Professionalism—ability to divorce your ego as much as possible from the process
  2. Sufficient understanding of books and the book market to know whether your idea works as a book-length narrative as opposed to a magazine article or short story
  3. Creativity and understanding of narrative form
  4. Willingness and ability to take editorial direction
  5. Willingness to do whatever work is necessary to make the work saleable
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This guest column by Ricki Schultz,
freelance writer and coordinator of
The Write-Brained Network. You can
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