Literary Agent Interview: Howard Yoon of Ross Yoon Literary

This installment features Howard Yoon of Ross Yoon Literary. Starting in 1992 as Gail Ross’s literary assistant, Howard worked his way up to literary agent and principal of the Ross Yoon Agency as an editorial director, ghostwriter, foreign rights manager, book consultant and editor. He is also the co-author of, Begging for Change (HarperCollins), which won the Terry McAdams prize for best book on the nonprofit sector. He is seeking: nonfiction in the areas of narrative nonfiction, memoir, current events, history, science, cookbooks, and popular culture.
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“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Howard Yoon) 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 Howard Yoon of Ross Yoon Literary. Starting in 1992 as Gail Ross’s literary assistant, Howard worked his way up to literary agent and principal of the Ross Yoon Agency as an editorial director, ghostwriter, foreign rights manager, book consultant and editor. He is also the co-author of, Begging for Change (HarperCollins), which won the Terry McAdams prize for best book on the nonprofit sector; he founded AuthorsOnline, an online marketing and promotional site for established authors; and he teaches a narrative nonfiction writing class in the Masters of Journalism program at Georgetown University.

He is seeking: nonfiction in the areas of narrative nonfiction, memoir, current events, history, science, cookbooks, and popular culture.

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GLA: Why did you become an agent?

HY: I love the creative process of helping turn an idea into a book concept. And then I love getting a great publishing deal based on that fleshed-out concept!

GLA: Tell us about an upcoming project you're excited about.

HY: A book called A Billion Wicked Thoughts (Dutton, May 5, 2011), by computational neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam. They’ve analyzed the activity of hundreds of millions of people on the Internet to help us understand the secrets of human desire. No one’s ever tapped into this data set before, and the results are startling.

GLA: We talk a lot here on the blog about trends in fiction—but what are some nonfiction trends you’re noticing? What subjects are you tired of seeing in proposals, or what seems to be a bit overdone at the moment?

HY: Relationship and recovery books will always be overdone, but in a way, that speaks to the popularity of these categories.
I personally think the Gladwellian behavioral studies area has been strip-mined to death. There are only so many ways you can study the relationship between thought and action.

GLA: You teach a popular class on narrative nonfiction writing at Georgetown University. Can you give us a crash course? What are the essentials of writing good narrative nonfiction?

HY: I tell my students to remember a quote from William Zinsser: “Clutter is the disease of American writing.”
Then I tell them to work their butts off because no one got good at anything without spending hours every day practicing or doing it.

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GLA: You are also a former contributor to NPR.org’s food blog, Kitchen Window, and you list cooking and eating—hee!—as your favorite hobbies. That said, how can someone hook you with a cook book . . . or does that make you anti-cook book?

HY: It’s important for the author to have some kind of national platform (a well-known restaurant or TV show or blog) or someone who has such a distinct voice or angle on the subject (think "Kitchen Confidential," Waiter Rant or Blood, Bones & Butter).

GLA: Just for fun, what’s your favorite dish?

HY: My mom’s Korean barbecue short ribs and kimchi.

GLA: One of your areas of interest is religion. How healthy is that market right now, and why do you think this is so? As well, do you think it will stay that way?

HY: Religion will always sell. (Guess what is the bestselling book of all time?) The trick is making sure an author has the right message for the right audience at the right time. Hmmm, I realize that can be said for any book category.

GLA: Besides “good writing,” and “voice,” what kinds of projects are you looking for in this area (religion)?

HY: I’m looking for new scholarship, original stories, and timely interpretations, not necessarily all in one book.

GLA: Your website makes it clear that your agency specializes in nonfiction, but it also says you take on very select literary fiction. Does this apply more to you or to your colleagues? Should fiction writers query someone else?

HY: We rarely represent fiction and the fiction projects we do handle are usually existing clients or through friends or colleagues.

GLA: I heard you speak on a panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book. When asked about platform, you said it factors into the equation when you consider a nonfiction project, but that you don’t necessarily expect writers to have their own reality TV shows. That said, what do you see as platform essentials? What should all writers should be doing? And what impresses you?

HY: Writers need to do their homework to learn as much as they can about the publishing industry, and then as much as they can about their potential audiences.
I remember being on a publishing panel many years ago with an author who claimed with all sincerity that his medical book on a rare liver condition would sell to the general public because everyone has a liver. Really? I mean really??
You need to know who’s going to be dedicated enough to the idea of your book to be willing to shell out money to read it. And then you need to do everything humanly possible to insert yourself into that community of readers and establish yourself and your credibility within that group.
That’s what I mean by having a platform.

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

HY: I haven’t agreed to any other conferences this year, but I’m always available by e-mail.

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

HY: I once got drunk one-on-one with Anthony Bourdain drinking negronis and smoking Gauloises. I’m sure I’m not the first or last stranger he’s done that with.

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

HY: Woody Allen said 80% of success is just showing up. It’s different for writers. Eighty percent of success for a writer is working hard. The other 20% is literary talent. You can’t underestimate how important it is to put in the hours. Read, write, study the business. Repeat. Day after day.

The other piece of advice: take everything personally. If you get rejected, take it personally. Do better. Find out ways to improve yourself so that you don’t get rejected again. Fix your cover letter or your proposal or your writing. Trash your concept and start over. Don’t blame the industry or the market or the system. Take it upon yourself to improve YOUR chances.

And when you get accepted, take it personally. Congratulate yourself. Treat yourself to a celebration. You earned it. You deserve it.

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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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