Agent Advice: Jeffery McGraw of The August Agency

This installment features Jeffery McGraw of The August Agency, LLC. Jeffery handles some fiction but specializes in nonfiction.
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“Agent Advice”(this installment featuring agent Jeffery McGraw of The August Agency) 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 Jeffery McGraw of The August Agency, LLC. Jeffery handles some fiction but specializes in nonfiction.

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: How did you become an agent?

JM: To cut a very long story short … I started out as a book buyer in Boston, moved to New York to work in soap operas for a while, and later fell - completely by accident - into book publishing at HarperCollins, working my way up the editorial ladder under the brilliant guidance and mentorship of Marjorie Braman (now Holt’s new editor-in-chief: go Marjorie!), left to explore other areas of publishing including a stint as publicity manager for Abrams, happily returned to Harper to become editor for its entertainment imprint, and later got laid off when said imprint wisely got restructured. In the months that followed, I couldn’t find a publishing job available that fit me and that I also fit in return. (You try applying for a women’s fiction editorial spot when you have tons of experience working with women’s fiction but nevertheless happen to be a guy. Damn that extra leg!)
At that point I grew restless, but also entrepreneurial.

Originally, I suggested to my good friend, Cricket, who had just a few years prior started her own budding literary agency, that we work together. That’s when we folded her operations into a brand new company, The August Agency, LLC. After years as an editor, becoming an agent was a natural transition for me. Finally, I could work on books for which I had enormous passion – not just titles someone else instructed me to handle. With such a liberal arts mind set, I was able to cast a very wide net and take on a diverse array of authors and projects that matched my interests.

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

JM: One of the most personally intriguing projects I’ve sold in the past year is author and political scientist Dr. Jack Godwin’s latest effort, Clintonomics: How Bill Clinton Reengineered the Reagan Revolution, due out next year from Amacom. I have been a political junkie for as long as I can remember, plus I love books that enlighten you in ways you never would be able to imagine. Jack Godwin satisfies on both levels with Clintonomics. Just when you think you know everything you could every know about someone – in this case the forty-second president of our great and storied nation – Jack makes you think again, revealing facets of a fascinating figure you never realized existed.

GLA: You have a self-declared "enormous passion for well written melodramas." Can you expound on this? Also, concerning these "melodrama" submissions you receive, where do you see writers going wrong in their writing?

JM: My maternal grandmother, Betty, instilled in me my love for melodrama, starting when she introduced me to the film version of Gone With the Wind when I was 12. Over the years, I would view that film more than 100 times and read the novel that inspired it, which, in all its glorious descriptive wonder, is an even richer experience (Mitchell puts the “scribe” in describe) – at least six times.

Many people mistake the meaning of the word "melodrama," wrongly attributing it to overacting or extreme sentimentality. In fact, it is what the Greek defined as a combination of music (melos) and conflict (drama). That alone defines opera, a drama set to music. Watch any great Ross Hunter production – Back Street starring Susan Hayward, or Imitation of Life starring Lana Turner, for example – and you’ll find the driving force behind these soap operatic motion paintings can be found in their sweeping musical scores. Nothing appeals to our emotions more easily than music; it serves as a drug to seduce us into feeling a certain way. Loud, pulsating drum beats might signify danger, making us feel scared. A soft and sweet piano melody may soften our hearts, while screaming violins might make those same hearts soar. Combine this spellbinding phenomenon with genuine conflict and you have a magical combination. Not many literary magicians can pull this off on the written page by employing their gifts for language in the same unique fashion as the greats used music in their films, but some have, and to masterful effect: Margaret Mitchell, Fannie Hurst, Michael Cunningham, Olive Higgins Prouty, and Lloyd C. Douglas, to name a few. At their best, these authors have underscored the emotional undercurrent that drives the actions of their characters.

As an agent, I have yet to come across an unpublished work of fiction that appeals to my emotional core in the same way Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Cunningham’s The Hours, and Hurst’s Back Street have. If I only find one novel in my entire career that moves me as much as these and other great authors and their stories have, then the life-long search will have proved its worth. I am sure the late Harper editor Robert Jones felt that way when he first read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto (though, for what it’s worth, I still think Pedro Almodovar should have snatched up the film rights before Bernardo Bertolucci got his hands on them).

GLA: Your nonfiction areas are vast and varied. What are you looking for right now and not getting?

JM: I’d love to rep more psychology titles (hey, it’s therapy I can afford) … works of narrative nonfiction that take me down roads I’ve never been but am willing to travel and bring all my friends with me … economics books that appeal to the underdog in all of us (think Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed or our own author Sarah Maxwell’s The Price is Wrong) … history books that are less about the past than they are about the present and future … memoirs that are by turns honest, riveting, tongue-in-cheek, LOL-funny, witty, sardonic, and dry like a good martini should be … intriguing, highly commercial nonfiction by brilliant lawyers (unlike most people, I love the rule of law and adore the attorneys who maneuver and navigate it all, except when they try and make simple things complicated, which is probably how to define what they do best, including, but not limited to, drafting publishing agreements; notwithstanding the foregoing, I realize I digress too much) … unique studies that make you go, “Hey, why didn’t I think of that before?” such as Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) … compelling books by intelligent writers who can turn the seemingly obvious on its head (e.g., a staunch conservative defending the right to gay marriage, or a liberal out to prove racism can serve society in a good way) … and nonfiction that appeals to both the masses and professional fields (business, medical, legal, police oriented, et al).

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GLA: Because you rep so much nonfiction, you see a lot of proposals. Where do these proposals commonly fall short?

JM: There are two areas in which I find most nonfiction proposals to be delinquent. The most apparent is the concept itself. Typically, it’s been done before in some fashion or another and doesn’t stand out enough from the crowd. In the competition section, where you list those titles that are either like-minded or comparable in some way, your obligation is two-fold: First, you must prove there is a market for a book like yours, and; second, you must prove your book fills an obvious void within that market.

The second and more common shortfall I find in proposals is that the author has little or no platform.

GLA: At a recent event, I met a writer who was also a scholar. She was writing a nonfiction book (and knew her subject inside out), but she seemed to have very little concept of platform. When you meet with someone like that - some who has superior knowledge but no marketing ideas - what are some basic helpful things you would tell them to do?

JM: Build your base. I’ve given workshops at writers’ conferences about establishing an author platform, and it all boils down to one basic concept: Develop a significant following before you go out with your nonfiction book. If you build it, they (publishers) will come. Think about that word platform. What does it mean? If you are standing on a physical platform, it gives you greater visibility. And that’s what it’s all about: visibility. How visible are you to the world? That’s what determines your level of platform. Someone with real platform is the “go to” person in their area of expertise. If a reporter from the New York Times is doing a story on what you know about most, they will want to go to you for an interview first. But if you don’t make yourself known to the world as the expert in your field, then how will the NYT know to reach out to you? RuPaul used to say, “If you don’t love yourself, how the hell else is anybody else gonna love you?” I’m not saying be egotistical. I’m just saying, know your strengths, and learn to toot your own horn. Get out there. Make as many connections as you possibly can. We live in a celebrity-driven world. Love it or hate it, either way we all have to live with it. So, celebrate what you have to offer, and if it’s genuine and enough people respond to it, then you will become a celebrity in your own right. Get out there and prove to the world that you are the be-all and end-all when it comes to what you know about most. Publishers don’t expect you to be as big as Oprah, or Martha, or the Donald, but they do expect you to be the next Oprah, or Martha, or the next Donald in your own field.

GLA: Will you be at any writers' conferences in the future where writers can meet and pitch you?

JM: Aside from the regular media trade exhibitions such as Frankfurt (international publishing), MIPCOM (international television), and the like, I will be at the Surrey International Writers' Conference this October 24-26. I’ve attended a good number of conferences, and this one is the absolute best I’ve ever experienced. I’ve come away with a wonderful client from this very conference and even sold his book. It’s the most smoothly run operation, unlike some other conferences I’ve attended. I truly wish I could say I am attending more this year, but frankly I’m not on the conference circuit as much as I would love to be. I enjoy conferences where I can get to know and have some true blue face time with writers and editors as well as fellow agents in the industry. So, if there are any conference directors out there looking for presenters, I would love to hear from you!

GLA: Best piece of advice concerning something we haven't discussed?

JM: Have no expectations in this business (or life, for that matter) and you will not be disappointed. Write for your life! Not someone else’s. If you want to be an ordinary writer, write an ordinary book; if you want to be an extraordinary writer, prepare to go the extra mile. To be a true writer, you have to do two things more than anything else: read and write. Read as much as you can. Write as much as you can. Nothing in this world is perfect, so don’t try to write perfectly. Just write, and accept it, and then polish it until it’s as good as you can get it. And, like no wine before its time, don’t jump the gun and submit your work to agents and publishers too early. Do your homework: Workshop your writing projects through writers groups and conferences, and when you’ve done as much as you can do on your own to make it as great as you can get it, research agents and editors before submitting to them. If they don’t handle what you’ve written, don’t send your work to them. If they have specific guidelines for submitting, follow those guidelines to the letter, no matter what you think may be exceptional in your case. In many cases when people submit to our agency, writers fail to include the first chapter or 1,000 words as required in our submission guidelines. How are we to know what we’re looking at if we don’t see something substantive in the form that we’ve asked to see it? You could have a great idea that’s poorly delivered, or present a lackluster premise to us that’s ultimately marvelous in its execution. If we don’t see a true sample of it, we’ll never know.

At the end of the day, don’t take rejection personally. You will get rejected. That is a given. Publishing is not personal; it’s a business. Think of it that way. “Not right for us” usually means “Your project is not going to contribute enough to our salaries to make ends meet.” The end. That old saying, “It’s me, it’s not you” is so true. I teach a workshop called He's Just Not That Into Your Book. Finding the right agent or editor can be like searching for one's soul mate. It can take many frogs to find your prince. If an agent or editor turns you down, know that it’s primarily about his/her business needs, not you personally. Don’t be offended. Take it in stride and move on. And try to learn from your rejections. Consider how you could improve your work before submitting it elsewhere. Also, ask yourself if you're submitting to the right places. Above all else, don’t be afraid to put yourself and your work out there. Writers often can be so timid. I see it all the time. It’s like they’re so afraid no one in this world will love them or what they’ve written. Well, let's assume that's true (even though it's not). From this standpoint, what do you have to lose? If you have no expectations, then you won't be disappointed. And, if fate is kind, you just might be pleasantly surprised! You'll never know unless you try. Just jump. The net will follow.

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