“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Jessica Papin of Dystel and Goderich Literary Management) 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 Jessica Papinof Dystel and Goderich Literary Management. With a background on both sides of the proverbial desk, Jessica loves working collaboratively with clients to shape and refine their work. Her stay in the Middle East (she still represents many works of modern Arab literature through the AUC Press) has given her an abiding interest in the history and politics of the region, as well as the broader Islamic world.
She is seeking: literary and smart commercial fiction, narrative nonfiction, history with a thesis, medicine, science and religion. In every case, she looks for passion, erudition, and storytelling skill. She is also interested in health, psychology, and women’s issues.
GLA: How did you come to be an agent?
JP: I had been an editor at what was then Warner Books, now Grand Central, for seven years, and while I loved working closely with my authors, my interests were almost too wide-ranging—from literary fiction to practical nonfiction to narrative history, popular science and “big think” books on business and economics. Warner was a dynamic, collegial and altogether terrific place to work, but my eclectic tastes and my acquisition mandate (strictly commercial) were not especially well-matched. Given that there are few editing services positions that allow for the kind of latitude I longed for, I thought agenting might prove more flexible. Once I began thinking seriously about pursuing a career as an agent, I spoke to perhaps a dozen agents, all of whom were generous with their time and their advice. I loved the autonomy, the entrepreneurial aspect, and variety that agenting offered. It was also clear that editing—something I love to do—was still very much part of the job. When Jane Dystel offered me a place at DGLM back in 2003, I was pleased to accept, and even more pleased to discover that the work of the agent/editor/advocate was as rewarding and absorbing as I had imagined.
GLA: What’s something coming out that you repped that you’re excited about?
JP: As it happens, this week marks the release for a marvelous debut novel from Dori Ostermiller called Outside the Ordinary World (Mira books). It occupies that sweet spot between literary and commercial, in which the writing is a marvel—Dori is a gifted wordsmith—but the storyline is robust, well-paced, and deeply compelling. It tells the story of a woman who, as a girl, became a secret accomplice in her mother’s adulterous affair, with disastrous consequences. Years later, as a grown woman with children of her own, in a stable, albeit predictable marriage, she finds herself drawn—subtly, but almost ineluctably—to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Provocative, beautifully-observed and compulsively readable, I think the book will find an eager readership among fans of smart, story-driven fiction.
GLA: You were at D&G for a while but traveled to Egypt to work as an editor. How exciting! Tell us a little about how this venture affected you and what you look for from writers.
JP: Actually, I was the foreign rights director of the American University in Cairo Press, so I was essentially agenting on behalf of the Middle East’s leading English language publishing house. The AUC Press translates and publishes a veritable who’s who of writers in the Arabic-speaking world, perhaps most notably the late Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Although I was based in Cairo, I was selling projects here in the United States as well as to houses all over the world. The experience of living in Egypt was, in itself, wonderful, but so too was the opportunity to glimpse publishing from a far more international perspective than working in NYC had ever afforded. I saw just how robust the global market is for fiction in translation, and how, by comparison, the US market is intensely, sometimes embarrassingly, inward-looking. By virtue of attending various international book fairs, including Frankfurt, London and Cairo, I was fortunate to get to know editors and agents all over the world.
GLA: When you returned after three years, how had the industry changed (in your eyes)?
JP: Vampire books took over! Seriously, after three years spent working primarily on literary fiction in translation, it was fascinating to return to the US, where we seem very much lodged in a paranormal moment (perhaps now giving way to a Swedish one). In addition, it was clear that the market for practical nonfiction, like health and wellness titles, had moved ever further from a backlist orientation to a frontlist approach. In addition to credentials, experts are now required to have established platforms, and ideally, a built in readership. Of course, platform has always been important to publishers, but it was eye opening to see the degree to which the bread and butter backlist book is in eclipse.
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GLA: You sell a lot of nonfiction. Are you getting good queries through the slush for nonfiction, or are you going out and finding experts?
JP: Nonfiction clients come to me through slush, via professional referral, friends and family, and through my own outreach.
GLA: A lot of nonfiction writers still don’t have the platforms they need to take off. What are some bite-sized tips you can give to writers in terms of building a platform?
JP: Use what you’ve got: Begin with your own professional community, and see if you can arrange speaking invitations/lecture tours through the organizations with which you may be affiliated.
Embrace social media: Avail yourself of the blogosphere—set out to become a recognized voice in your field. Comment on well trafficked blogs. Tweet if it makes sense. Start your own blog if you have the inclination and the discipline to keep it up to date. Build your writer platform.
Try and publish an article length version of your work in some prominent venue. True, it’s not easy getting an essay published in the NYT or The Atlantic, but it can give you and your project much-needed visibility. The NYT Modern Love column alone has been the starting point for any number of book projects.
GLA: Across several categories of recent sales, I am seeing themes emerge: zest for life, and making the world a better place. Are these themes that always tend to catch your eye?
JP: Re: Zest for life, that sounds about right to me, but it is probably too amorphous a quality to guide someone who might be considering whether or not to send a project my way. As for making the world a better place, yes, I do see this as a kind of through line in the nonfiction projects I take on, whether it’s an argument by two prominent physicians that resuscitating the endangered art of diagnosis can revolutionize medicine, or an economist who contends that the much bemoaned “rise of the rest” is in fact good news, and the biggest and most overlooked story of our time is the fact that millions of people once excluded from the global economy are now emerging from poverty, or a psychologist exploring new methods for solving seemingly intractable conflicts—I suppose it’s clear that I believe books can influence public discourse for the good. And as for fiction, it is an incontrovertible fact that good novels make the world a better place.
(Look over our growing list of literary fiction agents.)
GLA: You also accept fiction. Besides literary fiction, what genres of fiction would you like to receive?
JP: Literary thriller (a la The Secret History), international espionage, speculative fiction in the vein of Never Let Me Go or The Year of the Flood, and historical fiction. Generally speaking, my experience with genre fiction is limited, so high fantasy, hard sci-fi, police procedural, cozy, etc. are probably not right for me, if only because my knowledge of these categories is limited. By inclination I tend not to gravitate toward serial killer novels, but I’m always willing to look at queries. In addition, although I am interested in comparative religion/current affairs as a topic of nonfiction, I do not represent Christian fiction or nonfiction.
GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writing conferences where people can meet/pitch you?
JP: As it happens, I am expecting a baby in September, so my conference-going over the next few months will be limited. I’ll rejoin the fray in 2011.
GLA: Best way to submit to you?
JP: Via e-mail (jpapin [at] dystel[dot]com), with the query letter in the body of the text, first chapter as an attachment.
Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers Conferences:
- Feb. 11, 2017: Writers Conference of Minnesota (St. Paul, MN)
- Feb. 16–19, 2017: San Francisco Writers Conference (San Francisco, CA)
- Feb. 24, 2017: The Alabama Writers Conference (Birmingham, AL)
- Feb. 25, 2017: Atlanta Writing Workshop (Atlanta, GA)
- March 25, 2017: Michigan Writers Conference (Detroit, MI)
- March 25, 2017: Kansas City Writing Workshop (Kansas City, MO)
- April 8, 2017: Philadelphia Writing Workshop (Philadelphia, PA)
- April 22, 2017: Get Published in Kentucky Conference (Louisville, KY)
- April 22, 2017: New Orleans Writers Conference (New Orleans, LA)
- May 6, 2017: Seattle Writers Conference (Seattle, WA)
- May 19-21, 2017: PennWriters Conference (Pittsburgh, PA)
- June 24, 2017: The Writing Workshop of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
- Aug. 18–20, 2017: Writer's Digest Conference (New York, NY)
Other writing/publishing articles and links for you:
- Should You Start With Plot or Characters?
- All the Mistakes You Should Avoid in Your Query.
- Literary Agent Interview: Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich.
- Putting In the Time to Become a Skilled Writer.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Writer Platform.
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and how to write a query letter.