Agent Advice: Jim Donovan of Jim Donovan Literary

This installment features Jim Donovan, founder of Jim Donovan Literary in Dallas. Jim has been a literary agent for 14 years. He has sold hundreds of books, some of which have been New York Times bestsellers. He has written several books himself, and is the author of A Terrible Glory (Little, Brown, March 2008).
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“Agent Advice”(this installment featuring agent Jim Donovan of Jim Donovan Literary) 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 Jim Donovan, founder of Jim Donovan Literary in Dallas. Jim has been a literary agent for 14 years. He has sold hundreds of books, some of which have been New York Times bestsellers. He has written several books himself, and is the author of A Terrible Glory (Little, Brown, March 2008).

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

JD: I recently sold a dual biography of Billy the Kid and the man who killed him, Pat Garrett. Henry Ferris at William Morrow, who had such a success with James Swanson's Manhunt, bought it. The author, Mark Gardner, is a fine writer, and he's come up with a great title: To Hell on a Fast Horse. I also sold a book on Bonnie and Clyde (by Jeff Guinn) that promises to be the definitive book on them. That one went to Roger Labrie at Simon & Schuster.

GLA: If someone queries you with a novel, but has no fiction accomplishments or accolades, should they mention their nonfiction/poetry awards in the query? Will that help?

JD: None of that really makes much of a difference, because it's all in the writing. If the novel's good, it doesn't matter whether the author's a dishwasher or a housewife. And plenty of fine nonfiction writers just can't produce fiction that works—I see it all the time. That said, if Michiko Kakutani sent me her novel, I might promote it to the top of my reading pile.

GLA: When you receive a nonfiction book proposal, how detailed should the author's promotional plan be?

JD: As long as it needs to be and still be realistic. I see marketing plans all the time along the lines of "I'll be happy to be on Oprah," or other things that the author hopes will happen. That's not realistic. I just want to hear what the author can really do that will help sell or promote the book, not pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking.

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GLA: You're looking for "popular reference" books. Could you define the genre and give some examples?

JD: Popular reference books are, most often, collections or lists based on a unifying idea. I recently sold a book to Bantam titled A Military Miscellany, obviously based on the bestseller Schott's Original Miscellany. Collections of quotations and sayings do very, very well, as do books about words and language—think of The Most Brilliant Thoughts of All Time and Oxymoronica. I'd love to see a query for a fresh idea in that area. The good thing about them is that because the idea—which absolutely must be summed up in the title—is the attraction, the author's qualifications are not that important, although they can help. Amazon.com lists most of these books under their Reference heading, in subcategories such as Fun Facts, Quotations, and Words and Language.

GLA: Bottom line—what attracts you to a work?

JD: With popular fiction, it's got to have page pull from the beginning. The characters have to feel fresh and interesting, and the writing has to be good. With nonfiction, it's got to be either a fresh idea with a measurable market or a new or better take on an old one. The author had better have some kind of credentials appropriate to the subject. Previous publication in short form—reputable newspapers or magazines—is almost essential, unless there's another connection that demonstrates the writer's credentials or authority, their ability to write the book. Too many people tackle a book before they've written anything else. It's like trying to hit in the major leagues without playing minor league or college ball.

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