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Agent Advice: Josh Getzler of Russell & Volkening, Inc.

This installment features Josh Getzler of Russell & Volkening, Inc. Josh was previously with Writers House. He is looking for: mysteries, thrillers, literary and commercial fiction, young adult and middle grade (particularly adventures and mysteries for boys). E-mail queries only.

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Josh Getzler of Russell & Volkening, Inc.) 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 Josh Getzler of Russell & Volkening, Inc. Josh was previously with Writers House.

He is looking for: mysteries, thrillers, literary and commercial fiction, young adult and middle grade (particularly adventures and mysteries for boys). E-mail queries only.

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GLA: How did you become an agent?

JG: I have an odd story. I was at Harcourt in the early 1990’s right after college, working with a senior editor and starting to work on books myself. I then went to business school at Columbia, really in order to begin to understand the business of publishing, but was sidetracked into a 13-year detour in minor league baseball. I owned and operated two minor league franchises—the Watertown (NY) Indians and then, from 1999-2006, the Staten Island Yankees. When it was time to leave that world—and it was time!—I knew I wanted to go back to publishing, and I also knew I wanted to be an agent rather than going back to the publisher side. So I joined Writers House and stepped all the way back to assistant—to Simon Lipskar and Dan Lazar, then just Simon—and started taking on clients in March of ’08. Since then I’ve sold a decent number of books—largely novels, mostly suspenseful, but also some literary fiction and a few (and growing) nonfiction books. In November of this year, I moved from Writers House to Russell and Volkening, where I’m an agent responsible for (again mostly, but not exclusively) frontlist fiction, with an emphasis on suspense. It’s a marvelous place—old and venerable, small, and when I look on the shelves I see Eudora Welty, Nadine Gordimer, Barbara Tuchman and George Plimpton, and that ain’t shabby!

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

JG: This summer I sold a terrific novel by Josh Gaylord (Hummingbirds), writing under the pseudonym Alden Bell, called The Reapers Are The Angels, to Marjorie Braman at Henry Holt. It’s literary and beautiful ... uh, with zombies. But really literary and beautiful. I also sold New Zealand rights to Penguin NZ for a sequel to MacBeth called Banquo’s Son by TX Roxborogh. It’s now out to publishers in the US, and I’m terribly excited about it—it’s got love, swords, knights, and, of course, the three witches.

GLA: You say you like commercial fiction. Just mysteries and thrillers, or all of the pop fiction genres?

JG: I like many of the pop fiction genres, though I have a real soft spot for suspense and crime. Not so crazy about the “I’m 23 and living in Brooklyn with my disaffected girlfriend, smoking too much dope and going to see Vampire Weekend while I think about what a great time I had in college and eat curry.” Some of those writers can actually write, but need a second book.

GLA: Let’s say you’re reading a partial for a mystery or thriller—where are people going wrong? What are the most common Chapter 1 mistakes you see?

JG: 1) Telling me what the weather’s like in order to set atmosphere. OK it was raining. It’s ALWAYS raining. 2) Not starting with action. I want to have a sense of dread quite quickly—and not from rain! 3) Sending me anything but the beginning of the book; if you tell me that it “starts getting good” on page 35, then I will tell you to start the book on page 35, because if even you don’t like the first 34, neither will I or any other reader.

GLA: Staying on these subjects for a second—mystery and thriller—do you have any specific subgenres that you lean toward? Technothrillers? Cozy mysteries?

JG: I actually don’t particularly love technothrillers, but I do love cozies (I feel like there are around 10 of us who love them, and yet there are a bazillion of them out there!). I like puzzles and historical and international (and international historical is great!), but I’m not crazy about Florida Keys Houseboat mysteries or dust bowl or Native American stories. Not that many of them aren’t great; they’re just not me. And although I’ve done some incredibly dark, and sometimes even extreme stuff, I actually am not typically a fan of what I call intimate violence—when you can really feel the knee hit the kidney and know our hero is going to be pissing blood by page 10. But I read those a lot, and take some on, because sometimes that’s how you get a voice that sparkles—like Charlie Huston’s in Caught Stealing or Angela S. Choi’s in Hello Kitty Must Die.

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GLA: A lot of people are writing kids books these days. What kind of kids novels are you looking for and not getting?

JG: I’m into YA and middle grade mysteries and adventures. I loved Encyclopedia Brown while growing up, and Ellen Raskin’s wonderful mysteries.

GLA: What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?

JG: When I tackle the slush pile I pray for obvious decisions and a book that makes me sit up and take notice. I read my slush, typically, from 5-6:45 in the morning, when my kids are asleep and the house is quiet. I’m relaxed and really looking to find something great, but also trying to be efficient. So I’m looking for a voice that will make me put down my coffee and make an exclamation point on the paper. That could be a unique or fun subject, a compelling voice, or a character that comes alive right away. You have five pages max to make that first impression, and the good ones do it in less than that!

GLA: Do find a lot of NaNoWriMo submissions in December? What advice to you have for writers who are coming out of NaNoWriMo?

JG: Not a huge number in December—most NaNoWriMo authors sleep in December! I think writers coming out of that sprint/marathon need to really look it over and see if what they put together is coherent and finished, and not simply a stream of consciousness that needs to be edited.

GLA: Will you be at any upcoming conferences where people can meet/pitch you?

JG: I just got back from the terrific New England Crime Bake outside Boston, and I’m organizing a trip in Feb to the Left Coast Crime conference. I’ll be in Oklahoma City for their conference in May, and Thrillerfest in the summer.

GLA: What's the best way for people to contact you?

JG: I am always reachable via e-mail query at And even though my timeframe for response has been extended a bit due to the move and trying to settle in, I do read everything and respond. I need a letter and the first five pages of the manuscript. No CV, no synopsis.

GLA: Something about yourself writers would be surprised to know?

JG: I have my own bowling ball and shoes, I love goats, and I think Tofurkey is underrated.

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t covered?

JG: Query letters are very important, and are often ruinous. When I get a query letter, I want to know a few specific things: 1) What kind of book is it—historical mystery, literary YA, middle grade romance? I don’t need to know how long it is unless that number is unusual—If your thriller is 30,000 words or your picture book 180,000, I ought to know. But if your cozy is anywhere from 60k-120k (and that’s 95% of them), then it’s “Book-sized”. Might be short or long, but it’s a book. 2) Is it fiction or nonfiction? 3) Is it your first book?—what is your publication history (briefly)? 4) Two to five reasonably-lengthed sentences describing the plot. 5) What’s your educational background? And do you have anything in that background that makes you particularly qualified to write it, or gives you a platform? The lack of either does not disqualify you by any means, but if I see that a canine agility-training mystery is written by a top-ranked canine agility trainer with 18 published nonfiction books on dogs (Hi, Sheila!), I take notice. That’s it. I don’t need to know if you’re married, unless that’s relevant, or that you like spelunking (ditto).

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