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Literary Agent Interview: Laurie Abkemeier of DeFiore and Company

This installment features Laurie Abkemeier of DeFiore and Company. Originally from northern California, Laurie cut her teeth as an editor at Hyperion, where she was responsible for five New York Times best-sellers, including Brain Droppings by George Carlin. In 2003, Laurie became a literary agent, exclusively representing nonfiction. She is seeking: funny memoirs and entertaining approaches to serious subjects. She is currently most interested in accessible narrative nonfiction and investigative journalism in the areas of science, nature, history, pop culture, and sociology--and legal and medical investigations in particular.

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Laurie Abkemeier of DeFiore and Company) 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, writers conferences, 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 Laurie Abkemeier of DeFiore and Company. Originally from northern California, Laurie cut her teeth as an editor at Hyperion, where she was responsible for five New York Times best-sellers, including Brain Droppings by George Carlin. In 2003, Laurie became a literary agent, exclusively representing nonfiction. You can follow Laurie on Twitter where you'll find her AGENT OBVIOUS TIP OF THE DAY--the inspiration for her app, now available as a free download for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

She is seeking: funny memoirs and entertaining approaches to serious subjects. She is currently most interested in accessible narrative nonfiction and investigative journalism in the areas of science, nature, history, pop culture, and sociology--and legal and medical investigations in particular. NOTE: Laurie is notconsidering novels, children's books, screenplays, or poetry.

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GLA: How did you become an agent?

LA: While in college, I worked toward becoming a journalist. I never considered publishing. But upon graduation, I was engaged, and he had a job offer on Wall Street. I wasn’t about to break into journalism in the largest market in the world, so I sent my resume out to magazines and book publishers. I got lucky when my resume landed on the human resource director’s desk just as an editorial assistant job opened up at Simon & Schuster, and soon I was working for two editors in the Touchstone/Fireside division and really loving it.

Eighteen months later, I made a lateral move to Hyperion where I thrived for more than four years before I took a hiatus from publishing to have my children. When I was ready to get back into the business, I called up my former Hyperion colleague Brian DeFiore who had since opened DeFiore and Company and asked if I could join him. Thankfully for me, he said yes!

GLA: What's something coming out now you repped that you're excited about?

LA: Two very different books, actually. Dog Walks Man by John Zeaman (Lyons Press) is a humorous, lyrical memoir about how walking a dog can open up your eyes to nature. The author is an art critic and brings that sensibility to the page. It’s very charming and oddly compelling considering it’s about dog-walking.

And on the flip side, there’s Stop Calling Him Honey ... And Start Having Sex! by Maggie Arana and Julienne Davis (HCI Books). These women started with a great concept—that calling your spouse the same names you use for your children and pets (honey, sweetie, poopsie) is not the way to keep the sexual flames alive—and built on that with seven other sensible rules for bringing the spark back to any relationship. But what I really love about them is that they’re absolutely tireless about getting the word out. I don’t think they sleep! I value authors who get behind their own books and shout about them from the rooftops.

GLA: During your time as an editor, you seemed to have worked with very big comedians, such as Chris Rock and George Carlin. How does your time editing such writers (and editing in general) influence your style as an agent today?

LA: I was fortunate to work with comedians who have a real devotion to crafting language. George, especially, was meticulous about every word. I approached him the way I would any author—which is with a bright red pen—and he admitted to me later that his first reaction was not a happy one. But once he sat down and read through my notes and saw what I wanted, it made sense. I hear that again and again from authors. They’re always amenable to making changes as long as they make sense, and it’s an editor’s obligation to make a case for why changes should be made. If it doesn’t make sense to the author, the author will lose faith in that editor. The editing process (editing services) is a crucial one for establishing trust. It’s the editor’s chance to prove to the author that s/he understands and respects the author. I take it very seriously.

As for the humor books on my list, I was raised on comedy. The first album anyone gave me that didn’t involve Sesame Street was an Albert Brooks comedy album. I believe humor improves almost everything. It’s why I would never rep a memoir about growing up a Jehovah’s Witness unless it was funny (case in point:I'm Perfect, You're Doomed by Kyria Abrahams, Touchstone). Life is full of tragedy and hilarity. Books should be, too.

GLA: You have an "Agent Obvious Tip of the Day" on Twitter, and now it's a cool iPhone app. Very cool! How did this whole thing come to be?

LA: In May of 2009, I received a query for a humor book and the query wasn’t the least bit humorous. It inspired me to post, “AGENT OBVIOUS TIP OF THE DAY: A query for a humor book should be humorous.” I didn’t intend for it to be a regular feature, but I got so much great feedback that it grew into one. Many months and hundreds of tips later, one of my authors released her own app (Amy Spencer’s "Half-Orange Optimisms"), and another author asked me whether I might turn my tips into a book. I had a peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate moment, and it occurred to me that the tips would make a great app. It was a lot of fun to put together, and it’s been an important lesson in the challenges of branding and self-promotion. I push my authors to put themselves out there, and now I’m walking-the-walk, so to speak. In publishing, it’s always been important to stay ahead of the curve, and digital/multimedia publishing is the next wave.

GLA: You knew this question was coming. You represented Marley & Me, and my wife thanks you for that, by the way. How did you come to sign John Grogan and sell his book? Tell us a little about such a fantastic, well-known book comes to be and succeed.

LA: It was a fairy-tale story from the start. John Grogan sent an e-mail query late on a Saturday night. I read it early Sunday morning and immediately requested material. But the kicker is that he wasn’t pitching Marley & Me. He was pitching a collection of his newspaper columns. At the very end of the letter, he said he’d also been working on a memoir called Marley & Me, about life with his nutty Labrador retriever, and he included the column he’d recently written about Marley’s passing. The column made me laugh and tear up. I told him that the collection was a terrible idea, but that I liked the Marley column so much that I would love to see what else he had. He mailed a selection of essays, and they were great, but not a book. Over the phone, I told him so and asked how much he’d written of the Marley memoir. Turns out, nothing. The idea had been percolating in his head for years, but he hadn’t put anything on paper. He said he wanted to put together an outline and some sample material for me to look at, and what he showed me sealed the deal. I told him he should get to writing immediately. Being a journalist, he needed a deadline, so we agreed on a chapter a week. Every Tuesday, he’d e-mail a chapter, and over the course of many months, I watched the memoir unfold without a misstep. I knew I was sitting on a bestseller after the first few weeks. Never have I been more confident about a book in my life. He started writing in February of 2004 and in October, I sent the full manuscript out to editors. I had several pre-empt offers and sold it quickly at auction, although the money was not outrageous. Publishers loved it, but it was considered, after all, “just a dog book” by most. (I got some of the most laughably condescending rejections.)

After Mauro DiPreta at William Morrow acquired the book and put it on the schedule as a Fall 2005 release, the buzz was undeniable. Marketing assistants were reading it and passing it around. I’d get word from editors at other publishing houses that their sales reps were talking about Marley & Me. And then there was the story that trickled down to me about the editor who had passed on the manuscript, but then ran out and got her very own Lab. Barnes & Noble jumped on the bandwagon early on and named it a Discover selection, and independent booksellers made it their #1 BookSense pick. Bookseller support and an early review from Janet Maslin at the New York Times launched the book onto the bestseller lists during its very first week on sale, but the propellant came in the form of people who read it and immediately bought multiple copies to give as gifts. It spent 76 straight weeks on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list, plus 21 weeks on the extended hardcover list, and 23 weeks in the #1 position.

One of my favorite pieces of trivia is that the Kirkus review was scathing and pleaded, “Please, no sequels!” That reviewer must have been in agony watching the enormous success of the book, which makes me very, very happy.

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GLA: You rep solely nonfiction, including memoir. Considering your list of clients and accomplishments is so big, will you still look at a first-book memoir by an unknown? Or is that something better to query someone else at the agency?

LA: I love first-time authors, and I will never stop representing humorous memoirs by unknown writers. One of my proudest success stories is William Alexander’s The $64 Tomato (Algonquin). Bill came to me with a nearly finished manuscript and no writing credits or platform to speak of. He was a naturally gifted writer who had been gardening for years. Period. I knew it would be a challenge to get any publisher to take notice, but I was in love with his humorous memoir about gardening and that was all the incentive I needed. As expected, most publishers turned it down outright, but Amy Gash at Algonquin fell in love with it just as I had. The Algonquin team did an incredible job publishing that book, particularly Michael Taeckans in publicity. Sales have been terrific, and it’s now a solid backlist classic referenced by gardening writers across the country.

If it’s a funny memoir, I definitely want to see it. I prefer a finished or nearly finished manuscript, but I have made a few exceptions when the concept is exceptionally unique.

(Laurie discusses a writer platform and much more in the writing guide Create Your Writer Platform.)

GLA: Three most common problems you see in a book proposal?

LA: First, not having a good grasp of the competition. An author needs to know the category inside and out and be able to explain how his book fits in. I always get a sinking feeling in my stomach when I find similar books that the author didn’t know about.

Second, dull chapter summaries. Often the sample material is great, but the summaries are boring or vague. It’s so important that chapter summaries be compelling and convey the energy and depth of unique information that will be in the book. They have to make an editor want to read more.

Third, a marketing section that simply says the book “will appeal to everyone!” That’s never true, and it doesn’t help publishers figure out how to position and sell your book. An author needs to understand who her audience is and how to reach them.

GLA: About what percentage of your sales come from clients who you approached, versus the "normal" vice versa?

LA: I take on a high percentage of authors who come to me via e-mail query. By my rough calculation, only one-third of my clients have come to me by referral or because I reached out to them. Being referred only increases an author’s chances of me reading the material; it doesn’t increase the odds of me signing that author.

GLA: Plenty of people I've met in my conference travels feel frustrated that they need to spend years of time to develop a platform. One route I suggest is teaming up with someone who has a platform in place. As someone who's a nonfiction expert, do you see "teaming" like this happen often or at all?

LA: I do have one situation that applies here. Client Chris Balish, who authored How to Live Well Without Owning a Car (Ten Speed), came to me with the idea of a book about living well with bad credit. The problem was that he had stellar credit and no platform in the financial or business world. It was a great idea, but seemed like a tough sell without an expert attached. Fortunately I also rep freelance business writer Geoff Williams, who writes for WalletPop, Consumer Reports, Entrepreneur, and more. I put the two of them together, and they wrote Living Well With Bad Credit(HCI Books).

That said, I think there are many ways to build a platform that don’t have to take years (unless the platform is a medical degree!). It’s more about staying focused and branding your work in an identifiable way that leads people to recognize you as an expert. I’ve seen authors do it within a matter of months.

GLA: Best way to submit to you?

LA: Send a concise query letter in the body of an e-mail to lma [at] defioreandco[dot]com. Put the word “Query” in the subject line, followed by the title of your work. No attachments. And I actually prefer that there not be any sample material included in the body of the e-mail. It slows down my response time because the focus I need to make a decision about your query is different from what I need to assess your sample. Historically speaking, a sample has never made me reject or request material that I wouldn’t have otherwise based on the query letter.

(Learn how to write a query letter.)

(I know a lot of agents ask for the first five pages, and it must sound odd for me to advise authors this way, but if you get rejected based on the query and the first five pages, you won’t know which is the problem. Whereas
if you’re not getting any traction on your query alone, then you know it’s your pitch that needs work.)

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

LA: I’ll be at the Montgomery County Community College Annual Writers Conference on November 5-6, 2010.

GLA: Something personal about you writers may be surprised to know?

LA: I’ve had cats all my life, and I never liked dogs. Once I returned a puppy after just one week. It wasn’t until two years ago, long after Marley & Me had been published, that I got a dog of my own that I now absolutely adore.

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven't discussed?

LA: I think most of your readers already know this and live it every day, but … Stay focused on what you can do and control, and be grateful for every opportunity and every reader. There are many paths to success in publishing; some come easily, but most require blood, sweat, and tears. And a really great title helps a lot.

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