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Agent Advice: Michael Murphy of Max & Co.: A Literary Agency & Social Club

This installment features literary agent Michael Murphy, founder of Max & Co.: A Literary Agency & Social Club in Cincinnati, Ohio. Michael has worked in the book publishing industry for 30 years. His first 13 were with Random House-Ballantine, where he was a vice-president. Later, he ran William Morrow & Co. as their publisher until the company’s acquisition by and merger with HarperCollins. He formed Max & Co.: A Literary Agency & Social Club in the fall of 2007. He is seeking: He is looking primarily for narrative nonfiction, memoir, and eclectic visual books. Additional information can be found on his agency’s Web site.

“Agent Advice”(this installment featuring agent Michael Murphy of Max & Co.: A Literary Agency & Social Club) 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 literary agent Michael Murphy, founder of Max & Co.: A Literary Agency & Social Club in Cincinnati, Ohio. Michael has worked in the book publishing industry for 30 years. His first 13 were with Random House-Ballantine, where he was a vice-president. Later, he ran William Morrow & Co. as their publisher until the company’s acquisition by and merger with HarperCollins. He formed Max & Co.: A Literary Agency & Social Club in the fall of 2007.

He is seeking: He is looking primarily for narrative nonfiction, memoir, and eclectic visual books. Additional information can be found on his agency’s Web site.

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Michael Murphy

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

MM: My most recent sale was a novel, Concord, Virginia, by Peter Neofotis. I had been the novella competition judge at the recent Words & Music festival in New Orleans. Work is sent with the author's name removed, so it wasn't until after I chose Peter as the winner that I learned anything about him. By day, he works in environmental biology at Columbia University. By night, Peter performs in small clubs throughout Manhattan performing monologues from his ever-evolving tales of the people and events in the fictional Southern town. I met Peter in November, sent out his manuscript in January, and sold it in February to Michael Flamini at St. Martin's.

GLA: The name of your agency is completely, intentionally out of the ordinary. Do you actually host a salon, or is the allusion tongue-in-cheek?

MM: The name is definitely not tongue-in-cheek (I hope). Max & Co. was chosen because, while I was the all and the everything in the company in October 2007, I do not intend this to be true in October 2008. I didn't want the name to be about me. Already, I have retained two people as virtual "scouts" and part-time agents. One is in New York City; her title is East Coast Presence. The other is my Greater Midwest Presence. Both have book publishing experience. I am also partnering with Lisa Queen of Queen Literary to use the benefit of her great experience and reach into foreign markets where mine is limited.

As far as "& Social Club," that refers to a vision I hope to make a reality by 2009. I would love to have an annual retreat—in cabins with screened-in porches, ideally by water—where Max & Co. writers could come to share success stories, new contacts, marketing ideas, and (of course) play cards until 3:00 a.m. while drinking Thai beer and wearing funny hats. In addition, when one writer, say from Seattle, has a new book hit the shelves, my other writers in New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, etc. would do what they could to help launch the title.

GLA: You headed William Morrow & Co. for years before leaving it and New York City behind and starting your agency in Cincinnati. What's the one thing about being a publisher that you don't miss?

MM: The endless meetings that are so much a part of corporate life. Some days, many days, I would be in meetings from 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. and return to my desk to find an impossible list of phone messages and e-mail that needed attention.

GLA: Your new Web site indicates you're looking primarily for narrative nonfiction, memoir, and eclectic visual books but would make an exception for the right sort of dark and twisted fiction. Can you elaborate on your preferences?

MM: Actually, I already am representing dark and twisted. I sold Tony O'Neill's novel Down and Out on Murder Mile to HarperCollins. Tony, a former heroin junkie, is truly a poet of the grotesque. I sold another book about cocaine and heroin addiction, Jason Peter's memoir, Hero of the Underground (on sale July 2008). Normally, I loathe books like Hero. He was an All-America football player and first round NFL draft pick prior to being a drug addict. But, in this case, Jason was fearless about exposing his Caligula years, and the intense writing brings the book closer to Bukowski or Hubert Selby, Jr., than any sports bio or recovery tale. The exception I would consider would be a commercial (happy ending) novel, if there were something in the writing to grab me.
You captured my areas of interest. I do not represent genre fiction, psychology, science, nature, or business books. However, I would backhand a nun in broad daylight to be involved with a business book like David Dorsey's The Force. The writing was brilliant. Great writing can always change my mind. I have zero interest in Captain Cook and not much more in orchids. Yet, I devoured Blue Latitudes and The Orchid Thief because Tony Horwitz and Susan Orlean are superb writers. I'd follow them anywhere. My preferences are my preferences, but I am always open to what I call the Suddenly, From Across a Crowded Room Moment.

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GLA: Are you interested in graphic novels?

MM: This is a great example of the Suddenly, Across a Crowded Room Moment. Until 2000, I did not think graphic novels were for me. I found Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen interesting. But, in no case did I do more than sample a few pages. Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan changed everything. His genius is not just his artistry but that he can tell a story as full and compelling as a good novel. So, while I am not the right agent for most of what people consider graphic novels (Judith Hansen and Denis Kitchen do that really well), I would be interested in something at the level of Chris Ware (a very tall order).

As noted, I am focused on eclectic visual books. Toss a few words on the same page as the artistry of someone like Mark Ryden or Eduardo Recife and, yes, I am very interested. Whether that would be considered a graphic novel I will leave to people arguing on panels at the Comic-Con convention.

GLA: How do you prefer to be contacted by writers seeking representation?

MM: My answer here is my personal preference and should not be taken in as a guide. I love e-mail. I like to receive chapters as e-mail attachments. Most agents do not. I want, but rarely receive, everything (pitch, synopsis, chapter outline, author bio, sample chapters) in one simple email.

GLA: What kinds of writing credentials or professional affiliations do you look for when you receive a query?

MM: I look for zero credentials but am pleased when I discover some. Sometimes writers’ profiles can be every bit as important as their talent. MFAs in creative writing or publications in obscure journals carry very little weight with me or with most editors. Publisher interest can be piqued by a writer having something that points to a large, ready, and able fan base willing to drop $24.95 on the author's book. This can be a successful Web site, appearances in national media, or being considered the leading voice or "the face" of a company, product, or line of thinking.

GLA: Do you identify and acquire new clients from among contest winners? Whose work is published in periodicals? Through online networking sites for emerging writers?

MM: A short but only partially accurate answer is "No." I do subscribe to and/or read a number of periodicals or writing Web sites. If I were just a reader, or an agent with a lot of time on my hands, I would pore over The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Tin House, or Zoetrope: All-Story (which was consistently brilliant when Adrienne Brodeur was the editor). However, in my work life, the writers who appear in these places are generally already "agented up." I pay more attention to journals like Topic (a version of Granta), The Walrus (sort of Canada's New Yorker), and The Bellevue Literary Review. But this has not proven to be a sweeping success in acquiring client writers.

GLA: If a writer sends you a promising query outside your specific areas of interest, will you pass it along to another literary agent?

MM: In such cases, where I see promise but I am not the right agent to bring that promise to fruition, I do provide the names of specific agents to the writer. Sometimes, I have then contacted the agents to let them know a writer is coming their way. But, in no circumstances do I want to get sucked into brokering a relationship between a writer and another agent. There simply isn't that kind of time.

GLA: Will your newly designed Web site include a blog?

MM: I'm really not sure. I know I definitely do not want a traditional blog, because I don't need the stress/burden to keep the content fresh. I also see no need to add my opinions to the absurd amount of other opinions from other people about practically everything. Though, you should vote for Barack Obama. Also, I would like to see features that constantly update where my authors are appearing or when their books get new reviews.

GLA: Will you be attending any conferences or events in the future where writers can meet you?

MM: I have attended BEA (BookExpo America) for decades and will be in Los Angeles for the '08 Expo and, like last year in New York, I will be meeting writers at the pre-show Agent Pitch Slam sponsored by Writer's Digest (May 28 at the convention center).
I attend the Words & Music festival in New Orleans every year. I consider this a great conference for writers aspiring to be published. Each attendee gets one-on-one sessions with agents and editors to critique their writing.

GLA: To a writer looking for an agent, can you offer advice about something we haven't discussed?

MM: Choosing an agent should involve as much thoughtfulness and care as choosing a college or a lover. In the case of the latter, probably more care. I have seen young writers too anxious to leap to the first "real" agent to show interest in their writing. If these same people had been contacted in high school by Flatland Community College and told, "We are very impressed with your transcript," they would not have rushed to attend Flatland Community College before applying to colleges more desired.

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