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Literary Agent Interview: Michael Strong of Regal Literary

This installment features Michael B. Strong of Regal Literary. Michael was a graduate student in English at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he read for Carolina Quarterly. He was a PhD candidate at the Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught classes on technology and ethics. He is seeking: fine literary fiction and ambitious thrillers, and for nonfiction about art, politics, science, business, sports, and boy does he love boats and the ocean they float on.

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Michael Strong of Regal 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 featuresMichael B. Strong of Regal Literary. Michael was a graduate student in English at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he read for Carolina Quarterly. He was a PhD candidate at the Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught classes on technology and ethics.

He is seeking: fine literary fiction and ambitious thrillers, and for nonfiction about art, politics, science, business, sports, and boy does he love boats and the ocean they float on.

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GLA: How did you become an agent?

MBS: I had been in a Comp Lit and Lit Theory PhD program for years before I realized I should not stay in academia. The dot-com boom was happening, and I had fun working in a variety of Internet-related things—a think tank, some modest but exciting online IPO investing, and then I worked at Sotheby’s auction house for many years on their eBay and Amazon businesses. Eventually I missed books, ideas, and found a way into agenting when an editor friend suggested I bring my interest in fiction, ideas, and internet marketing experience to Regal Literary. I am Publicity and Marketing Director at Regal, as well as an agent building a list.

GLA: What’s something you repped that came out recently that you’re excited about?

MBS: I sold a book of nonfiction by Doug Fine, a very fine and funny writer / adventure journalist to Rachel Holtzman at Penguin/Avery. Doug is the author of Not Really An Alaskan Mountain Man and Farewell My Subaru, and now he is going to write from a legal pot farm through a growing season, using the arc of the plants’ growth as a hook to tell the story of marijuana in American culture today. Our working title is “Trimming Bud.”

GLA: As noted on your bio online, you have a very thick background of what you did prior to agenting. How does your background of teaching, marketing and even sailing play into your agenting style and what you like to see?

MBS: Because I have lived in a lot of places and worked in a lot of environments (on boats in Maine, in a variety of classrooms—including Dyslexic kids and an Ivy League school and a French university—in corporate boardrooms, swinging a hammer in Berkeley and as a staffer at a think tank, I have a pretty wide range of interests. So almost any nonfiction that either has fantastic writing or takes on big questions appeals to me. The marketing experience is useful because those years of experience help me to know intuitively what we can likely achieve for any author online and offline.

GLA: I see you sold a thriller recently and seek good thrillers from writers. Concerning thrillers, what kinds of plots and even first pages do you see too much of? What are too many writers doing?

(See our growing list of thriller agents.)

MBS: It’s not easy for me to generalize about what I see too much of. I do read the submissions to Regal so I see a lot. I think perhaps the easiest way to answer that question is to say that it appears to me that a lot of people (whose work is weaker) submit materials that have not been vetted or reviewed or criticized in a substantial way. It’s a curious leap that some folks want to make, from something that came out of their head directly to publication, without any meaningful engagement with people who can give them good constructive notes that help them grow, and avoid a lot of clichés and predictable beginnings, excessive layering on of adverbs, that kind of thing.

If those folks were to work with an editor, or be in a class where they are vigorously edited and reviewed, or to be connecting with fellow writers who are nervy and honest in their feedback, a lot of things would be improved before they were submitted to us or anyone else. If you have not shown your work to people around you for their feedback, and validated that it honestly works for them, you know, you should not be surprised if never gets off the starting block. Testing, I guess, like a little private focus group, I think would help a lot of people to avoid things that just kill their writing from the getgo. If you go through that process, you learn and you move to a higher level.

GLA: You also seek literary fiction. Besides literary and good thrillers, are there are other genres or categories of fiction you accept? Kids books?

MBS: I’m looking at some YA books, yes, but we have Michelle Andelman here now, and while I think I’ll learn from her, she’s pretty much cornered that at Regal. I did not set out looking for memoir, but I’ve found several that I am working on.

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GLA: Let’s talk nonfiction. You seek a variety of categories. Do you get proposals coming in through the slush or do you find yourself out looking for experts to write book?

(Writing nonfiction? Learn how to build your writer platform to attract agents.)

MBS: It works both ways. I read all the slush and I have found things there that are fantastic; one book about the deaf that I think is going to be a great success. But I also see articles or hear about writers and will chase someone down who looks unagented and likely to do a book soon. I’ve approached several talented magazine writers to see if they had anything they were ready to pitch as a book, or in some cases I have ideas that I think they’d be the right person for. I found one guy through his art show; he works in multiple media and I liked his art and it turned out he had done some illustrated books. Another was on HuffPo. Some come through referrals.

GLA: When you get a book proposal, what are the three most common flaws you see in one?

MBS: Hmmm. Hard to say. I really like to focus on the good ones! The flaws … well, so we’re talking about nonfiction, because with fiction, the flaw is obvious—bad writing. For nonfiction, the flaws that I see that can really kill a proposal: 1) the writer is not thinking about the audience. They have something they want to say—great! But a book is a product that needs to work with an audience; in many cases that audience is well defined, and in that case, if the writer has not defined their audience, they are really hobbling their chances; 2) the writer is not thinking about the competition—they may well have a great idea for a book … so great, in fact, that it has pretty much already been written, and in some cases folks are in denial about the fact that it makes it hard to sell their book product (because they’ve invested a lot already in this idea), because there is already a book product very much like it out there on shelves; and 3) the writer is writing for the wrong reasons. Sometimes people have an axe to grind and they’ll have all kinds of energy for pursuing a topic—but that energy comes from a place of … well, it could be anger or disappointment or frustration … and they want to ventilate that emotion. That kind of work typically does not serve a commercial audience of readers; it serves to drain that emotion from the writer. Of course that is great for the writer’s emotional life, but it does not make for a commercially viable work.

GLA: With the addition of Michelle Andelman, that makes 5 agents at Regal, correct? What’s it like to work at an agency with 5 agents? How does the team work together?

(Read an interview with agent Michelle Andelman.)

MBS: Joe Regal fosters a culture of cooperation; we all read client materials, give edits and notes and suggestions on both nonfiction and fiction work, and we are all very aggressive editors. I love the editing process, and it is great to have a team to do reality-checking with (do you think this is the right way to frame this [nonfiction] book, given what else is out there? Or, I’ve got this manuscript in which the plot is bla bla bla—what do you think are the right comparables for it? And of course we all talk about which editors will be most likely to get excited about which books, and so that’s really helpful, in particular with me, because I’ve only been an agent for going on three years now.

GLA: What’s the best way for writers to submit to you?

MBS: Cover letter, 10–20 page writing sample, bio, mailed to the office address in NYC.

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

MBS: I will work with you on your manuscript as many times as you want or need before I submit it to editors. I care much more about getting it to its best possible state, than about getting it sold right away. I’ve worked on several manuscripts (fiction and nonfiction) for five and six edits—full edits—before submitting to editors. And I like that, because it increases the odds of it selling, for more money, and increases the odds that it will sell more copies, and that the writer’s career will advance in a more sustainable long-term way, and ensures that the writer and I have a very solid shared understanding of what the writer is trying to achieve in their work. Which is also really useful in the delightful case that we have more than one editor interested in the work; because I know what it is like to work with the writer in a sustained way, I am able to help guide the writer to an editor who is going to be able to connect with them well on developing their work for publication.

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

MBS: In this business, unlike some others I have worked in, merit is recognized and quality rises to the top. Good writing is the single most important shared attribute of every project we handle, and that is entirely under the control of the writer. Write well, and you won’t be looking for agents and publishers. They will come looking for you.

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