Agent Advice: Paul S. Levine of Paul S. Levine Literary

This installment features Paul S. Levine of the Paul S. Levine Literary Agency. Paul has 27 years experience as a lawyer and has helmed his agency since 1996.
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“Agent Advice”(this installment featuring agent Paul S. Levine of Paul S. Levine Literacy) 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 Paul S. Levine of the Paul S. Levine Literary Agency. Paul has 27 years experience as a lawyer and has helmed his agency since 1996.

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

PL: I just sold a fantasy book—it’s the first fantasy book I’ve ever sold. It’s by an author named Steve Savile, who is a British author living in Stockholm, Sweden, and I sold it to a brand new start-up publisher called Variance Publishing.

GLA: If you don’t usually rep fantasy novels, how did this one fall in your lap?

PL: Steve was referred by another client. It just goes to show you once again that the best way to get an agent is through a referral.

GLA: When you go through the slush pile, what are you looking for but not getting?

PL: A professionally written query with something I can sell. In nonfiction, I’m looking for self-help and how-to books with authors who have a so-called "platform"—people who are experts in their field, who can get out and promote and publicize and sell their book. For fiction, I’m looking for commercial, salable mysteries, thrillers and chick lit, among other things.

GLA: You once told me that you’d like an emotional connection to a book, but more so, you are looking for projects and novels you can sell. How long does it take you to size up a book proposal and judge whether you’re interested?

PL: Two minutes. After I look at the overview, I flip to the most important sections: the “Marketing” section and the “About the Author” section. I can size up a query letter in three seconds.

GLA: 75% of your clients are new and unpublished. That’s high for an experienced agent. Are you plucking people from the crowd and getting them to write good books?

PL: I represent new and upcoming authors who I hope will become the next Stephen King. We’re all looking for that author who will break out of the pack and become a bestseller. I like to take on beginning writers who have potential. Obviously, my agency is not an ICM (International Creative Management), so I can’t attract writers who have 10 or 15 books published.

GLA: You bridge gaps between a lot of areas in the literary world. You rep fiction, nonfiction and some movie rights. You’re also a lawyer. How does having your toe in all of these pools help you excel at what you do?

PL: I started off as a lawyer representing a large book publisher here on the west coast, so I know the kinds of tricks that publishers try to play when they issue their contracts. When a client signs with me, they get a 2 for 1. In addition to selling their work, I will also look over their contracts.

GLA: Do you also represent TV writers and screenwriters?

PL: No. I don’t represent screenplays. I only deal with the movie and TV rights for literary projects I’ve sold. I have rarely, if ever, been able to sell a project to a Hollywood producer or studio without a publishing contract first.

GLA: Talk to us about the process of “vetting” a manuscript. How does that work and when does a manuscript need someone like you to vet it?

PL: Vetting is when you look for libelous content – something that is a false statement of act that tends to lower one’s reputation in the eyes of the relevant community. That’s the legal definition. I look for anything that would remotely defame or libel a third party.

When I vet a true crime book or some other supposedly true story, such as a memoir, I’m looking for backup for anything that the author says that may be libelous or slanderous. There has to be some independent corroboration of what’s being alleged. For example, if a memoir accuses somebody of committing a murder, but person was never convicted of murder, then that’s a problem. A complete defense to libel is truth.

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GLA: Speaking of memoirs, what is the current market for selling them?

PL: After James Frey, memoirs are really, really tough to sell. Publishers are shying away from anything even remotely controversial. Unless you’re Lindsay Lohan or somebody like that, I’m not taking on your memoir.

GLA: What are some basic tips and info on copyright you think all writers should know?

PL: Register your work for copyright the moment you’re starting to circulate your work to potential agents and publishing houses. Register each substantial revision to the work. If you make minor changes, those don’t warrant a new copyright, but if you make some major revisions, then you should register the revised work. Spend the $45 and download the form “TX” from the copyright office web page. Register your work as soon as it’s finished, so that’s it’s registered prior to the date it’s ripped off. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

In the nonfiction area, registering the book proposal with the copyright office is basically useless. What a copyright protects is not the ideas, but the words themselves – the expression of the idea. A copyright for a proposal is not appropriate.

By the way, the most fun an author will ever have is to fly to Washington, D.C., go to the Library of Congress and check his or her book out, because the Library of Congress is just that – a library.

GLA: You have an online submission form – is that the best way to query?

PL: That’s a good way, sure. But I also take e-mail and snail mail queries. I’m also open to carrier pigeons and strip-o-grams, but no writer has yet to query me like that.

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

PL: I’ll be at the Writer’s Digest Books Writers’ Conference in Los Angeles (May 28, 2008), the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference (June 21-26, 2008), the Great American Pitchfest (June 20-22, 2008), and the Cuesta College Writers Conference.

This summer, I’ll also be teaching classes as part of the UCLA extension and writers program. Starting June 7, I’ll be teaching “Fiction and Nonfiction Writers’ Essential Guide to the Legal and Business Aspects of Getting Published.” On Aug. 9, I’ll start “Filmwriters and TV Writers’ Essential Guide to the Legal and Business Aspects of Getting Published.”

GLA: Best advice on something we haven’t discussed?

PL: Keep plugging away.

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