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Agent Advice: Phil Lang of Reece Halsey North

This installment features Phil Lang, the newest literary agent at Reece Halsey North in Tiburon, Calif. Seeking: new clients with “distinct voices and original perspectives.” The agency does not handle screenplays or teleplays.

Update 2009:
Phil is no longer agenting.
Please do not query him.


“Agent Advice”(this installment featuring agent Phil Lang of Reece Halsey North) 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 Phil Lang, the newest literary agent at Reece Halsey North in Tiburon, Calif.

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GLA: You're a new agent, which can be an advantage to authors seeking representation. Tell us a little about how you got started in the business.

PL: I was attending the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of San Francisco with Elizabeth Evans, an agent at Reece Halsey North. She had interned for Kimberley Cameron and asked if I'd be interested in reading for them a few times a week. That invitation opened me up to a side of the writing equation that I had never even considered.

I knew on the first day that I had stumbled upon a special situation. You don't find places like Reece Halsey North just anywhere, and you rarely find a mentor as wonderful as Kimberley Cameron. I started going through the submissions as an unpaid intern. Before long, I was asked to look at work from existing clients. One thing you can count on in this business is that there will always be something to read, which to an intern means there will always be opportunities to show your worth.

After some time, Ms. Cameron asked if I saw myself making a career out of this. Absolutely, I told her. She offered me a job, and I took it on the spot. Not many people get the chance in this business right out of graduate school. I know how fortunate I am to be in the position I'm in, and I'm hellbent on making the best of it.

GLA: The Reece Halsey North Web site indicates you're seeking literary and commercial fiction, including mysteries and thrillers, as well as nonfiction in the areas of biography, history, current events, music, and sports. Would you consider any other submissions?

PL: When people ask what genres I'm interested in, my answer is always the same: I'm interested in the great writing genre. I'm not seeking fantasy or YA, but if it—whatever it is—is great, then I'm interested.
There is also another aspect to this question that people often overlook. I seek out the genres listed above because those are the genres where I am most confident in my assessment of talent. Asking me to represent fantasy would be like someone asking me to represent his or her punk band. I would like to think that I could hear some undiscovered Ramones and identify them as a great band, but I'm not in that scene, and I am not familiar with the nuances of quality punk music.

Greatness is apparent to most anyone, but it's the separation of everything that falls below the fantasy equivalent of the Ramones where I would have a hard time distinguishing the very good from the everyday.

GLA: What kinds of credentials do you look for when you receive a query?

PL: It depends on the genre. Fiction and nonfiction are entirely different beasts. Platform plays a big role in nonfiction, whereas I'm much less concerned with that on the fiction side of things. Now, I'm not saying a publication credit in The New Yorker means nothing to me, but there's more leeway in fiction. Thank God.

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

PL: E-mail. It's the lifeline of the office. It may take a little while for me to respond, and on rare occasions queries are lost in the junk file, but it's without question the best way for someone to get a hold of me. We've phased out mail submissions in the office, and our response time has been cut in half.

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GLA: If a writer submits a promising query that happens to be outside your specific areas of interest, would you pass it along to one of your colleagues at Reece Halsey North?

PL: Of course. I do every day. This is a small office, and the three of us (Kimberley Cameron, Elizabeth Evans, and I) are very tight. We each have a hand in every project that goes out the door, and we all are responsible for every query that lands here. What's good for the agency is good for me. I've heard horror stories of highly competitive agencies, and they always befuddle me.

GLA: How can writers get to know your particular tastes and preferences?

PL: Believe it or not, I labored over writing my bio on our Web site. It's a bit embarrassing, but what the hell. It took me a few days to write that damn paragraph! The reason for that is because I knew it would be the best place for people to get an idea of the writing I seek.

GLA: What's your defining personality trait?

PL: Persistence. I'm about as easygoing as they come, but I quietly go after what I want until I get it. (Is there any way to answer this question without coming off self-indulgent?)

GLA: Good point. It’s not always easy to describe yourself. How would you describe your ideal client?

PL: One whose books sell. I kid, but it's the truth. The ideal client is a person who understands that publishing a book is a collaborative process. This may sound obvious, but publishing a book takes time, many minds, and almost always involves more than a couple rejections. An ideal client, like a veteran ballplayer, never gets too high and never sinks too low. The ideal client knows that we're in this together and no one wants to sell the manuscript more than I do.

GLA: Tell us about your band.

PL: I started Bloomsday Rising with a fellow MFA student a little over a year ago. (What? You didn't think I was going let this prime opportunity for a plug slip away, did you?) It's a no-frills rock ‘n roll band, and it's the most fun I've had since Little League.

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

PL: The Santa Barbara Writers Conference (June 23-24); the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Ore. (August 1-3); the Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference in Corte Madera, Calif. (August 14-17); and the North Coast Redwoods Writers’ Conference (TBA).

GLA: Can you tell us about your own writing?

PL: I've spent the last few years working on my novel Home, Approximately. Like everyone and their dog, it's more or less completed, but I'm still making some final adjustments. The basic premise is that a young painter, five miles from a new life in New York City, is called back to the farm when his parents are killed in an accident. He spends the summer tending to his father's crops, stuck in the place and life he's wanted to leave since he was a boy. His greatest inspiration for his paintings is his hometown, Maple Valley, and the images of his father at work. His greatest fear is that he will become his father and never leave Maple Valley. Mix in a love interest, a young priest questioning his faith, and an ominous augur, and you have Home, Approximately.

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

PL: Above all, remember the following:
1. You will be rejected.
2. You will be rejected.
3. When you're at the stage of catching an agent's eye, your query letter is as important as anything. Polish that baby!
4. Your first 10 pages hold your fate. Forward momentum is critical. It's not fair, but you have to give an agent a reason to turn the page. Know that you are one of 100 queries he or she will read that day. You don't have the luxury to meander.
5. Give them exactly what they ask for. If they ask for a one-page synopsis, don't give them a page and a half. If they ask for the submission to be sent as a Microsoft Word attachment, don't send a submission in the body of the e-mail. I know that agents seem like a disgruntled bunch with classic Napoleon complexes, but I assure you that we are diehard fans of writing who want to contribute to the world of books.
6. Do not call if you haven't heard back from an agent after a week, or even a month. I wish it weren't true, but it takes time to get through submissions. If you haven't heard back in a few months, then drop a polite e-mail, but after that, you have to let it go, which is why...
7. You should send out simultaneous submissions. There is no reason you should be expected to wait on an agent before you send your work to other agents. It's simply not fair. Do not hesitate to send out submissions to as many agents as possible. What's the worst that could happen? More than one agent is interested in your work. Call me crazy and unethical, but I am willing to bet this is a problem any writer without representation would welcome.
8. Your writing is worthwhile. Do not listen to the skeptics. They are just jealous because you've found something in this world that you're passionate about.
9. Oh yeah, you will be rejected.

The Reece Halsey Agency, established in 1957 by Dorris Halsey, represented clients such as Aldous Huxley, William Faulkner, Upton Sinclair, and Henry Miller. In 1993, Kimberley Cameron became a partner in the agency and shortly thereafter founded Reece Halsey North and Reece Halsey Paris. Phil Lang joined Reece Halsey North in 2006 and is actively seeking new clients with “distinct voices and original perspectives.” The agency does not handle screenplays or teleplays. Additional submission guidelines are listed on its Web site.

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