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Agent Advice: Ryan Fischer-Harbage of The Fischer-Harbage Agency

This installment features Ryan Fischer-Harbage of The Fischer-Harbage Agency. Prior to editing, Ryan was an editor at Simon & Schuster. He is seeking: quality fiction for adults and kids, memoir, narrative nonfiction, current events, health and wellness, and spirituality.

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Ryan Fischer-Harbage of The Fischer-Harbage Agency) 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 Ryan Fischer-Harbage of The Fischer-Harbage Agency. Prior to editing, Ryan was an editor at Simon & Schuster.

He is seeking: quality fiction for adults and kids, memoir, narrative nonfiction, current events, health and wellness, and spirituality.

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GLA: How did you become an agent?

RFH: After about ten years working editorial services at three of the big publishers, I was recruited by a high-volume, fast-paced agency. The initial change was rooted in the fact that my wife was pregnant and we had a big mortgage and I needed to increase my income. It didn’t take long for me to realize that agenting and editing rely on the same skill set but that agenting is more exciting—it can be a little more entrepreneurial, involve more time with the authors and is much less corporate. After my son was born, I’d been at the other agency for about nine months and realized that I wanted to do things differently, so I started my own firm. That was in February 2007 and we’re now a staff of four plus co-agents abroad and out West.

GLA: What’s something coming out that you’re excited about?

RFH: One of the best novels I’ve read in my adult life is The Blue Orchard by Jackson Taylor. It’s a sweeping novel that tells the story of America’s growing pains as it went from an agricultural to industrial dominated economy, in a wise and artful story. It is about one woman’s life, and told through her point of view, growing up around Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in the first half of the 20th Century. She goes from being a dirt poor, first generation Irish-American who was told she had to work—not go to school—so that her brother could afford to get an education and start a family. She teaches herself to read, becomes a nurse and ends up working for an African-American doctor who performs abortions for the well-to-do. When he stops delivering the African-American vote to the local Republican political machine, the powers that be have the doctor and the nurse arrested for “performing illegal surgeries.” The book was released in January 2010 and has already gone back to press numerous times and begun collecting honors and accolades. I’m very lucky to represent Jackson.

GLA: You have a rich history on the editing side of things and have worked with some impressive names. How does all that background play into your skills and style as an agent?

RFH: Of course I’m biased, but I think the best agents are former editors. Having apprenticed with two of the best editors in the business, Bill Phillips and Michael Pietsch, I learned how to be an effective developmental editor. It’s not easy to help someone make their good work even better. A lot of editors bring too much of their own voice to an edit, and I am proud that I do not. As a believer in the editorial process, I am able to offer suggestions and questions to my clients before their work goes to a publisher. I’m confident that my work has helped both the authors and the publishers, both of whom increasingly rely on agents to do this work. In a more quantitative sense, I know exactly what editors go through to acquire a book—what they want to see, who they need support from, how the determine what to bid on a project. I reviewed 600-1,000 submissions a year when I worked as an editor from most every agent I the business. That experience greatly informs how I bring my clients’ work to publishers. Surely there are great agents who have never been editors, they came up entirely on that side of the business. And they do great work. I just feel lucky to have seen exactly how things go inside the publishers’ offices.

GLA: You and your agency rep a fair share of novels – but what in fiction do you seek and not seek? Romance? Fantasy?

RFH: If a writer is submitting a novel to me, I hope it is for a reason. Good reasons are they like a book that I placed or read or heard something specific about me somewhere. Bad reasons are seeing my name among 2,999 other agents on a website or in a guide somewhere and query me as they carpet bomb each of my colleagues as well. As a generalist, I will read just about anything. But most of my success has been with historic fiction, women’s fiction and crime fiction. Also, a couple of my favorite novels are The Good Earth, Lonesome Dove, Cities of the Plain and The Grapes of Wrath.

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GLA: Do you take any children’s?

RFH: I’ve placed a handful of picture books and am building my YA fiction list. It’s going well, but it is not my specialty.

GLA: If tomorrow was a perfect day, what would you find in the slush pile besides “good writing”? In others, what specifically do you not see enough of?

RFH: I’d like to see more academics writing about history and science for the general audience. And it would be fun for me to see more journalists writing character-driven current events and narrative nonfiction. It is always fun for me to read anything that challenges our concepts of equality, economy and power of any kind.

(Find more nonfiction agents seeking writers.)

GLA: The agency has sold a lot of nonfiction books on a variety of levels. Is catching your eye as simple as having a good idea and a good platform?

RFH: The word platform is pretty high on publishers’ list of priorities these days. They want people who have been on TV because it is easier to get them on TV again and that’s generally a pretty effective publicity vehicle. But a writer’s platform might be that they are the author of their own memoir. If the writing is great, I’ll read it with interest. Catching my eyes is pretty easy—flatter me. I’m human, it works on me, too.

GLA: You accept memoir. When you reject a submission in this category, where are people going wrong?

RFH: It seems like a lot of people miss the fact that the best memoirs explore universal themes. Readers need to be able to identify with what they’re reading at least a little bit. They’re interacting with the text as if it is a conversation, in my opinion, responding to each line in their own minds at high speeds. Self absorbtion, navel gazing, axe grinding, resentment—these things do not belong in memoir.

GLA: I also see a few dog books in the sales. Without opening the flood gates for every dog book ever written, do you have a soft spot for pooches?

RFH: I have a soft spot for a good story, whoever it is about. There is a lot we can learn from dogs, and all animals, and I’m open to hearing from anyone that can articulate what our furry brothers and sisters have to say.

GLA: Will you be at any upcoming conferences people can meet/pitch you at? (Peruse an ever-growing list of writing conferences and events.)

RFH: Mediabistro employs me as an instructor where I teach a one-night seminar on how to write a nonfiction book proposal. Starting in July, I am teaching a six-week workshop called Advanced Nonfiction Book Proposal writing, and a few times a year I teach an eight-week workshop on nonfiction proposal writing. The New School and NYU and Susan Shapiro invite me to speak at panels and courses pretty regularly. I haven’t travelled in a while and don’t have plans to anytime soon. But who knows -- someone might ask.

GLA: How should writers contact you if they want to submit?

RFH: Please e-mail me a one-page query letter summarizing your project and your bio: ryan(at)fischerharbage(dot)com. If you want to paste the first chapter into the body of the e-mail, that never hurts.

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

RFH: I write poems. It’s something I’ve tried to get away from but I can’t.

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

RFH: Please be patient with us agents. We are lucky to get a lot of submissions, but it takes us a while to read them.

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