Agent Interview by
Contributor Ricki Schultz
“Agent Advice”(this installment featuring agent Ward Calhoun of FinePrint Literary Management) 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 Ward Calhoun of FinePrint Literary Management in Manhattan. Ward has helped develop several best-selling humor titles, has both written and edited several books for Sports Illustrated, and has overseen the production of titles ranging from science to entertainment. Most recently, at Hylas Publishing, his projects included books on music, fitness, and history. During his time there, he also managed to write a book or two, including The Llama Sutra (2006) and Must-See Movies (2008).
He is seeking: He’s currently looking for nonfiction titles in the areas of: sports, humor, and pop culture. See full submission guidelines here.
GLA: How did you become an agent?
WC: After hitting most of the stops along the editing line—assistant editor, associate editor, project editor, managing editor, senior editor—I think I was done with editing, and it was done with me. My first job in publishing was at John Boswell Associates, which was a literary agency/book packager. I really enjoyed that development side of the business. The idea of dealing directly with writers and helping build something from the ground up is one that has always appealed to me. So, in a way, this move brings my publishing career full circle. Also (FinePrint President) Stephany Evans threatened to have my legs broken if I said “no.” She can be very persuasive that way.
GLA: What are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?
WC: I’d love to see some more humor. Just about every week, I receive three or four web-based bits of goofiness from friends. Not all of these sites translate into books, but some of them surely do. Another area I’d like to explore is simple gift books that go after particular niches, such as first-time dads or surfing dogs or alcoholic golfers. The only thing I pray for when tackling the slush pile is more time. There are just too many snap decisions to make.
GLA: Can you tell us something that will make you stop reading every time it crops up in a book proposal?
WC: I’m not a fan of the rambling mad scientist types who can write a 10-page sentence on how they’ve devised a formula to turn sea water into gasoline.
GLA: To you, what is essential to a promising book proposal?
WC: In some way, it really has to be entertaining. I mean, no one wants a proposal that reads like a textbook, even if the book you’re trying to sell is a textbook. If you’re pitching a humor project, make sure your proposal is in some way funny. If you’ve got a book on a disgraced college football coach, don’t dwell on his first job in Pop Warner football. Get right to the moment he started unraveling. In the end, people want to be entertained when they read, and proposals are no different than the books themselves.
GLA: How much does a writer’s platform impact whether or not you agree to represent his or her manuscript?
WC: Let’s just say, it doesn’t hurt. Look, if a particular book concept catches my interest, I am not going to turn my back on it because the person doesn’t have his or her own blog. However, if I am on the fence and the author does appear to have an impressive background, it may be the thing that sways me to take a shot.
GLA: You represent pop culture projects. In your mind, what defines this subject?
WC: Uh oh. Someone once asked me this question during a job interview, and I proceeded to ramble on for around a half hour on everything from Quisp cereal to why Taxi was one of the five greatest television sitcoms of all time. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. If I were to take another crack at defining pop culture, I would say it is the non-biodegradable stuff (both experiences and tangible artifacts) that sticks in our collective consciousness both as Americans and, in many instances, as a global community. Sure, we’re all very different. But go and recite a line from Caddyshack in a bar or make a bold statement about who makes the best hot dogs, and watch complete strangers line up to put in their two cents.
GLA: Staying with pop culture, can you give some examples of books you’ve repped in this area so writers can get a sense of your tastes in pop culture work?
WC: At my first job, we created an instant book during the O.J. Simpson trial called O.J.’s Legal Pad, which I thought was a brilliant idea. Henry Beard, John Boswell, and Ron Barrett took this circus trial phenomenon and banged out a very funny book in record time. But, not all pop culture projects have to be done on the spot. I love reference guides like Alex McNeil’s Total Television as well as books that dissect aspects of popular culture itself.
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GLA: We have not discussed humor projects much in previous agent interviews. Can you tell us a little bit about what grabs you in this category?
WC: My guess is the reason it hasn’t been discussed very much is that what most people, including myself, are looking for is originality. For instance, I thought Don Novello’s The Lazlo Letters (1977) was hilarious and inspired. So when Jerry Seinfeld’s incredibly similar Letters from a Nut came out in 2001, I was considerably less impressed. Not that I wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to rep Jerry Seinfeld. I’m not that crazy. But, I just feel if you’re going to use an existing idea as inspiration, do something different with it. The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook was both clever and funny, and when Max Brooks came out with The Zombie Survival Guide, it was very funny, too, but in its own right.
GLA: You also seek sports-related books. Can this be anything? Coaching? Memoir? Weird statistics? Anything?
WC: Just about anything. There are subjects that don’t interest me as much, such as fishing, auto racing, and figure skating, but you never know. Oh, wait, I got one. This is probably a mistake on my part, but I’m really not interested in seeing any books on ultimate fighting or mixed martial arts. I don’t mean to offend anyone; this is just a personal preference.
GLA: What are three topics you would classify as overdone in sports-related books?
WC: The first thing that comes to mind are the proposals you get after a major sports team wins a championship. It’s one thing if a coach or player wants to write an account of that magical season, but you also get all sorts of people pitching books who are peripherally connected to the team. I’m just not sure that anyone wants to read the story of the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers as told by a guy who plays golf with the equipment manager’s brother. Another overdone category in sports is leadership books by coaches. Finally, I’d say anything on synchronized swimming. If there’s even one book on this sport, it’s one too many.
GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t talked about yet?
WC: Don’t get too despondent when an agent passes on your submission. Sometimes the concept just isn’t right. I usually like to keep a list of writers whose proposals I may have passed on, but who are otherwise talented, so that I can contact them should other projects arise that would be a good fit. Finally, always wear clean underwear when you’re going to meet with a publisher.
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