Literary Agent Interview: William Clark of William Clark Associates

This installment features William Clark of William Clark Associates. William is a native of Virginia and was educated in the United States, France, and England. Moving to New York in 1992, he worked at five agencies, including Virginia Barber Literary Agency and William Morris Agency, before founding the agency in 1997. He’s currently seeking: mainstream literary/commercial fiction with a very strong voice, and narrative non-fiction (memoir, history, politics, current events, Buddhism, popular culture, adventure/travel, biography, autobiography, music, business, cookbooks, interior design).
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“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent William Clark of William Clark Associates) 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 William Clark of William Clark Associates. William is a native of Virginia and was educated in the United States, France, and England. Moving to New York in 1992, he worked at five agencies, including Virginia Barber Literary Agency and William Morris Agency, before founding the agency in 1997.

He’s currently seeking: mainstream literary/commercial fiction with a very strong voice, and narrative non-fiction (memoir, history, politics, current events, Buddhism, popular culture, adventure/travel, biography, autobiography, music, business, cookbooks, interior design).

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GLA: How did you become an agent?

WC: Two friends at William & Mary had written a biography for Villard, a Random House imprint. Their agent needed an assistant, I was moving to New York in any event, and I decided it would be better to move there with a job than without. I had always been involved in an entrepreneurial, editorial way with other writers, and had an interest in business, so agenting, as it turns out, is my perfect vocation.

GLA: What’s something coming out now that you repped and are excited about? (Please include publisher, title, author, notable details.)

WC: That’s a tough question. I think the most important topical book coming out right now is THE ADVENTURES OF UNEMPLOYED MAN by Erich Origen and Gan Golan, which Little, Brown is publishing this month. The current rate of unemployment represents a great deal of misery and desperation in the country right now. The authors were able to give closure to the depressing and destructive Bush era with GOODNIGHT BUSH, and with THE ADVENTURES OF UNEMPLOYED MAN they bring understanding and levity to yet another challenging situation. Both books give voice and succor to those frustrated with political, economic, and social situations, and I think that is very worthwhile. In the classic sense, they also “speak truth to power.”

GLA: You’ve studied in both England and France, and you’ve just returned from the Frankfurt Book Fair. How often do you travel, and how has your international experience influenced your agenting style/perspective?

WC: More than anything else it has lead to an open mind. Aside from differences in taste, the manner of doing business varies from territory to territory, and that gives you a bigger toolchest, so to speak, to work from when facing unusual dealmaking situations. It isn’t uncommon for an American author to work better in another country than in the U.S., and it is quite rewarding to find publishers outside of the U.S. who really get the important ideas behind a book rather than focus on the ability of the author to sell the book. I travel as much as possible, and go to the Frankfurt and London fairs, as well as less important ones, and also spend time in each of the territories where I sell rights directly.

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GLA: What are you looking for right now and not getting?

WC: While I handle my share of less serious books, the books that really excite me are ones that deepen or change the historical or present understanding of a subject. I want the books I represent to have a Elan Vital in the Bergsonian sense—in which the author’s passion and obsession with the subject is the impetus for the writing of the book, rather than a simple desire to get their name out there for fifteen minutes. It has to pass the “so what?” test. It can be wonderfully researched and stylishly written, but is there a reason why this book must be published?

GLA: Your agency has a website, blog, and Twitter feed, and you were one of the first agents (quite possibly the first agent) to accept queries via email. How do you see technology shaping the future of agenting?

WC: Agenting is a business of adaptation. While the basic mechanism of introducing seller to buyer hasn’t changed since A.P. Watt, the business of developing, marketing, and selling books has. Before that happens, however, I work closely with my clients to identify their short term and long term goals, and map a strategy to build their core audience and bring in new readers. The change in format is not just a change in format, but rather a change in how authors and publishers interact with readers. The publisher must connect directly with readers, which it hasn’t done before, and the author has an opportunity to do the same, which authors have done before in various ways, but without the wonderful means to do so as available now.

My involvement with technology has to do with engaging the possibilities new technologies represent for my clients, to using those technologies as anyone else might. While the agency web site is more of a business-to-business site (that is, my clients are my associates, and we are in business together), the agency blog offers up a softer, more variable side of it (items related to clients and titles and friends of the agency). My curatorial Twitter feed represents some of the range of my interests in the form of shared items. I’d like to think that potential clients are as interested in making a match with an agent as an agent is interested in finding clients whose work is consonant with his or her interests, and from my feed they can see what captures my attention.

GLA: Describe your ideal client.

WC: The ideal client is the client who understands what can and cannot be done, and is honest.

GLA: In addition to fiction, you rep a lot of nonfiction. Do you usually go out and find pros to write books, or do you often find books coming through the slush pile?

WC: Both, though I tend to prefer clients who write their own books. While many clients come to me through referrals from clients, editors, lawyers, and friends, many also come through the slush pile. In my case, if you don’t know someone I know well enough for them to give a referral, or have a successful publishing history already, I require that you engage with the query form on my web site, which asks questions any agent will want answered. The more a potential client works to answer those questions, the more closely I will consider their query. In any event, even if the idea or story doesn’t appeal to me, working through those questions puts them in a better position to approach other agents, since they now know what we need to know.

GLA: You seem quite passionate about supporting local literacy efforts. Can you tell us a bit about your affiliations with the New York Public Library and the Moth (a non-profit storytelling organization)?

WC: The NYPL has a wonderful literary program, and the Moth is an awesome incubator of storytelling talent.

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

WC: While I do participate in conferences from time to time, my day-to-day commitments largely keep me from doing more.

GLA: Best way to contact you?

WC: As above, if you know someone who knows me who likes your work, I’m happy to consider your idea or story on referral. Otherwise, the best way is through the query form on the agency web site.

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

WC: My favorite song right now is Johnny Hartmann’s version of Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby.” I have a six year old daughter and it exquisitely captures some of the feelings a father has.

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

WC: The best way to find the right agent is to look in the acknowledgements section of books you admire that have a connection to your work.

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Agent interview by Donna Gambale,
who works an office job by day, writes young
adult novels by night, and travels when possible.
She blogs at the First Novels Club and
is the
author of a mini kit,
Magnetic Kama Sutra.

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