How I Got My Agent: Jeff Ryan

Jeff Ryan is the author of Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, (Portfolio, August 2011), the story of how Nintendo rose to fame in America, with plot twists and face-offs worthy of a video game. GIVEAWAY: Jeff is excited to give away a free copy of his book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; you MUST leave your e-mail in the comment somewhere or else we will not be able to contact you; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Billy won.)
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“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Jeff Ryan, author of SUPER MARIO: HOW NINTENDO CONQUERED AMERICA. These columns are great ways for you to learn how to find a literary agent. Some tales are of long roads and many setbacks, while others are of good luck and quick signings. If you have a literary agent and would be interested in writing a short guest column for this GLA blog, e-mail me at literaryagent@fwmedia.com and we’ll talk specifics.

GIVEAWAY: Jeff is excited to give away a free copy of his book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; you MUST leave your e-mail in the comment somewhere or else we will not be able to contact you; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Billy won.)

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Jeff Ryan is the author of Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America,
(Portfolio, August 2011), the story of how Nintendo rose to fame in

America, with plot twists and face-offs worthy of a video game.

A BOOK ABOUT VIDEO GAMES?

One of the chapters in my book, Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, deals with Nintendo’s uphill climb to get its NES in toy and electronics stores. No one would stock them. Nowadays that would seem a ridiculous problem, like a 7-11 refusing to sell bottles of Coke. But in fact the video game crash of 1983 was such a whopper that it made American retailers truly think that video games were a fad, not something that would be with us forever.

I was kind of in that boat, with my book, back when it was merely a manuscript, 280 double-spaced pages residing on my flash drive. I had written a book about video games. Congratulations: I’ve discovered a niche genre where no one has ever succeeded! Might have well had written a paranormal romance about sentient boat engines.

(Writer's Digest asked literary agents for their best pieces of advice. Here are their responses.)

Just as 1983 retailers had good reasons to say no to Nintendo – “you video game people nearly bankrupted me: get out of here with your new doodad” – publishers had very good reasons to say no to my book. 1) Who the hell are you? 2) If someone liked video games, they’d play video games. 3) Who the hell are you again? 4) Is there any indication whatsoever that a book on this topic wouldn’t sink like a pair of tragic starcrossed motorboats?

But before I had to address them, I had to get an agent. This is where we flashback to reveal that this was my THIRD attempt at a book on video games. They were all based on my years actually reviewing video games and reporting on them for a website. I was lucky enough to have that job for a little while, and still can’t open a FedEx package without assuming Konami is sending me the new Metal Gear game to check out.
Attempt #1 was a novel set in a video game company that I never finished. Work began on Attempt #2, a coffee table book. A lot of the skills needed to assemble a book like this are image clearances and layout, and I didn’t have experience in either of those fields. So my “submission” was a lot like a memoirist without an interesting story or a compelling way of telling it. But it did get some agents interested. One said it would be a much easier sell as a narrative nonfiction project...

ATTEMPT #3: VENTURING INTO NARRATIVE NONFICTION

... Which began Attempt #3. I had read my fair share of books about gaming, and most of them seemed to be collections of essays about gaming. No throughline, no characters to stay with from beginning to end, no story or plot. David Kushner’s great Masters of Doom, arguably the best book about gaming written, only focused on one company’s rise and fall, Id Software.

Whatever I wrote, I wanted it to be like that. Something a “casual” audience would enjoy, the same “mainstream” audience that Nintendo had smartly tapped in recent years to buy its Wii and DS console, and all of its Mario titles. Hmm. There might be something there. Cut to me writing the whole dang book.

Time for an agent. Getting an agent turned out to be easy, but I’d had enough previous rejections – and still plenty of rejections for this project as well – so I don’t say that cavalierly. I worked backwards from what I thought was a sellable idea, so writing the query letter wasn’t hard. And since no one in Preditors and Editors says “no video game nonfiction,” I sent a personalized query letter to each nonfiction rep I could find who was accepting submissions. I ended up signing with Lynn Johnston of Lynn Johnston Literary.

(How many literary agents should a writer send their work to?)

PENGUIN TAKES A CHANCE ON MARIO...

Agent in hand, I was left with the problems that I knew about from day one. First, I had no special platform that a thousand other amateur/pro video game reviewers couldn’t also claim. I promised in the proposal to start a Twitter feed and a blog – and I did!

Next problem: no video game book has ever been a big hit. True as well. I could say that I was trying something new, but each new book is something new, and new equals risk. Also all the previous books (including some that are damn fine for a general audience) were marketed as niche books, not to a general audience. I tried to write for a general audience, so that it would be easy to market wide.

Ultimately, Penguin decided to take the gamble. Its business imprint Portfolio is putting the book out, and they’ve been fantastic at lining up interviews and getting the book into the right hands. And I’ve got a good feeling about Mario. The little guy might just surprise everyone. He fights turtles and eats mushrooms to gain superpowers: Weirder things have happened to him that hitting the bestseller list.

GIVEAWAY: Jeff is excited to give away a free copy of his book to a random commenter. Comment within one week; you MUST leave your e-mail in the comment somewhere or else we will not be able to contact you; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Billy won.)

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