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Agent Advice: Shira Hoffman of McIntosh &Otis, Inc.

This interview features Shira Hoffman of McIntosh & Otis, Inc. Shira began her career in publishing as an intern at Tor Books and has been with M&O since 2007. In 2013, she took over as Director of Subsidiary Rights. She also Tweets @ShiraSHoffman. She is seeking: mainstream commercial fiction, mystery, literary fiction, women’s fiction, romance, urban fantasy, fantasy, science fiction, horror and dystopian.

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Shira Hoffman of McIntosh & Otis, Inc.) 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 180 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.

(Why writers must make themselves easy to contact.)

This installment features Shira Hoffman of McIntosh & Otis, Inc. Shira began her career in publishing as an intern at Tor Books and has been with M&O since 2007. In 2013, she took over as Director of Subsidiary Rights. She also Tweets @ShiraSHoffman.

She is seeking: mainstream commercial fiction, mystery, literary fiction, women’s fiction, romance, urban fantasy, fantasy, science fiction, horror and dystopian.


GLA: Briefly, how did you become an agent?

SH: There are a lot of reasons I decided to become an agent, but primarily it was because it allowed me to combine my love of a good story with my passion for the publication process. In undergrad, I worked at Tor Books as intern to the Editorial Coordinator and loved seeing how all the different departments came together to create a finished book. In my writing classes at Goucher College and while I was getting my MFA at The New School, I always got a lot of feedback on how helpful my comments were when fellow students were rewriting. It made me thrilled to feel like I was helping writers to tell their stories. Agenting seemed like a natural extension of helping writers write, and when I started working at M&O, it was a great fit—so I stuck with it.

GLA: You just recently became McIntosh & Otis’s Director of Subsidiary Rights (congrats!). Talk to us about your new responsibilities and what that means for you.

SH: Taking over as Director of Subsidiary Rights is a great opportunity for me. I’m excited to promote M&O’s Adult client list as well as representing subsidiary rights for Louisiana State University Press and University of Nebraska Press. It will also allow me to continue broadening my contacts with publishers and editors both at home and abroad. You never know where a great opportunity will come from, and having strong contacts will allow me to seek out those extra sub-rights opportunities that can be very lucrative for writers. It’s also going to mean a greater capacity (and more time!) to take on my own clients and continue to grow my list.

(How much money can you expect from selling your first book?)

GLA: What's something you've sold that comes out soon that you're excited about?

SH: I was a junior agent along with Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein for a recent debut paranormal title that I just love called The Guardian of Bastet by Jacqueline Battisti (Carina Press). The book is about Trinity who is half shape shifter and half witch. She can only shift into a house cat and her lack of magical prowess has always made her feel out of place in the magical world. When a demon comes to town, she is about to find out there is a lot more to her powers than she ever expected. The voice hit just the right combination of funny and heartfelt to make us fall in love with this adorable debut.

GLA: Besides “good writing,” and “voice,” what are you looking for right now in middle-grade fiction and not getting? What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?

SH: This is a great question, especially since my main focus is on titles for adult readers. I’m definitely looking for smart middle-grade books that will appeal to children and adults alike. One category I would like to see more of is humorous middle-grade fiction, especially in the vein of Gordon Korman. If I laugh out loud when I read your query or sample chapters, there is a great chance I’ll be eager to take a look at the full. I’d also love to see more spooky or creepy books. I’m interested in wide range of writing styles, and am open to everything from Roald Dahl to R.L. Stein. Kids really connect to the grotesque, and I’d jump at the chance to have a writer on my list who can give me goose bumps, but still be appropriate for MG readers.

GLA: According to your agency Web site, you are interested in acquiring narrative nonfiction. However, what subjects or categories particularly hook you here? Any that don’t?

SH: I am pretty open in this category, but it is definitely all about the story for me. I’m partial to nonfiction that takes place around the turn of the 20th Century up through the 1950s. I particularly loved Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which had an element of mystery in addition to a plethora of rich historical detail.

When I’m considering a narrative nonfiction project, it always helps to have an element of tension or suspense in the narrative to keep me turning pages. Basically, I look for many of the same elements I’m searching for in a fiction story: unforgettable characters, a story that pulls me in, and a commercial writing style that doesn’t get bogged down in minutia.

In terms of what I don’t want, I am less interested in adventure books and early historical narratives. I’m partial to stories about music and musicians or animals and the people that love them.

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GLA: You are also very interested in works that “blend genres in new and interesting ways.” Talk to us more about that. Can you give an example or two of titles already out there that fit the bill in this way, so potential queriers can get a sense of what you mean here?

SH: Another excellent question. What I’m talking about here is blending elements from two or three different genre categories to come up with a story that feel fresh and hasn’t been done before. One author who has done this successfully is Jim Butcher with his Dresden Files series, which successfully combines noir and urban fantasy. Another good example is Charlene Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, which is a blend of mystery, romance, paranormal. For example, I’d love to see a steampunk/mystery or a western/fantasy novel.

I think in this instance, it might also be helpful for authors to talk about what I’m not looking for. If you’ve got four or more genres listed when you’re describing your project, there is a good chance you are trying to take on too much. Also, if you have different sections that are written in different styles, your book runs the risk of being inconsistent or scattered. That said, I’m very interested in books that push the boundaries of genre, so I love to see writers experiment. The key is to push those genre boundaries without completely breaking them.

GLA: Another of your areas of interest is dystopian. Is this more so for adult or juvenile literature (or does it even matter?)?

SH: I’m open to dystopian across the board. For example, I think a new adult dystopian, which explores the idea of coming into your own in a world gone crazy could be really marketable. I’d love to see new approaches to dystopian for readers of any age.

GLA: As well, how is the market for dystopian these days, and do you see that changing at all?

SH: I do see the market for dystopian changing. Just like the urban fantasy market, dystopian has reached a certain saturation level. This means that some editors may have filled this spot on their list and might not be actively seeking more dystopian. Does that mean that dystopian is done? In my opinion, absolutely not. Do I think I could sell a strong dystopian project in this market? Absolutely. Even if some editors dipped a toe in the dystopian waters and decided they didn’t want to jump in, I know there will always be a place for dystopian in the fantasy and science fiction world. Fans of the genre are still hungry for more and that means there will still be plenty of editors willing to take a risk for the right project.

(Find some science fiction literary agents.)

GLA: What is the biggest querying “no no” you’ve ever seen? How about this week?

SH: That’s a tough one. I think the biggest querying “no no” I’ve ever seen was when an author tracked down some sensitive personal information and included it in their cover letter. Eeep! As agents we absolutely love when authors do their research and get to know our interests, but you want to always make sure what you include in your query letter is professional and that you don’t slip too far into the realm of the personal.

The biggest “no no” I’ve seen this week probably would be authors whose query letters focus too much on their author bios and don’t tell me what their book is about! Make sure you put those essential story details up front.

GLA: What do you hope to see when you Google a prospective client?

SH: I’d love to see a professional looking website that gives me a feel for who this person is as a writer and that has been recently updated. I also want to be able to see that a writer is engaging with the world of social networking, whether it’s through a blog or on Facebook and Twitter. Knowing how to market yourself is becoming increasingly important for fiction and nonfiction writers alike, so it never hurts to have a jumpstart on your online presence, even before you start looking for an agent. Additionally, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read about a contest winner who sounded awesome or found a short story writer I really loved and then had no way of contacting the author because I couldn’t find them online. So, make sure you have a presence and that your contact details are available so you don’t miss out on any wonderful opportunities.

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

SH: I’ll be attending the following writers conferences and would love to meet writers in person and hear about their projects. RWA (July 17-20th), Put Your Heart in a Book Conference (October 19th).

I’ll also be judging the final round for the MARA Fiction from the Heartland Contest this fall, so make sure to get those entries in! You can follow me on Twitter @ShiraSHoffman for updates on conferences, contest and more.

GLA: What is something personal about you writers would be surprised to hear?

SH: Despite my bubbly personality, I am completely caffeine free. Well, almost ... If you count chocolate as caffeine, I guess I cheat a little. Chocolate is definitely my secret weakness.

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t talked about yet?

SH: The best piece of advice I can give is that writing is all about revision. For example, if an agent passes on your manuscript but tells you they would love to look at a revision, they mean it! They think you have talent and they want to see more from you.

(5 Ways to Make Sure You Get Good Revision Notes From Beta Readers.)

However, the flip side of a request like this is that they probably feel there is still a lot of work to be done before they could successfully market your project to editors. Revisions are hard, and we want to see that you have what it takes to get the job done. Give yourself the greatest chance by always sending agents your very best work and don’t be afraid to ask a writing buddy to take a peek before you hit send.

As agents, we want to see that you have the experience and maturity to know how to identify the issues in your own writing and that you are ready and willing to address any problems that come up during the editorial process. Rewriting is going to be super important once your book is sold, and your editor has input on how to make the book even better. Always keep an open mind and remember that everyone working on your book wants to see you succeed.

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This guest column by Ricki Schultz,
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