Interview with Literary Agent Helen Zimmerman - Writer's Digest

Literary Agent Interview: Helen Zimmermann of Helen Zimmermann Literary Agency

This interview features literary agent Helen Zimmermann of Helen Zimmermann Literary Agency. She seeks writers of fiction and nonfiction. After more than 20 years in publishing—from the marketing department of Random House to Director of Advertising and Promotion for one of their imprints (The Crown Publishing Group) to Author Events Director at an independent bookstore, she founded her boutique agency in 2003 and enjoyed early success with the New York Times bestseller Chosen by A Horse.
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“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Helen Zimmermann of Helen Zimmermann Literary 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 interview features literary agent Helen Zimmermann of Helen Zimmermann Literary Agency. After more than 20 years in publishing—from the marketing department of Random House to Director of Advertising and Promotion for one of their imprints (The Crown Publishing Group) to Author Events Director at an independent bookstore, she founded her boutique agency in 2003 and enjoyed early success with the New York Times bestseller Chosen by A Horse. Follow Helen Zimmerman on Twitter.

(Query letter FAQs answered.)

She is seeking: nonfiction projects to do with health and wellness, relationships, popular culture, women's issues, lifestyle, sports, and music as well as memoirs and keep-her-up-at-night fiction.

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GLA: How did you become an agent?

HZ: I had worked at Random House for ten years and moved to the Hudson Valley after I had my daughter. I missed the business so much, I got a job at a local independent bookseller and became their Events Director. Since readings tend to draw aspiring writers, I was often asked, “How do I get published?” and I always said the same thing: “You need an agent.” After I had that exchange about 20 times, I thought, Hey, maybe I should do this! I never did sell the first project I took on, but my second one became a NYTimes bestseller for over 20 weeks.

It turns out becoming an agent after you have been on the publishing side and worked in a bookstore makes perfect sense. Since I know the ins and outs of each, it really helps me see the big picture.

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

HZ: I’m excited about ALL of my projects, of course, but the one that comes immediately to mind is called The Normal Bar: The Surprising Secrets of Happy Couples and What They Reveal About Creating A New Normal in Your Relationship, by Chrisanna Northrup, Dr. Pepper Schwartz and Jim Witte. It is based on the most extensive survey EVER (hundreds of thousands of people) taken on relationships. Some very insightful stuff, a real peek behind the relationship curtain. Crown is very excited about the project and is doing a wonderful job of publishing it.

(What is the definition of "New adult"? That, and many more definitions explained.)

GLA: Besides “good writing,” and “voice,” what are you looking for right now in your fiction submissions and not getting? Any particular subjects, topics, or genres that draw you in?

HZ: For fiction, it’s always the characters for me. If the characters are truly well developed, I’m in. What I haven’t seen lately is anything with enough tension to keep me turning the pages late into the night. I want the novel that’s going to make me miss a meal!

GLA: What kinds of pop culture pieces grab you?

HZ: Women’s issues, relationships, music, sports. I think those are my top four. But, you know, if a great project came across my desk that revolved around psychology or science, I’d love to work on it, if all the chips were in the right place. One thing I just can’t get my head around is political books. Apparently, I don’t have a political bone in my body.

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GLA: How is the market for these kinds of projects?

HZ: The market for ALL projects is completely dependent on the strength of the material and the passion of the author(s). If their platform is there and the information is fresh and entertaining, there is always a market.

GLA: From your agency site, it looks like you do it all! How editorial would you say you are?

HZ: Honestly, it varies. Some clients come to me with narrative that is pristine, and I just have a few line edits (okay, admittedly not very often!). I do everything from restructuring narrative to making character development suggestions to reworking proposals almost in their entirety. If it’s a project I believe in and it needs work, I’ll do the work. BUT, I also don’t get in over my head. There are certain fiction projects that have a ton of potential but are simply beyond me in terms of editing. In which case I suggest to my clients to hire a professional.

GLA: Yours is a boutique agency. What would you say are the benefits for writers going boutique?

HZ: I e-mail or call them back. Always. Within hours, if not minutes.

(The difference between your "current platform" and "future platform.")

GLA: You are currently working on a video series called Project Publish, which is aimed at helping aspiring writers determine whether they want to go the "traditional" or the self-published route. Tell us more about that!

HZ: I go to many writers conferences all over the country giving lectures on how to get published. It occurred to me that this information could be VERY helpful to many aspiring writers, so I would like to reach a broader base. There are many small protocols that need to be followed which greatly increase your chances of getting an agent or getting published. There are also MANY things that are fairly easy to implement that put you at the front of the pack with your book project. I have gotten such great feedback on my lectures, but each one is only to a few hundred people at a time, so I am going to put the information on videos/downloads which will be available on my website early December.

GLA: What are your top 5 pet peeves in the submissions you receive every day?

HZ: Anything that leads me to believe they haven’t done their homework. If someone is going to query me, they are asking me to put my reputation on the line for their project. While I wouldn’t be anywhere without writers, I do expect a certain amount of professionalism. Top five would be:

1. Calling me “sir” (or, quite frankly, “madam”)
2. Reminding me that their novel is a fictional novel. HUH?
3. Sending a query with typos. I honestly don’t care if someone misspells my name, it happens all the time, but to not proofread your query just doesn’t send a good message.
4. Sending a query with a 4-page synopsis embedded in the e-mail.
5. Calling me on the phone a week after the query e-mail to find out “what’s up.”

GLA: What impresses you in terms of a writer’s platform? What do you require (besides good writing/solid book proposal) of potential clients?

HZ: Many, many followers. What sometimes gets called a “permission base.” I want them to already be on a speaking engagement tour, or be writing magazine articles, or be a radio correspondent, or be the author of a popular blog, or have other folks who do these things willing to promote the book. I just need to be able to go the publisher and say, “Look! We can personally reach out to 3 million people …that’s GOT to translate into enough initial book sales to get things going!”

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

HZ: Yes! I was just at the Self Pub Book Expo in NY on October 27, 2012, the LaJolla Writers’ Conference November 2-4, 2012, and the CLMP conference at The New School in NY on November 8, 2012.

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

HZ: That I am an EMT. Captain of my Rescue Squad, actually, so very active with the department. My guess is I’m the only Literary Agent who has done CPR in the last week (she said hopefully).

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

HZ: If you are an aspiring writer, you need to do a quick checklist of personality traits:

Are you ridiculously and incredibly PATIENT?

If you answered yes to all three, then you’ve got a great shot at getting published!

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This guest column by Ricki Schultz,
freelance writer and coordinator of
The Write-Brained Network. You can
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