Book Broker – An interview with Andy Ross
Preferred genres: Narrative non-fiction, current events and history, journalism, science, literary and commercial fiction, and young adult fiction.
1) What stands out to you in a good submission?
In non-fiction, I look for a subject that has broad interest, a high concept, and an author with authority to speak about it. If I respond to a query letter, I expect the author to have a proposal available. I do a lot of work shaping and polishing proposals to address the questions and concerns I know an acquisition editor will be asking. I wrote a short book called The Literary Agent's Guide to Writing a Non-Fiction Book Proposal. Not to be immodest, it's sort of the Elements of Style for book proposal writing.
In fiction, I am mostly looking for a writer with a strong voice. Voice is ineffable. But it's easy to see, usually in the first paragraph. The next thing I look for is the concept of the story. Publishers like subtle literary fiction but they still want something with a high concept. I am also looking for authors who have previously been published, who have successful sales records, and who have won prestigious awards. But if I fall in love with a novel by a debut author, I'll champion it.
2) What is the most common error or flaw you see in query letters?
I always think that query letters are easy to write. But I find authors incredibly intimidated by them. The biggest problem I see with fiction writers is that they try to give a synopsis of the story. Most agents get about twenty queries a day and don't have time to spend trying to analyze plot points.
A good query letter should be short, less than half a page. It needs to be in three parts. The first paragraph should be short, say the name of the book, the genre, and the word count. The second paragraph should be longer and should describe the concept of the book and why an agent/editor/reader would be interested in that. The final paragraph should say something about the author.
I did a blog post called "The Best Query Letter Ever Written". As a challenge, I took the longest and most complex novel in the Western Canon, Tolstoy's War and Peace, and tried to compose a query letter describing it in about six sentences. I'm pretty proud of what I did.
3) What's a typical early warning sign that a manuscript isn't structurally sound?
The earliest warning for me is in a query letter or a book proposal where the concept of the book can't be expressed in a few sentences. That is an indicator the author can't decide what she wants to write about, or else she is smitten with several ideas and wants to shoehorn them all into a single book. Whenever I see a first paragraph of a book proposal that says "This book is about x but it is also about y", I know there are going to be structural problems.
4) Are you currently open to submissions?
Yes. I'm always looking for great books. That's how I earn my living. I always like to warn prospective authors that it is very difficult to get published, even if you are good. Publishers frequently make decisions based on marketing, not on aesthetics. Most of the queries I get are for adult fiction and literary memoir, the most difficult genres to get published.
5) Is there anything in particular you are looking for right now?
For the reasons I gave above, I'm more interested in non-fiction at the moment. I like history, current events, narrative non-fiction, journalism, books by scholars who are writing for a general audience. I am always looking for memoirs. But probably not so much intimate literary family memoirs. I prefer memoirs that look outward and have a high concept.
6) What advice can you give to writers who are submitting their work?
Writers need to go into this understanding the difficulty of getting books published, and they need to be realistic about what to expect. Every agent I know says the most difficult part of their job is to manage an author's expectations. Most books aren't going to get six-figure advances. Most books aren't going to get made into movies.
Every editor in book publishing gets ten to twenty proposals or fiction manuscripts a week. Almost all of them are submitted by agents, which means they have been heavily vetted. They usually end up acquiring about twelve a year. If you don't find a publisher for your book and if you are good, go back to your desk and write a new proposal.
7) What do you love most about being an agent, and what do you find the most challenging?
I love being an agent. Every day I wake up and hope that something miraculous happens. And sometimes it does. When I get an offer from a publisher for a book I believe in, or when I get the copy of the book for the first time, it still can bring tears to my eyes. But I suffer rejection just as my clients do. Typically I will send a project out to thirty publishers. And I'll get twenty-eight rejections. Sometimes my job seems like my social life in high school.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
Probably my best-known client is Daniel Ellsberg. As most of us remember, he is the person responsible for exposing the Pentagon Papers. He's considered the greatest whistleblower in American history. He was my hero when I was in college and I'm so proud and honored to work with him.
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