Book Broker – An interview with BJ Robbins
Fiction: literary, some mystery/thriller. Nonfiction: narrative, history, biography, pop culture, health/medicine
BJ Robbins established her Los Angeles-based agency in 1992 after a multi-faceted career in book publishing in NY, first in publicity at Simon & Schuster and later as marketing director and then senior editor at Harcourt. Her agency represents quality fiction, both literary and commercial, and general nonfiction, with a particular interest in narrative history, memoir, biography, pop culture, sports, medicine, and health. Clients include NY Times bestselling authors and award-winning writers such as J. Maarten Troost, James Donovan, John Hough, Jr., Max Byrd, Nafisa Haji, Renee Swindle, Stephen Graham Jones, and Deanne Stillman. (For further information, visit bjrobbinsliterary.com.)
1) What stands out in a good submission?
A well-written query letter that clearly defines the project as well as why the author has chosen to submit to my agency always stands out. I ask for the first ten pages, so of course the writing has to be strong and compelling.
2) What is the most common error or flaw you see in query letters?
It's hard to pinpoint the most common error because I see so many. I'll list a few here: sending inappropriate material, sending a group email to a list of agents, launching into a lengthy blow-by blow of the plot, excessive hyperbole ("This book will sell a million copies!"), spelling and grammar errors. My favorite one: writing the query letter in the voice of the novel's protagonist.
3) What's a typical early warning sign that a manuscript isn't structurally sound?
So many novels flag in the middle. What starts out as crisp and precise can often start to go downhill after the first few chapters. Sloppy dialogue, lack of character development, losing pace – these are the signs. If I really like the writing and the story I might skip to the final chapters to see if it's worthwhile asking for a revision.
4) Are you currently open to submissions, and is there anything in particular you are looking for right now?
Yes, I'm always looking for compelling stories, great characters, something I haven't seen before. I don't take on a lot of new projects but if I read something I love I'm happy to sign it up.
5) What advice can you give to writers who are submitting their work?
My two main pieces of advice are this:
Make sure your work is ready. Don't finish a draft and then send it out. Let it sit for a while and reread, and ask other trusted readers to weigh in. I see many projects that have potential but they're not close enough to being marketable for me to take on.
Do your homework before sending out your query letter. Look up the agents and their submissions guidelines and make sure to personalize the letter to the particular agent you're targeting. There are many resources online and in print that list agents (AAR website, Publishers Lunch, Writer's Digest, Jeff Herman's Guide, etc.). And most agencies have websites that show the books and authors they represent and delineate how they want to receive submissions.
6) What do you love most about being an agent, and what do you find the most challenging?
I love working with writers and helping to shepherd their books to publication. There's nothing better than discovering a new voice and then finding a publisher for that author.
What's challenging is the ever-changing landscape in the publishing world. I find that I have to more creative and flexible that in years past.
7) If you disliked a submitted manuscript but thought it could be a bestseller, would you take it on? (A question from one of our Twitter followers.)
I don't think any agent can know for certain whether or not a book could be a bestseller. If we could, we'd just rep those projects! But to answer the question, no, I don't take on anything I dislike. If I haven't sparked to it I'm clearly not that author's best advocate. I do a fair amount of editing before I send out a manuscript, and I can't imagine anything more soul-sucking than editing something I don't like!
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
I'll mention two. The first is James Donovan, whose brilliant book about Apollo 11 and the space race, SHOOT FOR THE MOON, has just been published by Little, Brown. Mike Collins, one of the astronauts on the mission, called it "The best book on Apollo that I have read."
Another is award-winning author Stephen Graham Jones, whose novel ELK HEAD WOMAN will be published next year by Saga.
Want some assistance with your query letter and synopsis? Check out our query-critique service.