Book Broker – an interview with Jeff Ourvan
Agent: Jeff Ourvan
Preferred genres: Narrative nonfiction, science, young adult, and commercial fiction.
Bio: Jeff Ourvan, an attorney, published author, and writing instructor, is a literary agent with the Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency. His interests are varied: he represents nonfiction works, especially narrative nonfiction, histories, biographies, science, and sports. He also represents novelists, particularly in the young adult, thriller, and romance categories. Jeff heads the agency’s book-to-film efforts, and he is the founder of the WriteWorkshops, an intensive writing workshop based in New York. His most recently authored work is THE STAR-SPANGLED BUDDHIST (Skyhorse).
1) What stands out in a good submission?
Whether in fiction, memoir, or nonfiction, I look for page-turning narratives in which the dynamic between the protagonist and the plot pumps like a piston: events cause the protagonist to change; the changed protagonist alters the trajectory of the story.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
If the pace isn't brisk, or if the writing begins to feel indulgent or slow, I would think it needs further editing. A preponderance of adverbs is a dead giveaway.
3) How do you feel about personalization in query letters? Can you give an example of effective personalization?
I read and try to always respond to all queries I receive. A personalized query only goes so far—I respect when an author takes the time to find out about me and my interests, but my decision to request a manuscript won't be based on that.
4) How much importance do you give to comparable titles in a query letter? How do they help you assess whether a manuscript is a good fit for your list?
I find that it is often useful. But not when the comp borders on pure aspiration—e.g., it's the next Harry Potter.
5) For writers without prior publications, what can they say in their "about me" query paragraph to catch your attention?
It's important to mention writing experience and MFA achievement, if applicable. Especially for nonfiction, I always look for a writer's platform and for what qualifies them to tell the story that is being pitched.
6) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?
I would like to see more acquiring editors with the ability to put in more time with debut authors to help shape their books. A lot of this is increasingly the responsibility of the agent.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
I recently enjoyed WHY WE SWIM by Bonnie Tsui, which expertly blends and balances science, memoir, and narrative nonfiction.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
Peter Houlahan, the author of NORCO 80, is writing a terrific new nonfiction work about a 1985 traffic stop gone terribly wrong that led to the shooting of two San Diego police officers and a civilian ride-along by a young African-American man, with very unexpected consequences.