Book Broker – an interview with Melissa Flashman
Agent: Melissa Flashman
Preferred genres: literary fiction and fiction with a strong hook, narrative non-fiction, history, politics, current affairs, science, social sciences and psychology, business and economics, and pop culture.
Bio: A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Melissa Flashman majored in English at Wesleyan University. After stints in the English Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins, commercial and indie radio, the advertising world and something called cool-hunting (it was the late 90s), she got her first job in publishing working as an assistant in the literary department of ICM before moving to Trident Media Group where she was a literary agent for over ten years before joining Janklow & Nesbit Associates in 2017.
Melissa’s authors have won numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize, the Windham Campbell Prize, Whiting Award, National Book Critic Circle Award, the Rona Jaffe Award, the Hugo Award, n + 1 writer’s fellowship, and The Nation’s Ridenhour Prize, among others. A former first serial and magazine agent, she enjoys helping her writers place journalism, essays and fiction in a range of publications including The New Yorker, Harper’s, the New York Times, Vogue, The Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, the Paris Review, n + 1, Tin House, the Baffler and Jacobin.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
An answer to what question is this book seeking to answer. Even with the most literary of projects, I've been surprised at how often this can be answered.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
The author doesn't know their "why." I can help with so many parts of the process, but if you don't know why you are compelled to write a particular book, you will have a hard go of the many months and years ahead.
3) How do you feel about personalization in query letters? Can you give an example of effective personalization?
Very much in favor! There are so many agents out there. It is good to have a sense of why a writer think we might be a good fit. Mentioning other authors I work with goes a long way toward that end, but any way the writer is able to demonstrate why I might be a good partner is a good place to start.
4) For writers without prior publications, what can they say in their "about me" query paragraph to catch your attention?
I work with many authors who haven't published previously, this includes literary fiction writers, academics and experts in their chosen field. A great query letter helps. If you have an urgent story to tell, it might make sense to lean on your experience and accomplishments to the extent they are related to the book you propose to write.
5) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?
I am tempted to say its place in whatever phase of late-stage financial capitalism we now find ourselves in, which makes working in the culture business prohibitively expensive, especially at the entry level. Otherwise, I would say the consolidation of publishing, of which much hay has been made. I am hopeful that we may witness the dawn of a new era of independent presses and the continuation of independent bookstores, but this is by no means guaranteed.
6) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
Long Bright River by Liz Moore on the fiction side. It fulfills all the requirements of a fast-paced suspense, and I learned something about Philadelphia, it's neighborhoods and gentrification, without it feeling heavy handed.
7) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
They are all so exciting and several which I'm not free to talk about at the moment, but enough cannot be said about the forthcoming THE DAWN OF EVERYTHING: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Tragically, David Graeber passed away after the manuscript was delivered to his publisher, but he (and archaeologist David Wengrow) has left us a magisterial rewriting of human history covering tens of thousands of years that has startling implications for how we understand the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy, slavery, and civilization itself.