Book Broker – an interview with Peter Riva
Agent: Peter Riva
Preferred genres: Trade publishing—fiction + nonfiction, children’s books, illustrated, books-to-film.
Bio: Since 1975, Peter Riva has specialized in international idea and intellectual property brokerage catering to multi-national, multi-lingual, licensing and rights’ representation of authors and publishers as well as producing award-winning television and other media. They have been responsible for over 40 years of production, in both media and product, resulting in excess of $1.7 billion in retail sales and several international historic events (the memorabilia of which are on permanent display in national institutions in America, Germany, and France as well as touring internationally).
1) What stands out in a good submission?
The demands of non-fiction and fiction publishing are changing, seemingly at an alarming speed. The demands on authors are horrendous—they need to show a “platform” as well as a means for self-promotion. Even the Big 5 have standard demands for the authors to undertake promotion that the publishers and bookstores (co-op advertising) used to be responsible for. Given that the odds are stacked against authors, we must honestly explain and run authors through that same gauntlet. We work as partners with authors and to mislead them—even when they may have great (and sometimes successful overseas) concepts and books—serves no one. If the book is strong, if it demands attention and offers a page-turning read, often we help authors sculpt their abilities and contacts to try and ensure success. In short, we—and authors—work twice as hard as even ten years ago.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
You’re kidding, right? Query emails or letters that arrive with poor grammar, poor spelling, anything that leads with “This is the best manuscript you’ll see this year” (had two of those already this year)…
Any email sent to anyone other than us (singular) without some indication they know who we are and what we do…
And especially any email which makes assumptions on how we should work for the author.
3) What advice can you give to writers who are submitting their work?
Not one publisher acquires books because the public might enjoy the book. Publishers sell to book buyers from stores. Authors often forget that the strength of their work has to win through, to have a quality throughout, to be almost ready to go to print. And it is vital—in today's selection process by buyers—that the editorial review board and then the marketing review board see a faultless presentation.
4) How do you weigh the importance of each submission component (query letter, synopsis, writing sample) when determining whether you will ask to read a full manuscript?
Well, let’s start with a query letter. How well written that is, how polite, if the author has understood he or she is not looking to hire an agent but seeks to ask an agent to help with their work—these are initial criteria that must pass the mark. Then, when and if we request a submission, the first ten pages will tell us if the writing is sufficiently strong and readable. We progress, in steps, from there: full MS, log line, two-para description, synopsis, market appeal, three comps, promotion-by-author plans.
5) Approximately how many query letters do you receive per year? Of those, how many will you respond to with a request for a full manuscript? And of those, how many are likely to receive an offer of representation?
Over ten daily, of those maybe two are interesting to read (query letter only)—then in a week? Asking for one submission (sample and details). And in a year perhaps ten manuscripts.
6) What is the average length of time it takes to place a manuscript with a publisher, and what is your strategy for a client whose manuscript isn't selling?
First off, it is not selling. It is placing with the right editor and publisher who can enhance what the author is doing. Only then will a book have a chance. The editor is the champion, internally in the publishing house, for each book under her or his care. Finding that combination can be instantaneous or take years. The book, if it is strong, is more important than a timeline. If it can be placed quickly, well then bravo. But placed well is the criteria. And, yes, sometimes it comes down to placed at all…
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
I am a fan of so many writers. I rarely read bestsellers like LeCarre or Joseph Kanon except on holiday, and my work-life reading is mostly confined to available time on planes or hotels… so I often read advanced copies that editors send me, like The Lives of Bees by Seeley, The Memo by Harts, Bake Bandits by Shelton, Hamnet by O’Farrell, and, recently, started The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin once again.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
Katharine Holabird and Sarah Warburton with their successful TWINKLE series as well as Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig—we relaunched Angelina Ballerina!
And then there are always wonderful storytellers like Ron Lealos and Stephen Anderson… maybe not as popular as we would like, but unique, strong, voices.
Let’s not forget Ake Edwardson, John Enright, and Mike Jenne—each masters of their genre.