Friday, October 17, 2008

Interview with Andy Ross on Community Fridays

Welcome to Community Fridays!

During Community Fridays, I interview authors, editors, publishers, and pretty much anyone else who I can get my hands on from the writing and publishing communities. Hope you enjoy, and feel free to suggest new participants. Check out current and past interviews here. Only have a minute? Click here for interviews at a glance.

Today I interview Andy Ross, non-fiction literary agent.

As the owner of Cody's Books ("one of America's great independent book stores") for many years, you probably had quite a few authors stop by for signings, readings, etc. What did those authors do well? What did they do poorly? Any tips for authors attending readings or signings?

We had author readings approximate 20 times per month. That means that we probably had 4,000 readings over the years. In my opinion, the most interesting part of the event was the q&a time. I thought that the actual readings could be deadly boring. After all, people can read the books themselves. I always thought that a presentation by the author followed by q&a worked out the best. If an author was particularly charismatic, then a reading would work.

What made you choose to represent non-fiction books as an agent, specifically books by
"scholars trying to reach a general audience?" Is non-fiction your favorite genre? Do you feel that this market is underrepresented?

Well, I have represented a few novels. But I prefer non-fiction. Novels are very hard to sell. They take a long time. The competition is fierce. And it is a little unclear to me what publishers are looking for. With non-fiction I have a better sense of which publishers are interested in what subjects, whether the material is original, and whether the author has authority or "platform." Although I like working with scholars, many of my books are quite different. I have gotten a contract for a very important scholarly work on theology. But I also worked successfully on a book about dogs. It is early in my career, so I am not yet ready to specialize. Working with scholars presents certain challenges. One must work hard to get them to understand what kind of narrative and writing style will work for a general audience. For a scholar who has written mostly in scholarly journals and with university presses, they must learn an entirely different language.

Are there any other differences between working as a non-fiction agent and working as a fiction agent?

Fiction usually requires months to sell, dozens of submissions. And the criteria for acceptance is murky. It usually has to do with whether an editor "falls in love" with the book. Of course if you are representing a "name brand" novelist, John Updike, Nelson DeMille, etc., it is much easier. It is simply a matter of assessing who will offer the most money and who will do the best job. I have worked with 2 novelists, both previously published, both award winners, both novels that I loved. I was not able to get them published. It is a very tough world out there for fiction.

When you receive a manuscript, do you expect it to be professionally edited? If you like a manuscript, will you accept it with some flaws? Or, as a non-fiction agent, do you usually receive project proposals which you or a ghost writer help the author to write (instead of a finished manuscript)?

For non-fiction, it is not necessary to have a finished manuscript. A proposal and a sample are all that is necessary. If the project is worthy but still needs work (different organization, improved writing style), I recommend a freelance editor. I'm making a list of them. Obviously if it is too flawed to work with, I won't accept it.

What catches your eye first when you're looking for a new author to represent?

I prefer writers who are experts in their field, who have superior reputations, or otherwise have impressive platforms. Platform is very important to publishers at the moment. Publishers are simply competing against too many alternatives for leisure time. They demand that the author be the primary conduit for promoting the book. That being said, my first sale was by an unknown author, 25 years old. He wrote a narrative of his year in the Marshall Islands. He was a magnificent writer. And publishers recognized this right away. There was considerable interest in the book from multiple NY houses and editors at the highest level. However in the end, most of them decided to pass. The reason was his lack of "platform." I did manage to get it published by an excellent publisher, though.

There's quite a big debate raging over whether it's better for an author to have an agent or not. There are also some very strongly held opinions. You have a vested interest, as an agent, but you also have a good perspective on the issue. What are your thoughts?

Well, certainly if a person doesn't want to have an agent, then they shouldn't. There are some compelling reasons to have one though. Let me list them.

1.) As a practical matter, most major publishers no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. They simply don't have time. So they insist that submissions be filtered through agents. If you look in the back of a Random House catalogue, you will see that every book being offered has agency representation.

2.) A good agent will help you define how to structure and organize your book to make it saleable.

3.) A good agent will work with you on your proposal to make it attractive to publishers.

4.) A good agent will be familiar with the hundreds of imprints and the thousands of editors who will be looking at your project. Although publishing has become highly consolidated into a handful of publishers, each of these publishers have numerous imprints that have different interests and orientations.

5.) A good agent will help you make a decision about which publisher is the best home. This is sometimes different from which publisher will offer you the most money.

6.) A good agent will protect you from unfair language in a contract.

7.) A good agent will monitor your royalty statements and make sure that you are being treated fairly.

8.) A good agent will work with a publisher and offer suggestions on better ways to promote the book.

9.) A good agent will help you when your book is going out of print. They will work with you to reclaim your rights, and maybe try to resell the book.

10.) A good agent will decide which world rights you should retain to sell yourself and which rights you should offer to a publisher.

11.) A good agent will never take money up front, but will only work for a commission.

I am sure that there are some good agents who do not have the time or inclination to do all of these things. But you need to decide whether you have a good working relationship with your agent, and whether they are doing the kinds of services I am suggesting.

Lastly, because this feature is about establishing bonds within the writing and publishing industries, can you name one author, editor, publisher, agent etc. who's doing great things right now, and why?

I can't answer that. There are thousands of authors, hundreds of editors and agents, dozens of publishers who are doing great things. Of course, I would like everyone to remember the virtues of the independent bookseller. They are really the heart and soul of the book business.

About the Author

Visit Andy Ross's website.

© Emma Larkins and Andy Ross
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