Notes from Literary Agent Panel at Willamette Writers Conference

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Literary Agents Panel
moderated by Betsy Amster
Panelists
1. Bernadette Baker-Baughman /YA, Middle Grade, graphic novels; 
2. Rita Rosenkranz/Nonfiction
3. Robyn Russell /Fiction & Nonfiction;
4. Susan Finesman /Bookto-Film; 
  • What makes a great cover letter?
    • Susie: 
      • “It’s refreshing to get a nice letter on a nice piece of paper.”
      • “I see that you like X, and I have written X.” Address someone personally.
    • Rita: Concision and clarity. It doesn’t feel generic. It feels particular. It’s a window on a world.
  • What flaws are you willing to overlook and why?
    • Bernadette: Sloppy editing, mistakes as a matter of technicality, should all be fixed. It doesn’t leave a good first impression.
    • Rita: 
      • If I ask for a proposal and don’t get it, I wonder what’s up. If you query, you should be ready to execute the proposal.
      • If the authors platform doesn’t match their book, then they’re the wrong author.
    • Robyn: I can overlook a scene not being strong enough or a character needs to be tweaked. But I can’t overlook someone who queries me and their novel is not complete. You can only read for the first time once.
    • Susan: Agree: don’t query until finished.
  • To what extent do you work on material (editing, etc.)
    • Bernadette: If I read something I love, I send it to two other readers. We compile a report of what’s working and not working. 5 to 10 pages of detail. Then have a conversation with the author on how much editing is need. If its a lot, then we suggest they work with a private editor.
    • Robyn: Sometimes we suggest they go with an outside editor, but more usually we’ll work with the author. Sometimes we’ll go through 3 or 4 drafts with them.
    • Susan: When it comes to non-fiction and crafting a proposal, I work very closely with them. Fiction is on a case by case basis. Do I know what’s wrong and can I help them fix it?
  • What do you tell an author whose platform isn’t quite right, or isn’t quite large enough?
    • Susie: You have to work the social media racecourse. You have to know how to reach people and connect with them.
    • Robyn: It’s critical to have a web presence. Review books and push them on your blog.
    • Rita: Publishers want proof, not promises. The author has to continue the promotional activities after the three month campaign. Sometimes the smaller publishers are willing to work with someone who is still developing their platform. 
    • Bernadette: You have an opportunity to craft your personna and to bring that out into the world. There’s an easy way to get that following by building connections with other authors. 
  • What do you think makes for a long writing career? 
    • Rita: 
      • Listening to thriller writers, they say they have pressure to publish at least a book a year.
      • Authors who are willing to listen to feedback, to plot a course over time.
    • Robyn: A willingness to evolve. One author when from memoir to non fiction to YA to memoir.
    • Susie: Writing to sell. Looking for commercially viable books. You have to keep working. Don’t be wed to one particular style. Because the world moves on.
  • Are there warning signs or pet peeves? Things that make you say this author isn’t for me.
    • Bernadette: Authors who think that once they have an agent, things are going to get easier. The work of building their career is just starting.
    • Rita: We’re dealing with skeletal staffs in publishing today, and so there’s more that can do wrong. Authors who come with trust and use my time well, they get my respect. There are authors whose talent is not up to their ambition. They’re expecting greatness, but all I can give them is goodness. When there’s tension based on expectations, that’s awkward.
    • Robyn: An impatient author who keeps asking when we’ll read their stuff...our reading time is on our evenings and weekends. 
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