The most frustrating hurdle for many new writers is how does one impress a literary agent? How can a writer make their query letter stand out among the hundreds of others? How do you get your foot in the door without being pushy?
Sorche Elizabeth Fairbank, literary agent and founder of Fairbank Literary Representation, has helped authors see their work in print for more than twelve years. She’s also well known for being one of the most easy going and approachable agents in the world of publishing.
During the Missouri Writers’ Guild conference, Fairbank will be taking pitch appointments on Saturday. Remember, this is on a first come, first serve basis, so register early. See the Fairbank website to see which type of manuscripts she is currently accepting.
On Friday, April 11, Fairbank will present the Early Arrival Seminar “How To Talk to an Agent, and Other *Important* Conference Topics.” This informal pre-conference talk will cover topics from the best way to pitch, how to get the most out of the conference, to what NOT to do under any circumstances.
On Saturday, Fairbank presents the breakout session “Rejection, Rejection: Why It’s Happening To You, and How To Avoid It.” Attendees will dig into the murky world of rejection. Learn what some standard rejection phrasing means (i.e., agent-speak), and why so many rejections are simply a form letter. Attendees will find out if they are guilty of one or more of the top twenty reasons for rejection, and participate in a frank discussion about second chances with agents and publishers. Fairbank will offer suggestions as to when to listen to advice and when to chalk things up to subjective difference, and how best to turn that “No” into a “Yes,” or at least a “Please send me more.”
Fairbank will also present the “Agent on the Spot Q&A Session.” She will address the most common questions asked about agents and agenting, as well as the ever-changing state of publishing and getting one’s work noticed. Attendees may send Fairbank questions in advance to: QUESTIONS@fairbankliterary.com Limit questions to no more than 70 words, and one question per e-mail. There will also be ample opportunity to ask questions during this enlightening breakout session.
Finally, Fairbank will teach a Masters class on Sunday, April 13, entitled “How to Query/Pitch/Describe/Summarize/Talk About your Book.” This interactive, intensive session will cover how to talk (and write) about your book in one sentence, in one paragraph, and in one page. Fairbank will go over uses for each, from logline/elevator pitches to the query synopsis. And for DIY authors, book jacket descriptions, press releases, Amazon descriptions, and more.
A complete description of Fairbank’s workshops can be found on the MWG web site.
Brian: First, Sorche, I’d like to thank you for taking the time for being a guest on our 2014 MWG Conference blog. We are obviously very excited to have you as part of our faculty at our “Fifty Shades of Writing” conference. Welcome.
Sorche: Thanks for the welcome. I’m excited about this conference already!
Brian: Rejection. Every author knows it well, so I predict your breakout session on this very topic will be popular. In part, I see you’ll be covering the top twenty reasons for rejection. Without giving away the ending, could you tell us one of the big time errors new writers make when approaching an agent?
Sorche: I have a simple answer to this question – the work isn’t ready yet for prime time. These days with the allure of quick DIY publishing, the value of process seems to have taken a backseat, and authors, even those who hope to be published traditionally, frequently are over-eager to declare their work finished long before it is.
Brian: We all know what it’s like to send that envelope or e-mail containing all our hopes and dreams. So what’s it like on the other end? Could you briefly describe what happens when you receive a new manuscript?
Sorche: It can differ from agency to agency, but in a nutshell:
- Query arrives, usually with the first few pages, by mail or email.
- Intern(s) have the first look through and sort out the ones that clearly aren’t what we rep (screenplays, poetry, picture books. . .). They read and sort the rest, with their quick comments on the envelope for me to see.
- I read all submissions, whenever I have time set aside. (nights/weekends/ on the train).
- The majority are a pass for me – either they just didn’t grab me, or, wait for it, they didn’t feel ready. Those folks get rejection letters or emails. The ones that felt worthy of a longer look, I request a much longer sample, and synopsis.
- When those partials arrive, steps two through four are more or less repeated. Intern(s) take a first read and give their notes, then I read. Very few make it all the way to a request for a full, I’m afraid. If I finish the sample and I’m not crazed with needing to see the rest, and worried that my fine agent colleagues will beat me to the punch, then it’s likely a pass. In total, I sign on 4 to 8 new authors in a given year. I’m always looking for that next new AMAZING author, but I am also fiercely protective of my time and roster.
Brian: Rejection, rejection. You can tell so little from a form letter, and some agents don’t even bother sending rejections anymore. What’s the next step for an author? Is it possible to resubmit to an agent who’s already told you no?
Sorche: If you steel yourself to the worst thing that will happen – another no – then yes, it’s possible to resubmit. It all depends on the agent, whether or not he/she will take a second or fourth look at something. All the more reason to make sure your work is truly ready to send out – things I’ll be covering in the rejection and the query/talk about your book class.
Brian: I notice that a handful of your many publishing credits are with university presses. What can you tell us about working with these publishers? Would you recommend them to authors looking for a home for their book?
Sorche: These were all very specific cases – in one instance, I sold an author’s commercial work, but he also had three other book projects, all academic, so I helped him place and negotiate those contracts.
In a few other cases, we turned to the university presses after trying the commercial houses –and in one of those cases the book went on to be an international bestseller, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Extremely unusual for a university press.
I never take on a new client/work if it feels like a university press book from the get-go (i.e. not a commercial book), as it’s just not financially viable. That said, it’s potentially a terrific option for authors to consider for certain kinds of books. Know your audience. Get to know the lists and backlists before querying publishers directly. And know that university presses are exacting, and expect a lot from the author and the work.
Brian: While it’s conventional wisdom to never submit an unfinished fiction book, I understand that’s not necessarily true for nonfiction. At what point can you contact an agent with an unfinished nonfiction project? How much do you like to see completed in advance?
Sorche: Nonfiction is often sold on proposal and sample chapters/pages. You’ll need an airtight proposal, and I suggest doing that before doing too much of the writing. Each should inform the other. I love and recommend Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato’s book, Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction and Get It Published. In fact, I assign it to all our serious narrative nonfiction authors. When I request a nonfiction work, I ask for proposal and up to three sample chapters for evaluation. The proposal includes a pretty thorough outline, so that I can get a real feel for the shape of the book as finished.
Memoir is held more to fiction rules than nonfiction. Most sell on complete manuscript, though I have sold a fair number on outline and samples. The bigger and clearer the hook, the better your chance at it selling on proposal and chapters. The biggest thing to remember about memoir is that it’s not an account of what happened, it’s the story of what happened, which means we generally need to see the beginning, middle, and end. The arc and the reader reward matter greatly.
Brian: You seem to have a very good reputation among people you’ve worked with, and have been described as both professional and approachable. However, we all know that not all agents are upstanding business people. Speaking as a guy who once nearly dumped two hundred bucks on a scam artist, it pays to be cautious before signing anything. What do hopeful writers need to be wary of when considering signing with an agent?
Sorche: In this day and age, the internet is your friend. You can pretty quickly separate scam from legit, and there are so many websites to aid you in your search, from Writer Beware to aaronline.org. I’ll have a handout at the conference that lists a few of these.
But the most important thing to look for with an agent is the agent’s sales track record. If the agent is brand new, you’re taking a leap of faith, mitigated somewhat if the agent is with a larger established agency.
Brian: We all know the life of a literary agent is glamorous and wild. Could you share one of your most exciting stories/accomplishments as an agent?
Sorche: If by glamorous you mean running around a gray and icy New York City hoping to find a hardware store open in the early hours to buy a roll of special carpenter’s tape that a cookbook author needed within the hour for her appearance on a NY morning television show, then yes, pile on the excitement.
Or maybe it means the untold hours of unpaid editing work on nights and weekends, or having to drop everything to rush down to the city to convince the president and publisher not to cancel a big book just because an event happened across the world that changed the crux of it. (The book was saved and we crashed it to have it released early with the new information in it)
Or perhaps the heady glamour is captured in the time that I went in for a meeting with an executive editor of Harper Collins to discuss an author’s debut work, and I was ushered into a large conference room instead of his office. There must have been 16 or 18 seats around the large table and steadily more people trickled in and introduced themselves as we waited for the editor. As each new person from sales, marketing, and publicity came in, I was more and more impressed by how seriously they were taking this new work. That all came crashing down of course, when it became apparent that someone had mixed up time and room for the agent repping The Bee Gees.
Glamorous, no. Fulfilling, entertaining, and the best job in the world, yes.
Brian: If you could give just one piece of advice to a writer, what would that be?
Sorche: Respect that strong writing is something you work toward. Nowhere else in the arts is so much emphasis placed by the artist on a single debut work. You wouldn’t expect to paint one painting and have it hung in a museum, or write your first song and expect it to win a Grammy. Your worth as a writer should never be wrapped up in an early single work. Keep writing. Keep reading.
Thank you very much for your time, Sorche. We look forward to seeing you at the conference.
If you are thinking about attending the MWG “Fifty Shades of Writing” annual conference in St. Louis to pitch to Sorche, be sure to register soon. Agent pitch assignments are given on a first come, first served basis.
Interviewed by Brian Katcher, author of Playing with Matches, winner of the 2010-2011 North Carolina Young Adult Book Award; and Almost Perfect, winner of the 2011 Stonewall Young Adult Book Award. His newest book, Everyone Dies in the End: A Romantic Comedy will be out March 2014. Visit him on the web at www.briankatcher.com.