Boulder not being a very big city, chances are Boulder Writers’ Workshop members have knowingly or unknowingly crossed paths with literary agent Sara Megibow, an associate agent for Denver’s Nelson Literary Agency. She has been a BWW guest speaker and contest judge. Megibow lives in Boulder and works from her home, guiding her clients, negotiating their deals with New York publishing powerhouses, and combing through about 36,000 query letters a year from writers like you.
At a Starbuck’s patio on Broadway, Megibow talked about what aspiring writers need to do to get her attention—talked loudly into a digital recorder over accelerating buses and honking semis rumbling by a few feet away. Megibow has a pleasant, chatty style rooted in friendliness, confidence and tenacity; attributes her 21 clients must surely appreciate.
If you have a science fiction or fantasy novel set in a wonderfully crafted organic world, with intense characters and an exciting story—and it doesn’t include a data dump in the first 30 pages—your chances of catching Megibow’s attention are better than most. Those genres set her reader soul singing, which isn’t surprising for an agent who’s read The Hobbit “a thousand times.” She’s also on the lookout for contemporary young adult (spooky and dark is good), super-sexy, intelligent romance (paranormal, historical or contemporary), commercial fiction, women’s fiction and high-concept literary.
But you better do your homework, be professional in your knowledge of the biz, and give her a knockout query letter, as described in her Writer’s Digest web tutorial on the topic. (Don’ts: don’t be long, over generalize, be overly casual, ask hypothetical questions, try to be funny, employ a gimmick. Do’s: have a tremendous voice, a unique world, flawless writing, a unique concept, and include the word “completed,” the word-count and the genre in the first paragraph.)
Do it just right and you might join the six clients she accepted out of the 36,000 who queried her in the last year. Odds Vegas would drool over, to be sure, but nowhere near as bad as Powerball. And if Megibow is up for the challenge, why shouldn’t you be?
Boulder Writers’ Workshop: You read 1,000-1,400 queries per week and say that a prepared writer with a superior manuscript is really only competing with a handful of others. That sounds like a very nice way of saying that there are a lot of deluded people querying agents. What is it about writing that makes so many people think they can do it well, and why do so many intelligent people fail to see that their work is not so good?
Sara Megibow: I wouldn’t say they’re deluded. My husband is a musician, and I liken it to music. Many, many, many people play the guitar in their basement for fun. Going from playing the guitar in their basement to headlining in Vegas is an exponentially different thing. I think the stories about writing in the last ten years that have gone viral are the ones like J.K. Rowling, who was on welfare in England writing her book in a coffee shop with her kids running around at her feet, and now she’s the second wealthiest woman next to the queen. I think those stories about writing go viral in similar ways as those about musicians and actors.
I think people write because they love to write, and they approach publishing more based on the feeling of sensationalism. They’ve heard the stories of J.K. Rowling, Amanda Hocking, Stephenie Meyer. A writer can tell their mother or hairdresser or neighbor that they are writing a book, and they will say, “Well, you need to publish it.” So people are playing the guitar in their basement, and say, Okay I perform in the basement but now I have to put together a professional presentation to headline in Vegas. That would be the professional way to approach it. In writing, they write on their laptop at home, and say, Okay, this is easy; I just press Send and I become published.
There could be a little miscommunication about the more sensational successes everyone writes about. But I don’t think it’s delusional, it’s not that much more delusional than someone who plays guitar in their basement. The numbers are staggering, truly staggering. I got 36,000 queries last year. I don’t think those people are delusional or stupid. More than half of them have not done any research on the business of publishing. So let’s sweep those under the table. Let’s look at the other half. “Good” does nothing in this industry; similar to acting, similar to music, good does nothing. I’m looking for “exceptional,” and that’s 10 out of 36,000.
My job is not to take pre-published authors and make them into the next J.K. Rowling. My job is to take the manuscripts in my slush pile that are already sellable and to sell and monetize them. People say, “How come you don’t critique a query letter, sample pages or a manuscript?” It’s not my job. Twenty-one clients are relying on me to monetize their work, in audio sales, foreign sales, getting second-book deals, getting them in the New York Times. But to let that querying writer know that if they would stop putting so much backstory into the prolog that they would have a better work, that is not my job. An editor or a good book critique group will help. But I am not the best person to critique a work. I know what a good book is, but I don’t know how to make a good book into a great book. I can pull Tiffany Reisz [her client] from the slush pile and see that she is an exceptional writer. And she’s published 16 books in two years. She’s insane. My job is to monetize my clients’ work. My secondary job is to pull new clients out of the slush pile. I simply say Yes or No. And if I say Yes, I am hell-bent on monetizing it for my client. I don’t have a salary; I’m a sales person on a commission. I have to say No.
So how does someone evaluate whether they are ready for the market? There are stock answers I can give you. Some people might follow them and never sell. So with that caveat, my stock answers are: read more books in your genre. Someone who writes young adult needs to read three or four young adult books published in the last two years by New York publishing houses, preferably by debut authors.
BWW: But don’t those writers need to be able to compare their work to those books and say, “Mine’s not cutting it”?
SM: Okay, let’s take those 18,000 queries. I’ll say 16,000 of them are smart people who’ve done some research, have some talent, and have a good book, maybe quite good. They’ve read in their genre and they’re still getting rejection letters, and they don’t know why. They look at their own book and don’t know why their book isn’t as good as Kody Keplinger’s. Here are some other stock answers for them. Join a writing group a critique group. Go to a writing conference, especially one by the Romance Writers of America, which is very good at educating debut writers, no matter what their genre. Read your work out loud.
Here’s what a lot of people find. They write their first book, it’s good. Their second one is good. Around the third book, they find their craft. Most debut writers I sign, it’s not their first book. I would say keep writing.
BWW: I read a New York Times article the other day about Erin DeMeglio, the first girl quarterback on a Florida high-school football team, and I immediately thought of you and Catching Jordan by your client Miranda Kenneally. I thought, I bet Sara is trying to link Catching Jordan to this news event to get a sales bump. What differentiates a good literary agent from a great one in that realm? What are the key skills and resources publishers are looking for in Sara Megibow?
SM: We’ve already sent that Times clip to Miranda’s film co-agent hoping to push it in Hollywood. My relationship is multi-fold, with my clients the authors, with publishers, film co-agents, foreign rights co-agents. I only represent fiction, so I work only with those publishers. So an agent who represents nonfiction may need different skills. Publishing is very complicated and time intensive. In my experience (six years with the agency, three years agenting), the majority of debut writers don’t have a clear picture of the work expectations once they sign a book deal. One of the major responsibilities a publisher expects of the agent is to help mold that new author into a professional business partner.
My specialty is debut fiction authors. One of the main things the publisher is relying on me for is to explain to that new author what his or her job is. It’s not just, “Here’s your book deal and advance, happy spending.” You have a contract, a serious contract. And there are legal ramifications in signing that contract. The publisher is relying on me to communicate the expectations before signing rather than after signing. That’s a pretty big deal for my area of specialty, debut authors. For people signing their second, third, fourth book, it’s not that big a deal.
The publisher is hoping the agent is a good advocate for the author, is easy to work with, and can help smooth over communications. Things like, if I have audio rights I’m letting the publisher know who I’m shopping those rights to. It’s a lot of communicating. My clients turn their books in on time, and the publisher appreciates that. On the other hand, our agency employs one of the toughest contract negotiating lawyers in the business, I doubt the publisher appreciates that.
BWW: When you go to that published the next time, does your track record help that next client?
SM: That’s part of the difficulty and the trick of agenting. If I sign 10 authors and only sold five, when I go to a publisher with a project they’ll say, “Eh, your track record is only 50 percent; I only have to read this list with moderate attention.” Well I don’t have that kind of track record. I have 21 clients and 19 have sold and the other two haven’t been on submission yet. So when I send something, they know I am serious. The reputation I have with my first clients is what makes the publishing houses I am signing deals with now appreciate my agency more when working on this new one.
BWW: I’ve read you describe how you critique a work and was impressed with your rigor and expertise. If a literary agent, such as yourself, is so knowledgeable about the craft of writing, has her finger on the market’s pulse, knows how to pump up that “impact” factor in a book, knows what makes for great dialog, compelling characters, engrossing story and a uniquely structured world—and loves books—why doesn’t she write a breakout fantasy herself?
SM: I have no interest. I’m not a writer at all. And I don’t really edit. I do know what I am doing with critiques, but it’s not an editing thing, it’s a marketing thing. For example, when I shopped Stefan Bachmann’s book, I had to call up editors and say, “It’s a gothic steampunk middle grade fantasy; it’s a world in which the British have enslaved the fairies, and our hero is half fairy and half human.” I have to be able to talk about it intelligently. I have probably read The Hobbit a thousand times. I can talk intelligently about it. I would not be able to talk intelligently about Stefan Bachmann’s book [The Peculiar] if I had read it once, maybe twice. I usually read them three times. Some of my clients get high-level edits from me. Not line-editing, that would be awful. What a horrible job that is, and probably one of the most important jobs in publishing. But I could never do it, yuck.
So Tiffany’s [Reisz] book came to me 140,000 words and it was erotica. I can shop erotica at 90,000 to 100,000 words. So I wrote back and said, “It’s too long, and it has to have a more focused plot.” That’s called a high-level edit. She came back to me with those edits and we sold it. Stefan’s book, I don’t think I touched it. I thought that I would like to see a little more of the hero, and when we signed him, HarperCollins said, “I think we’d like to see a little more of the hero.” That’s a high-level edit. Anybody who reads three books a week can tell you that. I’m skilled not because I read a bunch of stuff out of the bookstore but because I read a bunch of stuff out of the slush pile.
BWW: Regarding the art of divining which agents/agencies a writer should target, can you explain how and why an agency comes about its categories of representation, and is there a chance in Hades of a writer knocking an agent off his or her categorical confines?
SM: Complicated answer. For myself—and this isn’t what the other 398 agents in the country might say—I only represent stuff that I read, period. Kristin [Nelson] at our agency recently started representing horror. Personally, I can’t stomach it, and I will never represent it. How do we pick our genres? Basically based on what we like to read.
BWW: Is that why you only have a small number of clients, because you only like a small number of fiction genres?
SM: The idea in this business is not breadth, typically. There are agents who have 300 clients, but I cannot fathom how they would do their job, but I’m sure they’re quite good at it. But what would you do as an author if you emailed your agent and didn’t get a response for two months? I have no interest in breadth. There is no reason for me to take on many more clients. I am continuing to acquire because I find it interesting, and because I could reasonably take on a three or four more. And statistically speaking, some of my existing clients may prefer not to write in a few years, so there will be turnover. If I don’t fall in love with it, there’s nothing a writer can do to make me fall in love with it. I feel no remorse whatsoever in books that I pass on. Not because I don’t like it or that I think the author doesn’t deserve success with another agent, maybe with another book, with self-publishing. They should move on. My interest is making sure that Miranda Kenneally gets her film deal option.
Something that does not fit into a precise genre for me is a deal breaker. That’s not true of, let’s call it, the other 398 agents. For me, if you can’t walk into the bookstore, walk down the Romance aisle and pick it out as a romance novel, then I am not going to represent it. Same with science fiction, fantasy, young adult and middle grade. I do represent one commercial fiction author, Dave Lowry who’s coming out with a book next September with Houghton Mifflin. But it’s pretty rare, because most people who write commercial fiction don’t have interesting enough plots for me. Obviously if I like science fiction I like a lot of plot. This is what I get most often: “It’s a romance fantasy with a 16-year old protagonist.” Well, no it’s not, because they’re not going to shelve it in Science Fiction and Young Adult and Romance. Bookstores will shelve it in one place.
Of the many thousands of people who have perfectly good books, the number one error they make is not understanding the business well enough to understand that it has to sell somewhere, and it isn’t going to sell in a vacuum. It has to be sold in a bookstore, on a shelf next to something. And it’s either going to be next to other romance novels or next to a science fiction. But that’s the number one mistake people make: “Well, I wrote the book of my heart, it doesn’t fall anywhere.” Then I can’t sell it.
I prefer to sign things that are 100 percent ready to go, and it has to fit into a genre. If it straddles genres, that’s fine, if it doesn’t fit in either one, that’s not okay. For example, something like The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann is marketed as fantasy. It straddles a variety of genres because a variety of different readers are buying it, that’s a crossover book. I wouldn’t shop it as a crossover. I wouldn’t call up HarperCollins and say: “You want to acquire this middle grade novel because everyone is going to buy it.” They don’t think like that. Someone who comes to me and says it is both an adult fantasy and a middle grade novel is going to get a rejection, because that’s not how I shop them.
We don’t get paid until something sells. We don’t work on something that’s 90 percent there, that’s a waste of my time. It has to be a 100 percent there. If you’re the writer and I call you up and say, “It’s pretty good, but you’re going to have to put in a heck of a lot of work on it.” I’m not offering you money to do that. Whereas, if I say this is fantastic, I can sell this, and we sell it to Penguin and the editor says, “I’m going to pay you for this but it’s going to need a heck of a lot of work.” Then I say, “Heck yes, sign me up.” There’s the check, and for $10,000 up front, or whatever, I’m happy to work on it. That’s the difference. That’s how I work.
BWW: You’re looking for superior writing in a query letter, even above concept. You also say that a good way to get you to read a manuscript is to talk you into it at a conference pitch session. But those things are expensive—particularly for the proverbial starving writer. There’s been an explosion in the industry that caters to the aspirations of people wanting to be writers, with tons of conferences, classes, evaluation services and other offerings. Is this a case of demand creating supply, and when it comes right down to it, would a writer of meager means be better off spending her time crafting a great book and query letter or spending $1,500 to get to and participate in a conference?
SM: Yes, yes, yes: spend your time on your writing. We have 36,000 writers interesting in selling their book for money. That’s the demand. 35,994 want to know what they can do. There are plenty of writing conferences online that don’t cost money. I think that someone who invests time in the business of publishing doesn’t have to spend money to do it. For example, if someone were to go to Kristin’s blog, which is pubrants.blogspot.com, and read every post by her for the past five years, it would probably take them three weeks reading two hours a night. That person would know more about publishing than the vast majority of agents and editors out there. That’s free. So do that.
Is that going to make someone’s manuscript go from good to great? I can’t say. Writer’s Digest webinars, which are like $98, you can do those in your pajamas at home. There are podcasts by big agents that talk about agenting and writing, there are podcasts by editors about editing and writing, there are podcasts by authors. If you don’t have the money, don’t spend it. It’s an awful reason to go into debt.
BWW: What do you get out of going to conferences?
SM: Anytime I can meet with editors face-to-face or film co-agents face-to-face, that’s beneficial. A conference that has editors I need to talk to is important to me. The ability to present in front of authors is important to me, because it increases my brand awareness as an agent. So when people are looking for an agent, it’s important that they come to me so I can sift through them and chose who I want. A huge benefit is getting to see my own clients in person.
There are going to be 10 people this year who know nothing about the publishing business and they will get six-figure advances. They’ve written a great book, lightning struck, they won the lottery, whatever. There are also going to be 10 people this year who’ve spent $20,000 on conferences, hired an editor, put up a website, have been blogging for two years who are not going to get anything. Is it lightning, luck? Is there anything quantitative about that? I don’t know. I know quantitatively that my choices are financially viable for my clients. But getting into a list of what to do or what not to do is tough. There’s nothing wrong with going to conferences. If you’re going to go to one, pick one you can afford, or choose to go to Romance Writers of America conferences, because they are really, really valuable for any author. Or go to something nearby, or to conferences that have editors you want to present to.
BWW: Are the number of conferences growing?
I sort of think that this is driven by the fact that so much internet knowledge has expanded in the last ten years. Think of the year 2000 in publishing: there were no agents blogging about how to write a query letter, well maybe a few. But there are exponentially many more opportunities to learn about publishing now—blogs and posts and Twitter and podcasts—I think that has driven the demand, more so than that there are now 36,000 writers a year who query me. Because I think there have always been those 36,000 writers. But because of all this information out there now, people not only know about asking agents about Amazon, eBook pricing, foreign rights, those things an agent knows about that are valuable for careers. Now people know that and are saying, “Let’s not just ask the agents, lets pay $400 to fly them out so they can present to 1,000 people in the greater Milwaukee area.” I think that’s how it started. Then they thought, Well if we charge each of the attendees $500, then we can also pay the agent $100 and get that agent to take pitches.
Is it capitalism? Probably a little bit of it, how could it not be? But on the other hand, I think the writers have always been out there. If there was some music agent that came to Denver and said, “I’ll charge $500 per artist who wants to come and listen to me speak for three hours about how to get a deal in Vegas, and I will listen to their demo track,” they’d pack it. Why we do this in publishing and they don’t do it in music, I don’t know.