Sep 17th, 2019
Hi everyone, and thank you for tuning in to another episode of the We Make Books Podcast - A podcast about writing, publishing, and everything in between!
Week Three of Submissions September and oh boy did we really run with it this time! This week we are bringing you not one, not two, but three episodes and they’re all about those mysterious creatures known Literary Agents. Who are they? What do they do? How do you summon one? For this episode, we sat down with Literary Agent Caitlin McDonald to discuss all this and more. We loved talking with Caitlin and hope that our discussion might remove a bit of the fear and mystery from proccess of querying agents. Caitlin is with the Donald Maass Literary Agency and you can (and should!) check her out her and her work at:
Twitter: @literallycait - https://twitter.com/literallycait/status/1154917792619139073
And be sure to check out new and upcoming releases from some of her clients!
The Resurrectionist of Caligo: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07KDWLM3P
The Library of the Unwritten: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/608277/the-library-of-the-unwritten-by-a-j-hackwith/9781984806376/
In case you’re just joining us, this month is Submissions September on the We Make Books Podcast! We’re doing seven (7!) episodes this month all about the process of submitting your novel. We have a lot of awesome discussions lined up and even some special guests. Here’s what will be coming your way for the month:
Week 1 (9/3/2019): Is This Ready For Other People to See?- Submitting Your Manuscript
Week 2 (9/10/2019): My Entire Novel in Three Hundred Words - The Dreaded Query Letter
Week 3 (9/17/2019): Agents of Literature, Part 1: An Interview with Literary Agent Caitlin McDonald
(9/18/2019): Agents of Literature, Part 2: Interviews with Agented Authors
(9/19/2019): Agents of Literature Part 3: Interviews with Agented Authors
Week 4 (9/24/2019):What is Going On Over There? - The Other Side of the Submissions Process
Week 5 (9/30/2019): Now I’m Even More Confused – Submissions September Q&A Episode
We Make Books is hosted by Rekka Jay and Kaelyn Considine; Rekka is a published author and Kaelyn is an editor and together they are going to take you through what goes into getting a book out of your head, on to paper, in to the hands of a publisher, and finally on to book store shelves.
We Make Books is a podcast for writer and publishers, by writers and publishers and we want to hear from our listeners! Hit us up on our social media, linked below, and send us your questions, comments, concerns, and any stress relief suggestions for Kaelyn while she deals with the Giants’ will-they-won’t-they Eli Manning and Daniel Jones situation. Seriously guys, she can’t do a whole season of this.
We hope you enjoy We Make Books!
Kaelyn (K): Hey everyone, welcome, another episode of the We Make Books podcast, a show about writing, publishing, and everything in between. I'm Kaelyn Considine, I'm the acquisitions editor for Parvus Press.
Rekka (R): And I'm Rekka and I write Science Fiction and Fantasy as R J Theodore.
K: So Week Three, Submissions September. And this week's a doozy.
R: We've got a lot of episodes for you this week.
K: Yeah, so, what we ended up doing instead of just one episode about agents, we.. you're actually getting three this week. The first one is going to be an interview with an actual literary agent. Caitlin McDonald took some time to talk to us, she was lovely, we had such a great conversation and that's what you're going to be listening to today. Then, we have two more episodes that we're going to be putting out Wednesday and Thursday.
R: Yeah, we're just going back to back with this.
K: And we talked to six different authors about their process getting an agent...
R: They're experience working with them.
K: Yeah, cause I think there's... what we're learning, talking to people, there's a lot of mystery around this.
R: Yeah. Mmm-hmm.
K: Everyone is very uncertain about what agents do, and how you get one.
R: And how you're allowed to use them.
K: Yes. Yeah, so we had a really great time talking to Caitlin who gave us some really interesting insight and... Yeah, Week Three: Agents. We… Three episodes, because it turns out there's a lot to say about that.
R: You know, this is a big part of it for a lot of people.
K: Yeah, it's the check mark. It's a huge check mark for a lot of people in this process is: “Get agent." So take a listen, we had a great time talking to Caitlin and hopefully you enjoy the episode.
Caitlin (C): I’m Caitlin McDonald. I'm a literary agent at Donald Maass literary agency. I represent primarily Science Fiction and Fantasy for adult and young adult, as well as a little bit of nonfiction. I've been in the business for... I think, eight or nine years no? I lost track, but around there.
R: So over eight or nine years you've seen it change a little bit, with going, you know, so heavy on digital all of a sudden, and the opportunities for print on demand, opening up smaller publishers…
C: Yeah, absolutely. Actually, at my first agency I was involved in a lot of reworking backlist contracts that had no language for digital to kind of, you know, deal with that change that was really becoming a huge deal. That was 2011, so... there was a lot. It was, obviously 2008 was kind of when digital really hit the market—
C: —started to become... um, but like, 2011 was when people really said, "Okay, this isn't going away. This is serious."
[Kaelyn and Caitlin talking over each other and laughing.]
K: Oh, people will read things off screens! They don't always need the physical book in their hand.
C: And it's not going to kill paper!
K: No, no not it's not.
C: It's a supplement.
K: Yeah. So, Caitlin, could you maybe tell us a little about what a literary agent does? Because I think there's a lot of misconceptions out there about, like, "Oh, as soon as I get an agent, that's it, then my book's gonna get signed," or, "I'm never gonna do this unless I get a literary agent." Um, I think a lot of authors who are looking for agents maybe don't always know what the agent will do for them. What their job is, after you sign with them.
C: Sure, so there are some things that kind of differ from agent to agent, particularly, there's also differences between if you have an agent who focuses on Non Fiction or, versus Fiction. So, it's always worth having a conversation with an agent and asking this question of them directly if they're offering representation because their answer may vary from what I'm about to describe here. But, at the, you know, the basic level, typically, in addition to most of us these days do editorial. So, I will do at least two rounds on a manuscript before I send it out on submission even after I've acquired it, there's always gonna be at least one round of line editing but usually even before that, I'm doing at least one round of structural edits, areas where I'm saying, "I love this character but strengthen their character arc, you know, make their motivations clearer.” “X Y Z isn't working, let's find a way to fix that.” So, I always make sure that I'm doing editorial before we go out on submission. Obviously, submission is the Big Thing™, that's what everyone gets an agent for, but even after we have that deal in place for you, part of our job is to negotiate it so that it's the best deal it could be, both in terms of the offers but also the contract language. So sometimes there are elements that, you know, authors don't necessarily know or that don't come up in the offer point, so it's not a deal point of how much money you're getting, what sub-rights you're contracting out, but really nitty gritty language in the contract that might be boilerplate between the agency and the publishing house but maybe the publisher recently revised their standard contract, so we have to make sure that the language is still what we agreed to. You know, really little things, we're here to make sure that everything is the best it could possibly be for our authors. And then, also staying on top of everything afterwards as well. Os I don't just well, “Here's your editor, the book deal is signed, it's their problem." I'm still there to make sure that you know, everyone is on target for deadline, that the publisher is delivering on publicity and marketing that they agreed to. That, if there are any concerns coming up, a copyeditor who's making changes that the author doesn't like—I've had that problem before. Anything that, you know, any concerns my author has, any discrepancies, any time issues, all of that, I'm here to kind of be a mediator between my author and the publisher. If an author has a problem with anything, if they have a question they're afraid to ask the editor directly, I'm here to kind of be the difficult person so that the author can maintain their good relationship with the editor. The author should never have to ask a hard question or demand something that is going to seem pushy, because that's my job. I'm the one who gets to be pushy and maybe be the person that the publisher goes, "Ugh, them again." But they'll get to have a good relationship with their author.
K: I always really enjoy going through the agent because authors, you know, don't wanna be pushy and they're a little, "Oh, I don't want to step on anyone's toes here," and with the agent it's like, "Okay, let's just figure this out."
C: Exactly. We also know what's standard. What's a reasonable request where we can come in and say, "Okay, the publisher's not going to be able to do that but here's a compromise that we can suggest." So we can help mediate a lot of those elements where an author may want something but not know whether it's standard, whether it's something that they should ask for or can ask for, not knowing what is normal.
K: Yeah I mean for a lot of authors this is kinda their first foray into publishing and it's overwhelming and it's things that they think they should know already and they really don't. And there's no reason that they should. So, yeah, having and agent, someone that's in your court and able to help you navigate that is so valuable. A lot of people who're going to be listening to this probably do not have an agent already, and they want one. When you're evaluating potential clients to take on. What are you looking for? Obviously a good book is the first major component. But beyond that, is there anything you kind of take into consideration when making decisions on these things?
C: Certainly there's an element of understanding how to pitch, clear market identity, knowing that they clearly understand and read within their genre. So, they may... I don't expect them to, you know, know every, have read every book and be as on top of the industry and what's coming out in the next, you know, year, as someone who's in the industry, but I do expect that they read within their genre, that they have comp titles that are relevant, that they show an understanding of what readers are looking for in the sense that they themselves are a reader. So sometimes I'll see queries that come in and describe.. some.. they say, "Oh, this pitch is something that's never been done before," and clearly it has. Then I'm going, "Okay. You definitely don't read this genre at all, and this is probably not a good fit." You need to really make sure you're reading in your genre and demonstrate some understanding of it, because otherwise we will be able to tell.
Uh, the other thing that is really helpful is a little bit of that personalization when you're pitching to an agent can just be really helpful. It's not necessary, per se, but I do find it incredibly helpful to show that you know, you've done a little bit of research and it gets me more excited about a project if you know things that I'm specifically looking for. Not just my genre but specific details of things I'm interested in things that I'm looking for that you can cite and say, "Yes, my work has this and I know you want that." Then that can really get me excited about it before I even get to the sample pages and that's a really good way of grabbing an agent's attention.
K: You hear that, listeners? Slapping the same thing together and sending it out over and over again is not the best way to get someone's attention, actually doing some research and putting some time into —because that's something we talk about a lot, is this is not an easy process, so if it seems easy to you you're probably not doing it the right way.
R: So one place that folks can find your particular manuscript interests would be on your submissions page? Your submissions guidelines, generally. Um, lightly browse (do not stalk) your twitter, and if the agent is listed on Manuscript Wishlist, which is a website that like, puts together a lot of agents. They can fill out profiles and keep it updated themselves of what they're looking for. That's a couple of places where you can find out, is this agent interested in something I'm writing, and also a lot of agents will have the headers on their social media include the books they've worked on. So if you look at that header photo, it's like a real quick double-check. Is anything.. do I write like anything on here. One, if you haven't read anything on there, stop what you're doing if you're really interested in that agent, and read something that they've worked on. But, it's a quick check, just like, "None of this is anything like what I write, maybe I should look for a different agent, and not waste their time."
K: Yeah. Along those lines, one of the questions we had sent along was, "Agents, when they open for queries, this has to do with the alignment of the stars, correct?"
K: "And the tidal forces of the moon and..."
R: "Magic. Lots of magic."
K: "And various other natural phenomenon." But when those things happen, what makes you decide like, "Okay, I'm ready to be open for queries again. I'm ready to take on new clients"? C: I man, I'm sure it's different for every agent. For me, specifically, it really has to do with how much time that I have. How I'm doing with current client manuscripts. Whether I've caught up on all of the queries already in my inbox. That's often something I have to make a really concentrated push, after I close to queries, to then get through all of the ones that are still need to be responded to. Then give myself a little bit of time to get through some manuscripts. I wish I could say that I only open to queries when I've responded to all of the fulls that I've already requested, but that's not the case because then I'd probably never open to queries."
K: as an acquisitions editor, I can say the same thing, that I always have a few that I'm still working through but it's like, "But I also need more for the future, so we're gonna open for submissions again." It's hard to balance that.
C: Yeah, yeah it is and the work-life balance as well, there's so many elements. Because I think the thing to keep in mind is that most agents aren't reading queries during work hours. They're reading them during their own personal time. Our work hours are dedicated to our clients, editing manuscripts, possibly reading fulls, but for the most part, it is working on our clients and editing the existing manuscripts, going out on submission, making sure everything is up to date. All of the work that is involved with being an agent for our existing clients is pretty much a full time job and finding new clients to add to our list is an important part of our job but it also usually happens outside of the parameters of our forty-fifty hour work week whatever you .. however you define that. I'm often sending queries at ten o'clock at night and that's just how it is. When you have the time for it.
K; Yeah. Same thing. I get responses from people that are like, "Uh, were you up this late?" I'm like, "I'm up that late every night. That's when I get my work done!"
We talked about this a little you know, when you said what does a literary agent do, but: relationships with authors. Obviously, like, one of your big things is, you're in that person's court. You are their advocate, you are there, making sure that they get the best possible publishing deal, making sure everyone's happy, handling difficult situations for them. But beyond that, your relationship with a writer, what is that like? What do they expect from you? Obviously, it will change depending on how things are happening in their career, but what's your relationship like leading up to a release and then, for example, afterwards?
C: This is such a good question because it' actually really important for an author to know what they need about themselves before, if they can. Which is hard to know if you've never had an agent, but if you can try to figure out 'what's important to me?' beforehand, then having that conversation helps you know whether the agent is going to be a good fit for you. Because it really varies for all of my clients. Some of them, you know, I'm in almost constant touch with. Some of them I only head from them when they have a manuscript ready and they send it and it's already revised and they feel like they just... "here it is!" and others are going, "Here are my next... here are one-sentence pitches for my next eight ideas, which one should I do?" "Here's a partial draft." so it really really varies. I've got some authors where I'm working with them on all sorts of different levels of early stages of manuscripts and others that don't come to me until they've got something nearly complete, or at least a full first draft, or a full synopsis, you know, it really really varies. and then the level of contact that they want also varies from author to author there are some who I'm here as you know an emotional support as well as all of the other tasks that my job entails. And then others who are very happy to sort of sit back and only reach out when they actually have a specific publishing question or concern that needs to be addresses. So it really really varies, wildly and it's important to kind of know "how much do I want my agent to be in touch?""Am I more comfortable with email of phone?" "Am I going to be someone who wants to be able to text my agent?" These are the kind of questions that it helps to be able to look a little bit inside and say, "this is.. these are the kinds of communication limits that I want with an agent," and to talk to them about it beforehand and make sure that that's what you're going to be getting from the agent you're looking for.
K: Well now, you, I'm sure, in a lot of situations, have to set some boundaries.
C: That is true, um, but it.. there often, I find, it's something that is done not necessarily explicitly. I kind of set what I'm comfortable with and if that means I'm not responding to emails that aren't super important on the weekend, then that's just something isn't necessarily discussed beforehand, per se? I know this sounds a little bit contradictory to what I just said, but like
R: No but by your responses, you're setting their expectations.
C: Exactly. Exactly.
K: I know some people that, when they first signed with their agent they're like, "I have this question," and I'm like, "Well go ask your agent then."
C: Yes. Exactly.
K: "That's what they're there for." "I don't wanna bother them." "That.. I.. you are not bothering them. Other.. you know, you're not calling them at one in the morning having a breakdown about something." That's bothering. Don't do that.
C: Yes, exactly. We're here as a resource so you should always feel comfortable reaching out to your agent about anything that is publishing and work related. That, at least, you should always feel comfortable doing. They might set the parameters of how to do that. Is it okay to just call them ay any time, or do they prefer email? Do they give you their number so you can text them? Depends. I mean, I know many agents prefer not to do that which I think is absolutely a good idea but I'm sure that there are some that are perfectly comfortable with it. So you know, having that conversation beforehand and finding what their preferred system is so that you know whether it's compatible with your preferred system, that's really the key.
K: Gotcha. So, we had kind of also talked about this briefly, but one of the other questions we wanted to talk about is, and I'm gonna kinda combine two things here: what catches your eye in query letters, in authors that are querying you, and at the same time, what are some red flags?
C: So, what catches my eye, I think'd be a little like what I talked about before, something that really speaks to me personally and actually addresses things that I have specifically said that I'm looking for. Anything that is particularly really unique, like actually finds a way to give me an unexpected twist within the pitch itself. I'm also.. I do really appreciate comp titles that kind of combine, you know, taking two very very disparate comps and combining them to say "here are two things that are nothing alike but if you combined them, that's my book." Then you can get a sense of, "Oh, here is something really new and unique." I once got a query that said it's Jane Austin's Emma meets Dexter. And then..
C: Yeah, and then the plots came out, like, Yes, that makes sense! But getting that, those kind of comp titles, I went, "That is very interesting and I want to learn more." So, you know, it's.. comp titles don't have to be like that but they can be a very interesting way to condense a unique aspect of your book into one creative, short pithy pitch.
In terms of red flags, I think it's often a, like I said before, very clear not understanding of their genre or the type of book I'm looking for if they very clearly have misunderstood, not just the genre per se, but something say, comes in and is pretty heavily misogynistic in a certain way or something that just, like, if you check my social media, I'm very clearly not interested in works that are, you know, a certain way, even if they are science fiction or fantasy.
And then, also I would say another huge red flag is authors who feel the need to attack other authors or existing books for a genre in their query letter.
K: Oh really? C: that is never good. don't be that person.
C: Yes, I've definitely those books that come in say, "Well, this book was terrible," or "Nothing in YA is good anymore," or, "Twilight was terrible!"
K: Oh my god.
C: Don't be that person. That's... you know, don't attack other authors in your query. It's not a good look.
K: I'm making this face right now because I have read so many query letters and I have never seen that.
K: That's like. now see, watch.. cause we're open for submissions now so I'm gonna get like ten of those. Now that I've said that but like, oh my god, wow. I thought I'd seen everything. That's a new one. Okay.
R: Actually that comes up on Twitter a lot. I see a lot of agents saying "Please don't do this. You know, don't insult J K Rowling because you think that will make your book sound more intelligent. It doesn't."
K: It doesn't and I mean, you know. Come on, Harry Potter.
R: Regardless of whether you like it, it was very successful. An agent wouldn't mind a Harry Potter.
C: And it sets yu up as a person who is going to be not someone who plays ball with the industry if you're going to be someone like that then that doesn't send a good message about the type of person you're going to be in terms of how you interact with other authors and publishers. and the fact is other authors: those are your peers, those are your support network. you need other authors because their success is your success. And their blurbs are how you get found and you all have to support each other and so if you're not going to be interested in doing that then you're probably not going to succeed in the book industry.
K: I've done a couple things over the years and a question I get a lot is well you guys are like, you know a small independent press, and "yes, we are, it's a lot of fun," "So what about competition from this what about..." It's not like... it's not competition. People, I think. It's not the same as cheering for a sports team. You don't love one team and therefor their failure is other teams' success. People who love and read these genres of books are just going to keep looking for more things to read. So everyone succeeding you know especially in similar veins that you're working in, that's great for you as an author because that means more people might come across your book as a result of that.
K: But it is very interesting when you look at these and you're evaluating if you think you can work with this person. Can I help no only them but like, I need to be successful here. Your author's success is the agent's success but you still have to work within the industry and you still have to be able to put together and sell a book at the end of the day and if you're presenting yourself in a way that's gonna make your agent think "I'm not sure I can do this with this person" that's gonna drive them away.
R: We talk a lot about querying an agent for the first time, creating a new relationship with them, but frequently, especially in genre fiction, book deals are for more than one book. So once you have entered into like the second in a series or the second book that's been optioned as part of the same contract, does your relationship change with the author at all?
C: Um, yes, so it's very much, I think, it depends from agent to agent but for me, I'm very much willing to work with authors as early as they have pitch ideas. So they will come to me with, you know, ideas, with early drafts, and I'll be definitely working on things much earlier than I would be than a query. So, obviously, when you query your manuscript should be as close to final as you can possibly make it. You should have already had some beta readers, you should have already done editing, and so at that point the hope is that it will only take a few more rounds with an agent before it's ready to go on submission. Obviously for your second or third book, and books after that, that's necessarily not the case. So yes, I am seeing much earlier drafts. I have worked on books that are completely rewritten from scratch multiple times before going to the publisher ad also part of it is deciding what the next book should be sometimes. So I've had clients where we look at their first book and where it fit in the market place, and their other book ideas, some of which might be very different from the first book, and others might be in between and we say, "okay, how do you want to be positioned in the marketplace as your career? Do you want to be a YA author or do you want to be an adult author? Do you want to be a horror author or do you want to be a fantasy author? If you want to be both that's fine, but if you really feel strongly about one of these things, and you just happen to have one book idea that falls outside that parameter, then maybe we don't so that as the second book, maybe that's the third or fourth. Maybe that's an outlier book." So, figuring out how the author wants to be positioned in the marketplace and making sure that we are following a trajectory that will achieve that is part of what I help them do.
K: That's something that I think a lot of people don't realize a lot of agents do is, basically helping the author come up with an identity. And how they're gonna fit into the marketplace, what they want to be known for. Yeah that's really interesting to think about as well.
Anything that you wish people knew about literary agents? Any giant misconceptions you frequently come across? You know, obviously the stuff about the bloodletting is all ~true, but the rest of it?
C: I think that the big thing I would just... I really wish to share with people is that I promise we're not scary. It's... We're just people like you. We just love books, like you. I.. when I got to conferences there are so many people who are so scared and I just want to hug them and say, "No, it's okay, I promise.. there's nothing to be scared of."
K: Wait, quick qualification. If you run into Caitlin at a conference do not walk up to her and hug her immediately. Ask first.
C: Thank you. Fair. Thank you. Yeah, but I also there's just a I feel like there's a I don't wanna say a culture of self-rejection but there is.. I see a lot of self-rejection—
K: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
C: —on the internet and on social media and people will ask me, "Can I query you?" and I'm going, "Why are you asking me? Just do it. Just do it!" You know, alway always give it a shot and you know, we're just here because we love books and we want to help you succeed. Like we want authors to succeed. We want books to succeed. We're not out here saying no to books because we're up in a castle laughing at all of you. We really really want these books to succeed. We want to see more books that we love. And most of the time, when we reject something, it's with a heavy heart. It's, "I love this pitch but the writing just wasn't quite there yet, but man, I hope they come back to me with another project in a couple of years when they've really honed their skill and improved their writing." You know that's really where we're coming from is, "Not this one, but keep working at it. We're waiting for you to come back next time and really nail it."
K: to everyone I hope hearing that is encouraging. I'm encouraged just listening to it and I'm not even querying an agent. Thank you so much for talking to us. This was really a lot of fun. I really enjoyed this conversation.
C: Of course, well thank you for having me, it's been great.
K: So, where can people find you on the socials?
C: I'm on most social media @literallycait that's c-a-i-t short for Caitlin, and on the Donald Maass website which is MaassAgency.com.
R: Alright so is there anything else that you wanna tease for people, books coming out or anything like that?
C: Sure I've got a couple really exciting books coming out over the next month or two. We've got The Resurrectionist of Caligo by Wendy Trimboli and Alicia Zaloga, which is very very exciting. Kind of dark Victorian-esque fantasy, which would be great for anyone who's a fan of the podcast Sawbones. If you're into that you'll definitely like this book. And I've also got The Library of the Unwritten, by A J Hackwith, which is
C: Fabulous Hell based fntasy about books that are unwritten escaping their library and going on walkabout and the librarion having to chase them down it's very fun and if you love books it really explores the concepts of narrative and character and what it means to have those elements and give them agency so it's a really it's a love letter to the concept of writing. It's fabulous.
K: That one's on my list, I'm very excited for that one.
C: Oh good.
K: Okay, so. The take away here: Agents; they're people just like the rest of us.
R: At least one is.
K: One of them anyway. The rest are in the castle.
R: Okay, thank you so much Caitlin, we really appreciate your time.
C: Thank you.
31:34 [Music] R: Thanks, everyone, for joining us for another episode of We Make Books. If you have any questions that you want answered in future episodes or just have questions in general remember you can find us on twitter @WMBcast, same for instagram, or WMBcast.com.
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