“Agent Advice” (more than 150 interviews so far!) is a series of quick interviews with literary and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else.
This installment features Ann Behar of Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency. Ann holds M.A. in English Literature and a J.D. from the University of San Diego Law School. With the birth of her two daughters, Ann waited a few years before jumping into the literary agency business where she found her English degree and law degree to be equally valuable. She’s been working at Scovil Galen Ghosh since then. You can find Ann on Twitter here.
She is seeking: Young Adult, Middle Grade, and Children’s books. On that note, she’s looking for anything that is beautifully written, with a strong, distinct voice and characters that come alive on the page. She wants a book to grab her attention from the very beginning and hold it there so that she’s left thinking about it for a few days after she’s finished.
GLA: How and why did you become an agent?
AB: I didn’t go the traditional route at all. At the age of 45, after a few false starts (M.A. in English and a law degree), and raising two children (who were not false starts!) Russell Galen hired me at Scovil Galen Ghosh. I had no thoughts of becoming an agent. I figured I would learn a lot about the publishing business and be useful at the same time. But Russ turned out to be an amazing and patient teacher and after working there for 5 years as an assistant he asked me if I wanted to try building our children’s list, since no one else there had really taken charge of it.
GLA: What’s something you’ve sold that comes out now/soon that you’re excited about?
AB: I have a book coming out this summer in July from Harper Teen called DRAIN YOU by debut author M. Beth Bloom that I am super excited about. It has one of the best female protagonists I’ve ever seen in a YA book. It has vampires and romance yes, but the similarity between it and Twilight ends there. I am also stoked for DEAD RECKONING by the brilliant Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill, coming out June 5, 2012 from Bloomsbury. Its historical fiction/horror/steampunk and kind of a buddy book too. Tons of fun, and I hope it will be the beginning of a successful series.
GLA: Besides “good writing and voice,” what are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?
AB: I’m not looking for a specific genre; I am absolutely open to anything. But whatever it is has to really stand out. I was certainly not looking for a vampire book when I read DRAIN YOU, but I was so blown away by the writing, the characters and the story itself, that I couldn’t not represent it. When tackling the slush pile, I am looking for a great story that engages the reader early. I have to want to keep reading, even though I have a million other things to do. I have to really care about what happens. Also, I am praying for wonderfully well-drawn characters. People I connect to, care about and wish I could meet and hang out with in real life. Bottom line, I want to be drawn in and held there.
GLA: You represent middle grade and YA. How would you describe the difference between the two and where do they overlap?
AB: Publishers care a lot about categories and what market books are targeting. So a middle grade book is generally intended for 8- to 12-year-olds, and the protagonist should be in that age range as well. YA would be for ages 13 and up, although sometimes a YA book is classified as younger or older YA. Obviously subject matter must be appropriate for the intended age group, but equally as important is the voice. Too often the voice strikes me as too old or too young for the character’s age. If the protagonist is an eleven year-old boy, then the reader must feel like an eleven year-old boy is speaking to them. An authentic voice makes the reader want to accompany that boy on his journey, whatever it may be.
GLA: When you jumped into the literary agency business, you had two daughters in high school. Did you think that helped you get a feel for what was popular for YA fiction? If so, do you recommend YA writers check with teens, i.e. their demographic, to see why a particular novel is popular or likeable to them?
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AB: By the time I was actually agenting for teen books, my girls were reading adult books, so they were no help! I think it’s really helpful to ask teens what they are reading and why they like certain books. But ultimately I’m looking for books that I love too! I can’t imagine a scenario where I would take on a book that I don’t particularly care for, just because I believe teens will love it. I have a very clear memory of what it felt like to be an adolescent and teenager and I tap into that when reading a manuscript.
GLA: Writers tend to be very focused on refining their book and getting an agent. But what is the process a writer can expect to go through after they’ve signed and how long does that process typically take?
AB: I advise patience when embarking on the publishing journey. The destination is a rewarding one, so hang in there. I may work with an author for months revising his or her manuscript before I feel it is ready for submission. Then, the actual process of submitting and waiting for a response can take a long time—as long as a year to a year and a half. Editors are always swamped with reading, and although some may get back to you in a few weeks or a month, there will always be some who take much longer than that. If a book sells, you can expect around 1.5 to 2 years before you actually see it in book form. You will inevitably have to revise according to the editor’s notes and that process can go on for a while. Sometimes you will work your butt off to meet a delivery deadline, only to wait months for the editor to get you her editorial notes. Then there is copyediting, perhaps illustrations that need to be done, and a marketing strategy that must be devised.
GLA: While a writer waits for their book to be picked up by a publisher, what do you recommend that writer do? Should they keep their day job?
AB: Authors should keep their day jobs if they have to. Very few authors have the luxury of being able to write full time. Always keep writing, whether it’s a new book, a short story, essay or even a screenplay. Starting a blog or a website is a great idea, as is a Facebook page about your work. If you can create a platform and get people to follow you, it will go a long way with the publishers because all authors are expected to devote a lot of time to promoting themselves and their work.
GLA: Since our economy is still a bit rough, writers need to plan ahead financially. In regards to when a writer and agent finds a publisher that picks up their book, when can they typically expect their first official paycheck to come through?
AB: The on-signing payment, which is typically a third or half of the advance, will be paid a few weeks after the publisher receives the signed contract. That could be 2-3 months after receiving an offer, depending on how much the contract needs to be tweaked. Then there will usually be a delivery and acceptance payment, paid when the editor receives a manuscript he or she is satisfied with. The final part of the advance is usually paid on publication. After that, the author will not receive anything until the advance earns out. When and if that happens is anyone’s guess. If you are lucky, it will happen within a year and you will be earning royalties, receiving a check twice a year! That is a best-case scenario, though, so don’t expect to pay off the house any time soon.
GLA: What is something personal about you writers would be surprised to hear?
AB: I make my husband’s lunch every weekday. My adult daughters think I am an embarrassment to the feminist movement, but there you have it.
GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers’ conferences where writers can meet and pitch you?
AB: I was just at the Missouri Writers Guild Conference in St. Louis a few weeks ago [April 2012], taking pitches like a madwoman, but I don’t have any more planned as of now.
GLA: Best piece of advice we haven’t talked about yet?
AB: The only reason to write is because you are so passionate about it that you simply have to do it–like you have no choice. Of course you want to get published, it’s natural to want to share your work with others and be appreciated for it. But your desire to write should come from deep within you; it should a part of your identity. You have a story to tell, characters you want to bring to life, and they won’t take no for an answer. There should be no other motivation.
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