AWP 2012: Agents and Editors Panel

Posted on 23 March 2012

This panel included Kathy Pories, senior editor at Algonquin Books; P.J. Mark, literary agent with Janklow & Nesbit; Rob Spillman, Tin House editor; Elisabeth Schmitz, Grove/Atlantic editor; and Mary Gannon, editorial director of Poets & Writers.

This was one of the last sessions I attended at AWP, and I was fairly exhausted at the time. And considering that AWP ended weeks ago and this is finally my last AWP recap, I’m ready to wrap it up. So here’s a quick roundup of a few noteworthy comments from each panelist.

Elisabeth Schmitz:

  • The most heartbreaking [aspect of the publishing industry’s struggles] is the closing of book reviews, which is a major way for literary works to get out there.
  • Most submissions come [to her at Grove] through agents, but also through personal references. She doesn’t pore over literary magazines anymore because agents do that. If she’s interested in an unagented project, she first helps the author get an agent.
  • Make sure your agent writes a really good cover letter. Ask your agent if she has a cover letter, if you can see it, help write it, etc. The cover letter should be enticing but should not tell too much plot.
  • She believes memoir is not strictly nonfiction. She edits memoir like a novel. A memoir has to have a real, concrete core to what it’s saying.
  • It really is about the work (and a knockout cover letter, etc.). It really is about the writing. If it’s good, it will get noticed. That’s the most important thing you can do. And finish it.

Kathy Pories:

  • Ebooks are eclipsing hardcover books, which is upsetting.
  • She tends to buy through agents she trusts and compares the agent-editor relationship to matchmaking.
  • You don’t want just a random agent.
  • She has signed authors whose stories she’s read [in publications].
  • Her pet peeve is bad dialogue, even if it’s an easy fix. You read fiction because it’s art, and you want it to transform regular life, not repeat it.
  • Another pet peeve: When you’re too in love with language and forget you’re telling a story.
  • Find readers who are really tough and honest.
  • Have a true passion. You have to boil down what your book is in a sentence or two. If you can’t boil it down, you’ll have a tough time [selling it].
  • If you’re looking at a number of offers (from publishers), don’t just go after the most money. You need the right editor, one who really connects to you.
  • On concerns of past mediocre book sales hurting an author’s next project: It’s the quality of the latest submission. If the book is amazing, the track record stuff comes off the table.

P.J. Marks:

  • There used to be a second life with paperback, but now it’s flat because people already bought ebook. The trend seems to be the hardcover or paperback and ebook, not all three.
  • Borders did well in promoting literary fiction in paperback [which makes Borders closing another major loss for the industry at large].
  • For literary fiction, modest advances usually equal modest sales.
  • He gets most clients through referrals, and he reads literary journals. He rarely takes a client from slush and says the rate of a hit from querying is low if any. In fact, he then said he never took someone cold from the slush.
  • His best advice is to publish in literary journals.
  • It’s tough [for agents] to pitch writers who have never been published anywhere.

Rob Spillman:

  • Always submit to a specific person [for journal submissions, etc.].
  • Tin House gets 20,000 submissions a year. They regularly get calls from literary agents interested in the writers published in Tin House.
  • He stressed that writers should make sure their work is as tight as possible; says editors are looking for excuses to reject work to get through the massive pile of submissions faster.
  • Separate your creative self from your professional self.
  • He’s a very firm believer that good work rises.
  • Says writers must be involved in the community by publishing in magazines, going to conferences, buying story collections, etc.
  • You’re entering a professional ecosystem. Go to readings, be engaged in the world you’re entering.
  • Business is all word of mouth and relationships. When you’re mean to one of us, you’re mean to all of us.
  • Don’t just promote yourself; be a good literary citizen.

This panel emphasized two common refrains I heard throughout AWP: 1. The quality of the writing and the book trumps everything else, so spend your time improving the book and 2. Become a part of the literary world you hope to enter as an author.

Photo: nyer82

6 responses to AWP 2012: Agents and Editors Panel

  • Sarah W says:

    Fascinating as usual, Laura!

    I wonder if editors of genre fiction have the same methods? And whether any editors or agents peruse eMagazines as well?

    I have to get to this next year!

  • Downith says:

    Could you imagine going into that bar? The pressure!

    That was fascinating but a bit depressing. However, your two line summary was uplifting. Thanks Laura.

  • Teri says:

    All of this rings rings RINGS like crazy in my head. Thanks for posting, Laura.

    2 things that stand out this minute:
    1. Find readers who are really tough and honest.
    2. You have to boil down what your book is in a sentence or two. If you can’t boil it down, you’ll have a tough time [selling it].

    #1 is so damned key. There’s nothing worse — I’m not kidding — than someone telling you your prose is good enough already. You can’t do any work with that. If it was so perfect, it would be PUBLISHED. You really need someone who’ll tell you the truth. And you have to have thick enough ear drums to hear it. It hurts like hell. But better a beta reader than an agent who hits the delete button.

    #2 is what I’m focused on this instant. Anything that doesn’t answer my basic premise is getting the delete button. Period. I hate it but it’s the best for the story in the end.

    • Averil Dean says:

      I did so much deleting with this latest rewrite. I kept thinking, Is this my story? Does it fill in a blank? Does it need to be there? The amount of writing I did to get to 50K is astounding.

      The issue of finding the right reader hits home for me as well. I have a tendency to listen to everyone and feel the need to assuage contradictory opinions. Not helpful. I’ve had to really narrow it down to the one or two readers who will give me the tough feedback I need, kindly delivered.

  • Lyra says:

    Thank you for continuing to post these. Your notes are so much like mine, the way I take them, that it’s as if I attended twice the panels.
    I’m glad I missed this one though. I’m at the stage where denial of the industry is my Plan A.
    I look forward to finding those tough readers, but am no way ready for it which brings us back to the hope of “It really is about the writing”. I read my rough draft and can’t see it, but have mad, crazy hope that I can get it there. If I didn’t believe it, why would I bother, right?

  • Thanks for all your comments. (I have been completely MIA from this blog lately, but should be better about responding from here on out!) Lyra, I was a little reluctant to attend this panel, because sometimes I get so sick of hearing everyone (myself included) moan about how hard and hopeless it is to get published…but in the end, I was drawn to the inevitable fascinating process of listening to these publishing professionals speak frankly. Yes, some of it was depressing, but other parts were enlightening.

    But being in denial of the industry while writing/revising is always, always a good plan.

  • Recent Posts

    Tag Cloud

    5 random things acceptance American Literary Review AWP AWP 2012 book reviews books Bread Loaf 2012 cat lady cats Cirrus Cleveland Cleveland writers contests failure Fiction Writers Review first drafts Huda Al-Marashi literary magazines living arrangements Mac's Backs Mid-American Review NaNoWriMo novel revisions Opal Poets & Writers publishing reading rejection revision rust belt chic Saucy Sophie Kerr Prize Stories on Stage The Writing Life this is what the publishing process looks like tricia springstubb Washington College writing advice writing buddies writing frustrations writing goals writing groups writing retreat writing workshops


    Laura Maylene Walter is proudly powered by WordPress and the SubtleFlux theme.

    Copyright © Laura Maylene Walter