As part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, literary agents discussed authors and genres they represent and work they seek, and took questions from attendees about any part of the process. April Eberhardt (April Eberhardt Literary), Cherise Fisher (Wendy Sherman Associates Literary Management), Rayhané Sanders (Massie & McQuilkin Literary Agents), and Nikki Terpilowski (Holloway Literary) participated.
This event was presented as part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book’s Virginia Writing & Publishing series, hosted by these writing centers and organizations across Virginia: 1455 Literary Arts, James River Writers, The Muse, Randolph College MFA, Watershed Lit Center for Literary Engagement and Publishing Practice, and WriterHouse.
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Watch the video of this event and read the transcript below:
Thanks to James River Writers for hosting this event.
BRYNN MARKHAM: Welcome to the Agents Roundtable hosted by James River Writers as part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. I’m Brynn Markham, the director of programs and communications for James River Writers. Thanks for joining us.
This program is one in a series of six devoted to Virginia writing and publishing, presented by writing centers and organizations across Virginia. In addition to James River Writers, other hosts are 1455 Literary Arts, The Muse, the Randolph College MFA Program, Watershed Lit, and WriterHouse. The full series of events are available at vabook.org, where you can also explore the full festival schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the festival’s ongoing work at vabook.org/give. Also, this event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event by using the closed captions tab at the bottom of your window. Now I’m pleased to introduce our speakers.
April Eberhardt joined the literary world after twenty-five years as a corporate strategist and management consultant. She advises and assists authors worldwide as they choose the best path to publication. She serves on the advisory council for the American Library in Paris.
Cherise Fisher is an agent with Wendy Sherman Associates. Her intention is that all the books she helps bring into the world are relevant, enduring, and help readers maximize joy and productivity in their lives.
Rayhané Sanders began her career at Penguin Books USA before moving to William Morris Endeavor. She joined Massie & McQuilkin in 2014, where she remains on the lookout for literary, upmarket, and historical fiction, narrative fiction, and select memoir. Her authors include Myriam Gurba, Lidia Yuknavitch, Te-Ping Chen, and others.
Nikki Terpilowski established the Holloway Literary in 2011, a full-service boutique literary agency based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her list includes bestselling and critically acclaimed authors.
And our moderator for today’s event is Gary Dop, a writer, storyteller, and professor who founded and directs the Randolph College MFA Program. He is the author of the poetry collection Father, Child, Water and several plays, including most recently the new media play Democracy: An American Absurdity.
Thank you all for joining us. Gary, it’s all yours.
GARY DOP: Thank you, Brynn. We’re excited to dive into all things agents. James River Writers, thanks for your support of this event and this good time we’re about to have together. We know we have a lot to get to. What’s an agent do? How does a writer end up working with an agent? We know there are people in this room just sort of bursting with energy to know how they can get their novel in the world. So we’ll talk about a lot. We have a lot of questions lined up. We also know you have questions, so feel free to use the comments both to toss questions into things—and we’ll pull them in at a certain time, if we can—if we have time for that. But the goal here is to give you as much as we can. This should be a really content-rich session.
The other great thing about the comments format is that you can put in there things you hear that you want to solidify or you want to make sure somebody else hears. You can put quotes on there when Cherise says something and it blows your mind about the work of publishing. Drop it in there, and that way it’ll all crystallize for us a little bit better.
So let’s get going with it. Let’s start with working our way around with our agents here. And each of you, if you’d begin by just telling us the type of books that you represent and seek and also add to that a moment in the last year—a moment of joy in publishing, however you want to define that—for you in the last year. So we’ll begin with Rayhané and then work around to Cherise, April, and Nikki. So Rayhané, take it away.
RAYHANÉ SANDERS: Sure. Hi. Thanks for having me. I’m an agent at Massie & McQuilkin. As Brynn said, I represent literary fiction, historical fiction, book club upmarket women’s fiction, as well as narrative nonfiction and some memoir. I actually just had three books published in the last few weeks, so that was a moment of joy. One of them in particular, a debut short story collection called Land of Big Numbers by a Wall Street Journal reporter who used to be based in Beijing named Te-Ping Chen, has gotten really lovely reviews. And you work on something for so long—I think the first story I read by Te-Ping was seven or eight years ago—and it’s very rewarding when the book finally goes out into the world and is received with such open arms. And we got great reviews, and all the papers and magazines and book clubs seem to be finding her every week. So that has been a real lovely moment in this year so far.
GARY DOP: That’s wonderful. Land of Big Numbers? Is that the name of it?
RAYHANÉ SANDERS: Yes.
GARY DOP: Yeah, somebody put the link for that in our comments.
RAYHANÉ SANDERS: Oh, wow. Thank you.
GARY DOP: And Cherise, what about you?
CHERISE FISHER: Hi, it’s nice to see you—some familiar faces. It’s always great to be around you all Virginia folk. So my list is about half fiction and half nonfiction, I would say. I love fiction that is very character driven. I’m commercial but upmarket smart book market—I mean, book clubbish. Stories that teach us about who we are, that gives us characters who we relate to immediately and understand and watch. We get to observe them sort of navigating their way through life’s complications.
I love fiction that I can learn from as well, which is why I love historical fiction. I have to show this novel [Yellow Wife], which just came out in January. I have to show it because Sadeqa was my girl and also because she is very familiar to many of you, and this is a Virginia story. But I loved how this book gives voice to a person from history and allows us to learn a lot about what her life might’ve been like through her imagination. So, I love fiction for that.
And my nonfiction is—you know, many, many, many years ago when I was an acquiring editor, I thought that success for me would mean that a person with a problem could go into a bookstore or a library and find a book that gave them the solution. And so that’s what a lot of my books are—solution oriented, nonfiction, practical. Wanting us to do better in every aspect of our lives. Whether it’s a better diet, whether it’s a better spiritual life, whether it is a better bank account. I really love those books that kind of show us we have a problem, and here is somebody who is bringing a way of solving it, but who has spent enough time communicating with a group of people—i.e., has a platform—spent enough time communicating with a group of people what they’re interested in doing.
So I think those are the books I’m interested in. I mean, it’s been, actually, a difficult year for many people. But for me, professionally, it’s been an outstanding year. There is something that is a big, huge joy moment for me, which I cannot say. Because so often we have to keep certain things confidential to a certain point. But I sold my first cookbook, which is something that I love—another solution-oriented book. What do I make for dinner? What do I feed my new mother-in-law? So I sold a new cookbook.
I don’t know. I find that my authors are—they have managed this difficult, challenging, unprecedented world that we have been living in for the past year—they have navigated it remarkably well. And so I’m super proud of all of them.
GARY DOP: That’s great, Cherise. I love that you’ve given us this tease of big news coming. So everybody—first of all, you should get on Twitter and follow these four agents and see what’s going on. But then you can now guess what good news happens when it happens for Cherise, and you go, “I bet that’s it.” So look out for that. April, what about you?
APRIL EBERHARDT: Thanks, Gary. I specialize in works by, for, and about women. I mean, I do have a few male authors in my list. But it’s mostly women. And increasingly, women over fifty or even sixty. And there’s a whole baby boomer market out there, going up to—you know, there are now eighty-five thousand people in the US over the age of a hundred, most of whom are women. And I feel that that is an underserved market. Because traditionally, the publishing market looks at the younger authors. So I am making a specific effort to focus on older authors. Both book club fiction because every woman I know is a member of one, two, or three book clubs. As well as nonfiction.
And I think a moment of joy recently was placing a work called The Sixty-Something Crisis: How to Live an Extraordinary Life in Retirement by author Barbara Pagano. And we found Rowman & Littlefield is going to be a terrific publisher for them. So I do occasional nonfiction. But it’s still mostly book club fiction, again, aimed at an older reading audience.
GARY DOP: That’s fantastic. I imagine the work of an agent is all about finding that particular area you want to care for and believing in it and seeing that, so that’s wonderful to hear. Thank you, April. Nikki?
NIKKI TERPILOWSKI: Hello. Thank you guys for having me. I think my interests align with Cherise’s. I’m also looking for character-driven, commercial fiction. In terms of nonfiction, I like nonfiction that aligns with my own personal taste. I’m into I guess alternative lifestyles, in the sense of concepts like homesteading, minimalism, organic farming—things like that. So I would love to find some books like that, exploring ways that we can live differently in this world without tech or different things like that.
A big moment of joy for me this year has been working on a book that hasn’t come out yet. It’s coming out later this fall, and it’s based on the blacksouthernbelle.com website, which is a website that I love. And it’s very positive and beautiful. Positive, beautiful images of African Americans. And, it shows history but from a very optimistic point of view. So we’re turning that into a book, and I’m very excited about that.
GARY DOP: Nikki, is there a name for that book?
NIKKI TERPILOWSKI: The working title is How To Be a Black Southern Belle.
GARY DOP: Perfect. That’s wonderful. We’ll look out for that book. Thank you. And thanks to the Humanities Council for putting on this event. Hopefully you can already tell that we have a really eclectic group of agents representing an eclectic group of books, so this is exciting. Let’s jump to the agent basics. April, if you want to kind of begin, if you would, with what does an agent do in this kind of mysterious work between the writer and the publishing company? What’s the gig?
APRIL EBERHARDT: Well, in brief, we’re the broker. Agents are the broker between the author and the publisher. And that can include traditional publishers, which is where most authors begin their thinking. My own practice has expanded very much into hybrid publishing, which I think is going to rule the world eventually. I can talk more about that later. But again, we’re the matchmaker. We find the authors whose work we love, we work with them to get the manuscript or the proposal into the very best shape we can, and then we go out to a select number of editors and publishing houses whom we think would be interested in this. And then we negotiate the deal. And in my case, I tend to stay involved with authors longer, including publicity and marketing and so forth. Because with a lot of these hybrid models, we’re treading new territory here. So I like to be able to do some handholding and watch to make sure things go forward as they should.
GARY DOP: Thank you for the overview. Cherise, in that work, what do you think is the most challenging part of doing the gig? And you can add to that last answer if there’s more to it that you want to cover. Unmute.
CHERISE FISHER: You would think that since it’s only been a year since I’ve been on Zoom, I’d learn how to unmute myself. I saw that question that you so graciously sent us before and I thought, gosh, what is the most challenging, right?
GARY DOP: Or one of them.
CHERISE FISHER: Yeah, or one of them. I mean, there is that moment where you and the author—I happen to be one of those agents that’s very editorial because that is my background. So I spend a lot of time on it editorially with the author, going back and forth, to prepare the proposal or the manuscript for the publishing houses. And so you have that interaction, which is not usually challenging. It’s usually really fantastic because that’s why I’ve taken you on. Because I’ve seen your talent, and we’re refining it and making it even more perfect. But there comes that point where I have developed my list of editors to submit the project to. So I’ve basically taken this finished thing away from the author, and I’ve sent it into the world. And those two, three, four weeks—I mean, it’s like the longest four weeks of your life. Because you’re waiting to hear from someone. And I am also waiting to hear. So the challenge is patience. The challenge is it’s going to be okay. The challenge is—start another book. Really, do something to distract yourself from that period of time when people are reading and considering and giving it to their boss to read. That period of time, I think, is probably the most challenging for me as an agent.
I guess the second would be when the actual book comes out. Because, again, different agents are different. I think because I was an editor for seventeen years, I’m dangerous for an editor in a publishing house. Because I was like, I know your job too, and I’m going to make sure that you’re doing your job for my client. So just having that balance of we’re a team and we’re all working on this book together on the one hand—which is true—and also being that—I call it my lioness personality. Like being the advocate for your author. We’re constantly balancing that. Because we don’t want to be—well I see Rayhané shaking her head. I’m sure you’ve had that experience. Like the author who hates their cover because it’s awful, right? Or the author who was just told we had to cancel all of your social media advertising because your number isn’t where we need it to be. Like those are challenging moments because I am in business with this publishing company, but I’m also—and first—an advocate for my client. So I’ve got to get a little lionessy.
GARY DOP: That’s good. I imagine your writers appreciate that. You mentioned something about the work with the book—the editing of the book, helping shape the book. Rayhané, I want to toss that one to you if that’s all right. Just in terms of what do you do—I mean, the agent is the broker, as we’ve been told. But do you actually help shape how the book might best be sold to the publisher? How does that work before it goes to the editors?
RAYHANÉ SANDERS: I do. I mean, I think every agent is a bit different. And those are important questions for an author to ask if they find themselves in the enviable position of having multiple agents interested in them. And it’s a very fair question to ask. I always say that you should interview your potential agent, as well, to make sure it’s a good fit. So some agents are more editorially hands-on than others. Like Cherise, my background is editorial, so I am what you would call a very editorially, hands-on agent. I think of my work as kind of in two parts. I think of it as the writing workshop part first, and then I put on my business hat. And the writing workshop part is crucial. I mean, it’s very competitive out there. As harrowing as it can be to try to find an agent, we agents deal with rejection all the time, too, from publishers. So we want to make sure, to the best of our ability, that the product we’re going out with is fabulous and is going to be something that gets everyone excited. I mean, and that could be everything from retooling a proposal to doing multiple edits and drafts of a novel, which I’ve done over years.
I represent a lot of short story collections, and oftentimes a writer is fantastic, but they’ve never really been published in big venues before. And, it depends on the agent. Not every agent does it. But that’s another thing I do, is I submit stories on behalf of my authors all the time because—and this kind of gets to a bigger addition of what agents do. But I think for many of us, we’re in it for the long haul, and we want to manage an author’s career over time and over many book projects. So launching someone’s literary career can be more than just making a book deal for them. It can be: How do I launch you? What kinds of publications do we want to see you in to get the community of publishing excited about you? How do we make a footprint before going out on something—going out with something on submission? So there’s a lot of strategy, I think, that your agent will be doing behind the scenes, even before the book deal is made. Does that answer your question?
GARY DOP: Yeah, it’s fantastic, actually—the work relationship you all are hitting on in various ways. And Nikki, would you unpack a little bit how you think about the combination, of like, how the writer sometimes sees it as the agent works for them. The agent is trying to work with the publishing house. They’re trying to work for their own agency perhaps. How does that job get defined for you? And then maybe on the other side of it, what’s the ideal relationship like with the writer?
NIKKI TERPILOWSKI: I think that the agent-writer relationship is—it’s a relationship. It’s a coexisting relationship. I’m not the supervisor of the writer; the writer is not the supervisor of me. We’re working together to reach a goal. So that’s why it’s very important that the personalities mesh, the communication styles mesh, and that you have a very good rapport, especially if you’re editorial, like we all seem to be. And you’re going back and forth with revisions. And sometimes giving feedback can be harsh. It depends on how the writer takes it. So it has to be a very good relationship to be successful.
What was the second part of your question?
GARY DOP: I think it was asking about what the ideal relationship looks like for you with people. But maybe you’ve answered that somewhat, but go ahead.
NIKKI TERPILOWSKI: Yeah. My ideal writer is one—first of all, a good, strong writer who understands the craft of writing. Prolific. Has lots of great story ideas. Thick-skinned, persistent, and really sees themselves as a professional and writing as a profession. They see it as a business, not just a hobby or a creative endeavor—which it is—but they see like the business aspects of it, and they come to play, you know what I mean? To work, I should say.
GARY DOP: I love the phrase thick-skinned because there’s something under that. There’s a thousand moments and stories in the work you guys do that maybe require thick-skinned moments, require honesty in all aspects of the finances, the work itself, the ability to sell it. I guess I want to ask this question to April and Cherise both that builds on that. What do you wish more writers knew or trusted in the agent-writer relationship or knew about the agents’ work itself? You can answer it however—whatever occurs to you there. April, then Cherise.
APRIL EBERHARDT: I agree with Nikki and what Cherise said earlier. It really is a relationship, and it’s important for us to know that we can work together—we will work together—and that will happen in the tough times, not just the easy times. Because there are always ups and downs, and I think we all experience rejection and disappointment daily. The other day, I got twenty-five rejections across six different manuscripts. That was a bad day. But the point is it’s still out with others.
So I think it’s very, very important to know that you can work together and understand that we are doing the very best we can. We’re not magicians. We can’t guarantee anything. But we will certainly give it our best. At least I’m sure that with my colleagues here—you know, once I’ve signed an author, I am committed. I am her advocate, and I will go to the ends of the Earth—within reason—to get a book published. And it’s one of the reasons that I’m particularly pleased with the expansion of the hybrid world. Because I think with hybrid publishing, we have a whole lot more choices than we did when traditional publishing ruled the roost. And, it still does in many ways, but I really do believe that, down the road, we are going to see a real proliferation of hybrid models. And I am happy to be able—I’m thrilled to be able—to work with authors to make sure that their books are published well and that they can make the most of their book being published, regardless of whether it’s traditional or nontraditional.
GARY DOP: And April, when you’re saying hybrid, just define that for us. So, give us an example of that so we know what you mean by hybrid, or some of the possibilities.
APRIL EBERHARDT: Okay, so a hybrid I’m very excited about is called Girl Friday Books. Girl Friday Productions has worked with authors for years to help them self-publish books. Now they have moved into a hybrid model, wherein the publisher and the author split the costs, but then also split the profits. So it’s a much more equitable arrangement than the traditional model is. It means that the publisher isn’t taking on all of the risk but rather sharing it with the author, and both entities have a lot of skin in the game to make sure that the book is successful.
I should also add that a true hybrid is selective. They do not take everyone. Most hybrids take a very small percentage of what is presented to them because they need to believe in the book and feel that it is going to be a good investment for them.
GARY DOP: I appreciate you adding that at the end. Because I think when online publishing and self-publishing just took off, the thing that people weren’t being honest about was that there were people taking money with very little quality at the end. So it’s good that there are places that are starting to use this model that shares costs, but it’s actually quite selective still.
APRIL EBERHARDT: Right. And I’m pleased to be able to play the role I do because I act as an intermediary—really, as a consultant—saying, okay, yes, these are legitimate hybrids, and these are not. This is how we’re going to do this. And then I’ll actually negotiate the deal for them so that they actually are—we’re guaranteeing—that they have a fair deal and that it’s with an entity that is upstanding.
GARY DOP: Thank you. From early questions here in the comments, I think people were interested in knowing a little more about that. Cherise, what do you wish more writers knew or trusted in the process?
CHERISE FISHER: That’s a really good question. I think that I risk over communication. So I think that most clients are really clear about what’s happening at any given moment. So I’m not sure. But I think for writers, generally I want them—picking up from what Nikki said—I want them to understand that this is a business and that it’s about hard work and about figuring out how to invest in learning how to be a good author—not just a great writer, but a good author, who is establishing relationships that are going to pay them down the line. I have to bring up Sadeqa again because she’s such a great example of someone who is constantly investing in her website, going to writers’ workshops. And, going to the writers’ workshops not just to hone in on her skill but to develop relationships with the other writers who were there, with the instructors who were there. So, yeah, recognizing that it’s a business and recognizing that businesses are successful when you invest time and resources of all forms into learning how to do it better.
GARY DOP: It seems the agent is extremely aware of the art and the craft and the language. They have to be. But they’re also containing the business at all times. And writers often only contain one of those pieces, and it isn’t the business one, right? So I imagine that’s quite a challenge. But on that, just Cherise—very quickly—you gave this example of your author there.
CHERISE FISHER: Sadeqa.
GARY DOP: Thank you, Sadeqa. And when you started working with her, did you already see that she had experience promoting herself? Was that part of—before you even saw the book, did you Google and say, “Oh, she is active. This is great.”
CHERISE FISHER: Now that’s an interesting question. No, she wasn’t Google-able at the time. Google-able?
GARY DOP: That’s fine. We’ll take it.
CHERISE FISHER: So I was working for a publisher, and I knew that I was leaving that publisher. Her book was submitted to me. I turned her book down, not because it wasn’t great, but because I knew that I was going to leave. Flash forward a month ahead, where I’m sort of entertaining other offers as an editor, and she sent me an email saying, “I am going to self-publish my book. Would you be willing to be my editor?” Now I do not suggest anybody DM somebody on Facebook. Because that never, ever works. It will never work again. But it worked for her. But the thing that was remarkable about her for me was that she had been a publicist at a publishing company for several years. So she knew a little bit. And so I was like, “You really want to start a publishing company?” She was like, “Well, I was a publisher T. D. Jakes and for J. K. Rowling and for Bebe Moore Campbell, so I know a little bit about it, so I feel encouraged that I can do this on my own.” So she did.
But we definitely had to find a printer. We had to find people to partner her with. So I didn’t see her as having been out there, but I saw her as having had skills connected to publishing. She also studied acting in college. So those were skills that she had that she could build upon in order to be an effective business partner.
GARY DOP: That’s wonderful to hear. I think in the piece at the beginning, too, that you were the person for some reason who developed a sense of comfort with her, that she reached out to you. There’s something there that’s meaningful.
CHERISE FISHER: Well, it was fate.
GARY DOP: Yeah, that’s right. Aside from fate, Rayhané, what can you tell us about the writer getting the agent and how that begins, how that happens? What’s the nuts and bolts of it? The difference between you seeking out people, and them seeking you out? Tell us about that.
RAYHANÉ SANDERS: I think this changes a lot as an agent grows in her career. When an agent is first building her list, she’s really hungry. And I think she doesn’t have a list yet, so you have a lot of time and energy. When I’m advising writers on how to query, I actually always say, have your query list be a combination of your dream senior agents that have represented all of your favorite books, and then some scrappy young agents—junior agents. Because the truth is, especially in the world of New York publishing, anybody who works at an agency has a lot of experience already. Even if they’re an assistant or a junior agent, they’ve done a lot. It’s not an easy gig to get. It’s very competitive. And they will have seen a lot already. Usually junior agents—before they start building their list—they’ve done a lot of heavy lifting for the agents that they assist, a lot of contract work, and they have read a lot. You don’t work at an agency unless you’re a great reader and you have a great editorial eye and skill.
So I always say—you know, people go on publishersmarketplace.com or whatever and take a look at the sales that agents have made. And sometimes, a junior agent has only made a couple of sales, and so maybe writers look down on them. But truly, if you go on an agency website and see what each person is looking for, those junior agents deserve credit, and they’re building their list.
All of which is to say—some pragmatic advice in there—but all of which is to say when you’re young, you take on a lot, and you try a lot, and you throw a lot at the wall. As you get older in your career and more established, you get a lot of referrals. Many of my clients are professors, and so they’ll have budding students who are really impressive that they send my way. Or we get a lot of inter-agency referrals as well. Or an editor at a publishing house that I’m close with will send me someone because they don’t work with authors who are unagented. And, they think that we would be a good fit. So that can happen.
But I’ve been in this for a while now, and I still read every query that comes through my inbox. It might take me a while, but I’ll get to it eventually. So I can still find things in what we call the “slush pile,” where you don’t know anybody, and you have no connection, but I’m intrigued by your project and captivated by your voice. That happens.
GARY DOP: There’s something in what you said too about people are referring editors and agents and other writers. That referral process is strong and robust. And I do think, in a room like this—a digital space—we have people logging in from all over, some of them who have no contacts. It’s good to hear the “slush pile” thing. Even though, if the percentage is whatever it is, at the end of the day you are looking for exceptional writing. And if somebody hasn’t been publishing, but they send you something exceptional, it still happens regularly for agents that they want to discover that book just as much as anything else. Is that safe to say, Nikki? Maybe I’ll turn that to you. Others are nodding their heads.
NIKKI TERPILOWSKI: Yeah, I think so. It’s definitely true that the longer you’re an agent, the less hungry you become. You’re very dedicated to your list and maybe more selective. I remember when I first started, I took on things that were very rough. And I was excited to dig into the manuscript editorially. And now, I’m looking for things that don’t require quite as much editorial. But I enjoy going through my submissions and seeing what’s there. And I always have hope that I’m going to find my next client.
I will say that I get a lot of referrals now from other colleagues—a lot of former editors that know me that are now in other capacities and things like that. But I could absolutely find the next client in my submissions.
GARY DOP: And is there something in there—I guess I’ll ask this of all of you, but we’ll start with you, Nikki—is there something in a query letter that is just “don’t do this in your query letter” or “yes do this”? You pick one of those.
NIKKI TERPILOWSKI: Are you serious? That’s a whole other like seminar. It’s a big question.
GARY DOP: Well, you guys have a list of a thousand things. Just give us one for the hungry writer in the room.
NIKKI TERPILOWSKI: I would say, number one, go to the agent’s website. Read what they’re looking for. Make sure that they are the right agent for you. And then see if they have submission guidelines, which they probably do, and just make sure you follow them. That would be the number one. That covers a lot.
GARY DOP: Yeah, that’s great. April, what about you?
APRIL EBERHARDT: I always say just tell me who, what, where, and why should I care. A long query letter that tells us all sorts of things that aren’t pertinent isn’t helpful. We all get thousands and thousands of queries a month, a year, whatever. And so I think—get right to the point. Again, who, what, where, why should we care. In other words, as agents, why would we be interested in looking at your manuscript?
GARY DOP: Which is, Cherise, to you the question then. And maybe add, should they be thinking about the business in that query? Should they be saying, “I think this will sell because”? And not necessarily in that language. But should they be aware of the marketplace for their kind of book?
CHERISE FISHER: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s probably true for nonfiction more so than fiction. I think that a nonfiction author who is presumably an expert in a particular field is going to be able to give me some numbers or some facts about whatever the situation is that shows me that there is a big audience for it. And me having—recognizing immediately their awareness of the space they’re going into in terms of the market—makes me think, okay, this is a person who is thinking like a businessperson.
For a novel, I think that’s a little bit more challenging. Although having a sense of what your comp titles are or what sort of genre you’re writing in or who you might be compared to is probably helpful. Again, because it’s sort of showing me that you have some self-awareness of your work within the full library of books that are out there.
GARY DOP: That’s good advice. Thank you. And Rayhané, what about your experience? Or short stories, maybe. Is there something in that kind of communication that would be useful? You mentioned short story collections. But either a do or a don’t?
RAYHANÉ SANDERS: Yeah. I’ll piggyback on what Cherise was saying about comp titles in fiction. This can be subjective. Agents can feel differently about this. I personally really appreciate a few comp titles in a query letter—at least a couple—because to me, it signals that the author is aware of the marketplace. And it depends on what those comp titles are, too. If someone says like The Catcher in the Rye, it’s like, oh my god. They should know what’s currently happening—what the bestseller lists look like right now. And that gives me an indication that they’re educating themselves about the marketplace, and maybe that they’re a reader too.
Personally, one of my biggest pet peeves are writers who don’t read. I think that’s insane. If you’re a writer, you should be reading all the time. Especially if you’re a fiction writer, my god. So there are little signals that make me take you seriously in a query letter, and I think that those are part of it. I also just wanted to add from the previous question—you mentioned—do we ever go after authors? And that can happen. Especially when I was starting out, I would pore through the literary journals. And, if there were stories that just grabbed me, I would find out if that person was represented or not. And if they weren’t, then I would introduce myself. And I started building my list that way too. Of course, as you get more experience—you know, if you have an amazing article in a magazine or newspaper frequently—an agent will come after you and say, “Hey, I think that story could be a book. I think it’s expandable.”
Another tip from me to emerging writers is: even as you’re working on your manuscript, constantly be submitting smaller pieces, whether that be nonfiction or fiction. Because it really—and it goes back to query letters too—it really makes you stand out if, at the bottom of the query letter where you have your bio, you can say I’ve been published in X, Y, and Z magazines, even if they’re just online publications. It makes you stand out when we’re getting hundreds a week.
APRIL EBERHARDT: Gary, can I add something?
GARY DOP: Absolutely, yeah. Please.
APRIL EBERHARDT: I hope everyone’s reading the chat as we go through this. I realize it’s hard to multitask. But Catherine Herndon is doing a fantastic job of capturing a lot of what we’re talking about and making suggestions. One of the suggestions she has added here is you can find out a lot about agent deals through Publishers Marketplace. It’s twenty-five dollars a month. You can pay for it for one month, do your research, and then quit. It tells you everything. It gives you a live feed of which agents are acquiring what kind of work, who they’re selling it to. It gives a brief description of what the book is, and it gives comps. And you can cross-sort this database. It’s a goldmine. And I strongly suggest that authors do exactly what Catherine is suggesting. Subscribe for a couple of months because you can find out a whole lot more about who’s looking for what, what’s selling, what the trends are, and what the hot comps are—the comparables.
GARY DOP: That’s great. I know there are some questions also in the chat that have been popping up. One of them was about—this is sort of the looking-forward writer who’s already thinking about selling the book to Hollywood—and they asked if there is a problem if they go hybrid or whatever. But at the bottom line, Hollywood is interested in a book that does well. Is that fair to say? By and large, that’s what sells in Hollywood, if a book does well to begin with. Cherise, you’re kind of saying yes but no in your eyes, so tell us—
CHERISE FISHER: Well, because I’m in the middle of an auction right now for a Hollywood book—it’s really exciting. We got seven offers on Friday, so we’re trying to figure out what to do with them. I’ll show you the book. [She holds up the book cover Seven Days in June by Tia Williams.]
APRIL EBERHARDT: That’s a nice problem.
CHERISE FISHER: It’s a nice problem. This book comes out in June. It’s not a bestseller yet. But how gorgeous is this cover? I am constantly in love with this cover. So, it’s not always the case that if a book does well. It’s just whether Hollywood—this particular book—a lot of people are seeing it as a TV series. But it’s just about whether or not the actual book works for the time. It is no coincidence that so many people are watching Bridgerton and saw this huge, luscious, romance, historical set on the scene. And then this book gets in front of them, and it’s lush—it’s not historical—but it is a romance. So all of a sudden, Hollywood is like we need romances. Clearly, we need romances. And everybody is looking for a romance. So that’s kind of about trends. But of course, a successful book is going to draw them more than a book that’s not successful, for sure.
GARY DOP: Thank you for that clarification on that. That’s helpful. And Bridgerton, on Netflix. Check it out. I don’t know if we’re allowed to promote that here, but good stuff. Did anyone else notice a question that they wanted to address in the comments? If you did, jump in now. Otherwise, we’ll keep moving on. I know one person early on asked about—they had signed a deal twenty years ago, and it sounded like there had been no communication with that agent for twenty years—no book sale or anything—and they wanted to make sure they were okay to be done with that. And I think it’s safe to say there’s nothing holding them to a twenty-year-old contract if they’ve had no communication. Is that fair? I just want to give that person a thumb’s up, and we’re good to go.
APRIL EBERHARDT: I would send a letter. I would send some communication to that agent, if he or she is still alive—may not be—saying, you know what, I consider this null and void. We’re not doing business anymore. Thank you very much; I’m moving on. Just cover your bases.
GARY DOP: Yeah, that’s good advice. Thank you, April. And April has a cactus in the background. I always trust people with cactus in the background.
APRIL EBERHARDT: It’s wood. It’s made of wood, and it’s folk art.
GARY DOP: Okay. It’s fantastic. The shapes, the angles—it’s great. I want to switch gears for a moment, and we’ll jump back into some of the maybe more practical questions as they come along. But I want to talk about diversity in publishing. It’s an important topic in life in general, but perhaps more than ever we’re talking about diversity in culture or life. But in publishing, both aesthetic and social diversity. And some publishing houses and agencies are doing more to actively work in hiring practices, book selection, and so on. But how does the work of the individual agent take this on? We’re certainly thinking in terms of race and culture in American publishing, but other kinds of diversity as well. April mentioned women over fifty and sixty as something that’s not given enough attention.
So with those things in mind—I’m not asking you to defend your lists. I haven’t looked at each of your lists. But we are asking: What is the conversation you are having at your agency or within your own internal monologue about diversity in publishing and your part in bringing the best books into the world? Rayhané, let’s start with you on that, if that’s all right?
RAYHANÉ SANDERS: Yeah. I mean, I represent Myriam Gurba and just did a huge book for her, and she’s the founder of Dignidad Literaria, which took Macmillan to task last year. So this is a question that I feel is long overdue, and publishing is finally talking about it. I mean, I came into publishing over ten years ago, and I had never—I was very vocal about it—I had never been in a whiter space in my life. It was shocking. When I first started working in publishing in New York, I didn’t realize that there were spaces that were so white in the world, just from my own experience. I’m an Iranian American. There were like no other Middle Easterners that I knew of. It was very exciting if I ever saw a black editor. It was very exciting if I ever saw an East Asian editor. This is a very real thing in publishing. And it’s certainly a question that comes up in many industries. But, again, I’ve never seen a whiter industry than publishing.
So for an industry that is supposed to be about capturing the voices of America and publishing the stories that we can all relate to, I think that when you look at statistics of how many white published authors there are versus people of color, it’s staggering. I think it’s slowly changing. I think it’s a very slow and late change. But it is very exciting that people are talking about this for the first time in a real way. And it is very exciting that companies—whether you’re cynical or not about how much of it is lip service—that they’re actually putting together boards and people and hiring to try to address the inequity. And in terms of what we can do as agents? I mean, I’m doing what I’ve always done, which is just trying to have a robust, diverse list of storytellers. But I’m very happy for the conversation to be happening.
GARY DOP: Thank you. Nikki, April, Cherise on that topic? Nikki?
NIKKI TERPILOWSKI: I would say, like Rayhané, I’m doing what I’ve always done. I’ve always taken on—I’ve taken on stories that I thought were wonderful, where the voice was great, where the writer was amazing—but I thought this may be a hard sell right now. So the only change for me is that it might not be a hard sell now, because editors are actively looking for these types of stories. So it is an exciting time, and I feel very optimistic that stories that I thought would be a challenge, just because of the market, will have a fair chance now. And there might be more than three editors to send it to.
CHERISE FISHER: Yeah, I guess I would say that I have been pushing this conversation since I walked into a publishing company in 1994. Absolutely. I think in my early career, I remember saying—you know, I love books by black people. I love promoting books by black people. But in my early days as an editor, I would say that that is a niche for me, but I don’t want it to be a noose, because I could see that there was a limit to where those books go. But there were many of us who have been pushing, pushing, pushing. We were there in the early—I guess the early 2000s—where every single publishing house had an imprint that featured people of color. And then they all went away.
So I am, of course, very happy about what’s happening now. But it is a cycle. These are always cycles. You know, Marie Brown, Toni Morrison, right? Toni Morrison was an editor at Random House, pushing for this conversation then. And she got a response. And then it dies down, and then another set of us come in. And we push, and it rises up.
Here’s the thing. I’m going to say the big bad word, which is white supremacy. So the reason why publishing is the whitest space that you ever go into is because publishing is supposed to be an arbiter of culture. And in a white supremacist country culture that we’re in, you are meant to prioritize white people at all time. So that is the explanation why it’s so white.
I mean, people can tell you it’s because it’s low-paying. I mean, there’s a lot of other reasons. But really, like, we’re the guard for culture. And if it’s a white supremacist culture that we’re in, then that guard is going to protect the superiority of white people. Or the perceived superiority of white people.
I love how much the conversation has changed. I did this book. I’m so full of show and tell.
GARY DOP: Go for it.
CHERISE FISHER: This book just came out. This is the galley because I’m not going to stand up and get the hardcover. But this book just came out in February: Do Better. And I would say that the difference between me doing this book pre-George Floyd, is that pre-George Floyd I probably could send it—to Nikki’s point—to two or three editors who would take it seriously. I had an auction with about seven houses for this. And got a lot of money for it. And, thankfully, got a lot of money for it. I will say that louder because I should be proud of that. Because there were times when they would be like, and not only did I get a huge advance for the author—who, by the way, used the money to—she gave away so much money during the pandemic to black women who were struggling through the pandemic. So there was that.
But there was also the fact that the publishing company—I was in an article of The New York Times over the summer, and one of the things I said was that publishing companies are machines. They’re machines that get into gear on books. And some books have the machine operating at one hundred percent capacity, all hands on deck, to make this book amazing and a bestseller. And that’s what I call the premium gas. And then there are the other titles in the machine that get like regular gas. So because of the awareness and the pushing and all that is going around in the country, these books like this are getting premium gas. And so that’s awesome.
GARY DOP: Cherise, thank you for your answer there. We need to double down on that over and over again, and the truth of that perspective that many people, yourself included, have been doing this work for a long time, and now it’s being talked about. But this work has been going and going and going. And I’m glad you brought up white supremacy. I think part of the work that people in this room can do in the digital space or wherever you are—not just affirm the idea—but ask yourself who’s on your bookshelves and who you’re buying and who you’re supporting. I don’t say that because I want you to see mine. Because I think for many of us it’s—
CHERISE FISHER: I see Audre Lorde back there.
GARY DOP: Yeah, she’s there. But what I’m saying is that I don’t want you to look too close because we do this. We have our Audre Lorde on the front. But who’s really on the rest of the shelf? That’s the problem with the conversation, if we’re not buying the books and supporting a changing world. So thank you for that.
Okay. We have some other questions, and I want to get to a bunch of these because they’ve been asked here. We’re going to do a speed round here, okay? So you’ve got to give like a fifteen-second answer to these questions. We’re going to try and get through them. We have like four minutes left before Brynn of James River tosses us all out.
So, is there a difference between a synopsis and a query letter gets asked. What occurs to you, Rayhané, on that?
RAYHANÉ SANDERS: A query letter should not be a synopsis. A query letter should be short, like jacket copy. A synopsis is too long. Don’t tell us every twist and turn of your plot in a query letter.
GARY DOP: Okay, and let me follow up on that. Then in a synopsis, they’re including character, locations as much as they can? Or what’s supposed to be in it? What’s supposed to be left out?
RAYHANÉ SANDERS: I don’t even know any agents who request synopses anymore. I don’t know. Maybe that is something that other agents request—for me, submission guidelines say the first few pages of your manuscript. If I like it, I’ll request the rest.
GARY DOP: Perfect. All right. April, I’ve got one for you on the hybrid idea. Somebody asked, “What is the role of the agent in the hybrid publishing part of things?”
APRIL EBERHARDT: It really varies. I think most agents are really focused on traditional deals. Cherise just gave us many really good reasons for focusing on traditional publishing. I serve an unusual role in the industry inasmuch as I really believe in hybrid and I am trying to help move toward that more. So I act as an advisor for authors. They can come, and they can ask me anything about it. I can direct them to certain publishers, hybrids, traditionals, whatever. But it’s unusual for an agent to be involved in hybrid because, frankly, there’s not the traditional 15 percent advance which helps pay the bills in the agenting world. Right?
GARY DOP: No, no. That’s good. And that percentage is 15 percent? Is that what we said? Because I know that’s someone’s question. That typically agents get 15 percent of—
APRIL EBERHARDT: And then 20 percent or up to 30 percent for foreign rights if you have a sub-agent.
GARY DOP: Okay, perfect. Then, Nikki, do you represent short story collections? I want to throw a short story collection to you? Or is that not your? Okay, we won’t ask you that question, then. I’ll ask that quickly to Rayhané because I know—and then I’ll come back to you with another question. Short stories. How many of them should be published before they come to you with the book?
RAYHANÉ SANDERS: No more than half. Because you want new material. But you should have a few published.
GARY DOP: Okay. So a few will bring credibility, and then you’ll be able to help place some of the other ones if you believe in the book.
RAYHANÉ SANDERS: Correct.
GARY DOP: All right. A maximum word count, Nikki? How are you thinking about this for novelists?
NIKKI TERPILOWSKI: It depends on the genre. So that’s where the writer does their due diligence. They go online, and they research whatever their genre is. If it’s sci-fi, if it’s romance, if it’s historical fiction. And there’s a range, and they just make sure they’re in it. And they should mention that in the query—the word count.
GARY DOP: Oh, they should mention that? Okay, great. And Cherise, what about in the—I just lost my place.
Comps and query letters. The question is about how current those should be. Is it best to be last year, or?
CHERISE FISHER: I would say no more than three years old.
GARY DOP: All right. Then, April, people are concerned a little bit about how seriously a book will be taken. Will it be reviewed if it uses the hybrid model? How does that work?
APRIL EBERHARDT: Absolutely. I find increasingly that authors don’t care who publishes a book as long as it has a good cover. Cherise has just given us many examples. It has to have a good cover. It has to be well-edited. It has to be a good story. But whether it’s self-published or hybrid published or traditionally, we are having no problems getting blurbs for these books, getting reviews, getting attention, getting sales.
GARY DOP: That’s great. Okay. Now I need all of you to grab a book near you or two or three if you want and hold them up and show us some stuff you’re believing in right now.
RAYHANÉ SANDERS: I’m moving, so I don’t have any of mine right now. Sorry.
GARY DOP: Then you can tell us a couple, or you can type them in . Either one is fine.
APRIL EBERHARDT: Can I tell you something about this, Gary? This is a book—this is an author who is Chinese. Her book has been hugely successful in China—in Hong Kong, in particular. And she self-published it here, and we are now moving her to a hybrid model and relaunching it this fall. So it’s cross-cultural, and it’s going to be an interesting exercise.
GARY DOP: That’s perfect, thank you. And Rayhané, you didn’t have any books to hold up, but tell us one.
RAYHANÉ SANDERS: I’m typing. And I’m typing one more. I’m typing Black Boy Out of Time by Hari Ziyad, which just published, and Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen. Flight of the Diamond Smugglers, which is an insane story of diamond mining in South Africa by Matthew Gavin Frank. A true story—a narrative nonfiction. And Verge, another short story collection by Lidia Yuknavitch. All just published.
GARY DOP: Wonderful. And Nikki, we’ll give you the last word on that. I think everyone else has held up or whatever. So show us something.
NIKKI TERPILOWSKI: Stranger in the Lake by Kimberly Belle. She’s a domestic suspense author. A Spell for Trouble, a cozy mystery. It Cannoli Be Murder, another cozy mystery. I love mysteries, by the way. Jeb’s Wife, a mystery romance. And then I have a couple more that are in boxes that I don’t have with me.
GARY DOP: Well, everyone in the audience, please go find these people on social media. Go find these agents online as well, and see what they’re representing. Go support them. Share about their books that they’re representing and that are coming out. This is a meaningful part of what we do. Thank you to the James River Writers, to Catherine and Brynn for this. Brynn, if there’s anything else, please jump in and let us know what we need to know in the end. Brynn, take it away.
BRYNN MARKHAM: Thank you so much, everyone. Thank you for everyone who has come and participated in the chat and the questions, and thank you so much to our wonderful panelists and to Gary for moderating. You can also check out other events for the Virginia Festival of the Book at vabook.org. And the recording of this will be posted as well, and James River Writers will follow up with an email to all of you who registered, and we will include a capture of the chat with all of the links and the resources that were shared there as well, to help you out. Because we know an hour is a very short time with these wonderful agents. So it was a lot to cover, but we had so much great stuff to take away. So we thank you so much for that. But we are done. We’re wrapping up. So thank you so much, everyone. Have a great evening.