oah Lukeman is the president of Lukeman Literary Management Ltd, which he founded in 1996. He has also worked in the New York office of a multi-talent management company, where he represented many New York Times bestsellers; and prior to founding his agency, he also worked for another New York literary agency. Prior to becoming an agent, he worked in the editorial departments of several publishers, including William Morrow; Delphinium Books; and Farrar, Straus, Giroux and as an editor of a literary magazine. He was creator of PrePub.com, one of the first publishing rights websites, which eventually became the "Booktracker" division of Inside.com.
Lukeman is also an accomplished author. The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile (Simon & Schuster, 1999) is now part of the curriculum in many universities. The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life (St. Martin’s Press, 2002) was a national bestseller, a Book Sense 76 Selection, a Publishers Weekly daily pick, and a selection of the Writer’s Digest book club.
A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation (W.W. Norton, 2006 and Oxford University Press in the UK, 2007) was critically-acclaimed, a selection of the Writer’s Digest book club and the Forbes book club, was profiled on NPR, and is now part of the curriculum in over fifty universities and writing programs.
His e-book, How to Write a Great Query Letter, has been the number one bestselling title on Amazon Shorts for many months. His most recent book geared to help aspiring authors is How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent. He has also made available over one hundred pages of free advice for authors from all his books, which you can read by visiting his personal website.
WOW: Welcome, Noah, to WOW!. You’re a brave man to share your story and advice with all us women writers! So, let’s dig right in. How did you get started as a literary agent, and how long have you been one?
Noah: I started my own literary agency when I was twenty-two (thirteen years ago), after a brief stint working for another agency and after several internships at publishing houses throughout college (starting when I was eighteen). I am thirty-five now and have been working in this industry, in one capacity or another, for seventeen years. It wasn’t easy starting my own agency at twenty-two, especially in 1996, when business was still done by phone and fax (no Internet). But I worked as hard as I could and just stayed with it year after year.
WOW: All your hard work has obviously paid off with the great success you’ve had as a literary agent. Who are some authors you currently represent?
Noah: I have represented over two hundred book deals since then. So to name them all would take up too much space here, but to name a few: National Book Award Finalist Dan Chaon, Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Hallman, Academy Award Winning actor Gene Hackman, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
WOW: Well, that’s quite a client list, and one that you should be proud of accomplishing at such a young age. With all your experience, you’ve seen a lot of query letters—good and bad. What makes a good query letter?
Noah: I wish I could answer this in just a few sentences—but to answer this properly would require a book-length response! In fact, I wrote an entire book on this topic, How to Write a Great Query Letter, which I give away for free to help the writing community. I encourage authors to download it.
WOW: How incredibly generous of you! WOW! readers click here to download the free e-book. Okay, so what’s one of the worst mistakes you’ve seen in a query letter? (We want to make sure and avoid this mistake, ladies!)
Noah: I think I have seen everything under the sun: from query letters wrapped in ribbon to envelopes containing a one dollar bill to various trinkets included in the package. I always suggest that authors channel their creativity to the [query] letter’s content—not to its presentation.
“I always suggest that authors channel their creativity to the [query] letter’s content—not to its presentation.”
WOW: Sounds like a good piece of advice! Besides being a literary agent, you are also an author, and I hear people talk about your books all the time at critique groups and writing conferences. What was your inspiration for writing The First Five Pages?
Noah: As an agent, I would receive thousands of queries a year, and I would want to take the time to respond individually, in depth, to each author—but there simply wasn’t enough time. We enter this business to help authors; but along the way we can become so besieged by scripts that, ironically, we can find ourselves pressed for time to help the people we most want to help. This is why I wrote The First Five Pages: to help as many authors as I could by identifying the problems plaguing the vast majority of aspiring authors—and offering practical solutions.
WOW: This book sounds like what many of us need—no matter what stage of our career we are in. The first five pages are important on the road to publication and equally important once the book is published and in the hands of readers. So, how can The First Five Pages help an author get published?
Noah: My books on the subjects of writing and publishing are designed to first help authors become the best they can be and then to teach them how to approach the industry and go about the business of getting published. Writing is an art form. But getting published is a business, and authors must learn to become both great artists and great marketers if they are to succeed in publishing.
“Getting published is a business, and authors must learn to become both great artists and great marketers if they are to succeed in publishing.”
WOW: More and more writers seem to be realizing that, especially since great advice is on the Internet and for free. Your most recent book, How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent, sounds like a book all aspiring novelists need to read. What are two or three tips from the book you can share with us today?
Noah: Thank you. This book is filled with advice on how to get published—from tips on how to research agents, to how to approach them, to how to work with them on a daily basis, to how to protect yourself legally. As an example, there is a section in the book where I discuss the thirteen factors you must consider when deciding whether an agent is right for you. Here is one of them:
13. How receptive is he to new clients?
If an agent has been in business for 5 years, she will be less likely to take on new clients—even less so if she has been an agent for 10 years. For example, when I started my own agency 13 years ago, I was very eager to take on new clients and very receptive to query letters. Now I am not taking on new clients at all.
As a rule of thumb, beginning writers stand a much better chance of landing an agent if they target an agent who is just starting out, someone who has been an agent for three years or less, someone who has proven himself by securing at least a few deals with major houses but is actively looking for more clients. (This factor alone can make the difference in finding an agent.) Just because an agent is starting out doesn’t make her any less competent or capable; in fact, it often makes her work harder on your behalf—which can make the difference in getting you your first deal.
WOW: Thanks for sharing that tip from your book with us. Why did you decide to put over one hundred pages of free advice for authors on your website? Is it from all five or your books?
Noah: Yes, there is a total of one hundred pages (or more) of free advice on my site from all of my books. I did that because a large part of what I do as an agent is giving back to the writing community. I would like to help every aspiring author if I could, but I know that I cannot; and so the least I can do is post information for free that might help as many authors as possible on their journey.
WOW: That is something we should all go over and check out! If a beginning writer is struggling with money in these tough economic times, which of your five books do you feel would benefit this writer the most? Why?
Noah: If money is an issue, I would suggest downloading How to Write a Great Query Letter (free) and reading the one hundred free pages online. Authors can also sometimes buy used books very inexpensively on the Amazon Marketplace. Finally, if an author is experiencing serious financial hardship, I offer a link where they can contact me and let me know, and I will arrange to give them one of my books for free.
WOW: It is so easy to tell from this interview that one of your main goals is helping writers. So, back to agenting: why is it important for an author to have an agent?
Noah: Without an agent representing you, most major publishers will not even read your manuscript. There are a host of other reasons, too, which I discuss at length in my books. It is the necessary first step on the road to getting published.
“Without an agent representing you, most major publishers will not even read your manuscript.”
WOW: Should an author submit manuscripts to editors and agents at the same time? Or should she just concentrate on trying to land an agent?
Noah: She should concentrate on landing an agent first.
WOW: Thank you for answering that question because it is one that comes up all the time when writers are discussing submitting their manuscripts. What are some warning signs for authors that an agent is bad news and not someone who will actually help their career?
Noah: Authors should avoid agents who charge reading fees, editing fees, who refer authors to a specific book doctor, who charge exorbitant agency expenses, or who have no track record of having consummated book deals with major publishers.
WOW: What a great list of criteria to avoid in agents, especially since there are so many great and honest agents out there! How do you think social media and blogging are changing the publishing world? Are agents and editors really scouring cyberspace, looking for new clients?
Noah: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that agents are actively scouring every single social-networking profile out there; or say that by virtue of having a social presence, you will dramatically increase your chances of landing a book deal. But I would also say that if an author manages to achieve tremendous exposure on her own—whether it’s online or in the real world—then it certainly increases the chances that an agent might stumble upon it. So it certainly can’t hurt. But I wouldn’t make it the centerpiece of a strategy either.
“I represent some authors who have had several novels rejected over the course of ten years or more before finally landing their break.”
WOW: That makes perfect sense, especially since it seems like a writer needs to focus on her writing first and then working on a query to land an agent. Please leave us with some great words of wisdom from someone who has had many years of experience in the business. What are the two most important things a writer should do if she wants to get her manuscript published?
Noah: She should constantly work to improve her craft. This means she should always be writing—as soon as she finishes one book, she should immediately turn to the next. This also means she should constantly be seeking feedback, self-editing, revising, reading, and actively working toward making herself the best author she can be. Second, she should allocate the appropriate time (months) to truly familiarize herself with the publishing industry and do the proper, in-depth research that will be necessary for her to identify and target the precisely appropriate agents for her work. As I discuss at length in my books, your ability to find these people and to approach them in the right way can make all the difference.
Finally, she should plan for a longer battle and never, ever give up. I represent some authors who have had several novels rejected over the course of ten years or more before finally landing their break. One must plan for a multi-year and multi-book effort. If one is truly writing for the love and art of it, then this should not be an issue.
WOW: Great advice from someone who knows what he is talking about! Thank you, Noah, for taking the time to discuss your career and advice with us. We appreciate your help and guidance on our publishing journeys.
Margo L. Dill is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher, living in Mahomet, Illinois. Her work has appeared in publications such as Grit, Pockets, True Love, Fun for Kidz, Missouri Life, ByLine Magazine, and The News-Gazette. She is a columnist and contributing editor for WOW! Women On Writing. She is assistant editor for the Sunday Book page in The News-Gazette. Her first book, Finding My Place, a middle-grade historical novel, will be published by White Mane Kids. She writes a blog called, Read These Books and Use Them, for parents, teachers, and librarians. She owns her own copyediting business, Editor 911. When she's not writing, she loves spending time with her husband, stepson, and two dogs—Chester, a boxer, and Hush Puppy, a basset hound.
You can find out more about Margo by visiting her website: www.margodill.com