s writers, we are encouraged to seek the holy grail of publishing—a champion of our work, a guide through the often confusing process, a courier to transport our beloved manuscript through the doorway of a major publishing house, and a warrior to protect our interests along the way—a literary agent who will shepherd our story into the hands of an editor and help bring our words alive in the form of a book. Does that person actually exist? How can an agent be that perfect? The truth is—the perfect agent is an agent who believes in our stories as much as we do.
It takes tenacity, a shrewd business sense, and a strong passion for books to be a great agent, and WOW! readers are in for a treat: Agent Wendy Sherman has agreed to share some insider secrets about what it takes to sign with the perfect agent.
Wendy Sherman is a seasoned professional with over 25 years of publishing experience. She has held senior executive positions at Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Henry Holt. During her tenure at these major publishing houses, she served as Director of Subsidiary Rights, Director of Marketing, and Director of Sales, as well as, most recently, Vice President, Associate Publisher, and Executive Director of Publishing at Henry Holt. With a desire to work more closely with writers, and have a key role in the development and management of their careers, she founded Wendy Sherman Associates, Inc. in 1999. Wendy is a board member of the Association of Authors Representatives (AAR) and a member of The Women's Media Group.
WOW: Wendy, welcome to WOW!—we’re excited that you agreed to an interview with us! You probably get this question all the time, but I have to ask, with over twenty-five years working in executive positions at publishing houses such as Simon & Schuster, Henry Holt, and Macmillan, what made you decide you wanted to be an agent?
Wendy: I was involved in the marketing, sales, and subsidiary rights areas of publishing throughout my career. I always enjoyed the process of generating excitement for great new books within the publishing house and throughout the industry. Yet, I had secretly harbored a dream of becoming an agent, and when the time seemed right, I just knew I had to jump in and go for it.
What could be better than to work for the authors directly and use my insider knowledge to help make the authors’ dreams of publication become a reality? An added perk is that I get to work with fabulous people at all the great publishing houses, instead of being limited to the one house I was working for. I seriously consider this to be the best job in publishing.
WOW: Your agency, Wendy Sherman Associates, Inc., has a great track record for discovering first-time authors. How have you consistently found the gold in the slush pile?
Wendy: We’ve been very fortunate. We get so many submissions (as do all agencies) and I’m consistently impressed by the quality of what we see. Yet, in the end, it is all about personal taste paired with what we think will sell. Keeping connected to what editors are buying is key.
When I am reading a manuscript I immediately start making a list of which editors would be right for the material. If I can’t envision exactly where to send it, I know it’s not likely to be something I can sell. I tend to have a clear marketing vision right from the start—or not at all.
I’ll also admit that we are extremely diligent (maybe compulsive) about reading and responding quickly. We try to get through our unsolicited manuscripts within a few weeks. If there is gold in the slush pile, I want to find it sooner rather than later!
“I seriously consider this to be the best job in publishing.”
WOW: Many new writers think they need an agent before they actually do. Can you suggest an agent “checklist” of expectations an author should follow before seeking representation?
Wendy: For fiction, the manuscript must be complete and polished. I don’t read partially completed manuscripts.
For nonfiction the proposal and sample chapters must be in great shape. It’s not enough to have a good idea. The presentation is important, and there is a standard format for a proposal (there are several good books that show a writer how to put one together).
The bottom line is: you need an agent when your material—fiction or nonfiction is polished and ready to go to publishers.
WOW: When an author decides to query you or your associates, what is the best way to make the first contact?
Wendy: While I do prefer regular mail submissions, all of us at WSA, Inc. do accept email submissions. If I were an author, I wouldn’t want to risk getting caught in a spam filter or lost in the deluge of daily emails. My younger colleagues may disagree, but I still prefer paper.
A standard query letter goes with the material. It should be brilliant! I can’t stress enough how important this is. If your query letter is not superb, the chances are good that your material will never make it to my desk. The letter should tell me enough about the book to make me take notice, and should include all relevant information about your qualifications to write the book.
“The bottom line is: you need an agent when your material—fiction or nonfiction is polished and ready to go to publishers.”
WOW: As a well-established agent, you’ve seen thousands of queries—the good, the bad, and the absurd. If you were to pick your best examples of a “Do,” a “Don’t,” and a “What the heck were you thinking?”—what would they be?
Wendy: I have no patience for query letters that compare the work to a bestseller or literary lion. I’ve seen letters where the author compares their work in a way that makes me sure this person has completely unrealistic expectations. What I do find helpful is for the author to tell me whom they envision being their audience (e.g., readers of so-and-so may enjoy my work). There is a big difference between over-hyping and helping to position the readership. I have no problem if a writer mentions other writers I represent, as it shows that they have researched my agency. My biggest pet peeve is when writers call and try to pitch their book over the phone. This is just not a professional way to go about it.
WOW: Recently, there has been a proliferation of “query services”—websites that charge membership fees for submitting queries to agents on an author’s behalf. How do you feel about these types of services? Have you ever received (or responded to) any queries that have come from them?
Wendy: I have no idea how these services work or what they charge. But I do receive email queries this way on occasion. In fact, I recently took on a project that was sent to me from a service of this kind and didn’t even realize it. And I sold the project to a major publisher.
WOW: Do you read blogs, ezines, and print publications to discover new voices, or do you mostly rely on writers who contact you through the query process?
Wendy: My colleagues at the agency definitely read blogs and ezines, and we all read print publications to discover new writers. In reality, most of my new clients come to me via referrals from existing clients or query letters.
WOW: If an author queries you with an amazing idea, but it’s not in the genre you usually represent, would you consider it anyway, refer it to another agent in (or outside of) your agency, or just pass?
Wendy: If it’s a genre I know nothing about, I would most likely just pass. However, we all share projects within the agency, so if it’s an amazing idea and there is someone better suited for it, I’m happy to pass it along. I don’t refer to other agencies, and I tend to be disinterested in queries that come to me saying that another agent recommended me.
“It’s not enough to have a good idea. The presentation is important...”
WOW: What subjects and genres are you currently seeking?
Wendy: I love all sorts of fiction—from quality women’s writing, to more commercial fiction. The only genres I don’t pursue at all are science fiction and category mysteries. When it comes to nonfiction, I have a very broad range of interest.
The best way to find out what I’m looking for is to take a look at our website www.wsherman.com. Michelle Brower, Emmanuelle Alspaugh, and I talk about our interests and you can see what books we have sold and who we already represent.
WOW: Do you see any specific trends developing in the industry right now?
Wendy: There is always a trend and the key is to get in on it early. It seems like there is an endless fascination with anything about food right now. Put memoir and food together and you have a winning combination. But just like chick-lit which was so hot and then so not, food memoir will last a while and then there will be something new.
WOW: That’s good to know! I guess I better slip some real chocolate cake and brownie recipes into my memoir! Which brings me to my next question: Do you ever work with your authors to edit or rework their manuscript to prepare it for submission to editors?
Wendy: Absolutely, yes.
WOW: That’s pretty succinct and definitely positive news for a prospective client, but say that you receive an interesting query, then request, read, and love the manuscript just as it is, would there be any specific reason(s) why you might decide NOT to sign the author?
Wendy: Hard to imagine with fiction. But, I will say, that with nonfiction, the author’s promotional platform is key and as good as the idea and the writing and author’s expertise may be, he or she still has to have a built-in way to promote it—i.e., a platform. I wish this weren’t so, but it is. An editor will flat out turn something down when the author doesn’t have a national platform. It’s just the reality of the way it works these days.
“Memoir, for instance, does not necessarily require a platform.”
WOW: That’s an important point to make! I wouldn’t be surprised if many aspiring nonfiction writers have never considered that not having an established platform could be a complete deal-breaker. What would an agent or editor consider a “national” platform? Guest spots on Oprah and Letterman?
Wendy: It’s not a complete deal-breaker, but it is important. Memoir, for instance, does not necessarily require a platform. The story has to be brilliantly written and completely intriguing. Sometimes the personal experience of the author is enough. With practical nonfiction and self-help, the platform takes on greater importance because sales need to be driven by media appearances.
Here is, typically, how the process works, which may shed some light on why a platform is so annoyingly important.
The challenge for publishers (and, therefore, for authors and agents) is that the bookstores (especially the chains like B&N and Borders) need to know there is a way to drive sales (which means consumers need to go to a bookstore looking for the book). It’s a cycle. When making a decision to take on a new book, the publisher needs to feel the media will embrace the author/the book.
The bookstore needs to know that the quantity they “buy in” will sell through. It’s about real estate in the bookstore. Platform means that an author has a track record of national media appearances or ongoing media events. Radio, print interviews, even a major online presence such as blogging or a popular website. Without this, the sales department will have a very difficult time getting bookstores to buy any reasonable quantity.
If the publisher doesn’t feel they can get the stores to buy in a certain minimum quantity, it is tough for them to justify taking up a spot on their list. For the most part, it is just simple economic reality. To ignore this is simply naïve.
To answer your question, an appearance on Oprah or Today or Good Morning America is obviously huge, but there are many other ways to be seen as having a good platform, such as local television and radio, print, and an online presence (not just a website).
“The editor takes the project to the weekly editorial or acquisition meeting where other people weigh in with their opinions.”
WOW: You’ve really given our readers some great insight about why developing a platform is so important. I’d love it if you could walk us through the process of submitting an author’s proposal to editors at the publishing houses.
Wendy: The agent sends it to a particular editor who they think would be a good fit. It’s a well-written proposal and the editor likes the project and sees that the author has strong credentials, some media experience, maybe gives talks on the subject, and maybe has done some regional publicity. The editor shares the proposal with other editors whose comments come back in a positive way.
The editor takes the project to the weekly editorial or acquisition meeting where other people weigh in with their opinions. Comments come in from editorial, publicity, sales, marketing, and sub-rights. This is where the thumbs-up or thumbs-down usually happens.
WOW: Just as a peek behind the mysterious curtain, can you please share with our readers what would constitute a “typical day” in the life of an agent?
Wendy: On any given day, I may be making a big submission—which is usually done via email these days. To orchestrate this, I have my list of editors I plan to submit to. I make a personal phone call to each editor and make the pitch and then send the material via email. It’s a big rush of endorphins for me. I confess this is my favorite part of the job—it’s when I feel most hopeful and optimistic. Never mind. My favorite part is when the editors start calling to say how much they want to buy the book!
A good part of every day is spent speaking to editors on the phone and over lunch about new projects and staying on top of existing projects. Making the deal is just the beginning. We stay involved every step of the way as the book proceeds through the publishing process.
Did I mention reading? We are reading all the time, both in the office and at home. I don’t know anyone in the business that doesn’t have a bad back from carrying manuscripts home.
“I don’t know anyone in the business that doesn’t have a bad back from carrying manuscripts home.”
WOW: I’ve seen a lot of change recently and I was wondering…as more readers and writers are discovering new opportunities on the internet for avant-garde reading material and alternate publishing models like ebooks, serial podcasts, and self-publishing, how do you think that will affect the way you do business and the traditional publishing industry as a whole?
Wendy: Our business is always changing and we see new publishing models all the time. As an agent, I am always open to taking on self-published books and helping the author bring the book to a publisher who can offer a wider distribution for the book.
WOW: Wider distribution is right! I attended Book Expo America for the first time this year and it was such an amazing experience seeing the bustle of the publishing industry up-close and very public. Will you be attending BEA when it is held in Los Angeles in 2008?
Wendy: Yes, I plan to attend the 2008 BEA in L.A. As you experienced in NY this year, there is something so energizing (and exhausting) about being with so many people who all feel so passionate about books! It’s a great opportunity to meet with people you don’t usually get to see. In the end, this is really a business about relationships and BEA is a great opportunity to nurture those relationships.
“No more than two sentences that tell me what I need to know...”
WOW: Do you lecture or hear pitches at any writer’s conferences? What are some tips you can share about the best way to approach an agent at a conference?
Wendy: I don’t attend many writer’s conferences any more, but my colleagues Michelle Brower and Emmanuelle Alspaugh attend as many as possible.
WOW: As an agent, you are regularly faced with the possibility of getting stuck in an elevator with an aspiring author. What key elements do you suggest she include (and what should she leave out) of the “elevator pitch” about her book?
Wendy: No more than two sentences that tell me what I need to know to decide that I want to read the book. The writing will speak for itself, but the pitch has to get my attention. Please make it short and sweet, as the elevator ride will be brief.
WOW: With regard to this month’s theme, “Agent in the Middle,” can you explain the importance of a middle-woman between the author and the publisher? Where do the loyalties lie? Between the agent and the publisher, or the agent and the author?
Wendy: No question that the agent works for the author. This is a collaborative business and my background as a publisher really helps me to keep things running smoothly when there are bumps in the road. The bottom line is that we all want the same thing. To sell lots of books!
WOW: You’ve shared a lot of helpful information and I know our readers will benefit from your insight. Do you have any final words of wisdom to share with our aspiring women authors?
Wendy: Write what you know and write what you love.
Wendy, thank you so much for your time and your thoroughness in answering questions for our WOW! readers. I know that any author who has the opportunity to work with you will be in excellent and capable hands!
Wendy Sherman Associates, Inc.
450 Seventh Avenue, Suite 2307
New York, NY 10123
Annette Fix is a contributing editor for WOW! Women On Writing, an author, and spoken-word storyteller based in Laguna Niguel, California. Annette’s memoir, The Break-Up Diet will be available Valentine’s Day 2008.
Annette Fix’s feature articles on WOW!:
Hunting in the Wild: How to Capture a Literary Agent
The Self-Publishing Travel Guide: Exploring New Territory
Drawing From Your Life to Create Your Story