Literary agent Katherine Fausset can tell you how not to write a query for representation, which is valuable information for an aspiring author.
Curtis Brown Ltd. agent Fausset is just one of 30-plus faculty members for the June 25-27 Jackson Hole Writers Conference at the Center for the Arts. Registration is still open for the conference, where writers can rub elbows with editors, agents, screenwriters, poets and other experts. See JacksonHoleWritersConference.com.
Fausset spoke to the News&Guide from her office in New York City to discuss the industry, her personal preferences and what agents do.
She attends a conference or two each year, scouting talent and representing her profession. She heard about Jackson’s event from two of her clients with Wyoming roots: Nina McConigley, author of “Cowboys and East Indians,” and young adult author Cynthia Hand of “Unearthly” fame.
Fausset represents literary fiction, narrative nonfiction, journalism, memoir, pop science and upmarket commercial fiction, which she describes as sort of “book club fiction” like the suspense-thriller work of Lisa Brackmann: “Books that have more depth to them than just a straight romp.”
Before querying an agent to represent you, writers should have completed their novel, memoir or creative nonfiction book and have had peers or professionals edit it, Fausset said.
Ideally, those reading your work “shouldn’t be related to you or owe you money,” she said.
For nonfiction books, a book proposal — outline, sample chapters and a solid platform of expertise — is sufficient.
Of course, literary agents get pitches all the time that hit the wrong note, she said.
“Dear Mr. Fausset,” is a bad one, she said, “as is mentioning anything about the celebrity you see playing in the movie of your book.”
Other missteps include pitching it to 50 agents at once and making it obvious in the email.
“The best pitches are the ones that are succinct,” Fausset said, “professional, clearly stating why they’re directing the query to that particular agent, and the descriptions that read like the flap copy of the book so that I feel compelled to take this 300 pages and spend my weekend reading them.”
Nonfiction proposals that catch her eye include ones by an author with a strong expertise, insider knowledge and an original idea. Fiction proposals appeal to her if the description is intriguing enough to spend out-of-office hours immersing herself in.
“That’s when agents primarily are reading,” Fausset said.
After majoring in English at Harvard, Fausset realized her skills as a waitress were “terrible” and she didn’t want to go to law school. Reading was her passion. She interviewed with a boutique literary agency “having very little idea what they did,” she said, “but saw they had all their books lined up in alphabetical order, with Edith Wharton lined up next to Cornel West,” and she knew she wanted to work there. She’s been working as an agent for about 15 years.
An agent’s job includes managing an author’s career, editing, being emotionally supportive and helping writers get the fairest contracts possible. Agencies earn commissions on the books they sell for their clients, but effort doesn’t always equate to earnings.
“Sometimes you’re working with a writer at the beginning of their career who has a story collection or a novel that is not the most obviously commercial,” Fausset said, “but whose writing and ideas excites you as a reader. I may not make any money on the first book or the second, or even the third, but the next book may really take off. It really is wonderful, you feel you’ve invested in the person. I want to make my writers as much money as I can, but the part that is most meaningful for me is taking on work by authors that I love.”
The publishing landscape has changed a bit since 2000. More people are self-publishing, e-books are a significant portion of book sales and there are fewer brick-and-mortar bookstores.
“In 2000 there were no e-books,” Fausset said. “Now in some genres more than half the sales are in e-books. People might be more likely to buy an author because they can do so in a matter of 15 seconds, it’s kind of an impulse buy.”
Genres come and go and rise and fall, Fausset said.
“There was the year that everything you got was ‘This is the new “Da Vinci Code”’ or ‘This is the next “Bridget Jones,”’” Fausset said. “Now chick lit is not even a category. Most upmarket women’s fiction and commercial women’s fiction has taken a darker turn with ‘Gone Girl.’ There was a spate of dysfunctional family memoirs, but that sort of subsided. It’s fun to be in it for this long and see those trends.”
At the conference itself, mingling with agents can be helpful to aspiring authors, Fausset said, but even the best chemistry with a pro won’t help a writer whose work is lackluster.
“From the professionals’ perspective, we get 30 to 50 queries a day,” Fausset said, and the real courtship doesn’t begin “until we see the work on the page.”
Mingling with other writers, on the other hand, might lead to a writers group forming or a person offering to read a first draft and comment on it.
For those whose work is ready for the big time, chatting with an agent can’t hurt.
“When you then send the query and say ‘I met you at the Jackson Hole Writers Conference,’” Fausset said, “I will be sure to pay attention to your query because I appreciate you took the time to come to the conference.”
Whether she gains a client or two from the conference, Fausset said, she’s happy to talk to writers and represent the publishing industry.
“I think it’s important for authors to hear from professionals,” Fausset said. “It’s brave to write a book. I wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for writers. I come at this from the perspective of thanking writers who let me have a job that I love.”