Agent & Editor Insights for Getting Published
By Lori Russell
A little research can take a writer a long way. This month I talked with agent Rita Rosenkranz about what authors need to know before they send a query letter to an agent.
A former editor at major New York publishing houses, Ms. Rosenkranz founded Rita Rosenkranz Literary Agency in 1990. She represents adult non-fiction about health, history, parenting, music, how-to, popular science, business, biography, popular reference, cooking, spirituality and general interest titles.
What groundwork should a writer do before contacting an agent to pitch a book idea?
I’d suggest that authors investigate thoroughly the competition for their book, which includes the titles that are now considered classics and that all readers interested in this subject will buy, as well as the titles that are fresh on the market and are drawing attention. I handle non-fiction and most of the time I sell a project on the basis of a proposal and not a complete manuscript. When an author pitches me, either at a conference or through a query letter, I expect the author to understand the book’s place in the category, with the competition in mind. I prefer that the proposal is ready (or at least close to ready) to submit if I’m interested.
Finding the right agent can mean different things to different people. What suggestions do you have for writers who want to gain a deeper knowledge of the agents they are pitching?
I think many authors don’t consider the nuances of the agent/author relationship beforehand. More than to simply know they want an agent, authors should identify what matters most to them. Do they want an agent who will simply get them the most money or one who will help them become better writers and who will be available for matters large and small? More than ever, writers can learn about agents thanks to the Web. On many sites authors exchange experiences––offering recommendations, sob stories and everything in-between––undiluted and uncensored. Writer’s Digest, as well as other print and online venues, regularly profiles agents, offering writers a deeper sense of the agent’s personality, taste and approach to the author/agent relationship.
You advertise that you are interested in “familiar subjects presented freshly and less-known subjects presented commercially.” Can you give some examples?
I was instantly moved by Betty DeRamus’ Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad. While the Underground Railroad had been mined extensively, no one had written about it from the lens of love, a mainstream and commercial perspective.
Harrison Monarth and Larina Kase are co-founders of TheConfidentSpeaker.com, a public speaking and communication coaching Web site. Monarth is the founder of GuruMaker, a professional speaking consultancy. Kase is a peak performance and anxiety management expert. Though there are many public speaking books on the market, in The Confident Speaker: Tap into Your Hidden Power to Communicate at Your Best, together these authors offer a uniquely informed perspective and can reach a wide readership.
Jim Kane’s Western Movie Wit and Wisdom gathers more than 2,000 quotations from more than 1,100 western movies. Iconic characters of the American West offer advice, words of wisdom, humor and an occasional historical fact. Although they were uttered in a western setting, they were about life. Jim’s approach makes the material popular and fun, helping to broaden the audience for this work.
Once a writer signs with an agent, what type and what frequency of contact can she or he expect?
It’s impossible for me to generalize, since writers have different needs and agents handle business differently. I personally want my authors to be in the loop in a real-time way, whether it involves rejections or other matters that can play a part in their well-being. At the same time, I’m sensitive to authors’ individual personalities and preferences. While maintaining my basic approach to the relationship, I’ll adapt wherever I can. This might mean not sharing rejections but only letting the author know when there is an offer.
You have worked in the publishing business for more than 20 years, first as an editor and then as an agent. How has the business changed over time? How has it stayed the same?
The business has changed tremendously thanks to the Web, where an author can cultivate and connect regularly with readers. The marketing potential is phenomenal. Many thousands of books are published every year and it’s harder to gain a foothold for a book that isn’t launched with any fanfare. Independent bookstores used to be able to build a book based on hand selling. Now there are significantly fewer independents to make that happen. Despite the extreme changes in the world over the last two decades, publishing remains a business built on relationships, a people business.
What is the most important thing for writers to know about agents?
There is great variety among us, in the kinds of writers we’re attracted to, our approach to the author/agent relationship, our editorial sense, our publishing connections, and our stick-with-it-ness, even when a project doesn’t win a publisher’s interest right away. This should give authors hope that within the large and diverse community of agents, there will be a perfect match.
Writers may query Ms. Rosenkranz via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lori Russell is an award-winning writer who has had the pleasure to work with several great editors in her 17 years as a freelancer. She is a contributing editor to Columbia Gorge Magazine and has been a regular contributor to Ruralite for more than a decade. Her articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the country and her short fiction and poetry has been published in several journals and anthologies. Lori recently completed her first novel, Light on Windy River.