ROBERTA: Today JRW is delighted to welcome literary agent Christine Witthohn of Book Cents Literary Agency. Before entering the world of publishing, Christine studied biology, chemistry and nursing. Now she's trained her sights on becoming a super literary agent and queen of networking! Welcome Christine! We're all hearing horror stories about the state of publishing these days. How does the industry in general look from your perspective?
Wow. You really like to start with a bang!
Yes, publishing is in a state of flux. The business model publishers have always operated under is broken and doesn’t work any longer for a variety of reasons. Add in advances in technology, the cost benefits/availability of that technology to consumers, and the state of the economy, and it’s no wonder publishers are scrambling to change the way they do business.
Many NY pubs are tightening their belts and experimenting with different business models to see what works. We are already seeing significant changes. In the last few years acquisitions at most NY houses have been cut, imprints have closed, staff has been downsized, advances have dropped, terms of publishing contracts are ever changing, etc.
Is publishing the only industry this has ever happened to? NO. Are consumers going to stop reading? NO. Are publishers still buying books? YES.
I’m a glass-half-full kinda gal. No one ever said this job would be easy. This is very much a team sport kind of business. My clients are my teammates and we really have to work closely in order to get the results we want. Each person has to do their part well.
Can a writer be successful in this market? YES!
This biz is not for the weak of heart, because the road can get bumpy at times.
ROBERTA: Like all agents, I suspect you get deluged with query letters every week. Out of the onslaught, what makes a letter stand out? And then what about a manuscript makes you want to represent the writer?
To me, what makes a query stand out is someone who knows what they write (the hook) and knows their competition. Simply put: someone who does their homework.
A few months back, I received one of the best queries I have ever read. The writer gave me the genre, word count, and the hook in the first two sentences.
This was the breakdown of her query:
Paragraph 1: gives the vitals (genre, word count, hook); Paragraph 2: gives the bones (the foundation of plot); Paragraph 3: shows extended life (part of a series); Paragraph 4: author background/platform; Paragraph 5: organization affiliations; Paragraph 6: thanks me. The entire query was less than a page in length.
A query should be short and simple. Most writers make the mistake of going on and on in a query and end up talking (or writing) the agent/editor out of asking for more. Give us the bones - that’s all we need. If your story sounds interesting... we’ll ask to see the meat/fleshy part.
BTW - Within 60 days of receiving that query, I signed that author and sold the series (it took longer to sign her than sell her!). I had to fight off other agents with a bat!
What makes a manuscript stand out? The writing. Always the writing.
ROBERTA: I know I made mistakes when I was hunting for an agent. Can you give our readers some advice on how not to approach an agent?
Before you even query an agent, you should know: what their sales are, who their clients are, what they represent, their organization affiliations, and info about them from their websites. Do your homework! Why would you ever send your story to someone you haven’t checked out?
I can’t tell you how many queries I get in genres I don’t rep; the word count is either 2k or 200k; or the author says their story is a wholesome romance and it’s about an alien who is a serial killer (no joke); or addresses me as – Dear Agent, Dear Mr. Witthohn, Dear [insert another agent’s name here.] Silly things that make the writer look foolish or unprofessional.
My advice to all new writers: Do your homework! It will help make you stand out.
Insider tip #1: If you really want to know what an agent is like to work with… ask their clients! Most writers are happy to share this kind of info, especially if they have any dirt J
Insider tip #2: If you are at a conference but were unable to get an appt with your dream agent/editor… using good manners and good judgment, approach said industry pro and say hello or introduce yourself. Explain you were unable to get an appt, but ask for a few moments of their time to quickly tell them about your story or get a business card. Most will be kind and accommodating if they have time.
ROBERTA: You and Book Cents are proud sponsors of the International Women's Fiction Festival. Tell us about the festival and how you're involved.
Yes, Book Cents is one of the main sponsors of the IWFF. I was so impressed after the first year I attended, I became a sponsor! This is my fourth year. The conference is in Matera, Italy (which is a UNESCO World Heritage site) and held in a beautifully restored 16th century convent – complete with arched and vaulted ceilings, private gardens, and a terrace which gives you breathtaking, panoramic views of the Sassi.
It’s the only international writer’s conference in the world, and the only conference that puts you squarely in the international marketplace. It’s kind of like being at the UN, with an interpreter’s booth in the back - ready to translate workshops, panels, and various presentations into German, French, English, Spanish, and Italian.
For all you mystery and thriller writers out there, the IWFF organizes an amazing series of seminars with speakers brought in from around the world to discuss international crime syndicates, organized crime, cyber crimes, covert/international undercover work - just to name a few.
Where else can you sit out on a terrace with breathtaking views, a glass of vino, and chat up a foreign editor about YOUR book? Splurge on a sinful hot chocolate (with a splash of liquor of course) or an espresso while overlooking the Sassi or piazza while discussing what you’re currently working on with a group of agents and editors? Enjoy a mouth watering pizza or sample all the local flavors before you’re off to the IWFF Gala (the Italian equivalent of the Academy Awards – for books!)?
You will never get this kind of one-on-one time with industry pros anywhere else!
If you are a published author and want to increase your sales and get name recognition in the foreign market… this is the conference for you.
Thank you for having me, Roberta.
I’m a huge fan of all the gals at Jungle Red and hope you ladies have KILLER sales!
ROBERTA: Thank you Christine and thank you so much for your time today! Questions anyone?