Saturday, February 1, 2020

Funny You Should Ask!






HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Happy Saturday, dear Reds and readers! Whatta week, whatta week. But here, we have a special little world, and you never know, and we try to be happy and optimistic and trust the universe.  (And winner of Sulari Gentill’s book from yesterday below.)

But now: raise your hands: How many of you are readers? Writers? Curious about how the publishing world works?  

How many would love to have a superbly inside look at why which books get published and why other things happen and how the decision-makers become who they are?

How many of you would love to meet someone in the absolute midst of all of this—and not only that, an insider who is generous and enthusiastic and inspirational enough to share the whole darn thing with us—and, moreover, be hilarious doing it?

Well, of course. All of us. 
And so, here’s the brilliant agent—and now author of the absolutely indispensable  FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK--the wonderful Barbara Poelle.

HANK: Have you always loved books and writing? Where did you grow up--and what did you read? 

BARBARA POELLE: I have! I grew up in Minnesota. All of the women in my family are VORACIOUS readers- aunts, cousins, grandmothers- to the point where my Aunt Peg coined the phrase, “In this family you can never set down your drink or your book.” It’s true. Someone else will pick up both and vanish into the nearest recliner…hammock…lawn chair…

HANK:  Did you dream about being in book world?

BARBARA POELLE:  My husband, Travis, actually pushed me to seriously consider agenting when I was in my mid-20s. He got me thinking, “Wait, I love reading and my opinions are of course the right ones, is there a career for this?”

HANK: But--your path to the world of literature was not a straight line--straight line, get it? You were actually a stand-up comedian?

BARBARA POELLE:  I was! Stand-up, Sketch, and Improv in Los Angeles. I think everybody should have to do two things in life: wait tables and do stand-up. Both will simultaneously humble and exalt. And yes, when I stopped getting the buzz on stage and started looking for something else, I used my full skill set from both to start the foundation of how I approach agenting- anticipating needs and creating an atmosphere of congeniality.

HANK: What was your first moment in the world of publishing?

BARBARA POELLE:  I went in for my first interview with Irene (Goodman, the iconic agent whose name is on the agency) and it went well. 

She then gave me a stack of 20 queries with the five first pages attached and said “Go through these and tell me if you would request more and why. There are no right or wrong answers, just want to get a feel for your subjective taste.” She left me in the conference room, I went through them and pulled three out of the 20 that I had a solid case for pitching on WHY I felt they had merit. 

What I didn’t know is that she had secretly slipped three queries in there from actual clients that resulted in six figure deals.  I picked those three. She had a perfect poker face as I went through the reasons why I felt they had merit. Then after, she broke out into a huge grin and told me what she had done, and that I was the first person to pick out those three and only those three. It was pure adrenaline- for both of us, haha.

HANK: Wow wow wow. That is an amazing story. And that’s how you became an agent?

BARBARA POELLE:  Well yes. NAILED THE INTERVIEW. But actually, it is a larger story that speaks to the importance of Informational Interviews. I tapped every resource I had to find a path to both agents and editors, requested an informational interview, and came prepared to ask pointed questions. It became very clear very quickly that I was better suited to the agent side, and thus, I went after it, hard.

HANK: What are you most proud of in your career so far?

BARBARA POELLE:  Oh wow, just all of my authors. I am so so, so damn proud of them.

HANK: And you have some amazing clients—here’s your website, and it’s a joy.  We've been talking about commas and hyphens around here lately--how was it to work with authors? 

BARBARA POELLE:  I find authors to be some of the most brilliant, fascinating and delightful people to work with--a big part of what keeps me in this is the pure awe I feel regarding their talent. (See what I did there with all the hyphens and commas!)

HANK: Oh, you are too good. (no oxford comma, hmm…) But--what's one thing an author should never say to a copyeditor?

BARBARA POELLE:  “STET ALL.”

HANK: I wish you could see me—I just burst out laughing. Oh, rats. Off to fix my ms.  And now--you're on the other side—you’ve written a book. Yay! After your amazing column in Writers Digest--why did you decide to write FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK? And answer so many writers' questions? It's an amazing insight--and such an education. 

BARBARA POELLE:  Aw, thanks! It wasn’t so much a decision on my part, my editor suggested it and made the offer. I was both the worst agent and the worst client for myself, hahaha. I agented like, “Deliver Oct 29 for pub on Jan 14? Sure! She can crash it!” and I cliented like, “Oh yeah, totally, my husband is out of town for three months and I am single parenting and have my own client list; I’ll just wake up at 4:45 every morning and hammer this out.” Both of us either needed to put way less or way MORE vodka in our cornflakes. But we got it done.

HANK: I am still laughing so hard--we all do what we can, right? As we watch the deadlines click ever closer?  And I can picture you talking to yourself…but you KNEW it was a terrific idea. Funny, though, because of your other lives, you are so much more savvy and experienced than most authors. What are the biggest misconceptions authors (and aspiring authors) have?

BARBARA POELLE: That agents are gatekeepers. We want this for you just as badly as you want it for yourself. We want your experience to be like a greased pig in a laundry chute, smooth and happily whee wheeing all the way home.

Huh, that simile might have gotten away from me, but you know what? I stand by it.
HANK: Hmm. I have never felt like a pig in a laundry chute. Hmm. I am trying to picture that now. ::pausing:: Okay, even so, I’ll stand by the simile, too. So, okay. Just for a tease of the treasures inside your book: tell us…what’s one thing an author should never say to an agent?

BARBARA POELLE:  “I told you to tell them NO GREEN M&Ms!” [sound of chair through plate glass window]

HANK: How fabulous is Barbara? And how generous? So--who has a question? 

Like: after how many rejections should you give up? Why do some agents love a book--and others don't? What do you think about trends? And um, what's the biggest trend right now? And asking for a friend: how long can the domestic suspense trend last?


And a copy of FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK to one incredibly lucky commenter.

(And oh, yesterday’s winner of AFTER SHE WROTE HIM by Sulari Gentill is Cathy Akers-Jordan! YAY! Email me your address!

Barbara Poelle is Vice President at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, representing a variety of genres but focusing on suspense, thriller, upmarket and young adult fiction. Her book Funny You Should Ask: Mostly Serious Answers to Mostly Serious Questions about the Book Publishing Industry (January 14, 2020; Writer’s Digest Books) is based on her Writer’s Digest column of the same name. You can visit her at funnyyoushouldaskbook.com or irenegoodman.com/barbara-poelle



FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK, which is based on Barbara’s popular Writer’s Digest advice column of the same name, features responses to more than 100 questions by aspiring and emerging writers (including many not covered in her column and expanded answers to topics that didn’t get the full treatment in a column), as well as writing exercises, submission checklists and a publishing BINGO scorecard for every milestone accomplished.

Some helpful topics covered in the book:
  • The nuts and bolts of a query letter
  • How to process the soul-searing envy of watching someone else’s career flourish
  • How to talk to your editor
************************
HANK:  And breaking--very sad--news: we acknowledge, with much love and admiration and infinite gratitude for her generosity, and talent, and joy, and friendship and life-changing work, the death of Mary Higgins Clark, the queen of us all.She and her husband adored each other as I could see in every moment I saw them together.  I will never been the same for knowing her, and I will never forget her.  



62 comments:

  1. This is delightful . . . Congratulations on your book, Barbara . . . I’m definitely putting it on my must-read list.

    I love to read, but I know nothing about the publishing side of things. So how do you choose from the many manuscripts I suspect you receive? Do you have a particular “checklist” or are choices more subjective?

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    1. Oooh yes, love to hear that answer!

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    2. It's all about the craft- a good read is a good read. Something that keeps me turning the pages no matter the genre.

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  2. The book sounds great, Barbara, and how fabulous you nailed those three queries. I'm celebrating my twentieth mystery release next month (including right here, squee), but I think I'm going to need to pick up your book just to read the how-to-deal-with-envy part!

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  3. Book sounds wonderful, Barbara. I want to know who the three authors were you picked. Inquiring minds and all that. So many authors end up bald during the querying process, it's great to have a book with humor to help us through the grrr parts.

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    1. BP: Alas, divulging that is divulging what the authors got paid which is in direct violation of my agreement, so I will just say, two of them are still putting books on your shelves this year!

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  4. Back when I thought maybe I could write, I devoured Writer's Digest. Did Lawrence Block have a column there too? This was early 80s so maybe before your time. I remember writing to him and asking a question and receiving a very nice reply. I also remember him saying he laid out the Solitaire cards to help him think what comes next.
    This isn't really a question - more an observation - but how do so many bad books get published?

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    1. That’s such an interesting question!

      And about solitaire—did he do it to quiet his mind?

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    2. I don't remember just how he worded it but I think that was the purpose. When he got stuck he would deal out the cards and let his mind go where it wanted to. I do the same thing with jigsaw puzzles.

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    3. BP: yep, before my time. And remember, one woman's bad book is another woman's #1 NYT Bestseller. There have been many MANY books I would have passed on that went on to become beloved reads. Art is always about subjectivity.

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  5. I love the concept of requesting an informational interview--that would impress me right away if I were the employer. As for your current book--going on my list to read. Always happy to read about the publishing world--and a dose of humor is not to be sneered at! Congratulations!! p.s. Vodka in the cornflakes?? Hmmm......

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    1. Yes very wise—and do generous of the interviewees to give the time!

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    2. I wanted to ask Barbara about the informational interviews as well, not for me, but for my students. Part of what I teach in my technical writing class is looking for a job - since it's writing, I focus on the resume and putting together a LinkedIn profile. But I'd love to hear about how Barbara went about doing this to see if it's relevant to their needs.

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    3. BP: Sure- I reached out to friends and family and asked if they had any "ins" to publishing folks, then I asked them to reach out and vouch for me, then I emailed to set up an interview.

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  6. Thanks for this interview, Hank! I love the insight and visuals Barbara brings to the conversation. I've followed her WD column for years-usually the first thing I turned to on receiving my issue. As for her idea that, "...everybody should have to do two things in life: wait tables and do stand-up," Can't be more true. I've done that for the past thirty years as a teacher and school administrator! I also agree with the informational interviewing approach. One of the coolest things I was involved with as an assistant principal was having students interview prospective teachers (with their permission beforehand). I have one burning question? Why no Oxford comma? -Be Well

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    1. I wondered, too! ? And yes, I agree those professions are analogous! :-)

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    2. BP: Dang, you all are serious about that comma! It's not my jam. I know, you're like OH, RULES AREN'T YOUR JAM? But yeah, no, rules are also kinda not my jam. And thanks for reading the column!!!

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  7. And Barbara—so many more questions—is it hard for you to say no? What percentage of the time do you have to do that? It must be emotionally draining for you, knowing there are people behind every manuscript.

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    1. BP: There is so much power in saying no. I find this especially as a woman, although that is the lens I view the world. I don't want to waste your time anymore than you want to waste mine, and so many folks go on to find other agents! My no isn't necessarily a universal one.

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  8. Your book has been on my list of books to buy ever since Janet Reid talked about it on her blog. I love the humor in your responses. You can’t beat humorous, honest, and straightforward advice from someone who knows what she’s talking about!

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    1. ANd you;ve got to laugh, right? Otherwise the business is too ...crazy-unpredictable. xx

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  9. Thank you Barbara and Hank. This is actually a book I need ( need!) to get.

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  10. Congratulations on your new release! We all need some greased pigs in the laundry chute. One of my kids threw a packed lunch box down the chute and there it stayed for months, until the smell became obvious. Two parents, one at each end of the chute with a 90 degree bend, stabbing the stinky lunch box with broom handles. We succeeded!

    Any hope for an amateur sleuth traditional mystery or is it all psychological suspense/thriller all the time?

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    1. BP: HA! Hilarious. And that type of mystery isn't me, but try Whitney Ross here at the agency?

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  11. Any book that gives solid advice together with humor is my kind of book. Thank you Barbara, and thank you Hank for sharing with us. So, yes this is a must read, but buy first. I think of all the stories I have read stretching back to my first clear memories of reading the story of Greyfriars Bobby - I was seven - I have never been without a book. But to write one, that takes courage first. But Barbara, with your early work, it's easy to see that you have courage aplenty. I learn so much about the trade of writing here at JRW and have realized how much that interaction is helping my own composition. While I am not planning a book, I do take my JRW comments and save them in another file because who knows maybe one day. Helen Hooven Santmyer, author of, "And Ladies of the Club", was about my age when she was first published so there is time. As to Hank's question on trends, I am declaring hate on algorithms and boxes, not to forget the surveys which we are confronted with at every turn. If the story is good, well written as to grammar etc. let's publish it. Yes, you can see I need a lot of education as to the economics of publishing.

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  12. First, congratulations to the winner!

    Welcome to Jungle Reds! This is a great post! I chuckled!

    This is wonderful how you picked these three query letters! As a reader, most of my reading experiences are wonderful. However, recently I am puzzled about something. I have noticed that a few authors' writing are awful with grammatical errors or I could not follow the story.

    Did you ever receive query letters with grammatical errors?

    And on a different topic, do you work with literary agencies?

    Diana

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    1. p.s. Congratulations on your new book and I want to read it! I am going to order a copy.

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    2. Oh, the grammatical errors...you mean that proofreaders and everyone seems to miss in books? it is SO annoying, but so difficult to find them all.

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    3. Yes, that is what I mean. There are always typos. The books I am talking about are "self-published", which tells me they did not have an editor or proofreader?

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    4. BP: Things slip through, sure, in every stage. And I am unclear about your final question- but I am a literary agent, I work at one agency.

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  13. I really wish this book had been out when I started writing in 2002. However, I LOVE inside glimpses of the industry so am off to order it RIGHT NOW. Thank you, Barbara and Hank - great interview!

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  14. OH, this is a book to have. Thank you for the great interview -- the info and the laughs. I'm off to get my hands on Barbara's book right now (or at least order it). It'll go next to Jane Friedman's book (The Business of Being a Writer) on my shelf. The JRW blog introduced me to that book, too. Yay for this blog and community!

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  15. Congratulations! Funny You Should Ask is a real treasure which would be informative and excellent. I enjoyed your great interview.

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    1. It is a treasure! All our questions answered...what could be more valuable?

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  16. What an invaluable and unique resource. I am always interested in this type of helpful book that is entertaining. It sounds old school which I love. Reading gives me such pleasure and being an avid reader since I was very young is meaningful and rewarding.

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  17. This definitely sounds helpful. I've been writing since I was young, just for fun. I've had a lot of positive feedback to the project I've been messing around with lately and encouragment to do something with it, but I'm not sure where I would even start- IF it's good enough. This will hopefully help answer some of my questions and get a better idea if this is something I should pursue. Plus I just love knowing how things work, my own curiosity finds this interesting.
    kozo8989@hotmail.com

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  18. I am trying to find Barbara, you all--I know she planned to be here, and perhaps she is having trouble posting.. hmmm

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. I am sure she will reply soon and say, "Funny you should ask..."

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    3. BP: Ha! Sorry, I had a barfing kid this weekend. Why is it they always seem to have eaten PIZZA on those days? Here I am! Thanks for your patience.

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  19. This hilarious Reds column appeared just as my eyes were beginning to glaze from several hours of editing a novel manuscript, making me think, "Golly, there's life in that cold, impersonal publishing world after all." I've been planning to independently publish to avoid the time and angst of going the traditional route, but working with someone like Barbara Poelle (IS there anybody like Barbara Poelle?) would be heaven. I'm so glad she's collected her advice in a book!

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    1. Great Sherry! And you are such a trouper—hope the editing went well ! Xxxx

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    2. BP: Glad I could provide a bit of respite!

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