Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Literary Agent Christine Witthohn

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!

Click here for more information on Matera and here for more information on the International Women’s Fiction Festival: Sept. 23-26, 2010 -

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?


  1. Roberta: Great choice in having Christine on the blog today! I do confess to having a huge amount of respect AND affection for her (disclosure- she's my agent). Every time she has offered me advice, it's been spot on. Christine, you are the best.

    As for the Women's Fiction Festival, I have been twice. It's fantastic. Intimate but intense. Don't be scared off by any language issues, for it's simultaneously translated into English. There can't be a more friendly group. Plus, Christine is right; the site and the food can't be better (I'm not even mentioning the wine).

  2. I second Cassy, Roberta. Christine is a great choice.

    Christine thanks for the comments on how to write a query. Keep it simple and do your homework is good advice not only for writing a query, but for writing in general.

    Italy, pizza and writing; that sounds like my kind of conference. Can men join in the fun?

  3. Christine, thank you for sharing your advice today. As a writer still looking for an agent, I struggle with the query. I'd rather rewrite an entire manuscript. Well...almost. Thank you for the concise explanation. I'm printing it out and stapling it to my forehead.

    As a published writer who chose to go with a small press first, I am curious as to your thoughts on using that route as a stepping stone to "big houses." As an agent, would you be more or less inclined to look at that author's work?

    Attending the conference is a dream I hope to fulfil some day. Italy is beautiful and to be in such a setting? Wow!

  4. Christine's clients are always bragging about her. In fact, I've never heard so many nice things said about any agent. She must be doing something right!

  5. Thanks for the great and informative interview. Christine, you make IWFF and Matera sound awfully tempting...!

  6. Roberta & the Jungle Red Goddess Posse - happy Tuesday and thank you for having me today!

    Cassy - I am only as good as my list! And I have a HONKING list :)
    Disclosure: I signed Cassy after we met at the IWFF.

    A.J. - Of course men are welcome! Don't be fooled by the name (Int'l Women's Fiction Festival). To name a few attendees in the last few years: Nick Sparks, Nick Hornby, Tony Lacey (big Penguin UK editor), Doug McKeon (Hollywood actor, writer, director), Alan Altieri (Sergio Mondadoti), etc. You will be in very good company if you attend, Ang!

    Silver - there is NOTHING wrong with writing for a small press before heading to a NY house. In fact it's much more common than you might think. Yes, I would look at your work.

    Happy Writing!

  7. Lee - I miss seeing you at confereneces! For those of you who don't know Lee, pop in and visit him at: http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/#.

    Diane - you should go! You'd not only have a blast, but meet some heavy hitting domestic and foreign industry pros.

  8. Oh my goodness, Christine, the Women's Festival looks wonderful. Do they want more speakers??
    And Montadori is already my publisher for 2 series...
    How can I resist?

  9. Rhys - E-mail me privately and we'll discuss :) The IWFF is the perfect place for you to promote and increase your foreign sales!

  10. Hi, Christine --

    Great advice! How clever of you to have signed Cassy.

    The other night I was listening to an agent talk about what makes a good query letter, and she said it's one that makes her realize within the first two sentences that this is NOT a book she's going to want to represent. I hadn't thought about it that way. But when she said it, I thought, well, sure, that makes sense.

  11. AH...Christine and Cassy..what a perfect match! Molto bene.

    SO lovely to see you both here today--and I agree. Italy. How fabulous! I know Charlie McNally would love to go to the conference, and where she goes, I go.

    Hallie, it took me three times through your comment to get it--but now, I do. Interesting!Because
    it means the letter was clear and specific.

    Hey Christine! Let me ask--How much input do you have in your clients' manuscripts before they're finished? Do you do a lot of editing and tweaking along the way? Or do you wait to see a first-final verson?

    Thank you so much for visiting today!

  12. Hallie - That is SO true about queries. When you get 1000+ queries a month... you learn to go through them quickly and pick out the ones where the author has done their homework, grabs you with their hook right off the bat, knows the market they are targeting, and can do this in just a few paragraphs.

    Hank - Hank... darling! Or should I say, Fifi? (Crime Bake 2009 - you should have been there!) Howz the pup?

    To answer your questions - my clients are my teammates in every way. If they aren't successful, I'm not successful.

    I always like to know what my clients are working on or getting ready to start, for a number of reasons. 1) There have been times when an editor will call or e-mail and ask if I have something specific; 2) I like to brainstorm ideas/concepts with them and share insider info I have regarding what editors are looking for, the market, high concept ideas, marketing, etc.

    As far as editing, just about all of my clients run their proposal/outline or partials by me to get my input before they go any further.

    When I first started, I would go as far as to line edit manuscripts. Now that my time is limited by being pulled in so many directions... when a client turns a story in, I look for plot problems/holes, characterization, pacing. etc. (all the things an editor will yell at me for :).

    So I guess the real answer is, I do what I have to do to get a client's foot in the door or help grow their career.

    No two clients are the same. At times I have been a cheerleader, some to hold their hand, a shoulder, a chick with a whip, dispenser of chocolate, a plotter, a critique partner, a confidant, a fierce advocate (aka scrapper - I have 5 sisters, so I'm particularly good at this one :), and a loyal and devoted friend.

    I do what I have to do for my clients. That's what teammate do.

  13. Wonderful interview Christine! I sense a crowd following you to Italy next year.

    I'm lucky to be a client and I can confirm all the rumors about Christine's energy, knowledge and enthusiasm.
    Now about that chocolate you're doling out ...

  14. Thanks again Christine for visiting with us today! Have you noticed any particular trends in what editors are excited about buying these days?

  15. Christine: We should start an Italian contingent! Folks, this conference is not quite like any you've been to. And, Miss Christine is ALL over the place. I've seen her huddled in the corner with an editor, sitting on panel after panel after panel, joining in with the walking tours of Matera (not to be missed), her phone glued to her ear, and--very seldom-- looking like she could use a nap.

    If anyone wants the poop on IWFF, I add my name to the list of "feel free to contact me."

    Now, after an hour and a half on the phone with my incredible agent, I have to get back to work!

  16. Rochelle - You want chocolate? I'll buy you a bag!

    Roberta - Regarding trends in what editors are buying - it depends on the editor and the house. I deal with so many editors, it's almost a full time job keeping up with what they are all looking for. And that changes on a regular basis, as their needs change.

    I think it's safe to say, they are all looking for a story with a marketable HOOK.

    Thank you again for having me!

  17. That was great. Thank you so much - I shall try and put it all into practice [if I ever get that far]

  18. great advice, good interview, thank you.