In order to be published in either the fiction or non fiction world, an agent is essential. Publishers rarely accept unsolicited manuscripts for review, which means that you require a professional who has contacts in the industry. Literary agents, or Authors’ Representatives, are the medium through which an aspiring writer can be published.
Most agents’ desks are flooded with submissions, and until you are accepted, you will have very little understanding of the review process. Since they receive so many manuscripts each week (average is around 400), they have little time to answer questions until they are sure they want to represent you.
A friend of mine from college, Diana Murphey, is a literary agent for Maxwell Literary Agency in New York City. She is formerly an editor for Berkley Books, and now she spends her time discovering new talent in the U.S. and abroad. She agreed to this phone interview, and I think you will be surprised at what she had to say.
K.R.: Diana, how many manuscripts do you read each year?
D.M.: Probably close to five thousand. I have an assistant who weeds out the stuff she knows I won’t accept, and I read everything that she sends to me.
K.R.: And do you read every manuscript completely?
D.M.: Definitely not! I can usually tell within the first ten pages – if not the first three paragraphs – whether it’s something I want to try and sell. I usually ask that authors send sample pages rather than the whole thing. If I’m interested, I’ll request the entire manuscript.
K.R.: What convinces you to want the whole thing?
D.M.: Well, it has to answer ‘yes’ to my three questions: Can I think of an editor that will want to read it? Do I want to know what happens next? And is the writing strong enough to sell?
K.R.: Can’t an editor help develop an author’s writing?
D.M.: I’m sure they could, but they don’t have time. It’s a myth that agents and publishers will help nurture a new writer that shows a spark of talent. They have to have it all together for us to go forward with the project.
K.R.: Should writers send query letters?
D.M.: Absolutely! I prefer e-mail, though I know some agents only accept snail mail queries. Before you send anything else, I want to see a query letter, a synopsis, and an author bio. Then I’ll decide if I want to see more.
K.R.: Will you read something that hasn’t been queried?
D.M.: I will, but I’m one of the very few. Most agents won’t look at anything if the author doesn’t follow the submission guidelines. If you really make me mad, I’ll reject you on the spot, but I’m pretty laid back as agents go.
K.R.: What would make you mad?
D.M.: A couple of things really set me off. For one, if the author addresses me as “To Whom It May Concern.” If the author hasn’t take the time to research my agency, then they don’t deserve to be represented. Also, if I get a submission in a genre that I don’t accept. Always do your research!
K.R.: So you prefer to be addressed as Ms. Murphey.
D.M.: Dear Diana is better than To whom it may concern. I want to know that the author knows who they are submitting to.
K.R.: That makes sense. How long is your turn around?
D.M.: I tell authors to wait at least two weeks for a response from a query, about a month from the submission of partials, and about two months after I see a manuscript. Sometimes, I get so excited about a novel that I’ll e-mail the author right away with a contract, but that doesn’t happen very often.
K.R.: And how long does it take to sell a manuscript?
D.M.: I’ve sold manuscripts in ten days, and I’ve taken more than two years to sell them as well. It depends on the market and on the author’s willingness to make changes.
K.R.: So you don’t guarantee a sale?
D.M.: No, but I usually sell what I accept. I think there have been four manuscripts over the last seven years that I’ve been unable to sell, and those were both nonfiction works.
K.R.: Wow. Those are pretty good odds.
D.M.: I try not to advertise it, but I’m good at my job. And I only choose manuscripts when I know there is an editor that will love to read it.
K.R.: So you know a lot of editors?
D.M.: A fair bunch, yes. You have to in order to sell books. I meet with editors on a weekly basis in New York, and I fly to L.A. once a month to meet with publishers there. Book contracts take quite a bit of negotiation, and editors prefer to do all of that in person.
K.R.: How much do you charge for your services?
D.M. Nothing up front. No legitimate agent will charge reading fees or the like. I take 15% commission from fiction sales, 10% from nonfiction, and 20% from foreign rights.
K.R.: What about movie contracts?
D.M.: I don’t negotiate movie contracts. One of our other agents handles all of our agency movie rights, mostly because he’s really good at it. I stick with literary works only.
K.R.: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
D.M.: Don’t give up! If I don’t want to represent a novel, it isn’t because its bad, but because it just doesn’t fit with me. All of us agents are different, so keep submitting, and if your writing is solid, you’ll land an agent. Also, be up front about multiple submissions. If you send it out to five agents, and one decides she wants to represent you, let her know who else is reading it. We agents talk to one another, and we find out these things!
Diana Murphey can be contacted at DM.Literary@yahoo.com.