Agent Jennifer Lawler

- by Dara Girard

Tell us about your agency and yourself:

The Salkind Agency (www.salkindagency.com) has been in business for about 15 years and has sold over 4,500 books.  Neil Salkind, the head agent, is also a writer and has written more than 100 books.  (He likes to keep busy.)

The agency mostly focuses on non-fiction, especially textbooks and technical books.  However, Neil does sell all kinds of non-fiction books, as do the other agents.  Some of us also represent fiction.

I’ve been a book author for about fifteen years and have written or co-authored about thirty books (a few novels, mostly non-fiction).  I have also done a lot of magazine writing and book and magazine editing.  For a number of years, I’ve been a mentor and coach for writers, helping them understand the craft of writing and the business of publishing.  When the opportunity to join the Salkind Agency arose, it seemed like a natural evolution in my career.  So far, I’ve sold three non-fiction books (I joined the agency in the summer of 2009), and have a handful of really terrific clients.  I’m interested in genre fiction and in all kinds of non-fiction, especially self-help, how-to, and narrative.  I am not representing children’s or young adult.

What kind of book grabs your attention and makes you consider wanting to submit it?

For non-fiction, I like to see a proposal that shows the author has a new take on a subject, and will add to the conversation about it instead of simply repeating what’s already been said.  I can usually tell when an author understands his/her audience and how to reach them – that’s extremely important.  So many people seem to be writing books because the topic interests them, but they don’t think about how it will appeal to other people, and they overlook obvious things they could do to make the book more appealing to those people.

Fiction is a little more elusive, because I’m looking for that spark that engages me, and it’s highly subjective.  The biggest problem I see in fiction is the author not knowing where the story starts, and not trusting the reader to fill in the blanks (that is, shoveling in too much unnecessary backstory).  Since I love genre fiction, what I’m looking for is a writer who loves the genre he or she is writing in, but isn’t just faithfully following the conventions of the genre.

What makes a writer a good choice for you?

I always say the two main qualities I look for in a client are professionalism and a sense of humor.  As an author, you can pretty much deal with everything you encounter if you have that.  I am more than happy to hold hands and walk you through every step of the publishing process, but if you’re going to have a heart attack if I suggest changes to your proposal or your manuscript, then we’re not going to be a good fit.

How much input do you expect to have on a client’s work?

I respect that the author is the final authority on his or her work, but I do give some feedback to most of my authors, simply because publishers are expecting work to be 100% ready before it’s even pitched these days.

It’s very hard for an author to get to 100% on her own, without feedback from someone who is familiar with the market and what editors are looking for.  I will say that if I don’t think an author’s work is at least 90% ready, I won’t take her on.  That ultimately limits how much feedback I’m going to give a client, because they’re already practically there by the time I sign them.  I have read some could-be-great submissions that would just require too much work to get to great, and I don’t have the time or inclination to get that involved in revising and rewriting as someone’s agent.

When I give feedback, I expect it to be carefully considered, and if it’s ultimately rejected, it’s because the author understands the problem and has dealt with it another way or has determined that her vision is more important than this one aspect I’m suggesting changes to.

There are times when I expect my feedback to result in changes.  For example, I frequently see writers making simple but serious mistakes in their proposals; I expect when I tell an author what those mistakes are and how to fix them, he/she will be happy to do it.  For example, it’s common for me to see someone write a competitive analysis that exhaustively details every book on the subject imaginable, even those that sold ten copies and are out of print.  This is usually a mistake, and I will ask the author to change it.  I expect the author to understand my reasoning and make the change.

Someone who is unilaterally and arbitrarily uninterested in my feedback is not going to be a good fit.  There are some people who say, “My agent sells my book, my editor edits it, and that’s it.”  Which is fine, but please don’t query me if that’s your attitude.

Do you consider yourself a career-builder?  Can you give an example?

It’s probably a little too early in my career as an agent to know how successful I will be in helping authors build their careers, but, yes, I consider myself a career-builder.  I’m not really interested in authors who have one book idea, however great.  One of the ways writers get to be “professional” (one of my criteria for a good client) is simply by conceiving of themselves as professional writers.  This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve written books before, or even that they’ve published before, but that they’re committed to this as a career path, that they educate themselves on what being a professional means, that they imagine writing more than one book, that they have an idea of where they’re going.

I will absolutely help my clients figure out how to build a career from where they are now, including how to improve their platform, their “branding” and so on.  We also talk about what are good “next” books, how/when/why to specialize, and the like.

What is the biggest mistake you think writers today typically make in the genres you represent?

Many non-fiction authors seem not to have any real sense of the books that are already out there on the topic they wish to write about.  They have a broken toilet, think, “Gee, there should be a book on how to fix toilets,” then sit down to write a proposal without ever going to a bookstore or looking online to find out that, yes, indeed, there are in fact lots of home repair books already on the market.

The other biggest mistake for non-fiction writers is writing a proposal without understanding why they’re doing it.  It’s like they found a template program and filled in the blanks without thinking it through.  Your proposal needs an “about the author” section, for example, but have you asked yourself what purpose it serves?  Beyond just letting an agent/editor know a few facts about you?

For fiction, the most common mistake I see is starting the story before it gets interesting, and not having an engaging conflict from the beginning – something that keeps me turning pages.  The conflict that the story is “about” may not be the one on the first page, but some conflict needs to be there.  That’s what dramatic tension is.  If a book doesn’t have it in the beginning, I don’t get far enough along to see if it has it in the middle.

How do you advise clients who want to venture into new genres or make a departure from their published works?

People need to do what will make them happy.  Part of my role as an agent is to advise my clients on how their choices will affect their careers. At the same time, writers want to write what they want to write.  Okay, then.  My job is to figure out how to make that happen.  This is something I picked up from Neil; he is all about figuring out how to make things happen for authors.

There are ways to build on what an author has already done to help move him/her in a new direction.  I love it when I can help an author figure out how to bridge the gap between where they are and where they want to be without losing momentum or having to start over.

What kind of support do you offer clients who may have temporary difficulties in producing work?

I haven’t been an agent long enough to have encountered much of this, but for my clients or prospective clients who are going through a tough slog, I think of my role as to be here to listen and guide, and to check in with them occasionally so they don’t feel like they’re all alone in the world.

Sometimes it just takes a while for an idea to germinate and allow itself to be shaped into something that can be shared with other people.  I understand that and I’m not going to encourage people to rush it.  I am going to discourage trying to sell an underdeveloped idea or one that hasn’t reached fruition.  That’s just asking for trouble down the road when the time comes to produce the manuscript and the author doesn’t have a clear enough grasp on the material to produce it.

I’m not going to drop someone just because she’s not producing a book a year or whatever.

How would you prefer to be approached by established writers looking for new representation?

Same as with anyone else, send me a pitch and a proposal or the first few chapters of your manuscript.  In your letter, please do mention that you had an agent but are seeking a new one and if I’m interested, we will talk about your past history.  No need to describe all the details in the initial contact.

I should emphasize that you need to end your relationship with your previous agent first, and that you’ll need to connect with me on a project that hasn’t been shopped already.

What questions do you wish writers would ask you before becoming clients?

For me, the important thing is that writers educate them on the publishing industry before they start seeking representation.  All of the information you could possibly need is out there.  So when it comes time for the offer-of-representation call, you can focus on whether this particular agent is a good fit for you, not on things like, “Gee, what does an agent actually do?”  I don’t have the patience for that, not when there is so much readily available information.

I think it’s important to know what kind of contact you want from your agent.  And it’s important to feel like you can talk to your agent.  Those are things you can establish in your pre-contract exchanges.

How would you handle a new mid-career client?

It depends.  What have they done, what do they want to do?  What have their past experiences been, what are their expectations?  It’s not necessarily a lot different from a new author, although sometimes there is more to finesse (less than ideal sales, for example).  Still, there are lots of options for a motivated mid-career writer.

How have you seen the expanding e-book market working for your clients?

At the moment, it’s hard to say.  There’s a lot that’s up in the air.  For the most part, I think it will probably expand book readership, which will be a good thing, but it has obvious and apparent difficulties, too.

I don’t sell to e-only or e-mostly publishers, although I certainly respect what publishers like Ellora’s Cave are accomplishing.  There’s a lot to be said for looking at what publishers like this are doing and how they’re succeeding.

Do you accept electronic submissions?

Yes.  In fact, I prefer them.  They can be sent to me at jennifer@studiob.com

Is there anything else you would like to say?

This is a highly competitive business undergoing some big changes.  You need to respect that, especially the “highly competitive” part.  But you can’t take any of it personally.  Whether you’re published or not, whether you make money or not, none of it has to do with your worth as a person.  Way too many people in this business forget that.  As much as we may wish it otherwise, it is arbitrary, subjective, occasionally racist/sexist/ageist and sometimes unwholesome.  That’s not to say it isn’t a lot of fun, too.  But you can’t get too caught up in it.  You have to remember there’s a big old world out there that has never heard of Simon and Schuster or Amazon.com and couldn’t care less.

3 comments

  1. Thank you, for your article in Writer’s Digest. I have bin querying agent and received nothing but rejections. Lol I have learned I need to figure out who will buy my book first. your article has given me a lot to think about.

    Thank you.
    Hopefully soon to be published.
    Rich Petracca

  2. Hi,
    I am a writer with a project that I’ve been working on for years. It’s a bit hard to categorize — I suppose calling it spiritual, or anecdotal or simply human interest is the closest I can come. I have never professionally published anything so I really need advice on how it’s done. Or if it can be done.

    I look forward to hearing from you. (And please tell me that Rich Petracca is not a real person but an example of how not to write to an agent. Or anyone. In fact, can I edit his letter?).

    Sandra

  3. Thank you both for commenting. You can find out more about Jennifer and the e-courses she offers here:

    http://www.jenniferlawler.com/classes.html

    Good luck!