Mar 22, 2009


There are 70 people in this room. No surprise, as Rosita Boland just reminded me. Doesn't everyone think they have a book in them?

Book agent Tina Bennett, book editor Wendy Wolf and author and history prof Jane Kamensky are talking about their collaboration on publishing a single boook of Kamenksy's--the story of a large building that burned down in the early 1800s.

Kamensky just compared trade publishing, from an academic's point of view, to a man who is "in trade" in a Jane Austen novel.

When a colleague heard she was writing that kind of book, Kamensky said, she was told, "Oh, Jane, I don't envy you having to answer to The Market."

Jane Austen metaphors are proliferating here.

"This is like a marriage. The trust has to be tremendous. We're handling your money for you...we're handling your reputation," moderator Christine Larson just said, of the author/agent relationship.

Some tips from Tina Bennett:

-Don't use cute stationery with kittens on it. It goes in the trash.
-Respect people's time. Don't say, I'm going to New York, can we just have coffee and talk about some ideas? "I think it's incumbent on the writer to present some ideas in writing and not just toss ideas around."
-You have to be able to write a really good letter. One or two pages. Bennett doesn't believe in the two-line pitch.
-Be professional above all, You're a serious person, you know what you're doing, you have an idea that will be interesting beyond themselves and their family.
-Many people have bumped into stories that are deeply moving, that are authentically moving, but they won't make a good book proposal. That existential experience you had, that ain't a book. The person who had cancer and reorganized their life, that's really important for you.
-Don't use an e-mail spam services. They get instantly deleted.
-Don't use the sensational formulaic material, opening with a sentence "so and so was bleeding on the couch."
-Use the personal approach--"I admired so and so books and noticed you were in the acknowledgments section," or, "I am modeling my book on such and such book you edited."

Kamensky said she started the project of getting her book published by doing a lot of publishing research and meeting with three agents, the last of whom was Bennett.

Tina Bennett--one of the New York literary agents--praised Kamensky's professionalism and smarts, but emphasized that a lot of getting on an agent's list is about personal compatibility. She and Kamensky just clicked. Kamensky said that Bennett was the right agent because she wed intellectual street cred with market strategy.

Once she had found an agent, Kamensky said that Bennett advised her that she couldn't write a book proposal that was just, here's my name and here's my idea, like a former National Book Award winner she knew had done.

"It behooved me as a beginning trad writer to write a proposal that was long enough" that "you could see the voice of the author, the logic and momentum of the story, and the texture of evidence that the story was based upon," Kamensky said.

The book proposal "didn't need to be a 100 pages," but it ended up being 45.

The next step was to try to sell the book to editor Wendy Wolf, who praised Bennett's approach.

The three qualities any agent should have: "Intimdating, intelligent and understanding," Wolf said.

It's important to remember that a book must be sold multiple times: from the author to the agent, from the agent to the editor...from the editor to the editorial board, from the editorial board to the sales department, from the sales department to the bookseller, from the bookseller to the consumer.

Again, Wolf emphasized the personal relationship between author and editor. "I don't care where you live," she said, "get your butt on a plane to New York and meet your editor."

An editor will want to know a lot of things--not only about your book, but about you.

"I want to know everyone you've known in your own life...How are we going to get your book reviewed? How are we going to get you on the radio?" How, even, are we going to get your book picked up by your mother's book club? she said.

"I am the huckster in the marketplace," Wolf said. " You have to look at your book as a commodity as much as a bundle of ideas."

"Who is your audience? The answer is not: the readers of the New Yorker. It can't stop there."

A book editor needs to know all those things before signing on, Wolf said.


Wendy Wolf
-I EXPECT people to know something about me. DO YOUR HOMEWORK, it's not hard. Any first line to Tina or me, either "Jane Kamensky told me to write you," or "I admired X."
-She once turned a book down because the author who approached her was NOT WEARING SOCKS and she found that disrespectful.
-An author FORGOT to tell her new agent that she had had an agent before, and she asked Wolf: what do I do? Wolf responded; GROVEL. GROVEL and APOLOGIZE and maybe you can repair the damage.

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