Monday, November 20, 2006

Agent & Editor Q&A: Agent Five (Kirsten Manges)

Here we are at the headquarters of POD-Dy Mouth Sewage and Septic with yet another unveiled interview with a top agent in New York. Today, we have Kirsten Manges with us, where she offers up some great answers to my half-rate investigative journalism.

Girl: First of all, how quickly do you delete submissions that start: "Dear Kristin," or "Dear Keirsten,"?

Kirsten: It’s an easy one to get wrong. I always appreciate it when authors take care in spelling it correctly, though a mistake of this nature wouldn’t stop me from considering a query.

Girl: You're far kinder than I. People spell girl wrong all the time in their submissions to me. And what does that tell me about their writing? Geez. So, what made you decide to leave the venerable Curtis Brown Ltd. to start your own eponymous agency? Please note that I mean eponymous in a good way, despite the fact that the literal meaning is "relating to a person whose name is or is thought to be the source of the name of something, such as a city, country, or era." For years, I thought it was just some goofy word R.E.M. made up to cover the stench of arguably their worst album. I mean, seriously. Who really cares about B-sides?

Kirsten: I was with Curtis Brown for 8 years and built quite a solid client list while there. I worked alongside a group of brilliant agents and learned a great deal in the process. Eventually, I felt I was ready for a new challenge and decided to take the plunge and go out on my own. Clients have always been my first priority and I was bolstered by the fact that each of mine agreed to come with me when I opened up my own shop. I’d say the nature hasn’t changed so much (though I probably work longer hours now!), it’s just much more exciting and immediate.

Girl: Hey, we love entrepreneurial types here at the Mouth. Who are some of your greatest success stories? And don't feel bad about leaving out some of your authors. I'm left out all the time and *sniff* there is some glory in being a midlister. Okay, like hell there is.

Kirsten: All of my authors inspire me greatly—you can never know in advance who’s going to hit it big, but I never take on an author unless I feel passionate about their work and confident in their potential success. I’m very proud to be associated with writers such as Anne Easter Smith, Jill Smolinski, Jennifer Vandever, and Olympia Vernon.

Girl: Does it matter if an author self-published before approaching you? Does the sales record suddenly become critical? Some of my favorite books that I've endorsed on my blog have sold no more than a few dozen copies.

Kirsten: It doesn’t impress or hurt if an author has self-published. One of the key factors that would persuade me to take on a POD might be sales figures. I’m in this business so naturally I’m always looking for the gem that has gone unrecognized, sales figures or not.

Girl: Before you get a deluge of inappropriate books with logos from POD publishers on the spines, tell us what you are looking for exactly. (Probably won't make a difference, mind you.)

Kirsten: I represent writers of high quality fiction and non-fiction, including narrative, memoir, history, popular science, sports writing, psychology, travel, food, health, and the arts. My Interests? They run the gamut from humor to history. I’m drawn to memoir, journalism, history, women's issues, and multicultural books, among others and represent a number of scholarly writers, lawyers, historians, and sociologists, who bring their professional expertise to books for the general trade market

Specifically, for non-fiction I’m looking for narrative non-fiction which includes a wide spectrum of subjects when complemented by a strong and alluring voice. I’m looking for strong credentials, an original point of view, and excellent writing skills. With fiction, I’m looking for well-written commercial novels, as well as compelling and provocative literary works.

Girl: I've found some terrific self-published books--really terrific--but the labor I have had to endure to find them has been excruciating. Do you see the world of POD as having any benefit beyond turning the slush pile into $20 paperbacks?

Kirsten: The job you’re doing is noble and invaluable simply because it does take time to discriminate between those who self-publish from merit and those who self-publish from vanity. There is nothing inherently better about POD.

As far as finding representation goes, I don’t think POD is a benefit per se. A fancy package is the least important element of the submission at this stage in the game. On the slush pile, the bound book and the manuscript carry equal weight with me; of course each agent is different.

This said, an author who queries looking for representation in securing a trade publisher because s/he has managed to sell a bunch of books may be considered differently. A POD certainly brings up more questions for the agent if he or she likes the manuscript—what was the publishing history? Did trade publishers see it already? I wouldn’t consider the text differently than a manuscript but I would question the choice of format.

Girl: My favorite question to ask agents and editors: Is it true that if you have a brilliant manuscript, your book will eventually find a home/publisher?

Kirsten: My first inclination is to say that the beauty of the POD model is that with you vetting and in touch with good agents, it means that it is almost impossible for a good book not to find an outlet. But that’s just unfair—and way too much work for POD Girl. Unfortunately, there are those heartbreak situations where we can’t find a home for a wonderful manuscript. Most times, however, while it may not be a major publishing house there is someone who is willing to publish if the manuscript is really brilliant. It’s an excellent question though, because I do think POD does provide an alternative outlet for those heartbreak situations. On POD—I think it is a terrific resource for good material to find an audience and gives a bit of power back to the reader to decide what is good writing or an important subject. I had a situation a few years back where publishers just couldn’t see the market for a non-fiction project. The author had a platform and I encouraged him to self-publish. It ended up selling fantastically. In the end, he still wanted a trade publisher on board and so we went back to publishers and it sold. I’m not sure if that’s a success story or more of a sad comment on a timid publishing climate.

Girl: I get writers asking me all the time if they should abandon the traditional path to publication and go POD. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers out there?

Kirsten: I guess the first thing I would say is don’t look for an agent too quickly. Make sure you develop your writing and establish your platform before seeking an agent so that when you do put yourself out there, you feel ready. Promote yourself the best way you can (journals, magazines, blogs, etc). Then go out there and believe in your work. If you get turned down by agents or editors remember it’s a highly subjective business. If you’ve come to this step prepared and if you’re not snapped up by an agent then self-publish if you think it is really that good. Then all you have to do is promote it like crazy.

Thanks, Kristen. (I'm joking.) Your time and insight is much appreciated. And you may want to up the size of the transom above your office door. For those who wish to contact Kirsten:

Kirsten Manges Literary Agency

115 West 29th Street, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10001