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Sara Megibow Interview – Part Two

Welcome to Part II of our interview with literary agent Sara Megibow of the Nelson Literary Agency. If you missed Part I you can read it here. Today we talk about publicity and how authors might handle it, how she finds the perfect publisher fit for a book, and—thanks to the increasing success of self-publishing—whether or not the agent’s role is doomed.

Writers are notoriously uncomfortable in the spotlight. Yet I’ve seen that many agencies take a ‘hands-off’ approach to PR for their clients, expecting all the promoting to be done by the author alone. How far do you (or your agency) get involved in planning publicity and other marketing activities for us shy, retiring types?

Sara MegibowExcellent question, with a complicated answer. I’ll start by saying that, in my experience, our publishing houses shoulder the majority of publicity and marketing activities. I know there are authors out there who voice a different opinion and say “publishing houses don’t support books,” but that hasn’t been my experience.

For example, my client Sarah Skilton debuted in early 2013 with BRUISED, an edgy, serious, contemporary YA about a young woman, skilled at martial arts, who freezes up at an armed robbery. Her publishing house is Abrams/Amulet and they flew Sarah to the ALA (American Library Association) winter meeting in Seattle to speak, sign and meet librarians and other fans. This was hugely exciting—especially for a debut author—and shows tremendous marketing and publicity support from in-house.

Even the little things that authors don’t see—such as hiring sales staff to promote our books to bookstores, crafting catalogues, sending review copies—all these tasks support a tremendous book campaign and not once (yet) have we asked the author to do anything other than write a great book. I’m incredibly proud of my publishing house partnerships. I feel that my clients are getting thoughtful, strategic, profitable in-house support for their books. I’ve not yet seen authors, “expected to do all the promoting alone” as you say here.

Now, I’ll get off my soapbox a bit.

It’s true that some books get a big push with lots of expensive publicity, and some books don’t. Authors should not take this personally—this is the entertainment business after all and not everyone is going to get a poster at Book Expo. Part of my job is to maximize profit for both types of campaigns. Also, part of my job is to set realistic expectations for authors.

Where does the self-promotion discussion come in to play? Well, on top of what the publishing house might do for a book, as an agent I ask the client what else they want to do for their book campaign. I do have one client who has a website and that’s it. No Twitter, no Facebook, no blogging. And then I have clients like Roni Loren who have an extensive online presence. Roni has been blogging for over 3 years (since before her first book contract) and has tens of thousands of visitors per month.

My mantra is this: work smarter, not harder. If you do 100 hours of self-promotions and sell 100 books, then I am not convinced 200 hours of self-promotion will sell 200 books. So, find that which you enjoy doing and do it. Love to blog? Go for it! Have fun on Twitter? Own it! I craft publicity campaigns that are unique to each authors’ wishes. We’re not hands-off at all at our agency, rather we aim to craft thoughtful and effective publicity plans with direct author input.

After bringing on board a new client whose novel has potential, do you personally work with them on their manuscript before shopping it around or do you only take on work that you feel is ready to go?

Every agent is very different in this regard, so please don’t take my answer as representative of the industry as a whole. Me personally? I don’t do much editing. First of all I’m not great at it (some agents are) and second of all I’m looking in the slush pile for books to sell, not books to work on. Many authors have an amazing relationship with their agent which includes extensive rounds of editorial service. If this is the relationship you want, then I am not the agent for you (and that’s ok! Everyone needs something different).

The vast majority of authors I sign do end up selling, so I know I have good taste and an excellent eye for commercial properties. But typically when I sign a new client it’s with the intention of shopping the manuscript very quickly, not doing work on it first.

How do you go about finding a good publisher fit for an author and/or their novel? And if you can’t place it, would you ever advise someone to self-publish rather than let a great piece of writing languish in a drawer for eternity?

This is the fun part! When I read a submission, I’m thinking first “do I love this book?” and second, “what publishing house wants to buy this book right now?” For example, when THE MARK OF THE DRAGONFLY by Jaleigh Johnson crossed my desk in December 2012, I was immediately smitten. I loved the best-friend aspect of the two heroines and I loved the complex fantasy world. So, right out of the gate I could say I loved the book. Reckless (cover)In terms of imagining a good publisher-fit, I was picturing DRAGONFLY in the same vein as RECKLESS by Cornelia Funke or DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE by Laini Taylor. So, I put together a submission list of editors who I know love literary, complex fantasy. We had an offer 48 hours later and went with Krista Marino at Delacorte/Random House and we’re very happy.

It’s true that some of my clients do not get book deals right out of the gate. For some of them, we sell the second book. For some, we’re still waiting. I offer extensive author-career advice in all situations and in some cases, yes, we do shelve the books.

Do I ever recommend self-publishing? That’s a tough one to answer as my advice to my clients is specific to each client, each book, and each situation. Self-publishing doesn’t offer the same benefits of marketing, packaging, editing and distribution, so for debut genre authors I have a hard time recommending that path right out of the gate. This advice might be very different if the author is already multi-published, or has a platform or a large backlist or something, but I don’t represent those clients so I can’t speak to that situation.

Some debut authors have seen tremendous commercial success with self-publishing but many haven’t. Personally, I’m seeing tremendous commercial success via traditional publishing and will advocate for that route first.

The Peculiar (cover)Let me reiterate, I tailor my advice to my clients and this is not meant to be representative of all authors, books or situations. Since my clients are debut genre authors, I feel the print distribution is vital. Stefan Bachmann’s THE PECULIAR sold 94% print books to 6% ebooks in 2012 and he wouldn’t have been an international bestseller in print if he’d self-published. So, understand my bias and my experience when reading this answer!

One question you’re asking here might be, “If an author signs with you and you don’t sell the book, would you recommend self-publishing” and the answer is “not usually.” It’s not a deal breaker to me if an author does want to go that route, but I’m going to fight hard for a traditional deal first. I will add that our agency has a digital platform available to all clients. If a client wants to self-publish, they can do so on their own or they can do so with in-house support that includes a vetted network of editors, cover designers and an in-house liaison for converting books to each e-tailer platform (Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, etc). This service comes at no charge to our clients and rights remain with the client at all times.

So, if one of my clients sets out to go the traditional route and then changes their mind, or if one of my clients wants to try a hybrid route (including both traditional and self-publishing), then our agency can offer that in-house support. In short, if a debut genre author were to come to me and ask me to represent their book specifically to self-publish it, I would pass. However, if one of my clients ends up wanting to self-publish, we’d have a huge platform of support to offer in moving forward.

For those of you who don’t like my answer (yes, there will be some of you out there rolling your eyes at my antiquated opinions), I am very upfront about my style when I offer representation to someone on the phone. I always say, “I’m pretty conservative as an agent and my debut authors are experiencing tremendous success via traditional publishing and I will advocate for that model.” No one is ever forced to sign with me and if an author prefers to self-publish out of the gate, then I’m likely not the agent for them. There are plenty of ways to be successful in publishing—my way is just one of them.

Given the popularity of going it alone and publishing your own writing, is there still a place for the literary agent of the future?

Hopefully! To be honest I don’t go through my day worrying about it too much. I’m usually busy selling subsidiary rights, planning promotions, auditing contracts, following up on questions, etc. And if these processes are still part of getting great books to readers in the future, then I imagine there’s a job for the agent who does them. We read 30,000 queries in 2011, 36,000 queries in 2012 and we’re looking at closing in on 40,000 queries in 2013, so clearly there are still authors out there looking for an agent. I love books and I do what I love and my authors are happy. So, the future looks rosy.

And that’s it for Part II. In the next (and final) instalment, we talk fantasy specifics: namely what fantasy writers should look for in a literary agent and what gets your fantasy query the all-important ‘accept’ from Sara.

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2 Comments

  1. Luke says:

    Not sure why but I love this interview. Really gives one an idea of things beyond simply writing your story. 😀

    • Dan H says:

      Thanks, Luke. Yeah, Sara (and indeed the rest of the team at the NLA) are really fantastic at providing in-depth insight into the business side of writing. I’ve found them to be an extraordinary resource online – hence approaching Sara to do the interview. Glad you enjoyed it! 😉

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