As promised, today I bring you the talented and charming Alice Speilburg, of Speilburg Literary Agency, here to answer my questions on books, agenting, and some of the things writers can do to help achieve their goals. Alice began her career in publishing on the editorial side of the equation, working at John Wiley & Sons. From there she transitioned to the agent’s life, first at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, and now at Speilburg Literary Agency. More information about her and her agency can be found at speilburgliterary.com. In addition, she blogs on books, writing, and the business of writing at lamplightandink.wordpress.com.
She’s also my agent, and I’m delighted to have her here.
I like to believe that every good agent comes to agenting following a path paved with wonderful books. What books spoke to you as a child, and what have you read recently that you’ve really enjoyed?
Your belief is quite right and rings true for most other agents and editors I know. As a child I always loved books with strong female leads like the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, Caddie Woodlawn, and Tamora Pierce’s Alanna the Lady Knight books. Tamora Pierce was my gateway into fantasy, which led me to one of my favorite authors Philip Pullman, and the His Dark Materials series.
Two books have recently stood out to me as somewhat different and marvelous: Alif the Unseesn by G. Willow Wilson, which I highly recommend to anyone who enjoyed Philip Pullman’s series, and Albert of Adelaide by Howard Anderson. I also like to stay current with literary novels, so I recently read The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. (If you notice, each of these novels is the respective author’s debut, which I love.)
What attracted you to agenting? It’s right up there on the list of careers I think I would be terrible at, along with air traffic controller and long distance trucker. It’s clearly a job you feel passionate about though, given your choice to continue it following your displacement by Hurricane Sandy.
When I graduated, I don’t know if I even knew agents existed. I just knew I wanted to work in publishing. So I did, and slowly realized that I would be better suited to the agency side. I liked the discovery part, but I also really enjoyed the business side of publishing much more than I could have imagined. The contracts, the negotiations, understanding how the money comes in and goes out, etc. I think the turning point for me was when I was trying to convince my department to buy a book, and ultimately they didn’t think it would work financially. I wanted to continue working with that author, suggest a few other places that might be more willing to publish it, but of course, she already had an agent who did that for her. So I started applying to jobs at agencies.
The traditional publishing world can often feel very cold and confusing to writers these days. What are some positive developments that you think writers should take to heart?
To me, the publishing world seems so much more transparent now that everything is online. It feels cold because writers can actually see the entities that are ignoring them in a way they couldn’t before. It’s also a lot easier for an agent to send out a form rejection email or ignore a social networking invitation.
That said, it’s easier to find a list of agents to send your work to, a list of publishers who might accept unsolicited work. There are also some great blogs and other online resources out there written by publishing industry professionals that guide writers on how to write a query letter, or the best way to build a platform. Writers who take advantage of these resources can improve their work and bring it up to the industries standards more easily.
Given that increasing transparency, what do you feel novelists can be doing to help their careers, beyond writing brilliant books? What role, for example, do you think networking–through conferences, contests, social media, publications, etc.–plays in helping them along the road to that elusive book deal?
I think it’s incredibly important for a writer to be comfortable with social media and build a fan base. This can be as simple as a blog that features some writing along with tips or interviews (like this one!), or an active twitter account that interacts with other writers and editors. This “platform” might lead to a bit more notice, but perhaps more importantly, editors are expecting you to take on some of the marketing load once your book publishes. If you can show that you’re already reaching out to potential readers, a publisher will be more inclined to make the deal.
As for conferences, contests, and small publications, I think these are things that will give a writer the advantage in the submissions pile. If I talk to you at a conference, I’m much more likely to put your submission at the top of my pile, and even if I don’t like it, give you some critical feedback as opposed to a form letter. If I see that you’ve won a contest or I read your short story in a literary magazine, I know that someone else out there likes your work, and I might contact you to see if you’re looking for an agent.
Your submission guidelines state that you’re interested in “character driven novels in historical fiction, mystery, fantasy, and literary genres.” (It’s that “character driven” bit that led me to query you about Wren.) Would you like to expand on what qualities you’re looking for in fiction submissions?
This may go without saying, but I’m looking for books that I pick up and then don’t want to put down again until I’m finished reading them. I tend to fall for genre fiction because I like falling into other worlds, and I like character-driven novels because I get to see the world through their eyes, slowly discover what it is that that person is dealing with, and how it might be similar or different to things that I might be dealing with in my world. I think the “slowly” part is really important. Too often I see stories with great potential, but the author explains everything up front and I don’t have time to get to know the character on my own, or the plot is so similar to other stories that the character is just a pawn and not developed beyond the plot he or she is running through.
You ask for a query letter and the first three chapters of the novel from writers interested in querying you. Are there any other helpful hints you’d like to share for writers considering Speilburg Literary? I’ve heard rumors that letters written in crayon are right out…
Haha, you know, the queries I’ve been receiving — for the most part — are nicely done (and none have been in crayon). I would say that both the query and the chapters need to be pitch perfect. If the query is more than three paragraphs long of detailed book description and character explanations, I might not get to the sample chapters. Make it short, to the point, and entertaining. You should try to match your writing style so that someone who would enjoy your book would also enjoy the query. That said, if you have a brilliant query letter, but your manuscript isn’t ready, I’ll pass. Make sure you have other people read your work, other writers if possible, and try reading your query and the first few sentences of the sample out loud to yourself before you send it to me.
Thanks so much for stopping by for an interview! Are there any questions that I haven’t asked you that I should have? Anything else you’d love to share regarding the business of writing or Speilburg Literary Agency? I realize I’ve totally shortchanged the non-fiction crowd, and I apologize for that.
That’s all right, I think this blog has a fiction crowd anyway, but my nonfiction guidelines can be found on my website. I want to thank Jen for having me here, it’s been a pleasure! I don’t have a whole lot more to add, but I do want to encourage people to keep writing and submitting your work. And along with that, keep reading. It helps to see what publishers are putting on the shelves at your local bookstore, and who knows, something might inspire you.
That concludes the interview portion of this event. Alice has also graciously agreed to field questions this afternoon until 4:00 E.S.T. If you have a question for her, please head on down to the comments.