Monday 6 April 2020

A Zoom Q&A: An Interview with Danielle Egan-Miller, Literary Agent

In previous blog posts, as part of my Writers’ Questions series, I’ve delved into the topic of literary agents—how to find them and how to craft the elusive query letter that will help them discover you.

This week, with the world in lockdown, my literary agent, Danielle Egan-Miller, joined me via Zoom for a virtual Q&A session for my unagented writer friends, to share her experience, advice and perspective.

I played note taker as well as moderator for the conversation (“can everyone please go on mute?!”), so what follows are Danielle’s answers to the questions my writers’ groups asked. I hope they are of help to those of you currently in, or about to enter, the querying trenches.

Danielle Egan-Miller

Danielle, can you introduce yourself to everyone on the call?

Hello, everyone. I’m Danielle Egan-Miller, the President and Owner of Browne & Miller Literary Associates, in Chicago—a role I’ve held since 2003. I represent clients in multiple genres, predominately in fiction. I’ve spent my entire professional career (since the early 1990s) in publishing. I started in, and returned to, the agenting side of the business, but I’ve also worked as an editor and an imprint manager. So please throw your questions about publishing at me, however weird they are. I’m happy to answer!

How did you get into publishing, and specifically agenting?

I’ve always been a voracious reader. I was the kid always checking out the maximum number of library books and my grandmother was an English teacher. But, when I went to college, I initially thought I was going to go to law school. It was a circuitous route but I eventually landed as an English major. After graduation, I worked for a law firm for a bit, but then decided to attend the Radcliffe Publishing Course rather than pursue law school. This was the right choice.

I’m a sixth generation Chicagoan and I didn’t want to move to New York. This was pretty unheard of in publishing back then. Jane Jordan Browne, the founder of Browne & Miller Literary Associates, was the only literary agent in Chicago (although she initially started the agency in California in the 1970s). I sent her my resume, cold, and became her assistant. Working under her, I eventually became an associate agent.

I then went to the publisher side, working as an editor on non-fiction books.

I returned to the agency when Jane offered to make me her partner. She wanted someone to take on the agency after she retired. Jane was very editorial as an agent, and very old school. This has informed my own approach. I also tend to be editorial in how I work with clients.

What are some things querying writers need to know about literary agents?

You don’t have to take a class to be an agent, so anyone can make a website and say, “I’m a literary agent.” A lot of people do that with no training and without having the depth of experience required.

The geography of agenting has also changed a lot over the last fifteen years. Agents now work all over, vs. just in New York City. I think some left the city after 9/11, but the move to digital has also had a big impact. When I started out, we had to mail physical manuscripts. I even had to take a typing test. In around 1995 we got our first (AOL) email account as an agency. Jane would print the emails out on the back of old manuscripts and share them with the team. Now it’s very different. I can do my job from anywhere.

What hasn’t changed though is that this is a job still very much based on networking and relationships. I used to only pitch to editors over the phone, but I usually pitch over email now. However, I still never submit anything cold.

The fundamental thing that should matter to querying writers is an agent’s track record in terms of sales. Our job is many things, from career management to negotiation to contracts, but successfully selling the works written by the authors you represent is where it all starts. Agents work on spec which means we only get paid when an author gets paid, and so my success is based on what I sell.  We all post our deals online so look at Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Weekly to see what an agent has sold recently.

How do agents pitch to editors at publishing houses? Do you just reuse a writer’s query letter?

We sometimes crib from a writer’s query letter if it’s good. But writing a pitch, and making a book sound as good as possible, is one of my core strengths as an agent. A pitch letter is a sales letter and important business communication. The blurb we write for a book will often follow it around to different departments at a publishing house so it’s important to get it right.

At Browne & Miller, we think a lot about positioning. Comps (comparative titles) are important. We might look at similar books published in the last couple of years and the copy used to describe them, for example.

In-house, we usually “round robin” the writing of a pitch. The author gets to give input, too, as we perfect it. I tend to be very transparent throughout this entire process with my clients.

Does every agent handle every genre? How should I find out which genre(s) an agent represents?

Every agent is different when it comes to genre. I, for example, am something of a generalist, but there are genres I don’t rep.

Start with agents’ websites to see the types of books they represent and are looking for. Publishers Marketplace is another good place to look as agents list what they’re looking for on there. Some agents are also on social media, especially Twitter and Instagram.

And Manuscript Wishlist is also a great resource. I found a now #1 bestselling author from an #MSWL tweet. [Note from Finola: If you don’t know what this is, check out my previous blog post, which contains a full explanation of Manuscript Wishlist.]

If you know a writer who is agented you can ask them to refer you. Agents are also often speakers at events and conferences and may take live pitches at those.

Another easy thing to do is to think about which shelf your book would be on and which writers you’d be next to. Look in the Acknowledgments sections of their books. An author will often thank his/her agent. And flattery will get you far. If you can genuinely compliment an agent’s client’s book, do.

Do writers need to include comp titles in a query letter? Is there any harm in using them?

The risk writers run in including comp titles is that they’re wrong. But on balance it’s better to try. I love the mash up comp: “X meets Y.” Or if there’s a twist on a genre e.g. “It’s a cosy mystery with a paranormal twist.”

A kiss of death in a query letter is not knowing what it is you’ve written. That would be an automatic no from us.

Comp titles should be fairly recent. And if you’re going to use something old, tell us why this book is different and new. Don’t just say, “It’s reminiscent of The Call of the Wild.” Tell us why we need a new The Call of the Wild. Ideally you should have read the comps you use.

Librarians are also a great resource for finding comp titles. Say you’re writing a historical mystery set in New York City. Ask a librarian to point you in the direction of the most popular books in this vein. You should know who the big players are in your genre, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for you.

What should writers learn from the American Dirt and RWA controversies?

Readers and publishers are interested in authentic voices. So there are amazing opportunities for writers who bring a different perspective or worldview.

What makes a query letter stand out for you?

I probably get around two hundred to three hundred email queries a week. Other agents, who are more aggressive about soliciting queries, may get double or even triple that.

First and foremost, query emails need to be well written. Email gives people the licence to be casual, but a query should be very polished, not something written off the cuff.

I want one or two descriptive lines up front, telling me what a book is e.g. “It’s a 95K police procedural featuring a thirty-five-year-old single mom who might have ESP.” That should be followed by a good descriptive paragraph, similar to the back copy on a book. You shouldn’t include every detail of your story, but you should make me want to read it.

After that I want to know about you. I consider both debuts and previously published writers. Tell me what is relevant about you and your writing experience. I like to know if you’re in writing groups, or groups related to your genre, and if you’ve gone to conferences, or entered contests. Also include clear contact information in the body of your email vs. relying on the “reply” button.

Every agent will list their own querying guidelines on their website. Follow these to a tee. For instance, I only want to see a query, not the first three chapters. I don’t open any attachments I haven’t requested. If you’re querying twenty agents you might have twenty different versions of your query.

Make sure you spell check your email. And please spell my name and the name of my agency correctly.

If you’re struggling to write your book’s blurb, switch with a critique partner or within your writing group. Pitch each other’s books to each other. Writers aren’t necessarily marketers and that’s okay. An outside perspective could be what you need.

Are there rules about what you need to achieve as a writer in your first ten pages? For example, if you write mysteries, do you need a dead body on page one?

How editors and consumers are reading is changing expectations about the first few pages of a novel. Many editors are reading manuscripts first on their commutes, on their phone or tablet. And reading in this format makes it seem like it takes longer to get to the action. Twenty-five printed pages could be a hundred swipes on a Kindle.

I edit by hand and my assistant then types up my notes, using track changes and comments. But I have to be aware that many are reading digitally and you should be aware of that too.

If you are writing a mystery, you certainly might not want to wait until 30% through your novel to introduce a dead body, but, on the other hand, not every mystery needs a dead body on page one. I understand writers’ worries about becoming too artificial. We see the same problem in romance. Often editors and readers want the hero, heroine, and romantic conflict all introduced within the first few pages.

Part of this is being driven by genre fiction having a huge readership in e-book. E-book readers have their own demands and a quick opening is one of them.

You mentioned that your approach as an agent is pretty editorial. How much editorial work are you willing to invest in a new client and/or manuscript?

I like to do editorial work but still a manuscript needs to be pretty sound for me to take interest. I always compare it to a cake—it needs to be baked enough. That means don’t query me with an early draft.

However baked it is, if the writing is problematic, lacking rhythm or cadence, I can’t fix that. Other agents may have a different view, but, if the writing is creating an obstacle to reading, if I’m seeing a lot of odd sentence structures and it’s not flowing well, the book is not something for me.

I do a represent a lot of historical fiction writers and, for historicals, there is a big difference between dramatising the life of a historical person and writing a historical novel. A historical novel is meant to bring historical characters to life in a way we don’t know, not just dramatise what happened to them.

It’s important to remember that agents work on spec. Good agents never charge writers an editorial fee. We get paid only when we sell your book so I need to believe that the manuscript is something I can sell.

The relationship between a writer and an agent is like a marriage. You have to trust each other. After all, your agent will be the one advocating for you in the marketplace. When it comes to the editorial process, if you don’t like my feedback, then we’re probably not the right fit. A manuscript has to become “submission ready” and if I’m still finding things that bother me, an editor will probably feel same. I’ve learned that from experience. One or two editorial passes is common for me, though sometimes it’s more.  I talk to writers upfront about how many editorial passes I think it’s going to take before their manuscript is ready in order to set expectations.

How is COVID-19 affecting the publishing industry and, in particular, agents’ ability to make new deals?

Great question. This crisis is continuing to evolve on daily basis, but right now I think it’s great time for writers to query agents. Agents are very actively looking and we have to believe that editors are going to keep buying.

Books being sold today will be published eighteen months to two years in the future and we have to believe that 2022 will be better than 2020.

At my agency, March was a rollercoaster. We were meant to be at London Book Fair. There was all sorts of drama leading up to it, before we withdrew, and it was eventually cancelled. My son had to move out of college on three days’ notice. I am fortunate that my son is old enough that I’m not home schooling but some editors are, and I have to be aware of that.

I was personally catatonic for a week or two, with everything going on, but I’m motivated now to make some good sales during this crisis. I have several projects on submission. This agency will turn fifty years old next year and it’s made it through all sorts of difficult times including the 2008/2009 economic down turn. We’ll get through the coronavirus pandemic, too.

Lots of writers are struggling to write in the current climate and so many have told me they’re incredibly distracted. My authors have certainly had events cancelled, but we’ve had no book releases rescheduled as of yet. I expect we will continue to see cutbacks at publishers.

One thing I am not doing is virus-related books. I’ve received so many queries about those so far. Please don’t!

How are audio books changing the publishing industry?

Audio books are the biggest area of growth in the industry. Amazon has made it so easy. People can now listen to books while working out, in their car, or on their commute. In the past you read a book first, then maybe listened to it, but not anymore. We’re seeing audio-first consumption.

As an agent, it is now very difficult to negotiate away audio rights from the publisher. For most imprints at the Big Five, having the audio rights is now mandatory.

Can you talk a little more about the business side of the business—rights, contracts etc.?

The relationship between writer and agent is a significant business relationship. I am a member of the AAR (Association of Author Representatives) and we have a code of ethics, which, among other things, addresses how agents should handle their authors’ money.  Messing up the money is the best way to get a bad reputation as an agent.

I have a fiduciary relationship with my clients. For many, I receive all their advances, royalties etc., and I personally write every cheque and issue 1099s. And an AAR member, I have to pay out monies due to authors within ten business days.

One of an agent’s biggest roles is to negotiate a contract on your behalf, so an agent has to have an understanding of what the negotiable points are within a contract. Some large agencies have contract departments. I handle all contracts myself. This is something that it’s fair to ask about if an agent has made you an offer of representation. Most agents aren’t lawyers, but some are. I guess my early interest in law went to some use!

An agent should always look out for the author’s best interests and be able to explain why this a deal is a good one or not. Most agencies have a boilerplate contract which is a good starting point for negotiation.

When it comes to rights, there are a lot to think about. We have to think about the territories the publisher wants to sell in, foreign translation rights, audiobook rights, e-book rights, film/TV rights, large print rights, first serial and second serial rights and more.

Typically, the publisher wants to take everything, and the agent wants to give nothing and the negotiation starts from there. So it’s important to know what all the rights are worth.

How do you stay up to date with the types of books acquiring editors are looking for?

Normally, I see editors several times a year, for example at BEA, various conferences, the London Book Fair, and during other trips to NYC and LA. I’m always reading deal posts and the trade publications and I stay in touch with a lot of editors via social media. I am also established enough that I get contacted by (especially younger) editors, so they let me know what they’re looking for.

What do you appreciate in relationship with client?

It’s important that we hit it off personality-wise. I appreciate honesty and friendliness and I think I have such cool authors! I’d love to have them all at a great cocktail party. Lots of my clients are now friends and talk to each other as well.

What’s a red flag from an author that makes you less likely to want them as a client?

I have a good radar for high maintenance people and a mantra that “life’s too short” to deal with them.

For me, an author wanting to be famous is a red flag, as is a writer who sets their own expectations about money. I love to make money for an author, but money isn’t always the best leading motivation for a writing, or any creative, endeavour.

I want to work with writers who are talented, pleasant, hard workers, goal-oriented, and who I genuinely like.

Can you explain what a bidding war is?

It’s typical to go out with a manuscript on what’s known as a “multiple submission.” For instance, I might send a manuscript to six editors at the same time. Some agents may send to twenty editors or even more but I don’t typically go that high.

If multiple editors want to buy a book, it then may go to auction, which the agent conducts. I always set auction ground rules that include that the writer can take any offer at any point for any reason. It might not just be about money, but about whom a writer wants to work with and whether an offer is for one book or more.

The more a publisher spends on a book, the more the book has to make to be deemed successful.

Find Danielle online:

We were all very grateful to Danielle for taking time out of her day to talk to us, and I hope this write-up has been helpful to some querying writers out there. 

If you want to read the query that helped me get an offer of representation from Danielle, you can check it out here. For more information on my forthcoming novel, Bronte’s Mistress, click here. And, if you want to be alerted about news, giveaways, events and more, follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, or sign up for my newsletter below.

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