Absolute Write, September 2004

Absolute Write Interview

Interview with Ted Weinstein by Jenna Glatzer

Ted Weinstein is a San Francisco literary agent with broad experience on both the business and editorial sides of publishing. Also a widely-published author, Ted has been the music critic for NPR’s All Things Considered and a commentator for the San Francisco Chronicle, Bay Guardian, SF Weekly and Might Magazine.

Why did you decide to become a literary agent?

I have been in publishing for most of the past decade – both the editorial and business sides of the business – and after taking some time off to write a book it was an obvious, effortless segue to return to the business side and become an agent. In fact several other Bay Area agents were kind enough to spend time speaking with me when I was considering the move, and they eventually referred me to my first two clients.

When a client submits work to you, how much editorial feedback do you give?

Often quite a bit. I am not a copy editor, but I work with many clients on substantial reworking of their proposals and sample chapters. I have spent as long as eight months with a client polishing the structure of their work as well as the proposal materials.

How do agented writers have an advantage over unagented writers?

Agents serve many important purposes for writers. Finding a reputable agent to represent you is almost always worth the effort. Here are just some of the ways a good agent can help his or her clients:

a. Impartial feedback

Every writer benefits from expert feedback. Friends and family may sugarcoat their comments, or they may simply not be sophisticated writing critics. A good agent is a publishing professional whose sole incentive is to help you tune your writing so it has the best chance of commercial success.

b. Market knowledge

“Write what you know” is great advice for any writer, but what you know may or may not be what editors are looking to buy right now. A good agent is deeply immersed in the publishing marketplace and can help you understand what kinds of writing are most likely to sell.

c. Contacts and access

Most major publishing houses no longer accept unagented submissions. More important, agents spend enormous amounts of time making and cultivating trusting relationships with editors, so they know just who would be most interested in a particular type of work. The writing on the page is always the most important factor in acquisition decisions, but getting a proposal or manuscript into the right hands usually requires a personal touch.

d. Contract negotiation

Congratulations! A major publisher wants to publish your work. Are you prepared to negotiate on your own the details of a lengthy legal document with an acquisitions editor who does this many times a year? Do you understand the intricacies of copyright law, subsidiary rights, reversion clauses, indemnification and all the other elements of a publishing contract, so you can adequately protect yourself? Do you know how much books similar to yours have sold for recently, so you can ensure you are getting the highest possible advances and royalties? A good agent is a skilled, knowledgeable expert in all of these areas.

e. Accounting and paperwork

If all goes well, you will be receiving advances and on-going royalties from sales of your writing. Royalty statements, however, are among the most confusing, incomplete accounting documents ever created. A good agent reviews every line of every royalty statement to determine that their clients are being paid on time and completely.

f. Career guidance and continuity

In the modern publishing world, editors jump between publishing houses abruptly and often. Many a successful writer has stories of how their book was “orphaned” when the editor who acquired it changed publishers. For many writers the only continuity will be their relationship with their agent, who has a vested interest in helping each client build the most successful possible career.

So, should you have an agent? To put all this in perspective, I have a literary agent who represents the book I have written. I am delighted to be represented by her for all of these reasons and more.

Let’s say you have a client whose book proposal you love. You send it out to several houses, but it keeps getting rejected. When, if ever, do you give up?

I try to select clients who look at their writing as a CAREER, so temporary set-backs on one work don’t stop their progress. If we receive rejections from many different editors offering similar reasons, my client and I will discuss these comments in great detail and decide whether revisions to the work or the proposal are necessary, or if we should continue the search for the right editor.

Do you only deal with major publishing houses, or do you also work with small publishers?

A broad range of publishers, large and small.

What kinds of proposals would you like to see more of?

Great storytelling, i.e. compelling narrative nonfiction.

How often should clients expect to be in contact with you? And how do you communicate with your writers most often– by e-mail? Phone?

It varies widely depending on the working style that evolves with each individual client and the stage of development and marketing of their work.

Let’s say a writer has no published credits. What can he or she write in a bio that would impress you? Or would you rather that the writer wait until he or she has a more impressive publishing past before approaching you?

Be a publicly recognized expert on the topic you’re writing about. Get your name and insights out via many media outlets (show me clips from newspapers, magazines, radio, etc.) “Platform” is the key word these days. Only half-jokingly, agents often say “the most powerful seven words in publishing are ‘It’s good to see you again, Oprah.'” For those who don’t already appear on Oprah, find other ways to build your “brand” as an expert on your topic.

What are the best and worst parts of being an agent?

I love every part of it. I wish I had become an agent years ago.

Describe your dream client.

A talented professional with unique insights and the ability to communicate them to a wide range of readers. Publishing is a business, and the most successful authors are those who treat their writing accordingly.

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