Writer’s Digest, September 2008

Agent Advice: Ted Weinstein of Ted Weinstein Literary

Writer’s Digest, September 27, 2008

by Chuck Sambuchino

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Ted Weinstein of Ted Weinstein Literary) is a series of quick interviews with literary agents and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else. This series has more than 170 interviews so far with reps from great literary agencies. This collection of interviews is a great place to start if you are just starting your research on literary agents.

This installment features Ted Weinstein, founder of Ted Weinstein Literary Management, based in San Francisco. He is seeking: “narrative nonfiction, popular science, biography and history, current affairs and politics, contemporary culture, business, sports, food and cooking, health and medicine, entertainment, and quirky reference books. Please note he does not represent fiction, screenplays, short stories, poetry, or books for children or young adults.”GLA: What’s the most recent thing you’ve sold?

TW: I represent nonfiction in many different categories and I sell new books frequently, so it’s best for authors to visit my agency’s website for the latest information on our deals, our clients, and their recently published books.

GLA: It seems like if someone wanted to write about cooking or politics or history, it’s all been done before. That said, what stands out for you in a proposal?  What are you looking for immediately to draw you into a project?

TW: There are several factors that can help a book’s ultimate prospects: great writing, great platform, or great information, and ideally all three.  For narrative works, the writing should be gorgeous, not just functional.  For practical works, the information should be insightful, comprehensive and preferably new. And for any work of nonfiction, the author’s platform is enormously important.

GLA: Online at your website, people can listen to your speech called “Book Proposal Bootcamp.” To summarize, what do you detail in the speech?

TW: The “Book Proposal Bootcamp” workshop, which I teach frequently at writers’ conferences and elsewhere, gives an overview of the whole process from book idea to book tour, but with a central focus on the actual proposal, which is essentially a business plan for a book. I explain all the elements of a proposal – overview, about the author, target audience, comparable titles, marketing and promotion plans, detailed table of contents, sample chapters – and try to give as much guidance (and true stories) as a 90-minute session allows.

GLA: You look for writers of nonfiction biography. Are you looking for interesting people who want to write their own autobiography, or are you looking for good writers who can write biographies of famous people?  If it’s the latter, how do writers secure the rights to write Mick Jagger’s life story, for example?

TW: Memoir/autobiography is a thriving genre (I highly recommend the 826 Valencia Writing Centers’ The Autobiographer’s Handbook, which I represented), but the appeal of any particular work will come from the literary quality of the writing and the author’s ability to make the story compelling to someone who hasn’t previously heard of him or her.  We all see too many memoirs where our reaction is either “This just isn’t great writing,” or “Why would a stranger care about this writer’s personal story?”

For biographies, of course, the writing quality is key, as well as the fame (or infamy) of the subject and the freshness of the material or insights the author presents. Often an “authorized” biography is more interesting (we all want to read a story where the subject gets to have his or her say, too), but there is no single way to persuade a subject to cooperate.  And nothing prevents an author from writing about a public personality, as long as they don’t write anything libelous, of course.

GLA: Can you give me an example or two of where a journalist was working on a topic and made it into a book that you agented?  How did the timeline work?  Did you contact them or vice versa?

TW: Recent examples include Nena Baker, who was a reporter for the Portland Oregonian and theArizona Republic, and whose current affairs and science book The Body Toxic just came out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  She and I met at a writers’ conference where she first pitched me a different project, but the impact of environmental chemicals had long fascinated her and seemed an important and timely topic to me.  So she and I worked on a proposal, sold it, and although the whole project took several years, she had a wonderful working relationship with her editor, Denise Oswald, at FSG.

Another client, Eric Janszen, an economics analyst and writer (and former tech executive), wrote the cover story of Harper’s Magazine in February 2008, “The Next Bubble,” about our current economic situation.  Based on that article, I contacted him and helped him develop a book proposal, and the quality of his insights and the timeliness of the topic led to a frenzied, two-day tour to meet with eight different publishers who were interested. Adrian Zackheim at Portfolio/Penguin aggressively pre-empted the book on the eve of what was going to be a big auction, and Eric is close to finishing the manuscript now, with publication of The Post Catastrophe Economy scheduled for next spring.

GLA: What are the most common things you see writers doing wrong when composing a nonfiction book proposal?

TW: Professionalism always wins.  A book proposal, as I said earlier, is simply a business plan for a book.  Authors who don’t learn all they need to know about writing a great proposal (you know, I heard there’s a good “book proposal bootcamp” audio recording available somewhere on the Web…) and then carefully take advantage of what they have learned are much less likely to succeed.

GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers’ conferences where people can meet and pitch you?

TW: I attend a wide range of conferences, which varies each year, and it isn’t essential to meet me face-to-face to pitch me a book. Perhaps a third of my clients are referrals, another third I discovered and contacted myself, and another third I took on from blind submissions via my Web site.  I read every submission I receive, and I’m always looking for that query or proposal where I can say, as in that Tom Cruise/Renee Zellweger movie, “You had me from hello.”

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice concerning something we haven’t discussed?

TW: Write every day, get in a serious writing group for high-quality feedback, treat writing like the craft and privilege it is.

© Copyright 2008 F+W Publications Inc.