Hello everyone and welcome back to round two of THE TRUTH ABOUT SLUSH PILES!
Last time, literary agent Jenny Bent from the The Bent Agency let me grill her about her job. Today I have another lovely lady from the business on the roast. She will tell you all about her job, about good and bad queries, and why it sometimes takes her a bit longer to get back at a possible client when she requested a full.
I’m happy to introduce you to
the lovely Jessica Faust from BookEnds, LLC
Anna: What is your daily routine in your job? How much time do you spend for what?
Jessica: Unfortunately it’s not much of a routine, or at least it doesn’t feel like one. The first part of my day is checking email and that often dictates how the rest of my day will be spent. Clients, of course, come first. So my day might be spent reviewing royalty statements, making sure checks are processed or answering questions or concerns they might have. If it’s a big client submission week (clients have delivered proposals or manuscripts to me) those will take precedence and I will spend time reviewing those materials, sending feedback as necessary or preparing the material for submission.
Two to three times a week my to-do list sends me a reminder to read submissions. At a minimum I will read 2-3 submissions a week. Queries tend to get read daily as long as there are no fires that I need to put out.
And interviews like this take me longer than one would think😉 Although I’m very happy to do them.
Anna: In most submission guidelines, you find the sentence: We get hundreds of queries each week. I believe this is for the entire agency. How many queries do you personally get each day?
Jessica: Per day? I would say 20 give or take is probably a fair number. My personal submission guidelines have narrowed of late and for that reason I’ve definitely seen a decrease in submissions.
Anna: What are keywords in a query letter that get you interested in reading the manuscript (not the genre or book length, please), and what are turnoffs?
Jessica: I can’t resist anything with a magical realism element that is reminiscent of Sarah Addison Allen. I also love dark, edgy suspense, especially serial killers, but it has to be something different and new.
I’m not a fan of anything that has to do with the mob or mafia related. I’m also pretty burned out on vampires or werewolves and it’s tough to convince me of rockstar or Hollywood heroes or heroines.
Anna: Do you prefer people to use your first name or last name when sending you a query letter?
Jessica: I don’t think I really care. I think most people use some form of Ms. Faust, but certainly as we build a relationship I only go by Jessica. Or sometimes “hey you.”
Anna: How should a writer structure his query? Begin with a cheesy line to break the ice, tell you about the book like word count, POV, and genre, or rather get straight to the point with a tagline and the blurb of the book?
Jessica: I don’t think there should be any rules. I think the query should be somewhat representative of the author’s voice. If you’re writing comedy, don’t be afraid to show the funny in your book. The same goes with dark and serious. In the book’s description I should get a sense of the tone of the book.
How you start the query is really up to you. Honestly, I sort of skim and skip around and just get to the highlights, to find what’s going to grab me.
Anna: How high is your slush pile right now? How many unread queries?
Jessica: Actually none. I’m all caught up on queries. Of course that depends on what’s come in while I was doing the interview.
Anna: How many queries can you process in one day?
Jessica: Probably 10-15 easily. After that it can get overwhelming. But of course that depends on the queries. If every single one is for something I don’t represent that’s an easy rejection.
Anna: Many agents have a “no reply means no” policy. Does it really take that much time to send a rejection letter? Rejections are hard enough to stomach for authors, but no reply at all is just frustrating.
Jessica: I’ve been pretty vocal about my feelings on that policy. I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s fair to the author. In much the same way that I think it’s disrespectful for companies to have a “no reply means no” policy for job interviews. You’re right, it isn’t that hard to reply.
Years ago I set up signatures in my email and each signature is for a different kind of rejection. I’ll often personalize it for various reasons, but the signature is there so I don’t have to if I don’t have the time or if I don’t have anything personal to say. Adding the signature maybe takes an extra two seconds.
Anna: With so much conflicting query advice out there… what really catches your attention and leaves you wanting pages?
Jessica: The author’s voice and a really great idea. It’s that simple (ha, ha—if only). I don’t think it’s really any different from an author shopping in a bookstore for something new to read. What grabs you (besides a great cover) and makes you want to flip open the book to read?
In fact, that’s good practice for developing your next idea. Go to the bookstore and just randomly grab books in your genre off the shelf. Read just the cover copy and really take a look at why the books that are grabbing you are grabbing you. What elements do they have that hold your attention? Maybe that’s the type of book you’re seeking to write.
Anna: How much control does the writer give up when they have an agent?
Jessica: Ideally none. Ideally getting an agent will give the writer even more power because she’s adding more people to her team. An author/agent relationship should never be one where someone is “working for” the other. Although technically the agent is working for the author. A good relationship is where the two see themselves in a partnership. Together they are working to make this product the best it can be and get it off the ground in the best way possible.
Anna: What’s your submission process to publishers?
Jessica: My first step is to put together a list of which houses and which editors at those houses would be best fit for the project and for the author. Sometimes that’s pretty quick and sometimes it takes a little more time. It depends on the project. This is something we’ll often discuss within the agency. When submitting we don’t just want to send it to the editor who acquires in the genre, but we want to send to the one who might have a specific interest as related to the book.
I never call, but always email editors an initial query. There are a number of reasons for this, but the primary reason is that it seems nearly impossible to be able to actually connect with people over the phone so by doing it via email I’m not wrapping myself up in a 5 -day game of phone tag. I also find that by emailing a query first I might find out from an editor that she’s no longer looking for that kind of book or is too busy right now, but she’ll suggest someone else who might be a better fit.
Then I send the material to publishers. And then we wait. Obviously I’ll bug and cajole, but mostly we wait.
Anna: How soon after you sign a contract do you start pitching to publishers?
Jessica: That really depends on how ready the book is. If the book is ready and perfect I’ll start submitting the day I get the contract back (sometimes even before). If however the book needs some work submissions will hold off until the author and I both feel the book is the best it can be.
Anna: Do you expect significant edits with manuscripts before you start submitting?
Jessica: Not necessarily. It depends on the book and the author. Sometimes there are significant edits, sometimes we even go a number of rounds. Other times the material needs almost nothing and, sadly, sometimes there are times when we just start over with something new. Obviously I always hope for no edits.
Anna: Do you keep your clients in the loop about all the steps you take?
Jessica: I do. Definitely. I think it’s important to keep the lines of communication as open as possible. The only time I don’t keep them in the loop is when I forget, but I also always encourage my clients to check in whenever they feel like they haven’t heard anything in a while.
Anna: How often do you communicate with your clients?
Jessica: It really depends what’s going on. At some point each month I go through a binder I have that keeps track of every client. The binder includes due dates, pub dates, information from recent phone calls with editors and the client, etc. When checking that binder I’ll often follow-up with a client or at least know if I have to. Sometimes I’ll go through periods where I’ll talk to one particular client daily and at other times we don’t talk for months.
Anna: Do you believe traditionally published books are better than self-published ones – not for bad editing but because the publishers are so very selective?
Jessica: Not necessarily. I think both can have their brilliant books and both can have clunkers.
Anna: Do you prefer submissions by referral?
Jessica: I love referrals, but I don’t necessarily need them or prefer them.
Anna: Have you ever turned down a book that later turned into a bestseller?
Jessica: Yes. But one thing to note is that if I had repped that book maybe it wouldn’t have been a bestseller. It’s possible that author’s agent was instrumental in helping her create a bestselling book and had a vision I didn’t have.
Anna: Most agents’ average response time is about 2 to 4 weeks, sometimes 8 to 12. Why so long? What happens with a query in that time? Do they just sit in your inbox, waiting to be read, or do you sort through them once and later get back to them a second and maybe even third time before you make a decision?
Jessica: It gives us a buffer. Typically, if nothing else is going on, we can reply a lot faster. However, if your query comes in on a week when five of my clients sent proposals or manuscripts for me to review and three publishers sent contracts for me to review and royalty statements come in I’m not going to get to any queries for a couple of weeks. By giving a long time frame we can hope that authors won’t anticipate a response during a time when we just might not be able to give one.
Anna: When you read a query, are you foremost interested in publishing that book, or do you consider its potential for movies straight away, too?
Jessica: Book first and only actually. A movie would be a great bonus, but I’m not in the movie business (in fact I rarely even see movies) so it’s not my focus.
Anna: Do you sometimes check the market for epic self-published books and reach out to the writers with an offer?
Jessica: Sadly I don’t have the time to do that like I used to, but when I was first building a client list I used to do that all the time and actually teamed up with some really great clients that way.
Anna: Is it possible to sell already self-published books to big publishing houses for a re-release? Did you ever do that?
Jessica: It is and we have. It’s not easy and doesn’t happen nearly as often as authors would like you to believe, but it has definitely happened on more than one occasion in our office.
Anna: When agents ask writers for material and give a turnaround time, they very often don’t make it. Are you likely to miss deadlines, too? If so, what are the reasons?
Jessica: I do. Absolutely. Of course there are times when I respond well before the given deadline. I think it depends entirely, as I stated earlier, what’s going on with the agent. If I’ve only requested one proposal in three weeks it probably won’t take me long to get to it. If however I’ve requested three a day and am getting material in from clients it’s going to take me a lot longer to get to it.
Also, there are times when I’m just not actively looking for someone new. In those cases the best thing I can do is sit on the submissions and wait for a time when I can really focus on finding something exciting and give the submissions the attention they deserve. Of course I always hope that if an author gets an offer during that time they will still give me a chance.
Anna: With all the reading you have to do for your job, is it still fun for you? Do you still have time to read and enjoy a book that hasn’t been submitted to you?
Jessica: I don’t have as much time to read as I’d like, but I blame the rest of my life for that not my job. Reading is actually still really fun for me. Maybe more fun in some ways because it’s a true release. When I read “for pleasure” I get to just read the book. I don’t have to give anyone my opinion or pay attention to potential problems. That being said, because of my job I think I give a book less time. I won’t continue reading a book if its not holding my interest. I’d rather get rid of it and move on to the next one.
Anna: How many book pages can you read in an hour?
Jessica: I think I read about a page a minute. At least that’s what I guestimate when I’m on a plane and trying to figure out if I’ll finish the book before we land or not.
There’s nothing worse than landing and speeding through the last 25 pages while the other passengers are getting off.
Anna: What do you advise your clients – to go for a big advance payment or rather for higher royalties?
Jessica: Higher royalties almost always and sometimes even a lower advance if the editor or house that seems more enthusiastic and excited to put a lot behind the book. Because in the long run that will amount to more money.
Anna: Which of the above happens more often?
Jessica: Most royalties are still pretty standard so I would say in most cases we’re choosing the bigger advance.
Anna: Once you land a great book deal, what happens with the book? How long until it’s being released and how does the payment work? Advance payment in little bits?
Jessica: I’ll ignore the contract negotiations which are the first step and focus on the book. Typically a book is scheduled for publication one year after the delivery of the manuscript (as per your contract). This should allow for plenty of time to edit and market the book as well as design the cover, write cover copy, and sell it into the marketplace.
The first step the book goes through will be revisions with your new editor. Typically this will be a round or two in which you strengthen your book. Once you and your editor agree that the book is good and tight and ready to go it will be passed on to the copyeditor. From there the book goes back to you for yet another read through. Once you’ve returned the book it will be made into page proofs (for yet another read by you) and hopefully advance reading copies for reviewers.
Payments are broken down typically in thirds or fourths. How much of a breakdown will depend on how much you’re getting paid. The more you get paid the more the publisher will want payments to be broken down.
The first payment should be paid on the signing and finalization of the contract, the next on the delivery and acceptance (this is the key word) of the manuscript. Acceptance means you will not be paid until about the time the book is turned into the copyeditor and the final payment is often on publication. This can, of course, vary by publisher.
Anna: Did you ever take on a client that you later wished you hadn’t?
Jessica: I’m pretty sure I have, but I’m never going to fully admit that😉
Anna: Did J.K.Rowling pitch to you?😉
Jessica: No. At least I’m pretty sure not.
Anna: What if a complete dork writes to you, being arrogant and awkward, but delivers a brilliant manuscript? Are you more likely to take him on or pass?
Jessica: I love that you used the words “complete dork.” Totally made me laugh. If the manuscript is absolutely brilliant, takes my breath away and I can’t stop thinking about it I’ll put up with almost anyone. If I’m on the fence or I like it, but it needs work or I like it, but don’t love it, I will pass if I sense the author might be a nightmare to work with.
Anna: The funniest thing that ever landed on your desk?
Jenny: The funniest are usually actually the creepiest or scariest at the time.
The one that comes to mind first is the writer who, I guess, “landed on my desk”. This writer thought it would be a good idea to hand deliver his manuscript. As blog readers know we have an office dog, at the time it was Pitbull mix Riggins. A sweet, sweet dog, but not necessarily sweet looking. Riggins was outside and this man had no qualms about entering Riggins’s gated area to make his way to the office door. I heard Riggins barking and looked out to see him jumping all over the man with his muddy paws. I never answered the door and I never called Riggins off.
No writers or animals were hurt in the making of this story.
Anna: Would you share one epic query letter with us?
Jenny: It’s rarely the queries that are epic. It’s usually the responses or exchanges with authors after the rejection. One of my favorite stories is back in the days of snail mail queries. These days it’s easier to send off an angry response, but in those days you actually had to go to the effort of typing something up, printing it out, folding it up, putting it in the envelope, addressing the envelope, adding a stamp and mailing it out. That’s a lot of anger if you get through all of that and still think you should send it.
My favorite story was the writer who accused us of steaming stamps off SASEs (self addressed stamped envelopes) and using them for ourselves. According to this writer the rejection he received was in the same envelope he originally sent the query in. I’m doubtful, but I suppose it could easily happen if we’re in a rush. I guess the post office delivered it based on the return address.
His response was a diatribe about how we were scamming writers and the post office in an effort to keep all of the stamps for ourselves. Seems like a bad business plan to me, but whatever.
Anna: Agents intimidate authors. What intimidates you?
Jessica: English teachers and The Grammar Police
Anna: And finally, what’s your favorite TV show?
Jessica: I think it depends on my mood. Modern Family for guaranteed laughs, but The Good Wife always blows me away. The writing is amazing. Of course you can’t beat Downton Abbey and Walking Dead, although I have to be in the right mood for Walking Dead and have enough time to watch something mindless after so I don’t have nightmares.
Thank you, Jessica, for these awesome insights into your work. It was a pleasure to get in touch with you!
Find out more about Jenny on her Website
Check out her Submission guidelines
or follow her on Twitter