Today I’m interviewing Amy Bishop (@amylizbishop), my literary agent extraordinaire of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. She’s been such a wonderful person to work with: dedicated and encouraging, professional and competent, fierce and full of grit. I’m honored to be able to interview her here on this blog, using the questions asked by the writers over on Twitter!
June: Welcome, Amy! Thank you for making the time to be here. My first question is, what does your day as a New York literary agent look like?
Amy: I think one of the most fun things about my job is that there is no “typical day”—things are always a little different! But I’m usually in the office by 8:30 or 9 with coffee in hand (of course) and then I usually do a first check of my e-mail and triage, then start checking off follow-ups on my to-do list. I try to read slush in between the bigger tasks and usually will spend lunch (if I don’t have one with an editor) reading requested manuscripts. Bigger tasks usually involve edits, reading a client’s revisions, vetting contracts, drafting pitch letters or submission lists, and any larger administrative tasks that my office needs me to handle, among other things. I’m usually out between 5:30-6:30 pm and may have drinks with an editor; if not, it’s home to fit in a little more work reading before bed.
June: Whew, you work so hard! How do you manage work-life balance?
Amy: I’m sorry, I’m unfamiliar with that term. Kidding, kind of. My boss once said to me that being an agent isn’t necessarily a career, it’s a lifestyle. And I think that’s pretty much true of all of my colleagues here—because our day is so filled with administrative tasks, the bulk of our reading gets done at night and on the weekends, so it could easily be said that we work all the time. That being said, if I’m working hard all day on a Saturday or Sunday, I’ll try to take some time at night to go out to dinner. And I will say that I try very hard to not check e-mail during the weekend (though I don’t always succeed). It’s important for us to take time off to avoid burn-out and I try to keep that in mind.
June: What would you say is the hardest part of the job, or the thing you most didn’t expect?
Amy: Having to deliver bad news is probably one of the hardest parts of the job; it’s no fun for the author, or for me. The thing I didn’t expect? Rude replies to query rejections.
June: Yikes. It definitely must not be fun having to reject writers. But since it’s part of the job, what are your top 3 reasons for passing on a query letter?
Amy: 1) It’s addressed to Dear Sir (or dear Madam, or the wrong person entirely) and it’s clear the author didn’t put any work into their letter. 2) It’s offensive. 3) It’s a genre I don’t represent (though I often peek to see if it’s right for any of my colleagues here). Do note though, that in almost every case, I usually skim down to the sample pages to see the writing; we know query letters are hard, and it’s your actual writing that counts.
June: Any tips on how to write a solid query letter?
Amy: Have these components: why you’re querying the agent/agency; a brief (no more than a paragraph) pitch of your book; a bio/any writing credentials; comp titles (popular titles; published no more than five years ago in your genre); what you’re including in your e-mail (this should be precisely what the agency asks for, whether it’s a synopsis and the first 25 pages, the first three chapters, etc.); your name (this sounds like the dumbest thing ever, but I am constantly surprised at how many people don’t sign their query letters).
June: What is the best way to START a query? What should be the very first thing on the page (beneath the agent’s name – correctly spelled)?
Amy: There’s no hard and fast way to start a query. Read the submission guidelines for the agency you’re querying. If you have the components mentioned above, no one should be nitpicking unless they specifically spell out how they want their queries in the submission guidelines.
June: How important is a first chapter? If it doesn’t start with an absolute NUCLEAR bang, will it go in the slush pile?
Amy: We’re looking at a first chapter to gauge your writing, so it’s important, but do bear in mind, if the rest of your novel doesn’t stand up to how good your first chapter is, a great first chapter won’t matter. And keep in mind, too, that starting off with an absolute nuclear bang doesn’t always have to mean in terms of physical action; I’ve been hooked by some great, quieter first chapters that just wound up tension in the most delicious way or had amazing writing I couldn’t put down.
June: How far do you usually get into full request manuscripts before you have this ‘sit up and take notice’ moment?
Amy: If I’ve requested the full, I’ve usually had that ‘sit up and take notice’ moment from their first 25 pages or their partial
June: On that note, what was it about my query letter and first pages that made you want to read more and eventually offer representation?:D
Amy: The fact that it was set in Korea (and that you were a Korean author) really made me sit up and take notice; I’m always looking for diverse work written by diverse authors. And the premise was really great—your explanation of damos and their role in Korea at the time was fascinating. I was also so intrigued by historical fiction set in Korea; it wasn’t something I’d seen in my inbox before. As for your first pages: they were lyrical, well-written, and made me want to keep reading!
June: I was losing faith in my writing when you offered rep, so I’m forever grateful to you, Amy! I have a few more questions writers wanted to ask you.
For up and coming writers who want to publish their own work, what is the process of finding a good agent?
Amy: Research! Look in the backs of books you love or books that you feel are similar to yours. See who the agent listed in the acknowledgments is. Publisher’s Marketplace/ Poets & Writers both have agent directories. Manuscript Wish List and the #MSWL tag on Twitter are also great places to look. Google the agent and see what’s being said about them; if you have an offer of rep, ask to talk to some of their current clients and see how they feel about their agent. Don’t be afraid to quiz the agent either—it’s an important decision. If you can, talk to other writer friends who have an agent and see what they most appreciate about their agent/what they wish their agent would do more of; they can provide good insight.
June: How is the process of getting your book published? How long does it actually take? And how/when does the writer start getting paid?
Amy: In a nutshell: query à get agent à revisions with agent à book on sub à agent following up à offer(s) à negotiation of offer(s) à deal accepted à contract à contract negotiations à revisions with editor à editorial process w/copyediting, production, cover art, etc., à book on shelf.
There’s no good answer to how long it actually takes; it varies for everyone. However, once you have a deal with a publishing house, you can expect your book to be out between 2-3 years after that. Sometimes sooner, sometimes a bit longer (a bit longer especially if it’s nonfiction and you’re actually starting the process of writing the book/doing research for it). The writer gets paid when the publisher pays out the first part of the advance once contracts are signed. Money usually flows through your agency and your agency will cut you a check or send you a wire once the money has been processed and they take their commission (industry standard is 15%).
June: What is the average time for an agent to sell a manuscript, and are there any issues with authors who live abroad and aren’t native speakers (as long as they manage to offer the same quality a native speaker could)?
Amy: I wish I could give you an average time—there really isn’t one. I’ve sold a project in a month and I’ve sold projects that have been out on submission for eight or nine months. No, we have plenty of clients who live abroad.
June: What do agents do when they can’t sell one of their writer’s books? What are all the things they try before moving on altogether? How much time? How many publishers? How do they tell their client and what’s next?
Amy: This depends heavily on the agent—and the book—but I can tell you what I do with my clients. I usually do “rounds” of editors – maybe sending to 6-10 editors for fiction; 15-20 for nonfiction. If one round is done (that is, everyone passes), I send all editor feedback to the client, along with a list of who we went to, and ask them if they want to consider revising (if there’s been enough helpful feedback) or if they’d like to go out with the project as is to another round. I continue to send out as long as there are appropriate editors to send to and the client wants me to keep trying; if the client would prefer to move on to another project at any point, we do so. I’ve sold books that have been out on sub for 8 or 9 months; one of my colleagues has a submission list with over 50 editors on it. But again, it’s variable, depending on who your agent is/how they operate and what the book is. Generally, if we’ve truly come to the end of the line, I again send a round up note with editor feedback/places we went, and try to gently tell them that I think it’s time to move on to the next project and that I’d be happy to brainstorm ideas or see what they’ve been working on next, and we go from there.
June: Wow, those were really insightful answers!
Are you open for submissions? If so, what kind of fiction or non-fiction are you on the hunt for?
Amy: Yes, I’m open for submissions! Like I said above, I’d love diverse work written by diverse authors; for fiction, I’m particularly interested in literary fiction, upmarket/book club fiction and literary thrillers in the vein of THE TWELVE LIVES OF SAMUEL HAWLEY or BARBED WIRE HEART, and some light horror. Would love to find a good YA thriller, like SADIE. For nonfiction, I’d love some smart pop science or historical narrative nonfiction or some platform-driven prescriptive nonfiction. A good platform is a MUST for nonfiction.
June: And finally, is there anything you’d like to say to writers?
Amy: Courage, dear hearts! I know publishing can seem like a long, frustrating path, but there’s tons of support and advice out there. Seek out beta readers or critique partners; take workshop classes on honing craft; look for writing communities online and in your area. You’re on your way!
Thank you so much Amy for answering these book industry questions, and for joining me here on this blog! Getting to know more about you as an agent was an absolute pleasure.