Moderator: James Dewar
JD: What’s changed in the author-agent-editor relationship over the years?
SH: When I was studying English literature, agents were invisible. Editors shaped the work. Now, there is too much work for an editor to do. Some of that work has devolved upon agents. The leisurely relationship between author and editor is a thing of the past. Editors want a perfectly edited manuscript to they can turn around and sell it to their publishing house.
MC: Whatever golden age there might have been, ended just before I started working in the industry. YA is a big market now. Editors are not so much about developing talent, but about recognizing it. We need to be good “pickers.” Some agents have moved into this gap.
CW: Agents are also fighting against each other to get their authors placed.
JD: How much time do you spend developing authors?
SH: I couldn’t give you a percentage, but somewhere between three and five drafts.
MC: It varies with the client. It could be anywhere from one to twelve drafts.
CW: I spend between three and six months, not just editing, but understanding the vision for the work. The “revise and resubmit” letter might contain one to seven pages of suggested revisions. You have to find out if you can work together. Some agents won’t take on a client without doing an R&R letter. They won’t take the risk.
JD: What are some of the reasons authors don’t respond to your suggestions the way you expect?
CW: The author doesn’t take it seriously. They don’t understand how much work goes into reading and analyzing and preparing the R&R.
MC: I was at a conference last year on a panel reading first pages. The top three, as the prize, would be given consideration, moved to the top of my slush pile. Only one of them responded right away. I read and signed her. The second one just came in last month. Sometimes they’re scared. When you get the opportunity, jump for it. It may not be there in six months.
SH: The easy answer is that Canadians are afraid. Americans want to see the money. Adopt a professional persona. Andrew Pyper wrote five or six books. His agent asked to see what he was working on. He presented it to his agent and the agent asked, “do you have anything else?” It’s a conversation.
MC: I had a conversation with one of my writers who said he had so many ideas he could work on. It’s my job to say, “no, no, no, yes.”
JD: What is exciting you these days?
SH: Ask me when I’ve had a few cocktails.
MC: Because I’ve worked in children’s literature for so long, it’s exciting to see the new work coming in. Because there’s so much of it, the bar is set high. Picture books were dying out, but now they’re coming back.
CW: In the acknowledgements of her second book, one of my authors said that without me, she’d be a starving artist. I was thrilled. It’s the best part of being an agent, being able to grow with your authors.
SH: I can give you an answer now. There is a graphic novel about two girls coming of age in this one summer in cottage country. Canadian writers do this very well. The book was #8 on the New York Times, moved up to #7, dropped off the list, but now a review has come out and we’re waiting to see where it goes.
JD: When you look at a manuscript, what are you hoping to find?
CW: The book always comes first, but I look for potential for book cubs, translations, you never know.
MC: With kids’ books, you have to consider the age of your audience, and then look at merchandizing. Is there series potential? Having said that, I will never say the word “trilogy” again.
SH: It depends on the book. The first may be a distinctively Canadian book, but two or three down the line, it could be a whole different story. Look at Yan Martel. Pi was his fourth book. His first was a collection of short stories.
JD: So, the book is not the end of it.
SH: The moment Pi hit the mainstream, everyone went back to buy his other two novels.
JD: How are Canadian authors doing on the world stage?
SH: That’s a really big question. Ebooks are based around genre. It’s getting harder and harder to sell literary novels. The Luminaries is essentially a thriller written in a literary style.
CW: Canadian authors aren’t as ambitious. They’re too laid back. Literary is still a market. If you’re writing genre, though, consider your setting. An anonymous town that could be anywhere in North America won’t be as problematic for an American publisher.
MC: Writers have come to me and said, “I’ve been successful in Canada. Now I want to break into the American market. Canadian’s are good at problem novels. American’s love them too, but they don’t translate into the UK market. It can affect foreign rights and sales. Consider changing your setting to Detroit.
JD: If you had one piece of advice for emerging writers, what would it be?
MC: Treat it like a business. It’s my business and it’s hard work. It’s creative, but it’s also a business.
SH: If you think your manuscript is perfect, it’s probably not. Make sure you have readers, alphas and betas, and critique groups lines up.
CW: Define what success is for you. Plan for it. Implement the plan.
Q: Is there an art to selecting alpha and beta readers?
CW: You have to give some thought to who your ideal audience is. Find people who are better than you to work with. Read everything.
MC: One of the most successful, grass-roots groups I’ve heard of is a workshop run by an editor.
SH: There isn’t a formula. Getting criticism can destroy your work. Art is not created by committee. Have a conversation with your critique group and your readers. Be discerning.
MC: A book club does not trump an editor. Don’t try to defend your work by saying that your group loved it.
Q: Do books set in other countries, like Australia, do well in Canada?
CW: Good books travel.
SH: Catton (The Luminaries) is from New Zealand.
MC: Children’s books are not sold to or bought by children, but in libraries and schools (teachers, librarians, parents). It can be tricky. For every rule there is an exception.
JD: Is sex okay in a YA novel? We’re seeing a lot more of it.
MC: We call it content.
CW: It needs to be part of a character’s development and not gratuitous.
SH: Erotica is still on the New York Times Bestsellers Lists, but the market may be saturated until the next big thing comes along.
Q: Have you ever turned down something you later regretted?
CW: I haven’t passed on anything that became a bestseller, but maybe I failed to get a deal I wanted, or someone beat me to the punch.
MC: I presented a book to an editor who passed on it, but later, when that book sold and was produced by another house, she pointed to it as her “ideal” book.
SH: Agents compete all the time.
MC: On the adult side, I recommended a book to two colleagues. One passed and the other took it and ran with it. It ended up being on the Globe and Mail bestseller list for eight weeks.
Thank God Harry Potter never crossed my desk!
I’m just going to head right into the panels and sessions for CanWrite! 2014. I’ll give a little perspective in my wrap post at the end.
Since I’m away from home, I don’t have copies of the fiction and poetry I was going to post this weekend with me. I’ll try to get one of those posts up tomorrow.