I am so excited! Today on the site is Sara Megibow, Associate Literary Agent at the prestigious Nelson Literary Agency. I’ve followed her career since she was NLA president Kristin Nelson’s assistant and I’ve been so impressed! Recent sales have been to Night Shade Books, Avon Red, Carina Press, and Berkley Heat. She’s a stellar agent and one of the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure to interview. She’s also one of the most personable and social people too! You can find her on Twitter at @SaraMegibow, Publishers Marketplace and on Facebook.
Without further ado:
Hi Sara! Thank you so much for stopping by the site and taking time out of your day for some of my questions. I appreciate it a lot, and I know so does your massive following online. 🙂 We’re always eager to hear more! Which leads me to my first question:
1. It’s apparent that you live a very full life. You are an agent and mother and both jobs are, unquestionably, full time. Focusing on just your agent work alone, you read manuscripts, deal with contracts, revise, write editorial letters, telephone conference and so much more. You’re extremely active on social media. You’re always on the look out for new clients. But I’ve always wondered, when you are reading slush pile submissions and new work, does your schedule ever factor into how you read the slush pile? I know that there have been times when I personally quit on reading a book because I get too busy or tired or moody, but then, at a later time, I go back to it and I love it and wonder how I didn’t love it in the first place! Has that ever happened to you? Or, do you believe that good sample pages should make you forget that you’re busy, should make you want to read more even though there are dozens of other things to do?
Dear Bethany – great question! Thanks for inviting me here for the interview – it’s nice to reach out beyond the cyber-space and connect with people personally (if not quite in-person). 🙂
One thing to remember about the job of your literary agent is that my last priority is reading slush pile. My first priority is taking clients’ books and monetizing them – selling print and electronic rights and then selling translation, film, audio, etc. Auditing their contracts and royalty statements, planning publicity and promotions, talking about the next book and the next and the next.
Reading submissions from potential clients represents about 10% of my weekly schedule (and that’s considered “actively” acquiring). But that’s GOOD. When you sign with an agent, you want to know that she or he is busy working on your career.
So, backing up in to your question – how do I read the slush pile with any deal of sanity? The answer is – I’m very very very good at what I do. I HAVE to choose the right clients otherwise I would be out of a job. Agents don’t get paid in a salary (typically) – we are commission sales people. So, of the 36,000 queries I read last year I needed to choose the right 7 clients to sign otherwise I’d be out of work. I go on gut. If a story jumps out of the pile and speaks to me, then I ask for a full manuscript. If that full manuscript makes me smile and cry and giggle, then it’s a winner. Of course I have passed on books that went on to sell big, but I really try hard to focus on selling the authors I do sign and not focus on the ones I don’t. To date, 18 of my 21 clients have book deals (and 2 haven’t been on submission yet). They are all debut authors with one exception. Crazy as it sounds, my process works. Sure there are days when I’m tired and my eyes are seeing double – if that’s true, I tend to save submissions reading for another time.
2. Great answer! I totally get what you’re saying. I do have a follow up though, and I’m wondering, to kind of go back to question 1, how does a writer really impress with his or her sample pages? Kristin Nelson, your partner in crime 🙂 just wrote a great blog post about mechanics vs. spark. How does a writer capture that ever elusive spark?
Personally, I think spark comes from being true to the story. If an author tries too hard to tell the story, then the reading gets bogged down in mechanics. When an author lets the story sing and be authentic to itself, there is magic. I know that sounds a little fluffy and the honest answer is that superior writing wins the game. I read aLOTof good and even very good manuscripts. But, I’m looking for something as good as THE SIREN by Tiffany Reisz and CATCHING JORDAN by Miranda Kenneally – books that totally possess me.
For reference, here’s an excellent blog post by Roni Loren called “what makes the chronic finisher stop reading?” I agree 100% with this post!
3. OK, I just read the post. That really does sum it up nicely, doesn’t it?? 🙂 Sara, you seem like a real author’s agent, someone who is tough and savvy but compassionate to her writers and is with them through every high and low. How would you define your work style? I know (via Twitter) that you’re a big advocate of smiley faces in email. 🙂 But are you the type of agent who prefers the phone over email? Who gives long editorial letters are just suggestions on a few things? You’re in-demand and, with so many upcoming releases, definitely hot!
Awwww, thanks! That’s sweet to say. My biggest strength is that I pick really talented, incredible, brilliant, friendly authors to work with. Seriously – the team makes me look good. I believe an author should get the career that they want – not the career that I want them to have. So, I tailor my relationship with each person based on their wants and needs. Some authors like to send me 3-4 ideas for their next book and we talk about where to go. Some just send me the next book and say “here ’tis!” Some authors go through multiple rounds of revisions with me and some present perfectly complete manuscripts.
I do believe in lots of communication – letting the author know where they are each step of the way – on submissions, contract negotiation, release dates, covers, sales numbers, option material, publicity, etc. So, even if there is nothing to report, my clients hear from me each week – even if it’s just to say “no news.” That’s my style and I really hope at the end of the day each client has the relationship and the career that they’ve always wanted.
4. Finally Sara, so many agents and authors give the advice that the best thing any writer can do is to start the next book. Now, there have been several cases in NLA’s history where the first book doesn’t sell and the author must start anew. (The awesome Marie Lu comes to mind!) NLA’s literary assistant Anita Mumm wrote a great article on smart persistence in a current newsletter, but it can still be so daunting! What advice do you have for those writers…the ones who keep writing, keep trying, but keep getting those rejection letters?
An excellent and difficult question. The answer is going to differ author to author depending on circumstances, personality, etc. However I will say that there is a difference between writing to write and writing to publish. My suggestion is to back up and remember to enjoy the writing for writings sake. Publishing is a frustrating and slow business and pinning ones hopes on the book deal can taint the enjoyment of our art.
That’s not to say that working hard and wanting to be published is a bad thing – I don’t think that at all. Keep writing and remember to enjoy it. Keep reading as reading new books might clear your palate or provide inspiration (at the very least it will inform you what’s on the shelves right now). Share your work with others – not just your mom – and listen to their feedback. Keep learning. These are things I would tell my clients. And, of course, keep writing.
Thanks again for having me here today! Great questions! Happy writing to all,