May 2nd to the 8th: “Is there a common myth you’d like to debunk about being an agent?”

May is agents and publishers month at The Big Thrill! This week we ask Janet Reid, Josh Getzler, Victoria Skurnick and Sandy Lu if there’s a common myth about being an agent that they’d like to debunk. This is a can’t-miss Roundtable discussion!

Janet Reid is a literary agent at FinePrint Literary Management specializing in compelling fiction, particularly crime fiction, and narrative non-fiction.  She’s always on the lookout for fabulous projects. Her publishing background includes fifteen years in book publicity with clients both famous and infamous. In her spare hours she drinks scotch and stalks Jack Reacher.

Josh Getzler is a literary agent at Russell and Volkening specializing in mysteries, thrillers, literary and commercial fiction, young adult and middle grade (particularly adventures and mysteries for boys).

Prior to becoming a literary agent at Levine Greenberg, Victoria Skurnick was Editor-in-Chief at The Book-of-the Month Club for almost twenty years where she relished the opportunity to devour every kind of book, from the finest literary fiction to Yiddish for Dogs.  Anne Tyler, John LeCarre, Amy Tan, Tom Wolfe, Stephen King, Michael Lewis, Lee Child, Roddy Doyle, Alice Sebold, Tracy Kidder, Julia Child and Susan Elizabeth Phillips are just a few of the authors that make her deaf and blind to anyone around her when she’s reading.

Sandy Lu is a literary agent at the L. Perkins Agency and is seeking submissions that draw her in with a unique voice and a good yarn that will make her miss her subway stop and keep her up at night. In fiction, she is looking for dark literary and commercial fiction, mystery, thriller, psychological horror, paranormal/urban fantasy, historical fiction, and YA.  In particular, she is looking for historical thrillers or mysteries set in Victorian times and has recently fallen in love with steampunk.

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  1. Agents are the gatekeepers in publishing. I strongly disagree with this idea. The implication is agents decide which authors are worthy of publication and which aren’t. It may feel that way to an author sending query letters and hearing consistent negative responses (or worse, no response at all), but an agent doesn’t decide who’s worthy. An agent decides which projects are right for them. And that’s all they decide.

    Looking at the query process as “getting past the gatekeeper” couches finding an agent as a hurdle to clear before reaching the goal. It’s akin to saying you have get past those first pesky 10,000 readers so you can reach your goal of a million readers.

    Don’t think of agents as gatekeepers. Think of us as fans-in-waiting.

    1. Hi, Janet! Great point. I hate it when I hear authors express this opinion, because it makes it look like agents are somehow trying to PREVENT books from being published, when in fact, that’s pretty much the whole purpose of their job.

      Another myth that gets under my skin is when authors say that agents are only willing to represent previously published authors. I know that’s not true, and I think that in many cases, this is just the author’s way of excusing or justifying for their own lack of success, rather than having any real basis in fact. Of course it’s discouraging to get rejections, but blaming the person who’s doing the rejecting, or maintaining that the whole agent system is flawed could keep the writer from seeing the real problem – that their work just isn’t quite ready.

      1. Thank you for bringing this up, Karen. The truth is actually the opposite. It is easier to sell a debut novel than to sell a second novel by a previously published author whose first book didn’t do so well. Past poor sale records can be a big deterrent for the marketing and publicity departments to sign off on the next book. Besides, as I mentioned, the thrills of discovering a new voice is incomparable.

        1. Hello everyone, and please excuse my tardiness. I want to agree with Sandy and Janet. This comes up all the time during lunches with editors. We feel like we are becoming the people who say No all the time, when the fact is, there is NOTHING we love, or want, more than to click on an email query and find THAT book. And while yes, it’s definitely tricky to try to overcome an iffy track record on a previously published author, the fact that that person has run the gauntlet once means that he or she can again. And if we have to PRETEND that they are someone else…well, we do that sometimes, too 🙂

          1. I had a followup question to Josh’s point about using a pseudonym to relaunch an author. How do top editors feel about this? It’s kind of hard to believe they wouldn’t see through it, or even find the practice annoying. Am I right about that? And what can a writer do in this tough economy to help sell themselves if they’ve had poor sales (maybe – just being hypothetical – due to covers that misrepresented a book’s genre)? Is there any hope, or does a writer’s one and only shot at success come with that first book, specifically in the thriller/suspense market? Thanks for any insight anyone wants to share. It’s wonderful having you all here this week. Kind regards.

          2. Sorry it’s been a while since I posted. Will get back to everyone tomorrow. It’s my birthday (he says shamelessly), and my lovely wife is taking me out. Tomorrow I will simply be a slightly older literary agent, and will go through the myths in greater detail.

  2. Myth: Agents only want plot-driven books or hot subjects that will sell. The quality of writing is not as important.

    That is not true. Yes, publishing is a business, and we all need to make a living, but we are in this business because we love the written word. For me, when it comes to signing a project, nothing is as important as the writing or the voice. I’m looking for the connection that makes me sit up and take notice, forget everything else and dive into the world the author created. Plots are important, but they can be changed. Certain subject matters may be hot now, but the market is ever changing. The only thing constant is good writing. Nothing beats the thrills of discovering a new talent and sharing that discovery with other publishing professionals.

  3. I was happy to see members of the roundtable write about the importance of good writing.

    As a writer pursuing both traditional publishing through submissions to literary agents and also self publishing ebooks on Amazon, I wonder if there may be some disconnect between writers, agents and publishers.

    For a self-published writer, selling 1,000 or 5,000 copies of a book may count as a success, but I can understand how a publisher or agent may see that number as a failure. So perhaps while the goal of selling good books is the same for both, the degree of the goal may be different.

    I have found some excellent hardback novels on the $1 cart at bookstores. But I wonder if the agent and publisher were disappointed with the sales and the remainders, and the author was left wondering what happened because they wrote a good book.

    It appears the cream does not always rise to the top.

    (Thanks for commenting here. I enjoy reading these roundtable discussions.)

    1. Alas, you are not wrong about that. Sometimes you can do everything right–write a good book, find a book agent, who in turn finds a good editor who gets the book and has a good marketing team at a good publishing house, and the book still does not do well. The “it” factor that makes a book a bestseller remains a mystery.

    2. I disagree with couching this sales figures in terms of success or failure. The truth is big publishing companies have to move a lot of units to keep the train running. Smaller publishers have to move fewer, and self publishers don’t have to move any at all. A book isn’t a failure if it sells 5000 copies; half the National Book Award Winners one year recently had sold fewer than 500.

      Also remaindering has nothing to do with success or failure. It’s how stores handle excess inventory. Rather than paying to send them back to the warehouse, they sell them at discounted rates. It’s an expected part of the sales curve, and it’s covered in the contract.

      I’m glad you got some nifty bargains on the remainder table but it only means you bought later in the publication timeline than people who bought earlier.

      There are lots of ways to make authors crazy in this world, and couching sales figures as success or failure is one sure-fire way to do it.

      1. Thanks to Sandy and Janet for commenting.

        Regarding Janet’s comment: I’ve read that writing is an art, and publishing is a business. So I wonder, if a writer does not use sales to measure their success, what do they use?

        I am working hard to both learn both the craft side and the business side, so I appreciate you all taking the time to share your insights. Thank you.

        1. If you only use sales to measure success, James Patterson is a success and Karl Marlantes’ MATTERHORN is a failure. That’s not a statement I’d call accurate.

          Patterson sells a LOT of books, and his revenue for Little,Brown helps them publish other lesser-selling authors.

          Karl Marlantes worked on his book for 20 years, found a very small publisher and his initial print run of a 600+ page hardcover book was somewhere in the triple digits. But it’s a BRILLIANT and important book. It’s gotten a lot of attention and discussion. I think everyone should read it. Is that book a failure? No, it’s not.

          Both of these authors are success stories, but very different kinds of success.

          Success is publishing a book well, reaching an audience and keeping the book in print long enough to have everyone make some money. Failure is not doing that.

          1. Janet, thank you for your explanation and examples. (A pal from my writing group is reading MATTERHORN and says it is excellent.)

            I appreciate your response.

          2. I have often heard that word of mouth is still the most effective marketing program for most books. If that’s the case, MATTERHORN should be well on its way to success in more than one way.

      2. From your mouth to God’s ear! I don’t have any piece of that deal, I’m just a fan of the book and the publication story, but it’s one of those books that gives me hope we aren’t all celebrity schlockmeisters and JerseyShore ghost writers.

  4. (Not sure how to start a train, so excuse me if this turn into a Reply)

    Myth: As self-publishing becomes more prevalent, agents will become irrelevant.

    This is a new one I’m hearing a lot at conferences, and is becoming a popular refrain. To me, this is framed incorrectly. It’s not necessarily that we will become irrelevant, but rather that our job will change. I’ve had three clients decide recently that they wanted to self-publish electronically. In each case, rather than saying, “well, thanks for everything, but I don’t need you anymore,” the author and I began to discuss the ways we can still work together within a new framework. Whether it’s as editor, marketing adviser, technical consultant, or bookkeeper, there is a place for the agent to stay in the game. It’s also a way for an author to navigate the highway from traditional publishing (NOT “legacy” publishing, a term I hate) to electronic self-publishing–and back. Because while some folks believe that it’s a one-way street, I think the publishing world of the future stands to be way more nimble than that, and if an agent is on top of things, he or she stands to retain his or her utility.

  5. Are there myths, or at least misconceptions, about what – school, experience, personality, etc. – makes an effective literary agent?

    1. I don’t know if there are any myths about what makes a good literary agent. I think there are common expectations (not necessarily misconceptions) of what would help start a career as a literary agent: a degree in English or Comparative Literature or law, work experience in publishing (preferably as an editor), marketing, publicity, retail bookselling or other sales background, and a personality that is outgoing, assertive, enterprising, daring, or eloquent. But many agents do not have any of the above. They are good agents because they have good taste, know the marketplace because they are well read, and work tirelessly for their clients because they are passionate about their writing and believe in them.

  6. Happy birthday! Hope you went to some posh restaurant (for us that’s any place that doesn’t give out crayons and a puzzle book) and had a great dinner.

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