Turn to the Acknowledgement page of novels by some of the biggest thriller writers in the world and you’re bound to see a heartfelt thank you to Lisa Erbach Vance of the powerhouse Aaron Priest Literary Agency.
Vance joined the agency more than twenty years ago, starting off as the founder’s assistant where, as she put it, she got the “best agenting education possible from Aaron Priest himself.” Today, she’s considered an elite “super agent” at the storied boutique firm where a small team of seven represent an extraordinary number of award-winning and bestselling authors.
Vance is known not only for her business acumen and keen eye for talent, but also for the intense loyalty she inspires from her clients. Scan the back pages of a few Harlan Coben and Gregg Hurwitz novels, for instance, and you’ll see Vance referred to as “brilliant,” “irrepressible,” and “simply the best.” Likewise, clients of Mr. Priest—David Baldacci, Robert Crais, and others—give her thanks in their books.
ITW’s co-founder Gayle Lynds, a longtime client of Vance, explained why the agent breeds such loyalty and praise from her authors: “Lisa takes care of you like a mother, has the creativity of Steve Jobs, and negotiates for you like Jack Welch. I’ve had several literary agents, but none can touch her. She truly is the best in the business. With her warmth and world view, it’s no wonder all of us respect and love her.”
Vance took time from her incredibly busy schedule to answer a few questions for THE BIG THRILL.
Please tell us about your path to becoming an agent.
After graduating from Northwestern with a degree in English Literature, my publishing education began at the New York University Summer Publishing Institute, which was taught by industry professionals and provided an excellent real-world introduction to all aspects of the business. From there, I went straight to my first job in publishing: Management Trainee at Random House, Inc. I was part of the inaugural group for this program in which we trainees rotated through all the departments of the imprint in which we were placed—I was at Crown. I evaluated manuscripts, typed contracts, wrote marketing copy and press releases, traveled with sales reps in other cities, and much more. It was an amazing experience that I draw upon to this day.
Ultimately, I was most attracted to foreign rights. I worked in that department for a couple of years, until I decided I wanted to be involved in publishing in a broader way. When the opportunity to be the assistant to a literary agent arose, I interviewed for the job, knowing little about what agents did and without any particular desire to become one—just a desire to participate in more aspects of the industry. The overview education I’d had, via NYU and Random House, coupled with my rights experience turned out to be a solid foundation for agenting. At the Aaron Priest Literary Agency, I got the best agenting education possible from Aaron Priest himself. As his assistant, I was given a great deal of responsibility from the start and the more involved I became the more I enjoyed it. An agent needs to have knowledge of every aspect of the industry, and here I could put to use what I knew and learn what I wanted to know. After a few years as his assistant, I knew I wanted to be an agent, and I was given the opportunity to take on my own clients.
For readers unfamiliar with the work of an agent, can you describe a typical day?
It starts on my train ride into the city. I’ll check my email for anything urgent, peruse the New York Times for book news, then do some longer-form reading, such as a client’s manuscript, or a submission I’ve requested, or perhaps some queries. In the office, mornings are for the priority business—clients and editors with pressing matters come first. Those matters might involve negotiating a new book or licensing deal, addressing editorial issues, cover art, marketing details, and contracts. Since I also manage the foreign rights for all my clients, I usually have several emails from subagents and overseas publishers awaiting my reply. Midday, I might go out to lunch with an editor or someone else in the industry. If I stay in, I might use the time to do some reading—a manuscript or queries—though almost all my reading is done outside the office. I also keep up with publishing news via various newsletters and sites. Afternoons are for more business similar to that of the morning. On any given day, morning or afternoon, I might be pitching and submitting the work of a client to editors, have a meeting with a foreign publisher or subagent who is in town (in the weeks just before a major book fair these meetings multiply) or I might go to a publisher’s offices to have a marketing meeting for one of my clients. I also meet with audio publishers, film/tv agents and producers, and travel to writers’ conferences from time to time. In the evenings, I might go to an industry event or awards ceremony or to a client’s reading. The train ride home is for more manuscript/query reading, which I’ll also do at home and on the weekends.
How many query letters do you receive in a given week?
Roughly seventy to one hundred.
How do you know when you’ve got a keeper? Any tips for aspiring writers seeking an agent?
I light up with excitement when I read query letters that “have it all”—they stand out clearly from the pack. A great letter will distill a work down to its essence—economically describing the story, what makes it exciting and, above all, different (the “hook” is key). It will be straightforward—no hype—the story and the writer’s style will speak for themselves. Then I’ll look at the first chapter (which I request with queries) and if the writing makes me want to drop everything and just keep reading, I’ll ask for the complete manuscript.
I start reading every query in the hope I will be knocked off my feet. One of the most exciting aspects of being an agent is you never know what’s right around the corner, or about to pop into your inbox. If a query doesn’t impress me enough to make me want to read more immediately, I have to move on—many more are waiting to be read.
I read a lot of queries that are solidly written, but the stories they present aren’t truly new, or they don’t put a fresh spin on the familiar. Often I’ll be intrigued by a premise, but the narrative voice in the sample pages is not distinctive. I also see a surprising number of vague queries that don’t say enough about what the book is about, sometimes even forgetting to mention the role of the main character. I have to pass on all of these. At the query stage, I don’t have time to delve further into a project that doesn’t sound directed, or that doesn’t have a clear and exciting hook, especially when it comes to suspense.
So the advice I would give aspiring writers sitting down to write a query letter is: present your story in the most focused way possible. Draw me in with your premise, tell me enough about what’s to come that I’ve just got to find out what happens. Let me know how your main character is different from all others. How do you, the author, imbue your story with a unique point of view? Keep in mind that as a writer, you’ve got a ton of competition, so your presentation has to be sharp. After that, it’s all about the novel itself.
Prior to sending any query letter, be sure to get the basics of submission right. Research agents thoroughly before you query them. Learn their interests and whether or not they’d be open to your type of work. Make sure you know what they want to see in a query: just a letter? A first chapter? More? Is it okay to send attachments with emails? In my case, that’s a no—I won’t open attachments. Also know the market. Read as much as you can in your genre and identify what makes your work unique but also attractive to a large audience.
The publishing business has changed drastically since you started in the business. What in your view have been the biggest changes?
The shift to digital—in various contexts—has definitely been the biggest change. The rise of ebooks is the most obvious and most important. But the mechanics of the business have changed so much, too: manuscripts are sent to editors and publishers overseas via email, I read submissions and my clients’ works in digital format, most editorial work is done digitally—all these tasks used to involve a lot of paper and they were much less efficient than they are now. So in some ways I feel the business moves faster now than it did when I started, which is a very good thing.
As for ebooks… I’ve heard so many people say that they’re reading more and buying more books, because ebooks make it so easy. Anything that encourages people to read more—especially if it helps them to discover authors they haven’t read before—is a great thing. And the popularity of this format has opened up opportunities that didn’t exist a few years ago. Many authors have benefitted greatly by being published in e-only (or e-mostly) format—we’ve seen new titles become bestsellers and out-of-print backlists revived. There are more marketing opportunities on the digital side as well. All that said, I’m of course concerned about the future of the industry and hope for one in which physical and digital formats co-exist, in an environment where multiple publishers thrive as well.
Given the tumultuous changes in the industry, what’s been your secret to success and the secret to your agency’s longevity?
We’re a boutique agency with a relatively small client list but a high percentage of bestsellers and award winners. Part of our success stems from the fact that we have a small client list. We focus on quality and dedicate ourselves to authors whose work we love and can get behind whole-heartedly and in every way. That means we devote a lot of time to every client and pay attention to the details of our clients’ individual publishing processes. Of course it doesn’t hurt to be working with amazing writers, either!
A respected publisher recently shut down its thriller and YA imprints “due mainly to market saturation.” Do you see a glut in some sections of the market that are making it harder out there for publishers, agents, and authors?
I wouldn’t say these markets are saturated, I’d say they’re enormously competitive. Both markets are going strong and show no sign of slowing down. Yes, there may be certain trends in these markets that readers tire of after a while and sales of those types of books fall off—that’s the cyclical nature of the business and to be expected. But there’s always room for a writer who brings something new to the table and tells a riveting story. What makes the market (the thriller market in particular) so tough for a newcomer is that there are so many established writers who have set the bar very high in terms of quality, and every day that bar gets higher still. A writer looking to break in needs to be familiar with the competition—the writers who are succeeding particularly well right now and why—and also needs to stake a distinctive place within the market with his or her work. By the same token, publishers face a great deal of competition from each other—there’s no question the thriller market is a tough one, and their challenge is to find a way to break their own books out. What “works” in marketing changes all the time, and it’s very difficult for a book to break out without the proper support.
You mention marketing. From your perspective, how much time should writers be spending on promotion?
It’s a fact of publishing these days that authors are expected to maintain a website and participate in social media. I don’t have a rule of thumb for precisely how much time writers should spend on promotion, but I will say that by no means should it interfere with your writing schedule. Your book is always your first priority. If working social media comes easily to you and you can tweet and blog and update Facebook every day and you can still deliver a great book on time, then go for it. But if you’re agonizing and spending too much time thinking about what you’re going to post to the point it takes away from your work—or if you’re having so much fun on social media that you’re “forgetting” to write—then it’s time to step back a bit.
As noted, your clients can’t say enough good things about you. Gregg Hurwitz even dedicated his Thriller Award–nominated novel THE SURVIVOR to you. How does it feel to have such a close connection with your writers?
I am so touched and honored that Gregg dedicated that book to me. I strive to have a close connection with all my clients. Publishing is a business of course, and my job is to make the most of that business for the people I represent, but it’s also built on relationships and on a lot of heart and soul, in addition to trust. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the personal aspect of our business is greater than in many others. It’s part of what makes me want to be in this business.
What do you read in your spare time—assuming you have any spare time?
I do try to squeeze in some personal reading when I can, usually on vacation. I’ll read suspense, literary fiction, women’s fiction and some non-fiction, particularly memoir.
Any hobbies or things you like to do outside of work?
I love to travel and look forward to visiting places I haven’t been. On weekends, I’ll keep it local but try to get outside with my family as much as possible: hiking (year-round, even in the middle of winter), biking, kayaking, swimming.
- Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted - February 28, 2017
- Far From True by Linwood Barclay - March 31, 2016
- Between the Lines Interview with New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lynds - December 30, 2015