Weekend Interview: Jim McCarthy, Literary Agent


This week in the League lounge, my very own agent, Jim McCarthy of Dystel and Goderich Literary Management. We'll be tackling all the tough issues, from ghost writing for reality TV pseudo-celebs to author whoring, from query letters to the state of urban fantasy. Won't you join us by the fire? Grab a cocktail and hang in the conversation pit.

First off, let's get something straight--our readers have to know--when are we approaching Tiffany Pollard, TV's "New York" about a tell all biography (I'll ghost write, obviously)?


This is assuming we haven't already...

When people ask me who my dream client is, I say it's Mark Henry. Then I chuckle and say, "No. Really, it would be New York from "I Love NY." Because she's the greatest thing in the universe, right?

On a slightly more serious note, our readers are aspiring writers themselves, what's your best advice for getting noticed in that pesky query letter--a concept as high as Deliverance meets My Pretty Pony, perhaps?

Oh lord. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's the movie pitch. Primarily because it's usually done so poorly. "If Dan Brown read MADAME BOVARY while shrooming, and 2001: A Space Odyssey was playing in the background..." The real key to a successful query letter is to get the point across succinctly. I go through a query pile twice. The first time is to purge the obvious passes. These account for those who open with grammar or spelling mistakes, have sent something for the wrong genre, have addressed the letter to the wrong person, or whose grasp of the English language is virtually nil. You might be surprised to know that's about three quarters of the pile.

Then I go back through the stuff that made the cut, and I read each letter to the end. Only about once a year does something immediately grab me from a query. If that happens, I immediately get in touch with the author to ask for the manuscript as soon as possible. Those very rare moments happen when the story sounds fresh and interesting, the tone of the letter expresses the tone of the book, and in those three or four very simple paragraphs, there is a preponderance of evidence that the author is a great writer. More often, things fall into the "could be something" pile. Once there, I'm likely to skim the sample pages, try to figure out if there is anything like it on the market, and sometimes make the call that it sounds more up a co-workers alley.

How do you stand out in a good way? Write a good letter and check it for spelling and grammar. We're nerds! We will judge you for your funky punctuation. And try to capture the spirit of what's exciting about your book. Convey your own passion for the material without egotism. Or, best of all, make me laugh.

Without starting a panic here--CALM DOWN PEOPLE!--what's the state of urban fantasy in the marketplace?

Good news/bad news. It's rock solid...for now. Urban fantasy is one of those genres that was kicking around for ages and then suddenly became the go-to category. Suddenly, some people are all, "Would you reconsider if I added a werewolf to my epic Civil War novel?" Um...no.

The result is this crazy proliferation of deals for new urban fantasists. Some of the stuff is brilliant. Some isn't. The point is, the market is getting a bit glutted, and it seems possible that there will be a degree of backlash. Look at chick lit. That was a veritable boomtown for a few years, and then it collapsed on itself. The best authors still have successful books (Jane Green, Jennifer Weiner, etc.), but new projects aren't selling unless they're genius. Could it happen here? It might. Depending on how many publishers jump on the bandwagon and whether that wagon will support the weight. As more and more is published, the competition gets all the more severe. So hurry up and beat other folks to the punch, or make sure you write something brazilliant.

I think we'll both agree that the upcoming zombie comedy HAPPY HOUR OF THE DAMNED, by some debut novelist, is going to push some buttons when it hits the streets in early March. Is anyone really prepared for what's about to be unleashed?

Buttons may very well be pushed. There will likely be a lot of, "Oh no, he di'int!" So some debut novelist and I will have to keep our fingers crossed that someone huge gets offended by it, the controversy hits the front page of every newspaper, and sales explode all over the place. I'm rooting for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to take a break from movie reviews (no, I'm not making this up: http://www.usccb.org/movies) and take the time to give Happy Hour an "O-Morally Offensive" rating. But that may just be me. (Also, way to sneak in something self-serving Mr. Henry!)

Yeah, on that. I'm taking a cue from Anton. So...I've seen your office and there are stacks of loose paper teetering everywhere. I was frightened. With so many manuscripts around, have you embraced your relationship with paper cuts?

I hear all these rumors of paperless offices and how technology is going to clear our desks and blah, blah, blah. That's so not what we're about. Al Gore weeps for the forests we have quite probably caused to be clear-cut solely for our own purposes. On most, if not all days, there are between 500 and 1,000 pages of reading material in my messenger bag. Yeah. I know paper cuts well. The only thing we go through faster than paper is Band-Aids. Yeah, I bleed for you bitches. Remember that.

Most people see agents primarily as negotiators of book deals; how much of your work is actually editorial input, career guidance and psychotherapy for unstable author types?

It varies so much depending on the client, really. I mean, ideally I am doing all of those things for my clients. Some people need more career guidance than others, though. And some are great writers who need a lot of editorial advice. Lord knows, some need a lot more psychotherapy than others. It's not unusual to have someone cry on the phone. Ideally, there's a give and take throughout the agent/client relationship (not like THAT!). We're in the business of representing writers, not representing specific books. Sure, the negotiating of deals is a big part of what we do, but beyond that, we stay in the process throughout the writer's entire career, helping them make decisions on what to do and when, navigating the murky waters of publishing's accounting processes, working on subrights deals, and being there when the author needs to scream or cry to/at someone who isn't going to hang up on them.

People always want to know what to expect from an agent, but what do you expect from your authors?

I want my authors to be as blunt as humanly possible. There's nothing worse to me than suddenly springing something on me, whether it's, "But my dream was to be published by someone else," or "I really thought I would get more money," or "I always expected that you'd be in touch more often during the submission process." Agents, by and large, have very thick skins. We can handle most anything an author can throw at us. But if things are held back, or feelings spared, there's no way we can go back in time to undo and redo anything. If you took that $30K deal, you can't tell me that you only wanted to do the book for $50K. It's too late. I don't want to know two years down the line that you never liked the cover of your first book. Also, the relationship between agent and client is a very personal one, and it needs to be established from the ground up every time. I don't have the same relationship with each and every one of my clients by any shred of the imagination. Different people need different things. I want to be kept entirely in the loop as to what an author is going through and needs from me and is expecting, etc.

Black Friday is coming up (or just happened as is the case), what do you want for Christmas, or better yet, what would make you fly off the handle? That one item that would gross you out to the point that you'd have to seek out the nearest Santa impersonator for a square groin kick?

What I want for Christmas:
A #1 NYT bestseller
A seven figure deal
Cold hard cash
An endless supply of Diet Coke, that nectar of the gods

What I don't want for Christmas:
Another DA VINCI CODE knockoff
Feetie pajamas
The deluxe edition of Showgirls on DVD


Okay, that's a total lie. I would LOVE the deluxe edition of Showgirls. "I'm not a stripper, I'm a dancer!"

...Ohhh. Poor Nomi...any last words for our League of Reluctant Adults readers?

I could close on some shiny, happy sentiment about how I believe the cream rises to the top, and great fiction will always get published as long as you stay determined, and so on and so on. But all that kind of optimism makes my skin itch.

Me, too, Jim. Me, too. Thanks for stopping by.

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