Many thanks to Miriam Altshuler of the Miriam Altshuler Literary Agency for taking the time to sit down with us and answer some questions about her experience as an agent.
Miriam Altshuler established her own agency in 1994 and was an agent at the Russell & Volkening Literary Agency for twelve years prior. She represents literary and commercial fiction, as well as non-fiction. We asked her what it’s like to work with new authors, the importance of social media platforms, as well as for some advice about queries. There’s some great info here for new authors, especially those who are looking for agents.
Take a look…
First of all, how did you become an agent?
I have always loved reading and working with people. When I finished college in the early 80’s I did not know much about the world of literary agencies, but knew I wanted to work in publishing with books and writers. So when I moved back to New York City and was looking for a job, I was fortunate to talk with someone who suggested I work at a literary agency and use my skills working with people and as a lover of books and reading. I applied for an assistant job at an literary agency, got the job, and after being an assistant for a couple of years, I became an agent. The firm was Russell & Volkening, and I had the pleasure of working with such amazing writers as Anne Tyler, Eudora Welty, Bernard Malamud, Barbara Tuchman, May Sarton and many others. The list goes on and it was an incredible introduction to both literature and the joys of working with such talented writers.
What types of books and authors do you most enjoy representing? Aside from the specific genres listed on your site.
I love literary/commercial fiction and narrative nonfiction, and young adult and middle grade fiction. In fiction, the characters and voice are particularly important to me, as well as the writing. In nonfiction, I have come to see that all the nonfiction I represent has to have real heart. It needs to matter in some concrete way and help to make a difference. With children’s books, I want to read books that I wish I had when I was a child. The world of YA literature has opened up so much. I represent Walter Dean Myers (our National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature) and his books really touch his readers and make a difference in their lives. YA and middle grade can be sweet or edgy but it is the message and the heart that really makes a difference to me.
Over the course of your career have you represented any first-time authors? If so, could you describe a project or two?
Yes, quite a number. I love finding new writers and selling their work. Working with first-time writers to help build their careers is a particular thrill for me. Many of the authors I work with are first-time authors (or were, when I took them on!). I just sold an amazing debut novel by Maya Lang to Whitney Frick at Scribner, entitled The Sixteenth of June. It is the story of a young woman and her relationship to a wealthy Joyce-obsessed family living in Philadelphia.
For first time authors, the querying process can be daunting. Do you have any advice for those currently shopping their work? (For example, what common mistakes do you see. I know this is broad, but what makes a query successful in your eyes?)
This is a BIG topic and one I can go on and on about. I talk a lot about this at the writers’ conferences I attend. I will try to answer in a manageable length but this is an area that I wish new writers understood and paid more attention to. It would help them — and agents — a lot. First of all, email has allowed writers to send out queries much more easily and cheaply, and in larger numbers. I get somewhere around 300 queries a week. It is a full time job to go through these. It is inevitable that agents miss a lot because of the sheer number. It would help greatly if writers researched each agent before sending them a query. The number of queries would go down by at least a half (if not more) if I did not get queries for books it is clear from my query guidelines on my website that I do not represent.
Try to personalize your query. I promise this will help make you stand out in an agent’s eyes. Maybe you like a writer or book I represent, you heard me at a conference, I was recommended by another writer or editor, or you visited my website and researched the kinds of books I represent. Something to set you apart. I am definitely more willing to read a writer’s query (and hopefully their manuscript) if I know I am not a generic submission and they are coming to me for a reason.
Write a good and thoughtful query and PROOFREAD it. I know this sounds obvious to some, but so many queries and manuscripts come with so many mistakes. I think many agents shy away from letters that are not well written or have mistakes. If a writer cannot write a good query, then chances are their book will not be any better. All agents have limited reading time, and I am much more prone to read the manuscript of someone who can write a great and thought provoking query. Another piece of important advice is that authors should check every agency’s website for their submission guidelines before submitting their work. Agencies have different guidelines for submitting queries and ask to see different materials, and it is best to follow each agency’s request precisely or agents may dismiss your query. For example, we ask for a cover letter and the first chapter of a manuscript pasted into the body of an email (many agents will not open attachments because of virus concerns). Agents may not want to have an email with a person to ask for material that person should have sent in the first place had they read through the guidelines.
Many first time authors aren’t sure what to expect from an agent interested in their work. Can authors expect to receive editorial feedback from you on their manuscript? How important is this process to you?
I believe most agents will help on the editorial side, though some more than others, and this can be part of the discussion with an interested agent. Some books need more work than others, so it is important to bring this up early when talking with a prospective agent, and make sure you are both on the same page in terms of the work that needs to be done. Discuss with the agent how much work they expect and how involved the agent will be. It is important for writers to ask questions and understand how the relationship will work with an agent. Agents can work differently and it is important to understand the relationship before signing on with anyone.
Working with a writer is very important to me, but I need to know that they have realistic expectations of what is necessary. Sometimes a number of drafts are necessary and I want to make sure the author is willing to commit until the work is ready to be submitted, and I know they want to make sure that I share their vision for the work that needs to be done. A book, whether it is a novel, memoir, or a nonfiction proposal, needs to be as finished as possible to sell, so it is a very important part of the process and of the author/agent relationship.
How important is a writer’s platform to you? Does online presence (social media, websites, etc.) make a difference in the success of a book? Or perhaps more specifically, in an authors ability to land an agent?
To me the writing is and will always be the most important thing in taking on a writer, but with that said, a writer’s platform is very important, especially in nonfiction. A nonfiction writer has to have a platform in the field they are working and writing about, and social media is a must. With fiction it can help, but it is also very important that a new fiction writer has sold stories to reputable reviews and magazines and is working to build up a readership. If a writer does not have a social media presence or following, I do want to make sure they have the interest and understanding to begin the process and to have a presence as soon as possible. It is an integral part of the publishing process and I want to know they are willing to participate in it.