Interview: Literary Agent Amy Boggs

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

amy-boggs-photoLiterary agent Amy Boggs is a sci-fi/fantasy geek who has been professionally geeking out over books at Donald Maass agency since 2009. She specializes in speculative fiction and is especially interested in high fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk (and its variations), YA, MG, and alternate history.

Her recent books include: Tom Pollock’s Our Lady of the Streets, the final book in the Skyscraper Throne series (urban fantasy); Thea Harrison’s Knight’s Honor, book #7 in the Elder Races series (paranormal romance); Jacey Bedford’s Empire of Dust, the first in space opera series.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Why get into agenting? Rather than writing or editing, or marketing or publicity, or publishing.

AMY BOGGS: I knew I wanted to get into the agenting side of the business after interning at an agency my sophomore year at college. Right out of college, I would have been very happy to have a job that touched publishing in any way, so I could have spent time in any division of a publishing house, but I knew agenting was my end goal because it combines many of my favorite things about the book business. You brainstorm with your authors and help them revise and negotiate fair contracts and fight bad covers and talk them into good covers they don’t particularly like and tell everyone you can about their fabulous books. I work solely for the author, because what benefits the author benefits the agency and me. I like that my job is purely championing my authors and their work.

 

How did you know as early as college that you wanted to be a literary agent?

Vassar College’s Career Development Office had a weekly newsletter they left in our mailboxes, and one day there was a notice for an internship at a literary agency. I had a vague idea of what agents did and thought it would be good experience. Once I got on the job, I knew it was what I wanted to do in my future.

 

How did you rise from intern to agent so quickly?

Did I? I think agent careers reflect author careers in that you can’t really say there is a typical timeline they’re supposed to follow. This varies by the agency, of course, but I did my first agency internship in 2005 and then interned at DMLA in 2008 (with jobs at two magazines in between) and then was hired as an agency assistant in 2009. Eight months later I found a brilliant author in my boss’s queries and he thought I should be the one to take him on. Two months later I signed my next client, and five months later I sold a three-book deal. I don’t know if that’s quick or slow or typical, but it happened very organically. I do know that I’m fortunate to work at an agency that encouraged my growth and has a few decades of experience to back me up.

 

Why so keen on sci-fi/fantasy?

I’ve always loved it. When I was three, I was obsessed with Scooby-Doo. Bruce Coville was my childhood. My pre-teen self couldn’t get enough of Unsolved Mysteries, but only the segments with aliens, UFOs, ghosts, and supernatural critters. The Princess Bride was my family’s first DVD. I played Legend of Zelda and read Harry Potter and wrote portal fantasy all through middle and high school. I’m not entirely sure why; I just find other worlds more interesting, and a better avenue for exploring the quandaries on our own world. Perhaps I’m the opposite of Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy; my mind works mostly in metaphors.

 

How do you size up whether an author is a good fit for you and a good fit for your agency?

99% of it is the manuscript; can’t do anything without a good manuscript. 1% is whether or not the author is a jerk. I have lots of authors and lots of excellent manuscripts coming my way and only a finite amount of time, so I’d prefer to spend it with cool people and not jerks. How do I determine if someone is a jerk? Well, if they’ve ever seriously blogged things like “I’m not racist, but†” or “I just happen to read only male authors.” then chances are I’m not the right agent for them.

 

When you read a manuscript, how do you tell when you’ve got a winner? Characters, plot, writing style? Current market? Or do you listen to your instinct?

All of the above. Intriguing characters fall flat with a monotone writing style, no amount of exciting plot can make up for characters that aren’t worth following, all the elements have to work together. All of those have to be doubly unique and amazing if it’s in a subgenre that’s recently been hot and now everyone’s sick of it. And instinct is really just a combination of all this and having read enough to know when something stands out. There is nothing quite like it when you’ve read 100 queries that day and one of them makes you sit up in your chair.

 

Do you get most of your new clients over the transom, through networking, or at conventions and workshop?

70% of my clients came to me through my queries. The rest are from recommendations from co-workers, clients, and even one from my mom (she is a children’s bookseller, so she knows her stuff).

 

How many manuscripts a year do you consider and what percentage do you accept?

I actually don’t have those numbers; when I check a manuscript off my list to read, I literally delete it off the list! But I would guess I consider about 100 manuscripts a year, and I end up signing about 2% of those. I wouldn’t say I accept them; when an agent offers representation, they are offering to partner with the author. So really what happens is both agent and author agree to a partnership.

 

Do you work with authors on revising?

Yes. I am pickier about the amount of revision I’m willing to take on (more clients equals less time for revising debut manuscripts), but I always want a manuscript to be as perfect as both the author and I can make it before it goes to editors.

 

Do you get involved on the publicity/marketing end?

I help where I can, but I am not a publicist. That’s a position that requires a particular set of skills, skills acquired over a very long career.

 

If you take on a new client, what kind of productivity do you expect? How many books a year?

That depends entirely on the client and the genre(s) they write in. In romance, anything less than one book a year isn’t enough. In literary fiction, one book every five years isn’t far out there. What I really want is for my authors not to feel overwhelmed and pushed into delivering inferior books. So far that hasn’t happened; publishing is more accommodating than one might fear.

 

Do you prefer an author stick with a series? Are stand alones trickier commercially? Or does it matter?

Again, depends on the author and genre(s). And really, it’s not about my preference, but what I advise to the author. It is their career and it is my job to make sure they are well-informed so that regardless of the choices they make, they won’t be sideswiped by the outcome.

 

Any subgenres you can’t get enough of? Any you get too much of?

High fantasy. Richly built, other-world high fantasy with fantastic characters I want to follow forever, like N.K. Jemisin, Megan Whalen Turner, Scott Lynch, Ellen Kushner. Most of the fantasy I get is tied to our world (historical, contemporary, urban, steampunk) and those are lovely, but I want more high fantasy. And it’s not so much that I get too much of any subgenre, but that I get things typical of a subgenre. Like portal fantasy where the protagonist is mystically taken to another land and the plot is their quest to get home. I want something new, regardless of subgenre.

 

What are the most common misconceptions new writers have about finding and working with literary agents?

1. Agents are gatekeepers. As cool and ominous as that sounds, it’s not true. An agent’s job isn’t to keep people out, it’s to find those they have the time and ability to help get published. Like I said above, it’s a partnership. Agents put out their information to say they’re looking for authors to partner with, writers pick which agents they want to reach out to partner with, agents decide which of those writers they think they could make a good partnership with, and writers decide whether or not they want to partner with the agent who offers. I know from a querying author’s perspective it can seem like agents have all the power here, but the thing is, we’re nothing without authors.

2. After you get an agent, things get easier. Ha. If only. No matter what level you’re at as an author, things are hard. Even that beloved author of multiple series has that major newspaper that trashes each book and faces the same blank page when they go to write their next book. It’s always hard, just different kinds of hard.

 

What are the most common manuscript mistakes new writers make?

1. Emulating books that aren’t debuts published within the last five years. Writing changes with society and readers have continually changing expectations for debut novels. Imitating Tolkien in a world that has had Tolkien’s books for 77 years is like trying to get people to invest in your new invention “the zipper.” We’ve already got that. Show us something new.

2. Transcribing literally what published novelists do subtly. I think this is why I get so many queries that start with the protagonist telling you the daily nuances of their life or a prologue that goes into detail about the world the book is set in. Novelists often get this information across subtly over the course of a novel, and by the end a reader knows ever detail intimately, so the impulse to start a book by describing the details is an understandable one. It’s just one that must be fought.

3. Going with the path of least resistance in writing. Writing is not easy, and so when plotting along, it’s tempting to go with the first thing that comes to mind. Often, however, the first thing to come to mind is something already seen in other books. It’s too easy to let inspiration become imitation become a clichÃ’ . Author Kate Brauning had a recent post about how she comes up with fresh ideas with “The Rule of Ten.” I think it’s utterly brilliant and challenges writers to question their gut.

 

Advice to new writers?

Be daring and be true. It will come across in your work.

 

Carl_eagle Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

The Best of Lightspeed (& Fantasy) Podcast

written by David Steffen

John Joseph Adams has been getting a lot of attention in recent years. He used to be the slush reader for Fantasy & Science Fiction, but has gone one to be the editor and publisher of Lightspeed, and of their horror sister Nightmare. He has also published quite a few themed fiction anthologies like The Living Dead, Wastelands, and By Blood We Live.

Fantasy Magazine has been around for quite a few years. Lightspeed is only a couple years old, started by Fantasy‘s publisher Sean Wallace and edited by John Joseph Adams. In 2011 John Joseph Adams became the editor and publisher of both, and chose to consolidate the two into a single magazine titled Lightspeed, but which contains the same amount of fantasy and science fiction stories that the individual magazines had carried. From the beginning Lightspeed has had a podcast that has broadcast all of their stories alongside the text publications. When JJA took over Fantasy, he started their podcast as well, but it only lasted 10 episodes before the merger absorbed Fantasy into Lightspeed.

So this is a “Best of” list combining all of Lightspeed‘s podcasted backlog, combined with the 10 Fantasy Magazine episodes in consideration as well.

 

1. The Way of Cross and Dragon by George R. R. Martin
Yes, Lightspeed has managed to attract some big household names like George R. R. Martin. This particular short story was published before I was born. But George is not on this list because he’s well known. These lists are based strictly on merit–I considered his story on the same grounds as everyone else. My #2 choice was very close to this story in my ranking, but this one edged it out because it is centered around my favorite topic for speculation–religion. This story is about a member of an intergalactic Catholic church in the future who is tasked with rooting out heretics in far-flung star systems. He is sent toward a particularly strange sect centered around Judas Iscariot.

2. The Old Equations by Jake Kerr
Based around a future civilization with quantum-based technology, which is an alternate future, based around a past in which Albert Einstein’s theories were dismissed as nonsense. In this future, one of the first interstellar trips at near-light speed is begun. Since they don’t understand the concepts of relativity, they have to figure out all those problematic details as they go. An interesting science problem, with a strong human story at the core of it. In some ways it reminds me of the excellent flash story “Deep Moves” by Bill Highsmith (which I cannot seem to find active link for, too bad)

3. The Taste of Starlight by John R. Fultz
Fair warning: This one will likely be too dark for many viewers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. A long-haul intergalactic trip with a crew in stasis goes wrong in mid-flight when the cryochambers become damaged and a crew member wakes up years too early. He can’t re-enter cryo, and he has to figure out a way to stay alive until the end of the flight. An entire colony’s survival depends on his technical skills, after all.

4. Using it and Losing It by Jonathan Lethem
A man who is sick of dealing with people enjoys a visit to a country where he does not speak the language because of the freedom from conversation it grants him. Returning home, he decides that he wants that freedom in the comfort of his own country, and he sets out to forcefully forget all language.

5. A Hole to China by Catherynne M. Valente
A very fascinating story in the age-old tradition of a child who finds a secret fantasy world. A girl sets out to dig a hole to China and finds hidden worlds beneath her backyard. Lots of great worldbuilding here, a lot of fun to read.

6. Mama, We are Zhenya, Your Son by Tom Crosshill
I always like a good story from a skewed perspective. This story is told from the point of view of a Russian child who is the subject of scientific experiments to see if he can be taught to move and manipulate objects on a quantum level. It’s a bit confusing at first, because the boy does not understand what is happening very clearly, but stick with it and it sorts itself out.

7. Transcript of Interaction Between Astronaut Mike Scudderman and the OnStar Hands-Free A.I. Crash Advisor by Grady Hendrix
“You are going to die,” are the first words from the OnStar crash advisor after crash landing on a planet. (don’t worry, that happens right away, that’s not a spoiler). This story is exactly what the title makes it sound like. Lots of fun, dark humor, and the ending is superb.

8.ÂÂ More Than the Sum of His Parts by Joe Haldeman
A man badly injured in an industrial accident is reconstructed with cyborg parts. The story begins as he is going through his procedures, and progresses as he becomes more and more familiar with his new superhuman abilities, and how they set him apart in every way from his fellow men.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Bubbles by David Brin

Dark Sanctuary by Gregory Benford

Four Short Novels by Joe Haldeman
“Eventually it came to pass that no one ever had to die.” A vague opening that could lead any number of routes to tell a good story. In this case, Joe Haldeman has taken this beginning and gone four separate ways for it. Generally these are very high level, often without individual characters, or I probably would’ve ranked this one higher, but it was very interesting, if not emotionally engaging. It’s illustrative of the concept of story triggers, wherein a single prompt can send four authors in four completely different direction, but with just one author involved.

Lessons From a Clockwork Queen by Megan Arkenberg
Generally this one is written a bit distantly for my tastes, but the ideas in it are good enough, and the writing is charming enough that I liked it nonetheless. It’s written as a fairy tale story about a clockwork queen, with fable-style morals sprinkled throughout.

Technology and Writing

Technology is constantly changing the way we do so many things, and writing is no exception. How exactly? I’ve broken down the answer to that question into a set of categories. Keep in mind that all of this is through my own perspective on writing, which has been primarily speculative fiction short stories.

Is there anything I’ve left out, related to any sort of writing? Leave a comment!

1. Revising/writing

a. Spell Check-Many would be lost without spell check. Many programs, including Microsoft Word, even do a spell check as you type, and immediately mark an incorrectly spelled word the moment you type it. The spell check program can suggest alternative spellings, provide dictionary look-up. Still, spell checks could be improved–if the program could recognize a name through context this would prevent a lot of false alarms. Word also comes with a grammar check, but that is less useful because its grasp of grammar rules is shaky at best.

b. Revise and print-You decided you want to add a new paragraph on page one of a five hundred page manuscript? Or you discovered that all of your pages need a 1.5 inch margin instead of 1 inch? No problem! All you need to do is open up the document in your word processor, make your changes, and it’s ready to print. If you wanted to do this with a typewritten manuscript, it would not be fun at all.

2. Backing up your work

Imagine that, after putting weeks, months, or years of work into creating a masterpiece of prose, you suddenly lose your only copy of your manuscript. You remember the major plot points, but you’ve lost all the little details, and all the beautiful sentence-level work. It’s a terrible thought! Well, these days, there’s no reason to lose all your work if you just take a little time to prepare. Email is a convenient way to back your documents up. Many email services provide large storage banks for each account. I have a Gmail account that I started for free that makes a great aid to backing up documents. While I’m working on a new document, I email myself every couple of days. If I ever lost my other copies, all I would need to do is dig up the saved email. In addition to that, if someone plagiarized your work in the future, the timestamp on the email could help prove that you had a work in progress of the story long before it was in print. In addition to email, it’s always a good idea to back up a file in several places, each at different physical locations (so that a disaster like a fire doesn’t destroy years and years of hard work).

There are even programs designed specifically to help you keep your stuff backed up. Anthony recommend Carbonite.

3. Learning the craft

a. Interaction with pro authors-When I was younger, professional writers seemed to be a race of distant and otherworldly beings that I could never hope to interact with, lest my head explode (like when humans hear the voice of God in some belief sets). But now that illusion has been mostly dispelled. Don’t get me wrong, I still admire my favorite writers greatly for the amazing worlds they’re able to pull seemingly out of nowhere, but it turns out that quite a lot of them are quite nice people, and I’m even pretty sure that some of them are at least mostly human. Lots of them have blogs where they freely give writing advice to anyone who’s interested in listening. David Farland, for instance, has an email blog called Kick in the Pants–you can sign up for it at his website. Dean Wesley Smith is another favorite, providing great advice on his blog, including ideas for self-motivation like The Race. I’ve even added quite a few of my favorite authors as friends on Facebook–I enjoy hearing their writing updates and hear when they’re coming through my area for book signings.

No single writing method works for everyone, so if David Farland’s advice doesn’t work for you, don’t be discouraged. Just keep trying different methods until you find something that really clicks. Check out the sites of a few different authors. At the very least, their perspectives are entertaining. And if you have any questions, drop a comment to one of them. Keep in mind that they’re busy, but it’s not at all rare for them to take some time to reply to questions or comments.

b. Peer critique forums-Once I decided to start writing I spent more than a year writing a novel, mostly in isolation. I had just a few people who were willing to give me feedback on my stories, but these people tended to be inclined to tell me that they really liked the story, but not tell me much else. This was good for my ego, but not so useful to improve my writing skills. After that year, I decided to start writing short stories, and while doing market research I came across Baen’s Bar, a peer critique forum that doubled as a submission vehicle for Jim Baen’s Universe. You can post a story to their forum, and it is available immediately for feedback from others registered on the forum. Staff members of JBU often gave their comments, as well as other aspiring writers. Not only can you get feedback on your own work, many of whom are very experienced and have a good eye for picking out what’s missing in a story, but you can critique the writing of others. Of all the ways to improve your own writing, critiquing others is the best way, in my opinion. It allows you examine the stories of other aspiring writers and examine them with a cold eye without any emotional attachment to the story. You can decide what you like and what you don’t, and the real trick is to learn how to apply this to your own writing.

Jim Baen’s Universe will be closed as of mid-2010. There are no official plans to close Baen’s Bar critique forum, and the newsgroup it exists on will probably still need to be maintained for Baen’s Books and the Grantville Gazette magazine, so i hope the venue is around for a good long time.

c. Easy sharing-If you want to share a copy of a story with a friend, all you have to do is drop them an email. It’s free, and it’s quick, and a great way to share your work for feedback or just for fun.

d. Autocrit-Autocrit is a subscription-based service which provides automated tools to help watch for trouble spots in your manuscripts. It can look for potential flaws such as overused words and phrases, cliches, and overused dialogue tags. No tool is the end-all be-all of revising your manuscript, but this tool in combination with other techniques and tools can make a big difference.

4. Research

The effect of the Internet on research is obvious. Anyone with Internet access has nearly endless banks of information at their disposal, but one must always keep the source in mind. Wikipedia, for instance, is good for finding quick, interesting information, but because it is created by users, information provided there may not be correct. If a writer decides to write a story about doppelgangers, a quick Google search can provide a plethora of information in a fraction of a second.

5. Market info

1. Sites like Ralan provide submission information for a wide variety of publications.Â

2. Most markets have submisions page which describes exactly what they’re looking for, including any special formatting they require, required length, and preferred themes. Be sure to check out this page each time you send out a story to that market. You never know when some of their requirements will change. Many markets close to submissions from time to time, also, and it’s best to check here to be sure the market is still open as well.

6. Electronic submission/staff interaction

a. Save money-It costs nothing to send an email. That’s a major perk! Mailed submissions usually cost something like 2 dollars domestic within the US, including the SASE, and that’s not including the envelopes or the printing costs. Email submissions cost nothing. When you’re just getting started, those postage costs add up fast!

b. Quick interaction-An electronic submission arrives nearly instantly, ready for perusal by the magazine’s staff. My record fastest response was only 47 minutes (from Fantasy Magazine). That one was an outlier, but a few magazines consistently respond within 24 hours such as Fantasy, Clarkesworld, and Podcastle.

c. Geographically separated staff-A magazine’s staff members no longer have to be located anywhere near each other. In many cases, staff members may have never met in person, but members can interact easily with technology like email and online forums. This makes it much easier to find staff members, if you have the entire net-connected world to filter for candidates.

d. Competition fiercer every day! A downside to the recent ease of submission is that when submissions are both free and easy, more and more people will try it, which means more competition!

7. New publishing mediums

Printed words (either in magazine or book form) are no longer the only way to publish fiction. In fact, print may be the hardest one to maintain profitability with, and is probably the hardest method to start a new magazine with. Even a few years ago, print publications were generally considered to be more prestigious, but minds are opening a little bit more every year. SFWA recognizes professional markets based on pay and the circulation level, regardless of the medium.

Both of my sales to date have been to non-traditional publishing formats.

a. HTML-text format on a website. This can be provided for free (like Fantasy Magazine or Strange Horizons) or on a fee-based system (like Intergalactic Medicine Show or Jim Baen’s Universe).

b. Podcast-I’ve recently discovered audio fiction and I honestly don’t know how I’ve done without it. I can load up many stories on my iPod and I listen to them every day on my commute. Now I look forward to driving to see what the next story is! My first fiction sale was to Pseudopod, so I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for podcasts. And, even better, audio rights and text rights often do not overlap, so there is a large potential for resales for audio markets, as they are providing a substantially different product.

c. Print on Demand-Even just a few years ago, POD wasn’t really a viable option. Nowadays, if you have a good idea for a book or an anthology, you can publish it through POD and if you can find the audience for it, you can really do well. POD is not as risky as doing a huge preprinted print run (the traditional method), because you only print copies of the book that you have already sold. This means that once you’ve covered your artist/design and other upfront costs, each sale holds a share of profit. This is particularly appealing if the level of interest is uncertain or expected to be low.

Northern Frights Press was the publisher for my second sale. This was NFP’s very first anthology, provided via POD. Despite it being POD the printing is of a high quality that you could find in any bookstore, and it’s available to order from Amazon just like any other book. I’ve been very impressed with POD so far.

d. E-books-E-readers like Kindle are just starting to gain more widespread popularity. For a small fee, you can download books right onto the e-reader. With this technology you can grab new books instantly for less than what you would pay at the store, and you can carry your whole library with you wherever you go. I’m not sure that they will ever replace real books entirely–there’s just something I love about holding a physical book in my hand, the smell of the pages, the feel of the binding–but there are a lot of advantages to e-readers.

8. Social networking

In decades past, writing was generally considered to be a pretty lonely profession. Long hours alone with your typewriter were the norm, making a writer feel isolated from the very world she’s trying to write about. But if you’re writing on a net-connected laptop, you no longer need to be isolated. The importance of social connections in writing cannot be understated. There are many forums focused solely on writing, some geared towards particular genres, and they’re a great place to meet fellow aspiring writers. You’re not the only one struggling to be published. Together you can celebrate your successes, console each other for your failures, swap critiques, discuss writing techniques, and maybe just unwind a little bit.

#8 is closely related to #9 and #10. Read on!

9. Self-promotion

This overlaps somewhat with social networking in methods and tools, but the intent is different. Rather than meeting people for the sake of meeting people, this is working to spread your work to as many people as possible. Site like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit work as very powerful promotional tools. With each of these you can share links with huge amounts of people with minimal effort, and they’re all free. Most of the hits for this article were probably generated by these tools. With a little careful promotional work, like book giveaways, traffic can be driven to your site to advertise your writing and help with name recognition.

10. Availability of distractions

The flip side of the coin of all these advantages is that with the whole web at your fingertips, distractions are easy to find. If you’re stuck on a story, staring at the word processing screen, it is far too easy to pop up Facebook to go read your friends’ statuses, to hop on an online forum to discuss True Blood vs. Twilight, or to go read (or write) a blog post about writing. Those things all have their time and place, but if you want to write, make sure you get your writing time in too!