Today, I’d like to introduce Beth Miller, assistant to Robin Rue at Writers House, a literary agency. She’s gone from a B.S. in biology to an M.A. in literature and has been working with WH since February 2007.
From Beth's bio: “I have a long-standing fascination with the sea, and went to college with the intention of studying marine biology. About halfway through, I switched to general biology, and graduated with a B.S. in Biology from Southampton College of Long Island University. Not knowing what to do after I graduated, I entered a teaching certification program, where I quickly discovered that I had absolutely no desire to teach. I gave that up and worked in a bookstore for awhile before landing a job at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as a DNA Sequencing Technician. That position lasted for 7 years, during which time I went back to school, earning my M.A. in Literature from Queens
College, CUNY, in December 2006. I began working as an assistant at a literary agency in February 2007. I absolutely love it here, so much so that the 7 years at the lab are barely even a memory.”
Now, on to our interview:
Even though editorial and agent assistants are paid so little, I'm amazed at the high caliber of people who take these jobs. Publishing is one of the only industries where the apprenticeship system is still in force. Agents and editors virtually always come up through the ranks, starting as minions who learn on the job. What drew you to abandon a solid technical job for the whacky world of publishing? What are the good and bad points of your current job? (window photo from www.WritersHouse.com)
After a number of years at the lab, I had begun to realize that there wasn’t much room for advancement there. It was a comfortable place to be, and I liked my coworkers very much, but there was nowhere to go. My folks were urging me to go back to school, and I decided to go for an M.A. in Literature, because I had always loved reading and writing, and the thought of going for a Ph.D. in science made me ill. <G> I wasn’t sure what I’d do with the degree once I had it, as teaching had never been something I was particularly enamored of either—at least on the high school level. I started scoping out publishing jobs after an editor came to my writing group’s monthly meeting, and within about a week I was interviewing with Robin. And within a few days after that, I was giving notice at the lab. It was one of those “meant-to-be” kinds of things.
One of the things that drew me to
Robin (and vice versa) was that when I went for my interview, I gazed open-mouthed at the book covers on her wall, and when I got my voice back, I said, “I’ve read that…and that… and I love that… and oh my God, you work with…!” So I have been a fan of Robin’s authors for years and years, and when I get to talk to them on the phone, or email them, or even meet them, I’m like a giddy fangirl.
(Pat note: Mary Jo and I are two of Robin's many authors, so Beth is one of our favorite people!)
The thing I like the least is when we have trouble selling manuscripts we love. There is nothing I hate more than telling a client that we received a turn-down. You’d think that once
you’ve landed an agent, it’s in the bag, but sometimes it isn’t. But I’m determined that come hell or high water, we’ll find homes for these manuscripts!
How do you sort through the slush pile? By date? Color of paper? <G> Topic?
As the slush comes in, I open it and glance at it to make sure it’s not a referral or some other form of VIP. Then I put it aside until I have time to really look at it. I try not to let it build up too much, and I would say that usually, I reply within 2 weeks to a month.
How often have you found a manuscript worth taking on?
Since I started here in February, 2007, we’ve taken on 3 unpublished authors whose manuscripts we both adored. All Young Adult, by the way. There have been maybe 6-10 more manuscripts I have shown to Robin that unfortunately weren’t for her. But out of those, I know some of them have found agents and even have publishing dates (I lurk on various writers’ forums—amazing what you learn from them!), so it makes me happy to know that these authors are finding homes, and that my own sense of what’s good is on track.
You work at the grass roots level of publishing. What materials are you seeing most (pubbed or unpubbed)—paranormal, suspense, anything new or interesting? Are historical settings broadening yet?
We get a lot of YA—and I have to say, that YA has been the genre in which I’ve found the most manuscripts that I’ve liked and shown to Robin. I think that the genre is so wonderful—there’s great fantasy and edgy contemporaries, and I love to read it. In fact, when I go to bookstores now, I usually find myself spending the most time (and money-sigh) on YAs. There’s also a LOT of paranormal romance. We get a lot of fantasy and thrillers, too. I’m not really sure about historicals.
What have you heard about the industry in general? Are the publishers trying new things in this dismal market?
This is so hard to answer. I think for unpublished authors it’s very difficult now. But if the author has a great voice and a story that stands out from the others, they have a good chance of finding a home with a publisher.
What’s hot and what’s not?
Not sure about this one… I think paranormal romance is hot, and paranormal YA as well. Beyond that, not sure.
Are you accepting clients of your own? Or is publishing like making sausage–something that one doesn't want to know too much about? <G> Would you like to become an agent? If so, what kinds of books would you like to handle?
Ok, the sausage analogy just made me a little queasy. <G> I am not yet accepting clients of my own. Although I had never before considered being a literary agent prior to getting this job, I think it’s a fascinating career. I love listening to Robin on the phone—no matter whether she is talking to an editor or an author, she always seems to know the right thing to say. I am trying to learn all I can, so that when I do reach the point at which I am ready to take on clients, I will hopefully have something of a clue as to what to do.
I would love to work with the kinds of books I love to read, which would be romance, YA, fantasy, and thrillers.
Favorite non-client books/authors:
Anne Bishop’s The Black Jewels series, Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series, Sherrilyn Kenyon’s DarkHunters series, P.C. & Kristin Cast’s House of Night series, Lynn Kurland, Suzanne Brockmann, Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, Nora Roberts (especially her trilogies), Vince Flynn.
Query pet peeves:
People who don’t take the time to do some research before querying. For example, why are you sending your self-help proposal to someone who represents commercial fiction? It’s a waste of time on both sides.
Email submissions that are blasted out to every agent on the planet, especially ones directing me to check their website for more info. Similarly, don’t query every agent in the same company. We often help sort the mail, and we can see when the same person is querying every agent. If you get a turn-down from one, then you may feel free to try another.
Queries that come without a SASE or an email address for a reply (and please don’t use those tiny 3×5 envelopes!)
Queries that don’t include the title of the work being queried, or have it buried somewhere so that we can’t easily find it.
When authors who queried once before don’t mention that they’ve done so in their query. We have databases (and very good memories!)—tell us you queried before and have a new project!
For those of you who would like to know more about Beth’s daily job activities or the agency’s submission policies, check out her blog on the Romance Vagabonds. http://www.romancevagabonds.com/?p=1405 It’s wonderfully insightful and fun to read. Beth will be here today dropping in to answer questions–so have fun!