Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Chasya Milgrom addresses "personal taste"

It’s a tricky thing, this book business. The idea that books and business could even be combined struck me as paradoxical when I first began as an intern here over a year ago. Now, as the newest full-time member of Dystel and Goderich, I find that most people are as confused as I once was whenever I try to explain to them exactly what it is that we do. Those who are not writers and are unfamiliar with the publishing industry are often unaware that literary agents even exist, and don’t quite understand our role in the industry. I am often asked such well-meaning questions as, “So, you guys, like, publish stuff, right?” or “What books have you published?” The way I try to explain it is that we’re sort of like Hollywood agents – except that we represent writers and book projects. “Ohhh,” they respond, as that wave of confusion passes them by. “So,” they continue, “umm, how do you choose who to represent?” Excellent question.

I found myself asking that same question as those first queries started flowing in, and it is still something I think about all the time. How, in this fickle and often highly subjective business, do we decide what is deserving of our time and efforts? Do we simply hold fast to our own personal taste, even if that taste can be fairly limited? I, for instance, enjoy quirky literary fiction/narrative nonfiction (a` la Dave Eggers, Nicole Krauss, and David Sedaris) but to look for only those types of projects seems incredibly restrictive, and besides, there are plenty of amazing books just waiting to be discovered in other genres. It is unfair to brush these categories aside entirely, just because I didn’t read them in the past.

I quickly learned that reading for work and reading for pleasure are two different things. In a field where creativity and craftsmanship are paramount it’s important to keep an open mind – so I was going to do just that. And so, armed with this new perspective, I set out to search my query letters for projects that were fun, or engaging, or smart (or preferably all three!) and, of course, well-written; queries that had that je ne sais quoi, regardless of what genre they fell into. What I found was that it is just as exciting to spot something that you think sounds fantastic, in an area outside your expertise. A couple of months ago, when a paranormal romance query came my way, I thought the idea sounded great – something that one of our agents, Jim McCarthy, might really love. I passed it on to him, and lo and behold, he was really excited about it, and contacted the author. It felt like I had won some strange sort of lottery.

I’ll be honest, it can be hard to really get excited about something you just have no passion for, and I can’t say that I still don’t gravitate toward quirky literary fiction. But in poring over query letters in so many different genres, I am learning to recognize what may appeal to other people, and trying to develop the all important “eye” for good work in many areas of commercial fiction. And, if I really think a project sounds wonderful, but not really my thing, I do what I did with the paranormal romance query -- something that we all do around here -- and pass it along to another agent who truly does enjoy works in that genre. Because, let’s face it, at the end of the day you are going to want an agent who is as passionate about your work as you are.


  1. The type of information you put in this blog is, I think, exactly what’s needed for people like me who are looking to send query letters to agents like you. I’m compiling a list of helpful links for aspiring writers at http://www.litmocracy.com/forums/viewforum/20/. Would it be okay if I add a link to your blog there, or do you have suggestions for other useful links?