Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Q&A Round 4 by Jane Dystel

I am delighted to contribute my answers to some of your questions and hope these will be of help:

Question: “Is it a death knell if your agent takes longer and longer (weeks or no response at all) to answer questions or e-mail? At what point do you bring it up and say , Hey, have you lost your passion for my book, or are you just a poor communicator?

This is a difficult question for me to answer because I try to be responsive to all the queries from my clients in a timely manner. If I am having trouble selling a project of theirs then we talk about it, and together we try to find a way to fix the project we are trying to sell or go on to the next project. And sometimes, rarely, but sometimes, we might decide that the client would be better served with other representation, and we tell them that. Not returning calls or e-mails only makes people frustrated and angry. In my opinion, this is also incredibly unprofessional and I have had numerous conversations with editors about the fact that no matter what they have to say about one of my projects, I need my calls and/or e-mail returned responsibly. One piece of advice I would give any client of any agent is to make sure, before hiring the agent, that communication is open and prompt. There is nothing wrong with telling a prospective agent that this is important to you.

Question: “What’s the best way for an unpublished writer to express that they have honed their craft and are serious about it? Or do you care only about the manuscript in front of you, not whether the writer is working on something else/developing ideas?

I very much care about the work and the writing. I also care about an author’s background, education and qualifications. I am also interested in knowing if the writer is developing other work. But, I really only want to consider one project at a time, and if the writing isn’t there, then no amount of qualifications or an interesting background or even future projects is going to matter.

Finally, one of our very own clients, Heather Brewer is curious as to what a day in the life of our agency is like.

Well, Heather, one of the reasons why I love our business is that there are many days when pure serendipity occurs, and that’s what we wait for. Here though is what many of our days look like (from my point of view)

I arrive at my office between 7:30 and 7:45 AM. Every day that I am in the office and don’t have an outside early morning meeting, I meet at 8:00 with Miriam to discuss certain things the two of us have been working on together, staff matters, upcoming projects and/or future planning.

At 8:30 we have a staff meeting where I ask each member of the staff questions about projects and where they ask me questions they have about things they are working on. Sometimes these meetings are quite short; they can go on at other times as long as half an hour to 45 minutes.

The first thing I do after the morning meetings are over is follow up on various proposals I have out on submission. This can last most of the morning, although almost every morning I have a meeting with somebody from outside – a client who is in town or someone we are interested in representing; sometimes, it’s a publisher from abroad or a movie producer or co-agent from LA.

Lunch is usually with a client or an editor. If the latter, I learn more about what he or she is doing, is interested in seeing, and I tell them about projects I am excited about.

In the afternoon I spend time closing deals, hopefully, answering e-mails and phone messages. I am in the office until 6:30 or 7:00 every day.

After I have had dinner with my family, I either read and edit a non-fiction proposal, write submission letters and put together submission lists or review contracts. On Fridays, when I do not go into the office, I read fiction manuscripts.

Of course, the others in our office might do things differently, but I would guess not much. This is the routine of a literary agent. Heather, I do hope this helps. Thank you for asking.


  1. Jane, I'm amazed at how much you all can cram into a day. Thank you so much for the glimpse!

  2. This might seem like a silly question, but how much time would you expect an author to spend writing a novel of, say, 10,000 words? Six months? A year?

    Someone once said that a writer who spends years on a book is most likely spinning her wheels and wasting her time; that from six months to a year would be a more reasonable period of time even if there were a lot of research involved. Obviously there is no one set answer; writers go at different speeds, and I realize that there are all sorts of mitigating factors. But I'd still like to know your take on this, given that you work with hundreds of people who produce books on a regular basis.

  3. This opportunity to post questions has been a wonderful idea!
    Jane, I'm wondering how important word length is on the average. Also if a novel comes from an author who has not graduated from college, though I'm currently pursuing a degree in English Literature would you or your colleagues be likely to take on the project. Perhaps, a literary novel since that is my own area of focus.

  4. Thank you for showing us what goes on at the other end. I wonder how often serendipity strikes for you?
    And how often do you get excited about a work from a first time book author?

  5. Jane,

    Thank you for your answers! I was especially excited to see more of the day of an agent.

    I know that a lot of agents hire readers, but I was thrilled when you mentioned on Fridays you read manuscripts. Is this how all of the agents at Dystel work, or do you occasionally hire readers to read the fulls you request?

  6. I can't, unfortunately, read through the blue font--hurts my eyes. Maybe I need to turn down my monitor, but I'd just thought I'd let you know.

  7. I agree about the blue font. maybe it's just this computer, but a light background with dark type would make this blog a lot easier to read.


  8. Okay already, I say uncle! Change the blue font, must be payback for all the single-spaced, 10 point font mss you guys get. Great blog, though. Thanks

  9. Guys, just highlight the blue print by left clicking and then dragging your mouse. It shows up white with dark blue background.

  10. Mary.... fyi..... the average person takes 3 - 5 years from writing to publication. But there are always exceptions.

    One best seller that's currently on the charts took 6 months to write. Another 9 months from acceptance to publication.

    But then Lovely Bones took ten years and had many revisions. Similarly, most of the books that I'm seeing work shopped were started at least three years ago.

    And 10,000 words? Aim for 50,000 - 70,000. This gives you enough raw material to play with when you go for your final draft.

  11. I have talked to several other authors lately and they said they had to write up to eight novels before they finally had one published. When they were published, the previous novels they had written were then published as well.
    What has been your experience on this?

    Johnny Ray

  12. Click above on "Show Original Post" and you'll get friendly black font on white.

    I agree about the blue font being difficult to read.

    Thank you for the wonderful post!

  13. Eek -- I've just revisited this blog and spotted my error.

    I meant 100,000 words, Kanani. Math is not my strongest subject; clearly, even decimal points and extra zeroes present a challenge.

    And thank you, Ryan Field and Mr/Ms Anonymous, for that tip about clicking on the post and dragging to get a color change for font and background. You've just saved me a world of headaches.

    Truly, I live and learn.

  14. Beautiful job! absolutely marvelous.

    One question pops out - why don't agents list the novels that editors are looking for. For example, I have four in the stable and am never sure which to query in any year. (I write each in nine or ten months)


  15. I'm not sure other people have the same problem, but I cannot read the bright blue type against the greenish background. It hurts my eyes.

    I had the same problem with another agent's website. She used a bright pink background and light text on that. Yeow.

    Research says that the easiest type to read is black on a white background -- sort of like the printed page!

    Just an FYI.

  16. Wow.

    It's terrific that you are so dedicated, but when do you get a chance for some downtime?? You know ... fun?

    Time off is important.


  17. Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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