This week I'm going to be sharing some interviews with agents. These agents graciously agreed to answer my questions, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate their participation. I really enjoyed corresponding with them, and I enjoyed the answers they shared. I hope you'll enjoy them as much as I did!
Sam Morgan ~ JABberwocky Literary Agency
Sam is the right hand of darkness at JABberwocky. He is a native of Shelby, North Carolina and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a BA of Communications - Media Studies and Production. Before joining JABberwocky in late 2012, Sam worked throughout New York City as a television critic, pizza guy, and several other glamorous positions. He's an active nerd across all media, from British television (Doctor Who and Black Mirror), to video games (Injustice and Nintendo), to SF and fantasy novels (Prattchett, Adams, Gaiman), to college basketball (Go Heels, Go America). Sam is also active in the New York comedy scene at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater and making his own little rinky-dink videos in his spare time. He is ridiculously handsome, gut-busting witty, and prone to hyperbole.
1.What do you represent?
I mainly represent adult science fiction and fantasy. But I also have a strong interest in humor and commercial fiction. But my tastes are pretty limited in those last two, so I'm pretty picky. But with sci-fi and fantasy, I tend to enjoy every sub-genre in them so I'm far less picky there.
2.What are you looking for right now?
Good books! I know that seems like a cop-out answer, but it's the truth. I read a couple hundred queries a week and I'm looking for that book that immediately speaks to me on a deep level. Super interesting premise, cool characters, and a voice that just sings. My clients tend to write really fun books, I highly doubt they'll be winning any prestigious literary awards any time soon. But that's ok! We'll be hanging out in the bar having a better time anyway.
3. What made you decide to become an agent?
4. Why did you decide to work with your current agency?
I'll answer these last two questions together because my path to becoming an agent is very unusual. Truth be told, I had no idea what a literary agent was before I started working at Jabberwocky and when I started working at Jabberwocky, I had no intent on becoming an agent. I moved to New York City directly after college with no real direction. Worked a couple weird jobs for a couple years but then suddenly found myself with ample free time and a strong desire for a steady cash flow (read: unemployed). One of my really good friends from college had moved up to NYC a few months after me to start working at Penguin as a publicity assistant. He eventually caught the eye of our boss here at Jabberwocky and was offered a job as a foreign rights manager. After he had worked here for a few months they needed someone to come in and do some data entry, so he asked if I wanted to do it. I said yes, of course, I'd love... what's a literary agency do exactly? Anyway, I came in and started with data entry. Now, I had studied story structure in college, it's kind of my nerdy passion. And I happen to really be into science fiction and fantasy (though I didn't know it at the time, it sort of hit me how much of a nerd I am when I started working at Jabberwocky). And it just so happened that Jabberwocky was entering a phase of expansion. So combine all of that - the luck of the timing, happening to know a lot about editing and what makes good story structure, happening to really be into science fiction and fantasy and having a good eye for talent and talent development, and also happening to be really good at negotiating thanks to being third generation of lawyers - and I just happened to be a really good fit for Jabberwocky at the exact right time. I would not recommend trying to recreate my path though.
5. What is your favorite part of the job, and what is your least favorite part?
My favorite part is helping make people's dreams come true. When I get to call them and say I'd like to represent them, when I get to call and say that they have an offer on the table for a major publisher to publish their book, when I hold in my hands their book for the first time or spot it out in the wild - it's amazing. I get to help fulfill their lifelong goal. And I know how weird this will sound, but I kind of get to validate people. Like, it's a weird responsibility I know, but when I say "hey I want to represent you" it means I think they're worth being on the same book shelves as the greats and I know that'd make me feel happy as hell and I like making people happy.
The least favorite part is the exact opposite of that. I have to tell people no all of the time. I have to shoot down their dreams and it crushes me. Especially the sheer amount I have to do it. There's just not enough time for me to help everyone that wants me to help them and it sucks. But the absolute worst is when I see something that's good, sometimes even really good, someone writes a book that hits all the right notes, has a great voice, does everything perfectly... but it just doesn't connect with me. And I know I wouldn't be the right agent for it because I would just be going through the motions. I hate telling people that but I know they'll be ok cause there are a lot of agents out there and there will be one that connects with it perfectly.
6. Sometimes authors develop misconceptions about agents or the publishing industry as a whole. What is one misconception you feel is common, and what would you say to dispel it?
I'm not sure how common this is but I think people don't realize agents work FOR the authors. They're our boss at the end of the day. Sure we might know more about the business in the beginning stages of a debut author's career, but at the end of the day, if the author says no then we say no. We only work in an advisory role. So let that be a lesson - you control your agent, not the other way around.
7. What makes you connect with a character?
Voice. They feel real, it's the character talking to me, not the author writing the character.
8. Most authors have "Dream Agents". Do agents have "Dream Authors"? How would you describe your "Dream Author"?
At first I thought this sounded like something you'd answer in an online dating profile, but the more I thought about it, the more apt I thought that metaphor. The agent/author relationship is just that - a relationship. So my "Dream Authors" are the kind of people I like to hang out with. They're cool and chill and write some amazing stories. And it also means that I'll like working with/for you cause we're going to be in the trenches of publishing together and if you're kind of a jerk, it's not going to be worth it.
9. What makes a query letter stand out for you in such a way that you HAVE to request more pages?
For starters, that it follows my rules. I ask all query letters to be sent to a specific email address (querysam at awfulagent dot com) and that they include the first five pages included after the body of the query. No attachments. If they follow those three things, and the book is in a genre I consider, then we're off to a GREAT start.
But as for what takes a good query to one where I have to request more pages? Your voice should come through the query. I should be able to understand WHY you wrote this book. You've probably spent many, many, many hours writing this book, breaking social engagements, ignoring people, locked in a dark room hunched over a keyboard. I should be able to know instantly WHY you felt compelled to do this. I should know the premise, a couple of the main characters, and the overarching problem they're facing. It shouldn't overload me with information, it should tease me with the plot.
10. Is there anything that will make you automatically reject a query letter?
Like I said in the answer before, if you don't follow the rules (no attachments, specific query email, first five pages) then you get rejected instantly. If you don't include the first five pages, then you get deleted. I try to respond to everyone that queries (because I respect how much effort it takes to write a book and if you give me the courtesy of considering your book, I don't want to be rude and not respond) but if you don't even follow the basic rules then you get no response. I also don't consider books for audiences younger than adult (so no middle grade, no young adult, no picture books, no new adult) so if you send me that you get automatically rejected. There are other agents at Jabberwocky that know those genres and they ain't me.
11. What are some common problems you see in queries or manuscripts?
Too much information! I don't need to know everything. I just need to know the juicy bits. Keep it short, sweet, and simple.
12. What words of wisdom would you like to share with an aspiring author?
You're a writer, not a marketer. This I understand, which is why I ask for the first five pages. But you are going to have to know how to market yourself if you want to survive in this industry. One thing I've found that helps is if you read your query back to yourself like you're a movie trailer announcer. If it doesn't sound like something you'd hear in a trailer, you're not marketing it correctly.
13. What are some of your favorite books by authors you don't represent?
THE LAST POLICEMAN by Ben Winters. TAMPA by Alissa Nutting. CITY OF STAIRS by Robert Jackson Bennett. I wish I had more time to read non-client work though.
14. What is something you want authors to know about agents in general, or about you in particular?
The nature of my job requires me to be a really good arbiter of taste and because of the sheer volume of queries I get, I have to do this quickly. I know almost instantly if someone sends me something whether or not I'm going to be interested. Most of that is simple math - I wind up requesting less than 2% of everything that gets sent to me, and I wind up signing less than 1% of everything I request. So the odds are pretty good that I'm not going to be the agent for you. HOWEVER, this doesn't mean you aren't a good writer. It just means I'm not the right agent for you. And it also doesn't mean I'm some soulless bastard. I hate telling people no. I hate crushing dreams. But this is a business and it isn't personal. I don't like sending form rejections just as much as you don't like receiving.
15. The dreaded synopsis. How do you feel about it?
They're tough, but necessary. If you're looking for tips, this generally applies for fantasy and science fiction novels, but it can work for most books: Start big, give me the world that these characters inhabit. Next paragraph, give me some details about the main character, who they are, what their deal is. Next, move on to the problem they face and what they're going to do about it and who is standing in their way. Then end on the hook that'll compel me to keep reading. It's an art unto itself so don't slack on it.
16. What is something you absolutely DON'T want to see?
Well, I mentioned earlier that I'm not looking for young adult, middle grade, new adult, or picture books. But I still get people sending me that so I'll keep saying it.
However, there are some things that I keep seeing that feel a little overdone: fantastical police procedurals, I get at least five of those a week. Angels, werewolves, vampires, etc. Those kinds of mythical creature stories are a little overdone. I'm looking for something that uses new monsters or creatures or really uses these tropes in a super unique way - to the point that they barely resemble those creatures. People getting stuck in virtual reality, ancient gods in the modern world, people fighting stuff in a "dream world" or the "afterlife." I get those stories at least four or five times a week too. Your books are probably better than all of that, but you're fighting in a very crowded space. Why not fight in a unique world of your own?
A special thank you to Sam Morgan for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions!