The Long Game

Literary agent Matt McGowan of Goldin Lit represents Eula Biss. - peoplewhowrite

Literary agent Matt McGowan

My favorite nugget in New York Magazine editor Boris Kachka’s recent piece “How the Tiny Graywolf Press Became a Big Player” is this excerpt about the strategy behind author Eula Biss‘ rise:

Before she won multiple awards and wrote one of the Times Book Review’s top-ten books of 2014, the young poet Eula Biss tried to sell a book of essays to major publishing houses. “They were looking to push her into a more polemical voice,” says her literary agent Matt McGowan. Biss wouldn’t change her diffident, lyrical approach, and nothing came of it. Then she won a publication prize from Graywolf Press, a nonprofit outfit in St. Paul, Minnesota. After the resulting book, Notes From No Man’s Land, won a National Book Critics Circle Award, publishers were the ones doing the courting. “I could have easily sold On Immunity for more money,” says McGowan of Biss’s follow-up. Instead, “I made Graywolf do a little song and dance to make sure they were going to make this big.” They did, and Biss’s study of vaccination merited wide acclaim, strong sales, and another call from a commercial house — this time offering six figures for the paperback. McGowan declined: “Why change a winning team?”

Money is important, but most important thing to consider is the support your publisher will give you. In the end, meaningful backing from your publisher–and an agent who gets that–is worth more than money.

On Posthumous Publication and Wills

Steig Larsson and David Lagercrantz, The Girl in the Spider's Web - peoplewhowrite

Steig Larsson (l) and David Lagercrantz

What do you want to happen to your unpublished manuscripts and in-progress work after you die? It’s a macabre, but necessary thing to consider; something that’s been on my mind since a writer friend who had just completed his first novel passed on suddenly last month, and after reading of the protracted fight between the family of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy author Steig Larsson and his partner of 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson.

Most writers have unfinished stories, completed novels that they (or multiple agents/editors) feel unfit to see the light of day, and/or pages of notes filled with ideas about new projects. The constant rejection that comes with the profession makes many of us assume these writings have no value, but Larsson’s experience should be a lesson to start thinking very differently about our work and its worth.

Before he died in 2004 of a heart attack, Larsson had written the three volume series that became The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. He had signed a contract shortly before his passing, but left no instructions as to what should happen to his work in the event of his death, or who should be in charge. Tattoo met instant success when it was published in 2005, with Fire and Hornet’s Nest following in 2006 and 2009, respectively. The trilogy has since sold over 80 million copies worldwide.
The Girl With the Spider's Web_Penguin Canada_peoplewhowrite
As a new fourth book in the series was released last month, The Girl With the Spider’s Web written by David Lagercrantz, Larsson’s family–which received the rights to his estate because they were his legal next of kin–remains locked in a public battle with his girlfriend Eva Gabrielsson.

According to New York Magazine‘s entertainment blog, Gabrielsson, “who tried for years to negotiate with the Larssons (though she had no legal claim) and wrote a polemic memoir about their life together”, is among a group of Larsson’s close friends furious about Lagercrantz’s continuation of the series. Writer Boris Kachka says in his post, “Two of Larsson’s childhood friends… [called] the project ‘grave-robbery'”. Kachka added, “writers have chimed in to say they’d never do what Lagercrantz did, and would draft their wills more carefully.”

So what should be in a writer’s will? According to, writers should be as equally focused on the provisions in the contracts they sign, as they are in expressing their wishes in a legally binding will.

1. Be sure your agent does not use the phrase “agency coupled with an interest” in their agency agreements. If you have already signed such an agreement, ask your agent to release you–in writing–from these terms in writing.
“This is a bit of legalese intended to make the agency relationship irrevocable (again!). Ordinarily, a principal (you) may terminate an agent “at will” (or at the end of a contract term), and the agency also terminates automatically on the death or disability of the principal. This clause, however, grants the agent the exclusive, irrevocable right to represent your works for the entire term of those works’ copyright. This means that even if you terminate the agency, and the rights to your book revert back to you from the publisher, you are obligated to pay the agency a commission forever for all future sales, even if the agency did nothing to cause that sale. It could even mean you would be paying two agency commissions, which could amount to thirty percent or more. This also would apply to your heirs. Again, if you have such a clause in your agreement, you should ask your agent to give you a written release from its terms.”

2. Refuse an “interminable agency” clause.
“[S]ome literary agencies include in their agency agreements (or in the publishing contracts they negotiate) an “interminable agency” clause. Rather then limit their right to representation during the term of your agreement, such clauses grant the agent an exclusive, irrevocable right to represent your work for the entire term of those works’ copyright. The agency will be entitled to a commission on your work even after it goes out of print from the deal the agent negotiated, and a new publisher republishes it. After your death, your executor would have to keep track not only of which of your works are still under contract, but will also have to determine whether an agency has an interminable right to represent any of your out-of-print works. Your agency may merge, dissolve, or change names, providing more complications for your executor. If you have such a clause, you should ask your agent to give you a written release from its terms.

3. Appoint an executor who will fastidiously represent your work, and protect your legacy.
Your executor will be responsible for keeping track of which of your works are still under contract, and managing your estate’s relationship with your agent. Be sure to pick a person who is up for the job as the right executor will ensure that your heirs continue to receive what is rightfully theirs.

Make sure to consult an attorney for legal advice suited to your situation.

Rejection Letter: You Used *Tribal Language* So . . .

rejection letter_tribal language_peoplewhowrite
“[O]ther than this, it was actually pretty supportive,” the writer who submitted this recent rejection says.

If you have a rejection letter you want to share, email it to All identifying info will be redacted.

Rejection Letter: My Author *Might* Write a Book Like This, So . . .

rejection letter_my author might write a book like that so..._peoplewhowrite
Beginning today, I will be posting rejection letters past and present, some personal and some from writers who care/dare to share because they are as much a part of the experience of people who write as the hours we put in to sharpen our craft, develop a story or character, and promote our work. If you have a rejection letter you want to share, email it to All identifying info will be redacted.

Every writer gets rejected at one point or another, and though we accept rejection letters as part of the process, on our worst days they trigger not-so-latent insecurities, plunge us to the depths of a well of despair, and inspire petty and valid evaluations of the writers who do have agents, those who are published, and the fewer still who are hailed. On our best days, they sting like a colony of hornets.

This said, and personally experienced, what I’ve come to learn about rejections, is they are not only necessary to sharpening your work–if multiple agents/editors share the same opinion about a narrative choice, you might want to reexamine and decide whether it is as vital to your story as you originally believed–but they also reveal a lot about the rejector. Sometimes, the agent is saying ‘no’ because s/he doesn’t have the relationships or know-how to sell your work. Sometimes, the editor passes because s/he knows, for a host of professional and personal reasons, s/he won’t be able to gain the necessary consensus from her/his colleagues and superiors. Sometimes, the agent/editor is unable to “connect” with the story because it is alien from his/her own.

Regarding the connection issue, Lauren A. Rivera’s recent New York Times op-ed unpacks why people may not relate to each other using the lens of “cultural fit” in hiring scenarios. Rivera explains, “To judge fit, interviewers commonly relied on chemistry. …Discovering shared experiences was one of the most powerful sources of chemistry, but interviewers were primarily interested in new hires whose hobbies, hometowns and biographies matched their own.” As a result, of course, “Selection based on personal fit can keep demographic and cultural diversity low.” I believe, to a large extent, the same thing is going on, in addition to a litany of factors, when a cultural gatekeeper makes the call to acquire or pass on a manuscript.

Here’s a rejection I received several years ago, when I was first pitching my first novel Powder Necklace to agents.

If you have a rejection letter you want to share, email it to All identifying info will be redacted.

British Literary Agency Launches Novel-Writing Competition

UPDATE: Megan Hodson, a 21 year old marketing exec from Cardiff, the capital of Wales, has won Curtis Brown’s inaugural “Be a Bestseller” competition. She beat out 4,000 contenders, with her planned novel When We Get There.Reading teams at Curtis Brown and Curtis Brown Creative helped judges Marian Keyes, a bestselling author, actress Caroline Quentin, and literary agent Jonny Geller cull the entries down to Hodson and four finalists — Lucy Brooke, Andrew Ewart, Caroline Tudor, and Katy Wilson. Hodson was ultimately named the winner in a live final that aired on Britain’s ITV on November 27th. 

The winning novel will get representation from a Curtis Brown Creative agent, and free placement in one of the agency’s six-month novel-writing courses. Judges Marian Keyes, Caroline Quentin, and Jonny Geller (joint CEO of Curtis Brown) launched the “Be a Bestseller” competition yesterday; the entry deadline is November 14th.

UK-Based Literary Agents Are Offering an Online Novel-Writing Course

Curtis Brown Creative Online Novel Writing Course_peoplewhowrite
Curtis Brown Creative and Conville & Walsh literary agencies have announced the opportunity to take a three-month novel-writing course online, tutored by Commonwealth Prize-winning author Lisa O’Donnell via phone and Skype. The Curtis Brown Creative Three-Month Online Novel-Writing Course will run from Monday 3rd November 2014 to Sunday 22nd February 2015 – you can apply here. (Curtis Brown Creative is a UK-based literary agency that also produces films based on their clients’ books and has partnered with Amazon to launch a digital self-publishing program through Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace.)

The Best Quotes from Agent Andrew Wylie's New Republic Interview

Andrew Wylie - peoplewhowrite

Andrew Wylie

Could veteran agent Andrew Wylie (he represents Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, and Vladimir Nabokov’s backlist among other elite literary clients) be the literary world’s Kanye West? Wylie gave the New Republic a much-shared interview full of quotables. Here are my favorites:

On the first time he saw a Kindle
“I was in Rome, in the back of a taxi, and I couldn’t see it. So I thought, fuck this.”

On the motive behind Amazon’s entry into print publishing
“I believe that Amazon has its print publishing business so that their behavior as a distributor of digital content can be misperceived by the Department of Justice and the publishing industry in a way that is convenient for Amazon’s bottom line.”

On selling one of his clients’ books to Amazon
“If one of my children were kidnapped and they were threatening to throw a child off a bridge and I believed them, I might.”

On his youthful understanding of representing authors of literary fiction
“The image I had was, if you represented writers who are good, they and you were doomed to a life of poverty and madness and alcoholism and suicide. Dying spider plants and grimy windows on the Lower East Side. On the other side of my family, there were bankers. So I wanted to put the two together.”

On young writers
“Young writers, when they see me, it’s like meeting Ronald Reagan. Sometimes I go in to pay my respects. Everyone is perfectly polite, but you can tell they’d be a lot comfier if I’d just get the fuck out. So I do.”