Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Wendy Lawton, Welcome to Seekerville!
Wendy Lawton, awesome agent, bountiful artist, and all-around good person, good morning and thanks for dropping by Seekerville! We’ve dusted, polished, primped and primed, and I think we’re ready for a day of questions, answers and general mayhem.
[Wendy blushes and coughs.]
Wendy, you came to being an agent in a more roundabout way than most, and I find that refreshing.
Your story inspires anyone changing careers mid-stream, which is the case for many writers. First you enjoyed a successful doll making career where you ran your own thriving business The Lawton Doll Company. That led to authoring accompanying books before jumping to the other side of publishing as an agent. I love that panache and your porcelain artistry is beautiful.
What inspired the change and how do you feed those artistic juices now?
2009 marks thirty years since I professionally sold my first doll. In 2006 I was awarded Dolls magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award. I was only the fourth person to receive it after Madame Alexander, The Steiff Teddy Company and R. John Wright. An artist is like an athlete, when the time comes to receive a lifetime achievement award, I’m thinking it’s a hint that it’s time to hang up the cleats. :-) When we closed our factory in October 2005, we were the last porcelain dollmaking company left in the United States. I now have my studio at home and still spend time sculpting and designing. Without any pressure, I’ve rediscovered the joy of finding a little child’s innocence peeking out of the clay.
My life work has been telling stories. I tell stories in porcelain and paint pictures with words—they are just different mediums. My first book was published in 2000 and there have been twelve others since then.
With dolls I’ve always enjoyed a loyal enthusiastic following.
I spent decades doing appearances, from individual toy stores to Walt Disney World. My work is in private collections and Paris museums. All heady stuff. But when I’d open my Bible, it talked about being a servant. That’s the one thing I’d never been.
Janet Kobobel Grant was my literary agent. Because of my long tenure as president of a successful business, Janet and I would talk business principles as they applied to both books and product design/manufacturing. I used to say they were parallel universes. I knew Janet was considering adding an agent to the agency. She had narrowed it down to one former editor.
As she tells it, she was chewing on her decision with Robin Jones Gunn one day and Robin said, “I can tell you are not comfortable with this decision.” In typical Robin-fashion, she added, “If you could choose anyone in the world to work with, who would it be?”
Janet says she didn’t hesitate. “Wendy Lawton, but she has a business. It’s out of the question.”
With Robin, nothing is ever out of the question. She urged Janet to call me. Who knew I was ready for a new adventure at that exact moment? I can remember being so excited that I took the phone into the garden and paced the whole time we talked. Isn’t it just like God? The moment I began to wonder what it would be like to be a servant, he gave me an opportunity to turn my back on center stage and learn.
As for feeding my artistic juices—I’ve always found as much artistry in business as in clay and pigment. I love helping to creatively shape projects and plan careers. We’ve developed many artistic ways of showcasing clients to prospective publishers. You should see some of the presentations—beautiful.
Plus, I still write and I still keep my fingers in clay for that sense of balance. I think it makes me a more creative agent.
I’m a big believer in God’s timing. That came with age and experience, and I think your story illustrates that concept beautifully.
Books and Such deals primarily with Christian publishing houses but is open to mainstream manuscripts. Any guidelines on that for people seeking representation? What works for you, and what doesn’t? How edgy is too edgy?
As to guidelines—those are on our website, but each agent has his/her own sensibilities. In nonfiction, I look for that book that stands out—a new idea told in the perfect format for that material, written by the go-to person for that very subject. Yes, that’s a big order, but since we’re talking what works, that’s it. Publishers do not seem to be interested in the all-around writer who can write on a number of subjects. They get excited by the specialist.
In fiction, it’s all about the story and the writer’s voice. Of course, I have to be drawn to the author, first and foremost, because an agent represents an author, not just one book. But the writing has to be exemplary. We keep talking about a tightening in the publishing industry. The upshot is that only the best new work will see publication. I’ve found it interesting that almost without exception, I’ve met my clients in person first—especially at writing conferences. Meeting face-to-face is an important part of the equation for me.
And you asked, how edgy is too edgy? I find that a lot of “pushing of the envelope” is a strange sort of pride. It’s easier to recognize than it is to explain. Too many writers are gratuitously edgy—as if to say, “I’m too big for these strictures.” [Picture me rolling my eyes.] Some stories call for teetering on the edge, but far fewer than the number we see.
I guess I could safely say that I don’t admire edginess for edginess’ sake, and it’s what we see all too often. I love a simple story like Sarah, Plain and Tall. Believe it or not, much of what passes for edginess has become almost cliché. You would not believe how many stories cross my desk with sexual abuse or incest as the conflict. It’s true that in real life those issues are rampant, but there are other inner conflicts that could be far more challenging to a writer. Both Janet and I have agreed we can hardly bear to read another “edgy” manuscript that includes sexual abuse, especially in childhood.
An interesting thing I’ve learned from my clients who came from the ABA—the strictures put on their manuscripts are every bit as confining as those in the CBA. As bestselling former ABA author Karen Young says, she grew tired of the push toward more graphic sexual content, even to the point where it overshadowed the story. But just let her try to develop a spiritual character arc, let alone mention Jesus. . .
An edgy book in the ABA would be a book like Peace Like a River, where a character works out his faith in Jesus in an open and honest way. In the CBA, we are free to develop the spiritual along with the emotional, the physical and the intellectual. And it’s true we have to be careful with profanity and graphic sexuality and violence, but it just makes us better writers.
Wendy, you’ve made great points there and your observations make a lot of sense. Developing a story line within given parameters is good professionalism.
We know that Camy Tang is your favorite author. (Giving a gracious nod to our youngest Seeker.) That goes without saying, at least when you’re in Seekerville. (Wink, wink) But what do you look for in an author? What do you look for in their work? What tweaks your interest and makes an author irresistible?
I look for an author who is writing out of his/her “literary ardor” (We need a new word to replace the over-used “passion.”) I love it when the writer’s life dovetails her storytelling. I look for someone who is hungry enough for this calling that she will weather inherent disappointments and delays. And of course, I look for the consummate craftsman.
It doesn’t hurt to have an infectious laugh like Camy Tang, either.
I know I’m looking forward to the fall release of Debbie Macomber’s One Simple Act. Congratulations on brokering that deal with Howard Books. It’s a natural coupling and should work well for all parties, especially the readership. Debbie is coming to the ACFW conference in Denver as Keynote Speaker at the time of the book’s launch. Kudos for timing! Did you really nudge Debbie into this endeavor? And how come you need shoes on a Florida beach? Inquiring minds want to know.
I think ACFWers will love Debbie. She’s walked that hard road to publication and never forgotten. Debbie and I have been friends for a number of years. She often talked about writing out of her own faith. I don’t think she needed much of a nudge.
And about the shoes—Debbie knows I tend to be a workaholic. I went down to her beach home in Florida to work with her. She thought it was too funny that I forget to bring anything appropriate for the beach—no sandals, no casual clothes, nothing. Leather shoes on the beach illustrate I’m a tad single-minded, I guess.
Whereas I would say ‘focused’, Wendy!
We wanted to talk about the ever-cheerful “Ten Near-Fatal Career Mistakes”. I’m awaiting your answers, as is the rest of Seekerville . What are they, and how do we fix ‘em if we’ve already been there, done that?
Hmmm. Near-fatal, eh? Let me count ‘em down.
10. The Everything-but Writer. You’d be surprised at many people hang around this writing community who know everything there is to know about writing, about marketing, about publishing, but never actually get themselves settled in their chair to write. They Facebook, they Twitter, they create queries and maybe even proposals, but they never manage to get down to the sometimes-drudgery of writing a whole book.
Antidote: Start eating the proverbial elephant, one bite at a time. Stop playing at being a writer and start producing.
9. The Assertive Writer. In this industry, it sometimes feels as if we need to rattle cages and demand some attention. Resist the urge. It’s dangerous to do anything that may earn you the label of “difficult.” It’s a small world and editors move around. Few things will damage your career quite so fast.
Antidote: Let your agent do the heavy lifting so you can remain unscathed.
8. The Know-It-All Writer. Nothing is as unattractive as a writer who is always right. This usually crops up during the editing process and can earn you a reputation faster than you can say syntax error.
Antidote: Pray that you’ll always keep a learner’s attitude. Getting a book published is a team effort. Value your team.
7. The Judgmental Writer. How many times have you heard a new writer denigrating the work of someone who helped blaze the trail? All too often. Under the guise of literary criticism, we often rip our colleagues to shreds. Some of those writers we criticize have hundreds of thousands of readers. We are also demeaning those readers. What does that buy us? There is nothing inherently better in one type of storytelling over another. Literary is not “better” than commercial fiction.
Antidote: Learn from the successful writers instead of disparaging them.
6. The Lone Ranger Writer. Some of the more timid writers among us would love to hole up in their writing cocoons and simple shut out the world. Unfortunately, in this day, that’s not possible. Publishers expect us to connect, to network and to partner with them on promotion.
Antidote: Even before you are published begin to connect with potential readers and potential colleagues.
5. The Writer/Artiste. Suffering from the “vapours” and “waiting on the Muse” went out with the Victorian dime novels. Writing is a career—a business. Yes, it is also an art, but as someone who’s made a living as a successful artist, I can assure you that you have to harness your creativity with disciple in order to produce.
Antidote: Practice discipline—the spiritual disciplines and the discipline of regular work habits. Don’t let emotions derail your God-given creativity.
4. The Jack-of-All Trades Writer. Don’t be the writer who resists being “branded.” How many times have I heard, “I write it all—fiction, nonfiction, Children’s picture books and poetry.” I could write a whole book on this. Think of yourself as a river. Which do you think makes the biggest impact: a wide, meandering, shallow stream; or a deep, narrow, swift-moving river?
3. The Bottom-Line Writer. If it’s all about the bottom line, you’re in the wrong business. I’m not saying that you can’t have a financially successful career as a writer but it’s much like choosing to be an actor. It’s tough in the early years to get steady employment and it’s always a buyers’ market. You’ve heard the advice, “Don’t quit your day job.” It’s true. It takes a number of years to work up to a good steady income. The pressure of trying to make an unrealistic income will compromise your art.
Antidote: Check your expectations against reality. And don’t quit your day job too soon.
2. The Head-in-the-Sand Writer. Every career move has potential pitfalls. Each contract has the potential for failure built in. A writer needs to be aware that if his sales numbers are low, he’s going to have a harder time making each subsequent sale.
Antidote: Your agent will weigh the pros and cons of every career decision carefully, trying to insure success on a project-by-project basis. Be aware.
1. The Impatient Writer. This industry moves at a snail’s pace and it seems to get slower every year. There’s very little that can be done to speed it up—everyone is overworked and understaffed. If a writer tries to push, he’ll very likely push himself off the desk and into the round file.
Antidote: Wait on the Lord. Practice patience. There’s no way to speed things up so there’s no sense of beating one’s head against the wall needlessly.
Wendy, I love those! They’re pointed and guilt stiffened my spine too often. Good points for all of us, both on and off “Unpubbed Island”. So tell me: what are you looking for now?
The easiest way to tell you what I want is to give you a look at what I’m proudest of.
When it comes to fiction, I love all kinds. I’ve been on an up-market fiction kick. I’ve got Sharon Souza, Bonnie Grove, Debbie Thomas, Caroline Coleman and Jennifer Vallent among others. Gorgeous writers, book-club friendly.
I’ve got a wonderful group of born storytellers as well. They write books where you hope the story will never end—writers like Kathleen Y’Barbo, Bonnie Leon, Lori Copeland, Ginny Smith, Ann Gabhart, Louise Gouge, Cynthia Ruchti and others.
I’ve got writers who are carving new niches in this market-- writers like Marilynn Griffith, Camy Tang, Jill Eileen Smith and Karen Young.
In nonfiction, I run the gamut from devotional books written by editor/writer Nick Harrison, to Christian economics (Good Intentions) by Bob Smietana and Dr. Charles North. We’ve even been doing picture books with writer/ illustrator (and Bethany editor), Andy McGuire. Bright and funny women’s books like Susanna Aughtmon’s All I Need is Jesus and a Good Pair of Jeans appeal to me as well.
That’s just the tip of a very creative iceberg. I enjoy seeing the book I’ve never yet imagined. And I’d love to see artfully written gentle prairie romances. (Like Sarah, Plain and Tall.)
I’d like to see inspirational Gothic romantic suspense in the tradition of Victoria Holt. (I’m crazy about good historicals.)
In nonfiction, I prefer the popular to the academic, and I look for those books that are high concept. I pay a lot of attention to the book format.
What do you REALLY not want to see?
I can’t wrap my head around science fiction or most fantasy. I’m not looking for children’s, juvenile or YA. And I shy away from “edgy” books and horror. (Think Philippians 4:8.)
In nonfiction I don’t want to see Bible studies (it’s a different market), sermons, columns compiled into a book, compilations of any kind, reference books, academic books or devotions unless they stand out for some reason.
At a time when a lot of publishing has suffered cutbacks, some publishers are booming. Steeple Hill is increasing its popular Love Inspired line by fifty percent, to six titles/month. That’s huge. Do you have any feelings about market trends? Advice for our authors who want to edge those doors open?
The market is tightening. Houses are having trouble finding enough slots for their current writers so it will be harder to break in. This is a time to study the craft, polish skills and craft unforgettable stories.
Many of us think the tightening is a knee-jerk-type reaction to our scary fiscal climate. Book sales are not as dismal as the tightening would indicate. That means houses will come up short. They won’t have enough titles to satisfy a voracious reading appetite—especially romance readers.
I think Love Inspired is, well, inspired to be expanding their lines. History has shown that when we tighten our belts, we often reach for a book instead of a vacation.
I’m guessing that publishers are going to be scrambling for titles to fill catalogs in a few seasons. Be ready.
Wendy, you’ve been a fun and gracious visitor. Thanks so much for spending time with us. I know you’ll get lots of questions from our visitors, most of whom will strive to impress you with their wit, wisdom and grammatical expertise. While you deal with all THAT, I’ll set up our Starbucks coffee bar in honor of your visit. There’s a no-fat mocha, no whip, waiting for you, piping hot. Obviously you’re a true coffee drinker! I frothed the milk myself, so we’re all good. And while I know you’re a California girl and West Coast strawberries are to-die-for, they’re not ripe yet so…
The Florida Agricultural Commission sent us fresh berries from their southern fields. Help yourself to berries and cream, strawberry shortcake, strawberry glace pie (my contribution) and fresh berry fruit tarts. And feel free to use the Ghirardelli chocolate (a California company!!!) fountain for dipping.
Wendy has assured me that tea-drinkers will not be discriminated against. She actually represents a few tea drinkers, I’m told, and tries not to judge.