Thursday, April 22, 2010
Janet Kobobel Grant of Books & Such Literary, Welcome to SEEKERVILLE!!!!
Good morning, Friends of Seekerville!
Yes. This is the morning you’ve all been waiting for, the morning when Janet Grant, the esteemed and always frank head of Books & Such Literary, the agency that took a chance on Seekers Camy Tang, Cheryl Wyatt and yes, (hard to believe, I know…) yours truly, graces us with her presence here on the mainland.
We’ve coptered Sandra and Pam in from the Island, and I think Pam’s grass skirt is sure to make an impression, don’t you? I know I’m impressed and wondering if they carry it at Strawbridge’s in something other than sage. Forest green has always been more flattering to me.
What’s that, Pam? Oh. That IS sage… as in, the plant. The herb. Hence the overwhelming but delightful aroma of Thanksgiving stuffing in April. Uh, huh…
Well, who knew??? And it looks great on you, dear, truly. Almost Prada-like, it’s that fashion-friendly. Bless your heart. ;)
But I digress.
I’ve put out a lovely brunch table filled with all kinds of things, among them some of Janet’s favorites and a few Seekerville dependables as well. And since I don’t get to California often, Janet, I must say this is quite the view you enjoy from here. A couple of weeks back Francine Rivers stopped by and shared jam and tea with us, a most delightful day it was. Simply splendid. We cozied around her kitchen nook and watched the bird feeder while we spoke of great things, including quince jam. Tell me, Janet, what exactly are we seeing from here? Because I know that’s not a bird…
Francine and I live in the same town, just in case you didn’t know; so if she didn’t gush enough about Sonoma (yes, as in Williams Sonoma), I’ll just turn on my own waterfall of praise. But first, thanks for inviting me for brunch. I’m sipping lavender tea (we grow lavender as a crop here), laced with a snippet of honey. Oh, yes, those are cranberry-orange scones made by a sweet coffee shop down the street called Muffin Street. I’ve begged the owner (even dropped to my knees once in hopes that would do the trick) for the recipe, but she’s not handing it over.
My dog (see photo of the darlin’ boy) is draped across my feet in hopes that some sweet morsels of scone will fall in his direction. Speaking of that photo, it shows a partial view of what you can see from my deck, where I’m seated now.
A small ravine with a pond is behind our property, and at night the frogs sing croaky lullabies to us. Grapevines wind around the fence by the pond, and the plants’ tender green leaves are unfurling from their winter sleep. Down the road a short distance are the real vineyards. Roses often are grown in the vineyards because they draw insects away from the grapevines. And mustard nestles underneath the vines, adding to spring’s bright colors. Wine country is beautiful every season, but spring is my favorite because of the confetti affect of so many plants in bloom.
Janet, I am a firm believer that frog sounds are the birdsong of the night. It’s “peeper” time here, when the tree frogs peep from the ponds and marshes, calling out for a little spring lovin’… And because we had an early warm spell (after a very long, cold winter!) the frogs and toads have joined in the dance and it’s absolutely noisy every evening. Crazy noisy. Usually peepers are about peeped out before the regular grass frogs, toads and bullfrogs take voice, but this year they’re harmonizing.
And it’s wonderful!
I'm totally loving these scones, Janet, and I’d have given just about anything to see you on your knees begging for that recipe, but for good baked goods I’ve been known to do the same. My respect for you has only deepened.
1.Books & Such has grown in volume and stature since I first met you six years ago. Yes, that was me, cowering and hiding in the back row, slouched down, chin tucked, no eye contact, listening to you talk about the unlikelihood of publication. Was I scared??? You betcha. But I was also impressed by how self-composed you were, how confident.
You’ve talked before about opening lines and hooks, how a story should grab from the very first line and this is an industry-wide push, but was this always the case or do you attribute the heavy emphasis an attempt to meet the time constraints of read-on-the-fly consumers and heightened competition?
When I was an editor at Zondervan and then at Focus on the Family, a slush pile was always a part of my life. As a matter of fact, at Zondervan we hired interns to read through manuscripts, but one year our intern arrived a month later than we had planned. In that month, we actually filled a room with stacks of manuscripts for her to read.
Now, when I say “filled a room,” if you envisioned piles of paper on shelves and a desk, you have not used your imagination sufficiently. The stacks were on the floor and rose to six feet high. She could barely walk into the room, and the desk wasn’t even visible. She was a stalwart sort, and though taken aback by the immensity of the job, waded through every manuscript and wrote responses.
During the rest of the year, we editors were left with our individual slush piles. With such an onslaught of material, we could only devote a few minutes to every unsolicited manuscript or query. This scenario occurred in the 1980s. So it’s been a long time since editors could lavish time on submissions that unfolded slowly but in a lovely way.
And reading habits have changed. If you try to wade your way through a nineteenth-century novel, you’ll soon find yourself wondering when the author is going to pick up the pace. So many adjectives! So many adverbs! So little movement in the plot!
Now, I do have to say that, despite the pressure to move quickly through the slush pile, everyone in publishing can tell you a story about the gem hidden in the blizzard of paper. One of my personal stories is finding a teen novel called Summer Promise by Robin Jones Gunn among the piles of prose. I had been commissioned by my boss to find a teen novel because, at the time, only a few books each year were published for Christian teens.
I was amazed at how many writers wanted to write for teenage girls, but how few of them actually knew anything about young girls. Robin’s manuscript really “spoke” the language of a teen and reflected the ways teens thought.
I remember, when Focus on the Family decided to publish Summer Promise, I had a conversation with my boss about whether having the protagonist named Christy might cause some confusion over Catherine Marshall’s very famous Christy. I pointed out, “If Summer Promise stays in print for five years, we’ll all be happy.” Here we are, 25 years later, and that spunky Christy Miller of Summer Promise still speaks to teen girls in ways they relate to. And the books in the series have sold millions of copies. Just gets to show I don’t know what I’m talking about!
2.And for the agent-seeking visitors of Seekerville, is your agency acquiring at the moment and is there anything in particular you’re looking for? Anything you’ve seen too much of? I hear there’s a current rush on sci-fi Christian cozy mysteries with a romantic Amish twist. Is that accurate?
Every agent is on the lookout for a project that starts butterflies fluttering in his or her stomach. You know, that sense of excitement that you’ve just discovered something that’s so wonderful, has so much potential, that you can’t wait to tell the publishing world. It’s akin to the feeling you had when the really cute guy in geography asked you out for the first time. Really, we live for those moments. So we’re all open to a project we can’t just say no to.
(Wait. Time out. My dog has moved from off my feet to lying next to me and is vigorously chewing two bones at one time. What a glutton! Oh, I have two scones on my plate…)
We see lots of fantasy with ideas that often are more complex than the writer is able to do well. Surprisingly, we don’t see much in the way of Amish anything—with or without werewolves and other such inventions. I think writers joke more about Amish novels than actually write them. Editors continue to ask us what we have that’s Amish, and we just shrug our shoulders and say, “Nothing, really.”
Lest you all barrage me with your Amish offering, I have to hasten to say that I’d still hold out for the butterfly feelings, even with Amish. I’d look for someone who understood the Amish and could make a unique contribution to that body of work. Writing Amish because that’s what the market is crying for (right this red hot minute) is unlikely to result in my wanting to represent someone. I try to be conscious of what the project is offering that would benefit readers long-term. I’m not good at chasing after the market because I’ve been at this game long enough to know how fickle the market is.
As a matter of fact, I can recall several years ago that editors wouldn’t consider anything with the word “historical” attached to it. I’d say to an editor, “I have a Christy-award-winning historical novelist--” “Historicals don’t sell,” the editor would interrupt. I found that response appalling. Historicals are a mainstay of publishing.
But then imagine my surprise when editors—all in the same week—called me and said, “Do you have any historical novels? They’re hot right now, and I need to find some to publish.” Such a biz we’re a part of!
What are we looking for in our agency? All of us are avid readers, and we’re looking for books we’d buy at the local bookstore. We look for writers who have developed their voice, who have an instinct for what will connect with readers, and who are willing to do the hard work of publicizing their books—because publishers expect that of every author.
Right now I’m thinking about representing a nonfiction book by a Harvard-educated doctor who writes from her own experience of raising her severely autistic child; a Scottish historical; and a thriller. What do they all have in common? Great writing and significant ways the authors can promote the books once published. But I’d be tempted to rep any of the three based on great writing alone—back to those butterflies.
3.When you receive a query or proposal that’s made it through to your desk, what is it that grabs you? Emotion? Writing Strength? Particular story elements?
I always begin my journey through a proposal or query with the subject matter. Might there be a place in the market for a book on this subject? Then I consider the title. A good title can pique my interest; I have to choose to overlook a bad or bland title. In a query, I then look at the basics of the plotline in the brief description. Does anything in it pleasantly y surprise me or engage me? In a proposal, I’m on to reading the manuscript’s opening. A strong opening line or paragraph invites me to keep going. If nothing snags my attention in the first page, I’m thinking of moving onto the next project.
The sad part of this quick decision-making is that often new writers don’t start their novels in the best place. Sometimes the momentum doesn’t pick up until the middle of the manuscript. But I’ll never know that because I can’t devote that amount of time to get that far.
I think I’ll take a swig of tea to comfort myself about the possibly wonderful novels that are never discovered for that reason.
I’ll join you in the tea. It’s wonderful, by the way. And you said it’s lavender? How absolutely appropriate. The new book that Steeple Hill just contracted with Wendy and me is set in a rural area of southern New York that has a lavender festival every summer. It’s a quaint, vintage, quirky experience set in the middle of a sweet, historic village. Totally engaging on all fronts. The first time I laid eyes on the village, I knew I had to set novels there. And that bit of lavender tea with honey… very Austenesque.
4.Janet, a lot of agencies don’t handle children’s books or the juvenile market. Yours does. Can you tell us a little about Etta Wilson and the children’s markets she handles? And what spurred you to branch into that arena? And with the upsurge of interest in the YA market, do you see opportunities opening up there? Would it be smart for an author to do a Meg Cabot, and target more than one area if they can handle it?
I met Etta at a writers’ conference when we were on a panel together. I liked the way she thought about publishing and serving her clients. I sensed that we thought a lot alike about the importance of career-planning, maintaining the long view of developing a writer’s publishing path and not making choices based on how to make the most money the fastest, which often leads to making choices that don’t serve the author long-term.
Etta has been an agent for children’s projects in both the Christian and general market for many years, and she has a stellar reputation. So it occurred to me that she could add expertise to our agency and contribute much to our client list. She has proven to have a strong sense of what will work in the children’s market--in picture books, children’s Bibles and middle-grade projects. And she has a wonderful Southern wit that keeps me laughing.
YA is definitely a growth area, not only in the general market but also in the Christian market. I think the Christian market especially has room to grow. But I’d say you need to have what Robin Gunn did to enter the YA market—a sense of how to relate to teens so they feel you are one of them and not an adult trying to be one of them. Authenticity in writing is key.
5.When I first met you in ’04… (No, I know you don’t remember me. Julie Lessman was in the very same room. How on earth would you remember li’l ol’ ME????)
You gave a talk about agents, agencies, how Books & Such handles things, how you envision clients and their futures, and how you like to help guide your authors along a career path that’s right for them. Books & Such has grown a great deal since then. As the agency founder and head, do you still feel the same way and is it more difficult to maintain that goal with your increased size?
That personal involvement with our clients remains a hallmark. I could never maintain that level of attention by myself, but we have such a great team at Books & Such who all value caring for clients as much as I do. Wendy Lawton, Etta, and Rachel Zurakowski complement each other and bring creative ideas as to how we can serve our clients better.
As some of you know, we try to bring our clients together whenever we’re at an event. So at writers conferences, if we’re on the faculty, we have a party or dinner (at Mount Hermon Writers Conference this year we sponsored an ice cream social at the Snack Shop). We often have gift baskets awaiting our clients when they check into the hotel where the conference is taking place.
And we have a retreat for our clients every other year. In 2008 we hosted the retreat in wine country; in 2010 we’re gathering in Monterey. We have workshops in the morning, many of which are presented by editors we’ve asked to join us. This year the list includes Lonnie Hull Dupont from Revell; Kyle Duncan from Bethany House; Cindy Lambert from Zondervan, and Dave Lambert, who is free-lance editing fiction. In the afternoons, we’ll explore Monterey and visit Steinbeck locales—and talk about writing just because we love it. I don’t know of any other agency that offers this kind of attention to its clients.
As a result of our 2008 retreat, several authors connected with editors who went on to publish them, lots of impromptu brainstorming of projects and titles took place; and the blog Novel Matters was born as we brought our upmarket clients together and introduced them to each other. The synergy was wonderful.
6.Janet, one of our questions concerns trends. I’m sure everyone is hoping you’ll pinpoint the next big thing, and if you plan to do that, feel free to call me first because I’d love to be ahead of the curve on that bandwagon, Sister! But as an avid player in the market, do you have any advice about current trends? And do you sense an upswing in the humor market or find people are reaching for lighter reading as world affairs grow darker?
I thought humor would find its way from chick lit to romantic comedy; that seemed like a logical move to me, but so far it hasn’t happened. I’m back to proclaiming I don’t know anything! But in light of our darkening world, I do see a few trends.
First, romance continues to be a strong force in what women are reading. A novel doesn’t have to be a formula romance, but readers want to slip into a fairy tale in which true love is found and a woman feels understood and cared for in profound ways.
Second, women in their 40s and 50s seem to want to read Mitford-esque stories. Take us away, Calgon. Escapist reading (and hence the emphasis on romance) is high on their list. Obviously, Mitford has had its day, but readers still want to pick up a book that removes them from the grit and grime of their overly-scheduled, frenetic lives. I think that’s a major factor in the interest in Amish books—they take us to a quieter place.
Third, younger readers are facing grim prospects for their futures, and that’s reflected in what they’re reading. They tend to like dystopian depictions of life. “Dystopic” is the opposite of Utopic. Rather than an idealized, harmonious world, dystopian novels reflect a world fallen apart. It’s “The Terminator” or “Mad Max” all over again. These readers want heroes who show them how to respond to a world of disappointed hopes, disintegrating possibilities, and powerful forces that can’t be controlled.
7.Pet peeves. Do you have any? If so…. Feel free to share them here so our prospects can avoid them at all costs! What bugs Janet Grant the most?
Hmm, I’m sure everyone in the office can tell you what makes me sigh with exasperation; unfortunately, they’ve all gone home, so I’m left to consider this by myself. Receiving phone calls from potential clients is pretty upsetting. Every day is so full of to-do lists that spontaneous phone calls are unrealistic to fit in. Plus they’re generally more helpful to the prospect than to me. If I want to have a conversation, I can pick up the phone and call.
Also, writers who don’t listen to advice. Oh, yeah, now I’m warming up to how upsetting this is. I often give writers feedback based on how publishers are likely to respond to a project. It doesn’t matter if I love the idea; if it has some flaw or goes in a direction that publishers avoid, I can’t represent that work as it is. So either the writer is willing to make adjustments or should look elsewhere for an agent. But to argue with me is futile. I can’t change the market. Really, I can’t. Neither can you. Adjust! Or you’re unlikely to see your name in print.
Oh, Janet, that is wise advise. Adaptability coupled with the ability to take direction and not dig our heels in… That’s HUGE. Sometimes that over-inflated sense of self we authors have or develop trips us up. Thank you for that good reminder. Adjust. Adapt. Take directions. Kind of like kindergarten all over again… so why does it take us so long to get it, I wonder?
8. And now a money question, Janet. Are you up for a money question? Because money/royalties/books/authors/agents/rights…. Oh my stars, there’s a lot of stuff to know and a responsible author ought to be at least somewhat in the know, right? And since money matters differ from publisher to publisher, it’s really important to have a great agent steer and guide today’s author. Not to mention keeping them from opening their mouths at inopportune times. (The gag rule: Least said, soonest mended. This is a rule I firmly believe in, having broken it in a past life.)
One of our visitors is wondering about agents’ policies and contracts. Does Books and Such receive the funds/payments/advances/royalties from the publisher, take their 15% and then send the balance on to the author? And if so, why do they do this when the agent works for the author? Shouldn’t the author get the money and then pay the agent? Is this a normal practice?
It’s because the agent is working for the author that the money comes to our agency. We check to make sure the amount is correct, and we prompt the publisher to make payments that are due. If we received the money from the author, we couldn’t monitor when it came and if it was the correct amount. Remember, it’s our job to do the business side of publishing. That includes money. And, if you think publishers don’t make mistakes, why you haven’t seen some of the checks I have. If you think publishers pay on time…uh, not always. Or that they always remember to pay…uh, sometimes not.
I will say that many agencies in the Christian market are set up different from Books & Such. When I created the agency, I modeled it after the way most general market agencies work. We receive 100% of money owed to our clients from publishers. Other Christian market agencies have 85% of the money sent to the author; the agency receives its 15%. Why the difference?
An agency that receives 100% of the money can more closely monitor whether the author did, indeed, receive payment and that the payment was correct. If the agency receives only its share, it never knows for sure what the client received. (The publisher sends royalty statements that reflect only the agency’s 15% rather than the full amount of what was earned.) That agency is offering fewer services than one that handles all the money. Trust me, much more work is involved for the agency that receives the 100% (including sending out 1099s).
9.Janet, as the owner/founder of Books & Such, the buck stops on your desk. How do you manage to juggle the business end of running a business and the chronic back and forth of being a very active agent? Do you sleep?
I’m the sort of person who would have her fingers in more pies—if she could find more fingers! Managing a business or an imprint has always been a part of my adult life. I try to take time to dream about what other ways our agency can meet our clients’ needs, and how we can stay relevant in the jet-propelled changes going on in publishing. Yet I’ve always needed that personal level of involvement with authors. I started out as an editor, and I love to dip my fingers into the pies of titling, plotting a novel, dreaming up new story ideas. To me, running Books & Such and being an agent is the perfect recipe for happiness. And I do sleep, but I often dream about my clients and wake up with new thoughts for how to move them to the next level. Just ask my husband: I eat and sleep publishing. (Although I like eating scones more.)
Janet, thank you so much for being with us today! Oh my stars, all of Seekerville is delighted to have you here, popping in and out, sharing your time and wisdom. Refill your tea, I’ll keep the pot of water simmering and our teapot cozied. Feel free to catch up on agency business while we chat, and we’re having the Life Ladies of the Wambach Baptist Church cater lunch today, and no one does cookin’ like these Midwestern ladies. Wonderful fare!
Guys and gals, please stop in, sip some tea or grab some coffee from the ever-present Seekerville coffee bar at the back. Feel free to ask questions and pick Janet's brain about all those puzzling things in the publishing biz. We've got a lovely bit o' chocolate to send out to some lucky visitor today. Be sure to leave your e-mail addy (disguised, of course!!!) and I'll tuck you in the drawing for a little bit of chocolate decadence!