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Perfect Pitch: An interview with Katharine Sands

Interview by Jeff Faehnle

 

Katharine Sands, a literary agent in New York City, recently published Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye. In her experience as an agent, she has worked with a wide range of authors in a wide range of genres. Katharine has been guest speaker on writing and publishing topics for The American Society of Journalists and Authors and The New York State Council on the Arts, and was a faculty member at the 2006 Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop.

 

In your book, Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye, you talk about finding the perfect match between author and representative. How do you as an agent know and how should an author know when that perfect match exists?

 

As a writer, you are looking for the right agent to successfully navigate the publishing landscape with-- and for-- you. As an agent, I tend to think of myself as a book dowser. My internal divining rod starts to hum when I come across an author-to-be. When it comes to agent-author match-making, you should consider the following: 1) the agency track record, 2) the agent's experience with your genre or subject, 3) her statements about why she wants to rep your project, 4) his substantive editorial suggestions, 5) her submission strategies, 6) his prognosis for your career. Then go with your gut.

    

What is the biggest benefit of having an agent?

 

Try this at home: call a leading publisher and try to get anyone to discuss your work. A civilian is unlikely to penetrate the publisher's multifarious systems for shielding editors from interested, yet unrepresented writers. And you couldn't possibly learn which new editor would really love your wickedly funny story in the soccer-mom vampire-hunting paranormal romance gothic chick lit tradition.

      

What was the most effective query letter you have ever received from a prospective client?

 

Agent Meredith Bernstein shared one letter which imagines its writer inflagrante delicto with a movie star, who asks: "Say, you know any literary agents?" After the very funny scene, the writer confesses, maybe it didn't really happen but would you like to read my work anyway… I like imaginative, bold whimsy. Making the Perfect Pitch, a collection of pitching wisdom from leading agents, deconstructs what makes a query letter effective. Effective means in this context you have succeeded in whetting the agent's appetite to see more of your work. To effectively introduce a novel or book idea to a literary agent, you must persuade him/her that there is a readership for your book. The writing you do about your writing is part "hello," part cover letter, part interview for the coveted job of book author.

 

From about how many people do you receive query letters per month? How many of those people do you take on as clients?

 

An oceanic tide arrives daily. We take a fraction of those querying as potential clients, a percentage point, but you must always believe that you belong in the one per cent. And you may! 

 

What is one thing you would tell every writer searching for an agent not to do?

  

Not to forget you can hire a hit man, but you can't hire a literary agent. An agent must be seduced, struck, charmed, entertained, enriched, enlightened, enlivened and again, seduced, to take you on as client.

 

What sort of material are you looking for? 

 

A literary agent with the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency, I am actively building my client list. When considering new fiction, I read to be swept up by the urgency of the narrative, the story that makes me want to turn the page. For nonfiction, I want the writer to argue the case for publication successfully, showing me the reasons why hers is a unique and zeitgeist-y treatment of the subject. I look for the writer who can transport the reader somewhere interesting; I am on the lookout for the writer who can teach the reader something new. I'm searching for joie de vivre-- writing that takes a fresh look, writing that is insightful, observant, "infotaining." Writing that is transporting. Writing that makes you want to turn the page. I can become excited by many kinds of potential books in a broad range of categories: from commercial fiction and nonfiction, including popular culture, personal growth, leisure activities, lifestyle, home arts, entertainment, and cookbooks to serious nonfiction, including psychology, social thought, history, health to the more eclectic popular reference, travel, spirituality.

 

What is the best way to reach you?

 

Query first to Katharinesands@nyc.rr.com. If your project piques my interest I will invite you to send chapters or your proposal to be read with a view towards representation. I read as a book dowser-- there is an internal divining rod that starts to hum when I come across an author-to-be. My message to writers is the writing you do about your writing is as important as the writing itself. PitchCraft is a term I coined. Focus on your most exciting and marketable elements to compel me, and indeed any agent, to request your wordsmithery.

 

Who are some of your clients and what have they published?

 

I am delighted to be both client and the agent provocateur of Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye, a collection of pitching wisdom from literary agents, with advice from top agents Donald Maass, Michael Larsen, Sarah Jane Freymann, Jeff Herman, Jane Dystel, Robert Gottlieb, and others who represent the full range of best-selling authors and their books.

 

Representative titles of some of my clients include: XTC: Song Stories by Andy Partridge and XTC; Under the Hula Moon as co-agent by Jocelyn Fujii; The Tao of Beauty: Chinese Herbal Secrets for Looking Good and Feeling Great by Ford model Helen Lee; Make Up, Don't Break Up by Oprah guest Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil; Elvis and You: Your Guide to the Pleasures of Being an Elvis Fan by uber Elvis fans Laura Levin and John O'Hara; The New Low-Country Cooking: 125 Coastal Southern Recipes With Innovative Style by Turner Television's "Home Plate" host Marvin Woods; Give Me That Online Religion by Dr. Brenda Brasher; Last Rights: The Struggle Over the Right to Die by Sue Woodman; New York: Songs of the City by the Smithsonian's Dr. Nancy Groce; Writers on Directors, edited by Susan Gray, among others.

 

Has the process of writing, editing, and promoting your own book affected you as an agent?

 

I now know the full range of feelings that having a book on the market creates from a personal perspective. Now that I am the one in the hot seat, it has given me a much keener sense of empathy. Everything I ever told an author not to worry about-- I worry about! And the saying that if you represent yourself you have a fool for a client is all too true! But there is also the wonderful upside, the catch in my heart seeing the book in stores and carried by its readers at writers' conferences. It is perhaps the difference between being the midwife or having a baby and a book is your baby. Marketing a book has brought newfound understanding of the qualities that writers need in today's book business. As an agent, I want to attract writers who have a marvelous muse or a promotable platform, but, are also on fire to share their work with readers. Because when you are an author you must become an impassioned ambassador.

 

Any thoughts you'd like to share on the current state of the publishing industry? What's hot now and what's warming up? 

 

Sex, shoes, and shopping are still generating heat in the continuing chick lit and chick nonfiction phenomenon. Chicks, of course, grow up to be hens and hen lit may soon rule the roost. The Boomer cohort is responding to what has rudely been called crypt lit, meaning death-related stories. Dysfiction focuses on dysfunctional families. A developing trend has been termed derivalit by agent Regina Brooks. Derivalit refers to characters springing to life from existing sources such as in Renfield or revisionist tales such as re-imagining the story of the Wizard of Oz in Wicked. Multiculti, diversity, and leadership are the buzzwords for fast-growing markets. And muggles will always want books on how to trim their thighs, talk to the dead, increase wealth, make better love or a better lasagna.

 

What can all the attendees of the 2006 Workshop expect to see from you as one of this year's faculty members? 

 

In addition to my two favorite agent jokes, I will share with attendees all I can about succeeding in the literary marketplace. As I say in Making the Perfect Pitch, writing commercially has probably been a bane to writers since Pliny the Elder plied the trade. But, the truth is that today, writers can have the magical imagination of J.K. Rowling, the wit and wisdom of Frank McCourt, the perfect economy of Ernest Hemingway and the ageless brilliance of (whoever really wrote) Shakespeare. But they still need to pitch, query, and propose before they can be published. At the 2006 Workshop I will talk about ways how.

 

Jeff Faehnle is assistant editor of the Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop newsletter.

 

This interview originally published by HumorWriters.org; reprinted with kind permission.

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