Author Insights from Literary Agent Emma Patterson
This year, we’ve asked several of our faculty to answer some key questions to offer more insights to PubSense Summit attendees. Enjoy these answers from Brandt & Hochman literary agent Emma Patterson. Emma will join top literary agents and editors on several panels at the 2015 PubSense Summit!
1) Many of our attendees want to be traditionally published, and part of the purpose of PubSense is to help folks make sense of the changing landscape. What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the traditional model that offers the best opportunity for writers wanting to be traditionally published?
Emma: The biggest change I’ve seen is that publishers are working hard to utilize, exploit, and benefit from the surge in ebook sales, rather than being wary of involving themselves in pushing ebook formats, as they had been even five or seven years ago, when the concern was that ebooks were harmfully competing with physical book sales.
That competition is still a concern – and in my mind, always will be – but it does seem that publishers now know enough about the ebook landscape to understand how to best take advantage of the format and drive up overall sales, which benefits both writers and publishers.
2) You have agreed to sit on our Platform panel, and, wow, is that a hot topic. Agent Elizabeth Evans is going to talk about it from the perspective of someone who reps mostly nonfiction. But you represent a lot of fiction. How important is platform for fiction?
Emma: A writer’s “platform” in fiction looks a little different than it does in the nonfiction realm – it can mean attending prestigious MFA programs, magazine publications (ranging from literary journals to more commercially-known big weeklies), prizes won, teaching positions in writing programs, impressive fellowships and grants, or studying under distinguished writers in undergraduate or graduate programs (who could possibly blurb one’s novel down the line).
Essentially, one’s fiction platform is a list of various writing credentials, in all shapes, colors, and sizes. When first-time writers ask me what they can do to build their “platform” before they approach an agent, I encourage them to sell stories and essays to magazines, research MFA programs, and network with other writer friends.
At this very competitive moment in book publishing – when houses are consolidating and imprints have fewer slots for novels in every list – platform is increasingly important for fiction, in both the acquisition and publication stages. As an agent, when I’m trying to sell a novel to an editor, any little bit of extra incentive is something that the editor, in turn, can bring to their editorial board to say, “Not only do I love this book and think we can find it an audience, but also, this writer won a — Prize and studied with —, who has already written this blurb here —” and then that editor can rally to get the whole house behind them (both editorial AND sales teams), making it that much more likely that they’d be able to make an offer.
When a novel is published, the more ammunition a sales and marketing team has to present to booksellers, the more that book – and that author – stands out on the publisher’s list. In such a saturated and competitive landscape, every little bit of author “platform” can do a world of good.
3) One of my favorites upcoming, “The Rise of the Small Press” panel. You sell to the big boys and also to small presses. Could you tell us: Are small presses a last resort, if the big boys turn you down? Or, is there ever a time when you pitch to a small press first?
Emma: I am a big champion of small presses. Oftentimes, smaller publishers have more incentive to publish riskier work – whether that’s experimental voice or structure, quieter storylines, story collections, quirky projects, or unknown debut authors or mid-list authors – because they don’t need to fit into a corporate mold of “what we publish” in a way that larger houses generally do.
Sometimes, as an agent, this means that it takes being a book being turned down by larger publishers to see that a book is actually better for a small press; but other times, for idiosyncratic projects, I’ve approached smaller presses at the outset.
Like with any book, the search for the right publisher is a matchmaking game with an editor, the editor’s vision, and the publisher. Sometimes, a book is best suited for a small press, who will know how to publish that book with the same enthusiasm as a larger press, but with a different style and strategy… which can be a really great thing!