An interview with

Jeff Kleinman, Literary agent

 

Jeff Kleinman is one of the founders of Folio Literary Management, a New York full service literary agency actively seeking fresh talent, new voices and good old fashioned quality writing. Whilst some agents have a pretty dismal view of the future, Jeff is more upbeat and sees the technological changes not as a liability, but as an asset.

So let's hear it from the man himself ...

 

 

"No great book has ever been written by a committee. So I think it makes absolute sense for the writer to follow his (or her) gut, and write what s/he most wants to read—and write it in the best, strongest, most dazzling style possible."

- Jeff Kleinman

 

Lazy writing

Hello Jeff. Word processors have unquestionably opened the floodgates for aspiring writers. Do you feel that this has been to the detriment of book publishing in that it has saturated the literary world making it harder for real “talent”—whatever that is—to shine through? Or have word processors simply made publishing accessible to otherwise great writers who might never have had the stamina to hand draft a novel?

I think that word processing programs have made it easier for writers to be lazy. When writers wrote longhand, or even on a typewriter, they had a bit more time, with every pen stroke or keystroke, to make sure that the word was exactly what they wanted to say, since it was a lot more work to rewrite/retype. Although I absolutely understand that editing/rewriting is a lot easier, I do worry that writers haven’t paid quite enough attention early in the process. That said, I do think that real talent tends to shine through, no matter what medium it’s conveyed in.

 

Helpful words for unpublished authors

Given that rejection is the rule rather than the exception for aspiring writers, at what point would you suggest that an author calls it a day and relinquishes any aspirations of being published? Or would you never advocate that?

That’s really not my call. It feels, in this day and age, that too many books are being published as-is, and to an increasingly less enthusiastic audience; despite this, agents and editors continue to be deluged with people wanting to have their books published. I think that unpublished authors have two strikes against them: first, they tend not to buckle down and really hone their craft as much as they could; and second, they tend not to write books that a large number of people will be desperate to read (and yes, I use the word “desperate” carefully). Forking out US$30 for a book is a lot of money these days—no wonder people don’t want to spend that kind of money when they could get a couple of videogames or several iPhone apps for the same amount of money—and may get more use out of those games or apps than they would out of the eight hours or so that it takes to read that book.

 

Successful writing

My own experience is that whilst most people can spin a yarn and string a sentence together, few have that extra special gift with words that will enable them to rise to the top, or even get a toehold on the professional treadmill. What percentage of manuscripts, in your experience, have any real chance at all of seeing a printing press outside of a vanity house?

If we’re dealing here with the traditional publishing world (and not print-on-demand, or other types of publishing opportunities now available), I suspect that the number is probably about one book in a thousand or so. But it really depends on the book and the genre and the author’s own abilities. I don’t believe the answer is to think about statistics; it’s to craft a really wonderful book—something with a great premise and equally great writing.

 

A writer's voice and writing style

In view of the subjectivity and capriciousness of the publishing world, should a writer ever bother listening to the literary opinions of an agent or publishing editor, or should he or she follow their own instincts and aspirations regardless? I’m thinking of the number of writers rejected for years before finally breaking through against all criticisms, or even having to self-publish their manuscripts. I’m also thinking of the way my own manuscripts have been “pulled” in different directions by well-intentioned professionals, but have yet to see a representation or publishing deal.

No great book has ever been written by a committee. So I think it makes absolute sense for the writer to follow his (or her) gut and write what s/he most wants to read—and write it in the best, strongest, most dazzling style possible. This business is highly subjective, so I think all you can do is stay true to your own voice. That said, you also have to be sure that your own voice will resonate in the marketplace—so reading as much as possible is a good way to get a feel for what you’re up against. One of the things that I’ve been amazed about is when people come to me and say, “Well, of COURSE I can’t write as well as Terry Tempest Williams, Doris Kearns Godwin, or Stephen King”—and I then have to explain to them that the bookstore will have to choose which books to stock—your book or those of brand-name authors.

 

Genre books

Has the publishing world damaged and dumbed-down the world of fiction by clinging to successful, if tired, thriller and detective formulas? I’m referring to the endless run of serial killer yarns/ FBI-agent-with-a-past stories/Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson clones, etc. Or is it simply that public taste in these genres is insatiable?

I think it’s a bit of both. People are comfortable reading those genres, so publishers continue to publish those sorts of books. That said, I know that a lot of editors are less enthusiastic about those types of formulaic novels—but keep publishing them because the public recognizes the authors’ names.

 

Standards in modern publishing

I’m constantly looking at books in libraries and on booksellers shelves and find myself reading no further than the first few paragraphs before concluding that so many titles are, quite simply, very inferior products. By this, I mean badly written, confusing, poorly edited, amateurish, and derivative. Is this your own experience? Or do you feel that the general standard of modern publishing is actually quite high?

I’m often amazed, too, at what gets published, even given what I’ve already said here in this interview. That said, I do think there’s a lot of very high quality books being published on a regular basis.

 

Writing for the screen and the movies

Given that cinema and TV are such dominant entertainment forms, do you find that modern authors are writing in a style that is far more suited to the screen, and wholly unsuited to the page? And if so, does this writing-for-celluloid approach actually further a writer’s chance of getting noticed, or should a writer always write for paper and allow the movie and TV industry to adapt as it sees fit?

I don’t really have an opinion about this. I’m less concerned about the authors’ motivations, and more concerned with the words on the page—which, frankly, I find to be often less dazzling than I’d like them to be.

 

New publishing technology

How has the global recession impacted on the chances of a would-be writer of getting a publishing deal? And what, if anything, can a writer do to mitigate this?

Yes, I think the publishing industry is in free-fall at this point. The industry has never been a money-making business, and it feels like publishers don’t even know where to find the next reader. I’m hopeful, though, that the adoption of the Kindle, eReader, and other types of digital devices will turn this around. Technology is improving so quickly that I can easily imagine books (or some iteration of books) taking center stage again as a means of expressing ideas/passion/etc. That said, I’m not sure that the “book” we traditionally think of will fit that medium. This doesn’t answer your question, I realize, but I’m a big believer in what’s going on with Amazon, Sony, and Apple these days. For the individual writer, I guess what I’d like to see are those same two issues addressed: (1) write a dazzling book with (2) a dazzling premise. And then, once the author has the publishing deal, learn to sell the hell out of the book, and not wait for the publisher to do so.

 

Escape stories

You’ve been quoted as saying that escape stories are a particular interest of yours. Are there really any great uncharted literary wildernesses out there to escape to anymore? Or has it basically all been conquered and mapped?

I’m continually amazed at how many “escape stories” I receive every day—easily 5 to 15, which works out to probably about 400 or 500 a year. So people are definitely writing stories that put the reader in a unique, different world (the problem, though, is that in most of those cases the writing isn’t quite strong enough).

 

On publishing houses

Are modern publishing houses, in your opinion, really representing consumer tastes, or are they simply producing safe, priced-to-sell, run-of-the-mill pot-boilers to keep the cash tills busy and the customer anaesthetised by mediocrity? Or was it ever any different?

I think publishing tends to exist a bit on an island—in the U.S., for instance, most publishers are on an island (in Manhattan). I think that’s definitely a concern; it does feel that publishers aren’t quite in touch with what the consumer wants. That said, in the U.S., so much is controlled, for instance, by big-box retailers who are afraid of offending people that often publishing must keep to the safe side, simply to get shelf space. Big publishing houses certainly aren’t right for all writers—self-publishing, or niche publishing, or specialty publishing, may present better, more creative outlets for some writers than the big guys.

 

Hate mail

How much has answering the previous question compromised you professionally?

We’ll find out, I guess, if I get hate mail or publishers start cutting me dead on the street.

 

Electronic books

It doesn’t appear that digital media is likely to wipe out the hardback or paperback in the foreseeable future. But do you view electronic books as a long term threat to the mainstream publishing industry, or as a timely technological development?

As I mentioned above, I think that digital technologies can absolutely save the industry. To me, it feels like a logical development. Publishers are in the business of creating content, but how that content is actually absorbed—through a printed page, through an audio recording, through a digital representation of the page on my iPhone—is of less importance.  I think publishers are realizing that they’re in the business of creating content; one of their biggest concerns is how they can continue to make that content relevant and accessible to the folks who want to access it.

 

Breakthrough novels

I've had numerous manuscripts rejected primarily because the books were considered “not big enough” and not “breakthrough”. Can you explain exactly what is meant by this, and what a writer can do to make a book big in a world where big doesn’t seem to be big enough anymore?

Describe your book to someone you don’t know. If they gasp and say, “Wow!”, that’s a good place to start. Then do it again, in a roomful of strangers. If, after you’ve described your book, you hear a collective gasp, I think you’re well on your way.

 

UK and US literary agents

In your experience, do writers have much chance of finding a literary agent outside of their own national borders? And if so, can you give us any examples of writers you currently, or have previously, represented from outside of the USA?

It really depends on what audience there is for the book. If you’re in the UK, and you’re writing about US subjects, it may make sense to look for a US agent; but it also may make more sense to find a UK agent. I do, from time to time, rep non-US authors, but there are also a lot of tax issues involved in this representation; sometimes it just feels like too much work to fill out all the paperwork for a non-US author. But if I’m excited enough by the subject and by the writing, the author’s residence won’t stop me (although it will give me pause).

 

Rejected manuscript submissions

Literary agents often talk about the importance of spelling and presentation with respect to manuscript submissions and query letters. Isn’t this simply short-sightedness and an excuse to reject otherwise good but unwanted material? In other words, would a modern Steinbeck or Bronte be rejected on a similar basis?

I think Steinbeck and Bronte might well be rejected. That said, good spelling and presentation seem like the basic building blocks of good writing. Not always, but usually.  If you don’t have the basic foundation in place, how are you supposed to construct a skyscraper?  To me, a strong knowledge of spelling and grammar (I’m less worried about presentation, since that’s easily fixed with the click of a button) often translate into the ability to craft better dialogue, to come up with more interesting metaphors, etc.  I remember one case a few years ago when I read a novel replete with typos—but it didn’t bother me because I’d actually, in a strange turn of events, already heard the author narrate the book—so his voice was in my ear as I read the words on the page. I did a very thorough copyedit on the book and we ended up selling the book nicely. But in that case the author had an amazing ear for dialogue, a wonderful sense of character, and was an absolutely dazzling writer.

 

Celebrity writers

A novel arrives on the desk of the average literary agent. The plot is hackneyed. The dialogue is stilted. The characters are wooden. The pace is agonisingly slow. But the author happens to be a famous sports person, actor or other celebrity. Does that pretty much guarantee representation and a publishing deal? In short, is it as crude and as cynical as that?

Having a platform—i.e. having a built-in audience—helps immensely. In this world where it’s hard to get any attention for any novel, having a famous author involved, who has name recognition and an already-identified fan base, makes a huge difference.

 

The future of publishing

Where do you see publishing in the next five or ten years? For instance, do you foresee any dramatic shifts coming, either as a result of technology or social changes, or do you think it will be business as usual, albeit at a reduced level until the world’s financial problems ease.

If a company like Apple makes a product like the long-awaited iPad, I think we could be at that moment comparable to when Gutenberg created his printing press—it’s a game-changing moment. When books (or the content in books) can become sexy, interactive, and rival the possibilities of other forms of entertainment (games, videos, movies, the internet, etc.), I think the industry will have an enormous resurgence. It might not be quite the same industry, but I can imagine people reveling in words and in storytelling.

 

Your own ambitions?

And what of your own ambitions? Where do you see yourself in five years?

Hopefully gainfully employed. Or retired, with lackays feeding me grapes and fanning me with palm leaves.

 

Bona fide literary agents

The publishing industry increasingly refuses to accept manuscripts except from bona fide literary agents—thereby limited direct access from writers. Given that a literary agent’s job is basically that of a salesman, and given that not all salesmen are good, what practical steps can a writer take to ensure that his own agent is doing a “stand up job” out there? Or is it simply a case of suck-it-and-see?

There are so very many websites out there that rank agents, and talk about the industry, that a quick Google search will make it clear what agents are doing a stand-up job.

 

 

Mr Edit YouTube videos

 

Meanwhile, here are some of my You Tube videos that might be of interest to you. Hope you enjoy them.
 

You Tube video for writers and authors

 

Mr Edit. Let's talk about dialogue

https://youtu.be/KG0CLm1S9Rs

 

 

 

You Tube literary agent video help

 

Mr Edit. Pitching fiction to a literary agent.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yy698w2Ooc8

 

 

 

You Tube video - how to write fiction

 

Mr Edit. 5 Minute Fiction Fix.

https://youtu.be/y6OPUfcDH90

 

 

 

You Tube video for authors and novelists

 

Mr Edit. Let's talk about tautology.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zhoBLImV6U

 

 

 

 

Links for writers

 

Preditors & Editors. Here's where you can check out the credentials of literary agents and publishers. A must for any writer.

http://pred-ed.com

 

Creative Helps. Helpful resource for the creative community. Articles, links and tips.

http://www.creativehelps.com/products.htm

 

Nick Daws' Writing Blog. Lots of useful posts on all aspects of writing, both for print and online, plus a guest post for anyone who wants to make a contribution. Check it out.

http://www.mywritingblog.com

 

 

 

 

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Jeff Kleinman, literary agent

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Crème de la Crime:
An interview with Lynne Patrick, publisher and managing editor of a smallerbut essentialBritish publishing house.


 

 

 

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mike@mr-edit-literary-services.co.uk

or

MikeMrEdit@AOL.com