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
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Helpful words for unpublished authors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unpublished authors have two strikes against them: first, they tend not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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
How much has answering the previous question compromised
We’ll find out, I guess, if I get hate mail or publishers
start cutting me dead on the street.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Meanwhile, here are
some of my You Tube videos that might be of interest to you.
Hope you enjoy them.
Mr Edit. Let's talk about dialogue
Mr Edit. Pitching fiction to a literary
Mr Edit. 5 Minute Fiction Fix.
Mr Edit. Let's talk about tautology.
Links for writers
& Editors. Here's where you can check out the credentials
of literary agents and publishers. A must for any writer.
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both for print and online, plus a guest post for anyone who
wants to make a contribution. Check it out.