Interview: Jeff Kleinman, Agent
Jeff Kleinman is an agent that believes in a personal touch. He makes quick decisions on submissions, (always a blessing in the eyes of authors), he is clear in his guidelines, and he is someone that truly follows his heart in publishing. Kleinman isn’t after big bucks or celebrity names necessarily, instead, he just wants books that he loves. Kleinman has been gracious enough to answer questions for me a couple of times now and you can hear in his voice that he loves his job and loves the projects he represents.
For our Slushpile interview, Kleinman gave some advice about submitting to multiple agents within the same company, about building up your name, and on the need to wait until the manuscript is ready before sending it out. One topic of conversation that particularly interested me was Kleinman’s explanation about Ron McLarty’s book The Memory of Running. I’ve had a couple of manuscripts forced upon me recently, riddled with typos, spelling errors, and even characters whose names inexplicably change, and these misguided authors all say the industry just doesn’t want to recognize their talent. These people invoke McLarty’s name the way deathbed patients conjure the saints. They talk about how McLarty was rejected for years and years and it was only Stephen King’s divine intervention that saved him.
But, as Kleinman points out, McLarty simply wrote a helluva book. A book that attracted serious attention from publishers before King published his magazine article. And it was not McLarty’s first novel either, but the result of years and years of honing his craft. Far from being the beneficiary of an endorsement, McLarty created his own good fortune and enjoyed the fruits of many laborious years. Read on as Kleinman sets the record straight and also discusses a debut novel that he adores.
Slushpile: Please tell us about your background. How did you become a literary agent?
Kleinman: I was working as an intellectual property attorney; my firm shared offices with a literary agency. I started reading manuscripts for the agency, and got more and more involved in that part of the industry. When my law firm and the literary agency all split up, I ended up going off with a couple of the literary agents … and the rest is history.
Slushpile: Many agents and editors have horror stories of writers finding their home and leaving manuscripts on their doorstep or sliding pages under the stall in public restrooms or some other craziness. What is the funniest or craziest thing anyone has done to get you to read their manuscript?
Kleinman: Ya know, I think all the other people have more fun than I do (I was at the Maui Writer’s Conference recently, and a colleague told me how she went out snorkeling – and some woman swam up to her and started telling her about the manuscript, in the middle of the ocean!). Alas, I find most people just talk to me via normal channels. I obviously don’t lurk in the right public restrooms.
Slushpile: What is the rule about submitting to other agents within the same firm? Let’s say that I submitted to an agent in your company and never got a response. Is it okay to try you in that case? What if I submitted to you and you rejected my work. Is it okay to try one of your colleagues after being rejected by you?
Kleinman: This will depend on each agency. At Graybill & English, you can certainly contact the other agents, but it’s really a good idea to say that another agent has seen/rejected/never responded to your previous query.
Slushpile: When a writer submits a non-fiction book proposal, they usually submit a table of contents or an outline. But what should a writer do if they do not know how a book is going to turn out? For example, if a writer approached you with an idea for a narrative nonfiction book about visiting Civil War battlegrounds and trying to find dead Confederates named Ginobli, they aren’t going to know their success or failures before actually going to those cemeteries. They are not going to be able to predict their experiences until they go on that trip. So how can they provide an outline in this case?
Kleinman: Why should a publisher provide a first-time writer an advance – possibly a big chunk of change – when the writer doesn’t know how the story is going to turn out? Maybe, before tackling a book, try selling a magazine piece, or in some other way financing the investigation; then come to the publishers for the book deal.
Slushpile: Please give an honest, no-nonsense, no-holds-barred evaluation of this situation. I researched an agent and saw that she listed on her submission guidelines that she handles narrative nonfiction projects about art. I also looked at her recent sales and saw some of the titles she has handled that are narrative nonfiction projects about art. I sent her my proposal about a narrative nonfiction piece about literature and she quickly responded with a nice note that said “this is not the type of project I represent.” Part of me felt like I had not done enough research and had wasted her time. But another part of me felt like “what more could I do?” My question to you is… was her reply just an attempt to soften the blow of rejection? Or should I have somehow figured out that she only represents narrative nonfiction projects about art, but not similar projects about literature?
Kleinman: Are you sure that she’s rejected the project because it’s “literature”? Maybe it’s a bit academic, or seemed like it would be a bit “small” (meaning there wouldn’t be a lot of readers for it). Maybe she didn’t like your writing, or your background for writing the piece. Just because she handles books within the subject matter of your book doesn’t mean that she’d think she’d be successful and passionate about your book. That said, knowing what agents are interested in is also a good way of figuring out what they’re successful and passionate about selling.
Slushpile: Give us an idea of the longest shot you’ve taken on a writer. Was there someone who didn’t have a good book or good proposal, but you saw promise in and nurtured along? In the sports world, they talk about “project players” that can’t contribute right away, but have the potential to grow into stars if coached properly. Do you take on any writers like this?
Kleinman: I think everybody does. We take on projects because we fall in love with them, or because they’re personally important to us, or because we think there’s something wonderful there. Agents aren’t just cold calculators, trying to grub the next buck – we’re people who do this job because we love to read, and love books, and love the writing process.
Slushpile: One of your major successes recently was Ron McLarty’s The Memory of Running. Have you guys sent any champagne to Stephen King? Maybe some baseball tickets?
Kleinman: Ron’s been in touch with him a lot, thanking him for all he did.
Slushpile: Take us through the heady days and weeks after Stephen King’s article was published in Entertainment Weekly. What was it like to go from rejections to suddenly being one of the hottest properties in the industry?
Kleinman: I didn’t handle Ron McLarty’s book when it was rejected around NY. I took it on a couple of years after it had gone on submission, with another agency. So that’s a bit of a misconception, at least as far as I’m concerned. As for one of the “hottest properties” or anything like that – I’m afraid that I just don’t function like that. Ron McLarty wrote a wonderful book, and he got some big names behind him, and he had a lot of publishers wanting to work with him – which is always completely gratifying and cool. The phone literally didn’t stop ringing, and that’s a lot of fun.
Slushpile: Does it bother you at all that McLarty toiled in complete rejection and obscurity for 35 years and then the industry suddenly wants him because of an article written by Stephen King? Is McLarty’s novel worth the advance or is it really King’s endorsement that is worth the advance? Obviously, it’s great news for your very deserving client, and I’m sure you’re thrilled it happened, but what does it say about the industry that it reacts to not the writing, but rather the endorsement.
Kleinman: I’m afraid that I absolutely have to disagree with you. I had six- and seven-figure offers on the table before the Stephen King piece aired. Stephen King helped – helped a lot, no doubt about it. But publishers fell in love with the book that Ron wrote. Ron’s an exceptionally talented writer, and he wrote the book. The endorsement helped, and made publishers sit up and take notice, but they didn’t buy a Stephen-King-Endorsement: they bought a book that they fell in love with.
Slushpile: Let’s say that I am a young writer and I get a book deal with a small publisher. Despite all my best efforts, I cannot seem to provide my editor with what he wants. His comments contradict each other, he changes his mind on the goals of this nonfiction, how-to book, and we cannot seem to communicate. I don’t have an agent and represented myself in signing the deal. The publisher has not paid me any money. Is it okay to ask the publisher to release me from the contract or is it better for my career to just suffer through it and try to give the editor whatever he wants, regardless of my opinions of the book? Or can I go over the editor’s head and ask the publisher to assign me another editor?
Kleinman: I’d first of all be sure that the writer get everything from the editor in writing. If the editor appears to be contradictory, discuss the differences as politely and as helpfully as you can. Most editors don’t expect you to implement all of their changes – they feel lucky when they can get 80% of them through. If things are going from bad to worse, though, and if the book really doesn’t seem to be doing what you want it to, it may make sense to bow out of the book deal – it will really depend, of course – but the concern that I’d have is that if the author doesn’t have a vision for the book, and/or if the editor isn’t able to communicate the vision, then there’s a problem which will manifest itself in the final book – and may well result in a not-very-good book.
Slushpile: In the above scenario, if the writer had representation, would the agent handle this conflict?
Kleinman: It really depends on the agent – some agents just do the deal; others are around for the whole process. Usually, though, if the agent is involved, the agent can act as an intermediary in this situation. A lot of times agents can explain the editor’s vision in terms that the author can understand – and can help the author achieve the editor’s vision in the process.
Slushpile: What catches your attention? What is the thing that really grabs you when you pick up a good query?
Kleinman: A fresh, unique voice, and a surprising, intriguing character.
Slushpile: What would you like to see more authors do when submitting to you?
Kleinman: Wait until the manuscript’s ready to go before submitting it. Most writers finish the book and ship it out to agents way before it’s ready. The writers don’t have the characters quite true, the dialogue honed, the plot as polished as it can be.
Slushpile: What would you like to see more authors incorporate into their writing? Better character development or maybe better plot or maybe better language, etc?
Kleinman: Learn how to write real, effective, beautifully crafted, interesting, believable characters. This seems to be the most difficult thing for first-time writers to do; it’s a real art, and something that writers don’t spend enough time thinking about or doing.
Slushpile: What is the most common mistake you see writers make in their pitches to you?
Kleinman: Going on too long – trying to describe the book in pages and pages, instead of being able to boil it down to a single pithy sentence.
Slushpile: How many submissions do you receive?
Kleinman: 300-400 per week.
Slushpile: How many of those submissions are thrown out immediately because they are for topics you don’t handle or genres you don’t represent?
Kleinman: About 30-40%.
Slushpile: How many of those submissions are in the proper areas, but are just so poorly written that they are thrown out almost immediately?
Kleinman: About 40-50%.
Slushpile: Ultimately, how many submissions are seriously considered?
Kleinman: I’ll take about 5-10% from the slushpile home with me to read and think about.
Slushpile: What is the quickest you have ever sold a manuscript? What book was it? What made it sell so quickly?
Kleinman: Robert Hicks’s The Widow of the South. I sent it out on a Tuesday and sold it the following Friday, based on the first 100-odd pages. It’s an amazing first novel – beautifully written. I so love that book.
Slushpile: Do agents remember writers they reject? Let’s say that I am writer and I submit a query to you that may have errors, or may show that I’m inexperienced and you reject it. Then, I later submit a second idea to you. What are the chances that you remember my first submission? Will that first bad submission somehow factor into your evaluation of the second submission?
Kleinman: Depends on the submission, and the writer. We remember more than you’d give us credit for. As for whether #1 would factor into #2, I doubt it – if #2’s fabulous, #2’s fabulous.
Slushpile: What is your advice for writers with a nonfiction idea that they cannot tackle without an advance? Should they quit their job, sell everything, and live hand-to-mouth to get started on the idea or should they wait until hopefully one day they get a book deal and an advance?
Kleinman: I say write the proposal in your spare time, and then sell the book for enough money to be able to write it.
Slushpile: Do you think a writer should focus on his specific work or focus on work that will get him attention, but maybe in a different area. For example, let’s say that I am a fiction writer working on a novel. I can focus exclusively on writing that novel and try to make it as good as I can. Or, I can take a job writing a blog about movies which may get me hundreds of thousands of readers, but in a different medium and genre. Which one is more valuable, making my novel the best it can be or getting exposure and publications for my resume?
Kleinman: I don’t think this is a valid question, frankly. So let me answer a question I’d rather you’d asked: should you focus on fiction, or on nonfiction, to build up your platform? Answer: it depends. Of course. If you want to sell a novel, it certainly helps to have a “platform” – to have some kind of name recognition. More importantly, though, if you want to sell a novel (to a big commercial press), you have to write the absolute best novel you can write. Very very few writers can hit the ball out of the park on the first time up – it takes a lot of practice, a lot of time, a lot of building up the writing muscles. So, if you want to focus on fiction, write a great novel. If, on the other hand, you want to write nonfiction, then building up your platform is really crucial – much more so than fiction.
So going back to your original question – building up your resume can be helpful, but far more important is building up your writing muscles and writing a great book.
Slushpile: How involved do you get with making changes and revisions to a work? Do you suggest revisions to your clients before submitting the work to publishers?
Kleinman: I’m completely irritatingly involved – but about 90% of my work is done before the book is sold. Clients regularly go through multiple drafts, hating me the whole time, before we submit it to a publisher. The good thing, though, is that once the book is sold the author has an easier time of it, since the author now knows exactly where the book will be going. (This is particularly true of nonfiction proposals, of course.)
Slushpile: I jokingly assume the old days of F. Scott Fitzgerald getting advances and loans from his agent are long gone?
Kleinman: Why assume that? I regularly pay for all expenses, although I ask to be reimbursed – and sending out a novel to 30-odd publishers can be expensive.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring writers?
Kleinman: Write what you’re passionate about.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring writers struggling to break into print?
Kleinman: Write what you’re passionate about, but don’t seem desperate. Use rejection letters as a tool: send say 10 query letters out; if you get 10 form rejects, rewrite your book and rethink why you’re the best person to write it. If you get 8 form rejects and 2 real letters, you’re on the right track; keep trying.