Interview with Literary Agent Jeff Kleinman

I often wonder how other writers manage social media and self promotion. It is a necessary evil but it often comes at the cost of writing time. Creating this balance seems to be crucial in the publishing world right now.

In this year’s Publishing Day, I hope to explore this issue more, with the panel members and Reedsy co-founder Ricardo Fayet, who will be giving two workshops on platform and marketing.

In the meantime, we interviewed panelist Jeff Kleinman who is a literary agent, intellectual property attorney, and founding partner of Folio Literary Management, LLC, a New York literary agency. He loves unique voices, magnificently strong characters, unusual premises, and books that offer up some new perspective on something he thought he already knew something about or never even dreamed existed. He represents bestselling authors Garth SteinEowyn Ivey,Jacqueline MitchardElizabeth LettsKaren Dionne, and Charles Shields; as well as many first novels, including Benjamin Ludwig’s Ginny Moon, Val Emmich’s The Reminders, and Rhiannon Navin’s Only Child.

Agents play a unique role in the literary world as they are wedged between the creative world of writing and the commercial world of publishing.  From the perspective of someone who bridges the two worlds, what advice do you have for writers regarding developing and maintaining positive and professional relationships with the commercial side of writing (agents, editors, and publishers)?

Keep a positive attitude. Sometimes writers seem to think that the “business” side of the publishing world is out to change them, get them, destroy them – when in actuality we’re usually just trying to get the best book that can connect with the most people. Know that’s where we’re (almost always) coming from. Publishing can be a grueling, low-paying business – we do it because we love books, love the written word – not because we’re out to squash a writer’s creativity. So remain positive, engage us in dialogue, remember that we want the best for both you and your book.

The ways that people discover new books has changed over the last decade, and there seems to be increased pressure for authors to engage with social media platforms.  This almost seems to create a “second job” for writers, who may want to put more focus onto their craft.  In your opinion, how important is an author’s platform?  Do you have any advice for striking a healthy balance?

It used to be that books were either “review driven” or “publicity driven” – now that so many book review venues are gone, and with the rise of the self-publishing juggernaut, the public may have a more difficult time figuring out how to find new/interesting books to read simply because there are so many books available. That said, the essential issue of how people will discover your book hasn’t really changed all that much: the author – and the author’s voice – drive readers to her books. All social media does is make it easier to get to, and engage, those readers. What has changed, certainly, is that readers feel a closer relationship to writers, and can be more emotionally engaged with them than before.

Publishers are looking for authors who can effectively engage readers – there’s no question about it. An engaged readership buys books. But twitter doesn’t really convert to booksales – if you have 100 twitter followers, you might sell 1 book. (if 100 facebook followers, 20 book). The best way of really engaging your reader, at this moment in time, is through email newsletters: if you have 100 followers, you might sell 50 books. Social media just makes people aware of your voice and hopefully drives them to signing up for your newsletter and becoming engaged readers.

My advice, then, is to limit marketing – social media, email newsletters, etc. – to maybe an hour a day. Maybe less. You can even set aside a couple of hours once a week and create enough posts for a week. It doesn’t at all have to be a full-time job, and shouldn’t be.

I understand that beyond being a literary agent, you are also an intellectual property lawyer.  I imagine intellectual property rights have significantly transformed in the Internet Era.  If we were to focus on the basics, what questions would you advise writers to ask during the initial stages of the publishing process?

Make sure that before you sign any publishing deal that you continue to own the rights to your work – that you’re granting your publisher a license to publish the work, but not own it outright. I’d always advise finding a publishing attorney (not your brother-in-law the divorce attorney) to review a contract.

As someone who often hears and reads story pitches, do you have any advice for being concise during a pitch, while still generating interest?

I never like the idea of “pitches” – that always feels too Hollywood to me. Think of being able to describe your book in a few sentences, but don’t get hung up on the actual wording of the description: what’s important is the idea behind the book, not the actual words that are used to make up your brief description of your work. The big problem is not the actual words, but that you’re spending time working on a project that might feel too familiar, or somehow turn a reader off. A couple of examples: I see a lot of women’s fiction where X [husband, sister, mom] dies and Woman has to return to [husband’s home, Woman’s home, mom’s home] to figure out what happened, and in so doing resolves the central issue in Woman’s own life. When I see this kind of familiar plot, it’s generally something I’ll skip reading because it feels too familiar. Similarly, reading about child molesting is often a big turn-off. These types of topics (too familiar, too off-putting) may make a publishing professional less excited about your work no matter how dazzling the “pitch” is.

Keep in mind that a pitch can be extremely effective: as a tool to describe your book,
as a roadmap to keep you on track (if as you’re writing you see the book going off-track, having that pitch in mind may steer your novel back on course), and as an indication that the book is ready to be seen by agents and editors (if you can’t describe your book concisely, it often means that you haven’t quite digested it yet, that you still need to edit and polish it a bit more to really hone in on what’s critical about the book).

Can you tell us about a debut author you’re excited to launch in 2018?  What made their writing stand out to you?

I’m really excited about Rhiannon Navin’s ONLY CHILD, debuting from Knopf (and multiple other publishers worldwide) in early February. It’s a heartbreaking story that I thought would be tough to sell – it’s narrated by a first-grader whose brother is killed by a school shooter, and it becomes up to the first-grader to save his disintegrating family and community. I don’t tend to do books with dead kids in them – I find those kinds of projects personally too difficult to read – but this book wasn’t about dead kids: it’s a book about hope, and sorrow, and resilience. It’s gorgeously written by a woman who has no publication credentials, no social media following – and English isn’t even her first language (she’s German). But the voice is so strong and so heartrending that I couldn’t put the book down. Rhiannon’s the mother of three boys, and she spent a lot of time listening to how they really speak – and Only Child reflects this.

Find out more about Florence Writers’ Publishing Day.

 

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