Krista Bean (Scripts & Scribes): Your agency, BookEnds, was originally a book packaging company. How did you make the jump to literary agency?
Jessica Faust: I’m not sure it was a really huge jump. We’d been doing a fair number of projects as a packager, but struggled creatively. We just weren’t getting the enjoyment out of it that we thought we should be and, honestly, felt like there were so many great books and opportunities that we were missing. That there were bigger books out there that we weren’t getting a hold of. We also came from a fiction background and missed that a lot. The change was pretty seamless. We continued our relationships with the houses we were doing the most packaging with (Dummies guides and Complete Idiot’s Guides) and established an agency contract with writers rather than a packaging contract. And then we made the news public by announcing ourselves to writers groups, websites and letting conferences know that we would love to attend. It really just took on a life of its own after that.
Krista: What’s the toughest part about your job? The most fun part?
Jessica: There’s no doubt that the toughest part is the rejection. It’s finding a project that you fall in love with, can’t stop talking about and want to share with the world, but struggle to find a publisher who sees what you see. And from the agent side there’s also a level of personal responsibility that goes along with those rejections. By showing our enthusiasm for a project, and convincing the author that we would be a great partner to work with, it’s hard not to feel a bit like you’re letting someone down with each of those rejections.
The most fun part, by far, is the call. Whether it’s the call to let an author know you’d like to represent her or the call to let an author know that she got an offer on that book she loves so much. No matter how many years I’ve been doing this that call never gets old.
Krista: You go into detail on your agency page about what you look for in a query letter. How do you feel about queries that break the mold in terms of style, formatting or voice – are those authors seen as interesting risk-takers who think outside the box, or merely people who can’t/won’t follow instructions?
Jessica: I’m all about breaking molds. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t broken a few myself. That being said, I think with everything you have to go in with some idea of how the mold is going to break when you hit it so that the glass doesn’t shatter and hurt you.
No matter what you’re writing whether it’s your manuscript, your query letter, or your synopsis the most important thing is going to be the voice. It’s an author’s voice that makes readers, agents and editors fall in love with that author over and over again. Formatting can be somewhat loose. You don’t have to put the title first or open with the word count. Our guidelines might appear strict, but they became that way simply because authors asked for them over and over, many seemed to want a template they could follow. The key to any template however is that you use it as a guide and make it your own. Ultimately though, the one thing I read in every query letter is the blurb. Often I skim through the rest. If the blurb grabs me I don’t care what the rest has to say and, frankly, if the blurb turns me off I probably don’t care about the rest either.
Krista: At what point in reading a manuscript do you know that it is – or isn’t – for you?
Jessica: Ah. The question every writer asks, but no one really wants to know the answer to. Honestly, it depends. Sometimes I read almost the entire book before making a decision, and sometimes I barely make it through a paragraph or two.
I think my best answer is to throw the same question back at readers. At what point in reading a book do you know that it is or isn’t for you? It’s the same with manuscripts. At some point you just know, but that point is probably different for everything you read.
Krista: You’re a regular speaker at writers’ conferences. What do you consider the most important aspect of a conference for aspiring writers?
Jessica: I can tell you what the least important aspect is. Pitches. I think there is far too much emphasis on the importance of pitch appointments which are, basically, glorified query letters. The best thing an author can do at a conference is listen, schmooze and learn.
Go the panels and really listen. The authors who have the most success don’t sit there and think how they do all of that or bitterly wonder how that person got published. The ones who have the most success are the authors who listen to what others say and really think about how they can incorporate that advice into their own work.
Schmooze. Spend time at the bar meeting new people. You never know when you’ll need a cover quote or end up sitting next to an agent. You want to know the best time to talk to an agent? It’s at the table over a meal or at the bar over a drink, or relaxing and getting some sun. Don’t give the agent a pitch, just spend time talking with the agent (or editor) about the business. Find out what’s selling, what’s hot and find out about the agent. Then, when everything is over, send the agent a query reminding her of what a nice time you had. I bet she remembers you better than any pitch.
Krista: How important is it that a writer has an online presence – both before signing with an agent, and after his/her book is published?
Jessica: I like to think it’s not important at all, but I’ll be skewered by many of my colleagues. I think that publishers consider this, some more than others, but I also think if the book really wows someone they forget about this aspect all together. This is all prior to being published of course.
Once an author is published I think it’s important to make sure you have a presentable and professional website, one that you regularly keep updated. I also think that it’s important to be active and involved on some sort of social network. Not every single one, but the one that you connect with the most. That could be Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Instagram or whatever new forum appears by the time this actually prints. The world now is online so it’s vitally important that if you want to connect with readers you need to go where they are.
Krista: Tying into the previous question, how much self-promotion should an author be willing to do?
Jessica: As much as she can while still getting the next book done. I don’t think there’s any concrete answer to this. Some authors feel like they need to spend a certain number of hours each day self-promoting, while others simply like to stay in their hole writing the next book. Ultimately self-promotion only really works if an author is excited about what she’s doing Tweeting isn’t going to work for you if you find Twitter overwhelming and boring, but if you’re a crafter who loves posting project ideas to Pinterest that might be the best forum for you.
In the end I do think authors need to do something, they need to get out there and toot their own horns and realize that selling themselves and their books is a huge part of being a business owner. But you also need to carefully balance the time you spend promoting with the most important marketing tool and that’s the time you need to write your next book.
Krista: What are your favorite books (that you haven’t represented)?
Jessica: Anything Sarah Addison Allen writes.
A Little Princess
**those were the first that popped into my head so I’ll stop there.
Krista: Coffee – cream and sugar or black?
Jessica: My preference is a decaf Americano with milk (whole milk please). Or if I’m really treating myself a decaf venti one pump mocha.
But my all time favorite mocha is from this little coffee shop in a small town in MN. They use homemade ganache for their mocha and there’s no way anyone could ever beat that.
Krista: Mac or PC?
Jessica: Mac forever. I’ve never owned a PC and I never will.
Krista: East Coast or Midwest?
Jessica: Midwest wins every time. Especially Minnesota. That’s where my heart is.
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