Lit Agent, Jim Donovan: Get Published Before You’re Published

By Jeff Rivera Comment

Dallas-based veteran literary agent, Jim Donovan has seen the world of books from every angle, editor, book seller, and author. In our interview with him, he tells us what editors are currently looking for and why “good” may not be good enough anymore.

What’s your official title and why are you the best agent in the universe?

I’m president and owner of Jim Donovan Literary. I’ve been an agent for 17 years, during which time I’ve sold hundreds of books to all the major publishers and other good ones as well. Some of them have been New York Times bestsellers. Many have been optioned for film. I was previously a book editor, and before that a buyer for a bookstore chain, and before that I worked in a bookstore for four years. I’ve worn just about every hat you can wear in this business (I’m also a writer–A TERRIBLE GLORY was published by Little, Brown in 2008), and I like to think that my wide experience has helped me to be a better agent. For instance: every nonfiction book is marketed and acquired on the basis of a proposal. The chances of selling it, and the size of the advance, are directly proportional to the quality of the proposal, and I’m amazed at the mediocre and/or sloppy proposals I see out there–some of them potentially saleable book projects hijacked by sloppy editing or writing and unfocused arguments. Book editors are extremely sensitive to those kind of problems, and will be influenced either consciously or subconsciously. So an agent without the necessary editing skills is short-changing the writer.

What have you done to brace yourself for the economic changes to the industry? What can authors do to avoid eating Ramen noodles and counting pennies?

Personally I like Ramen noodles, as long as chocolate’s involved. The recent recession hit the book industry just like it did every other business, and even though we’re emerging from the chasm, book sales haven’t completely recovered, so publishers are being much more careful than they were a few years ago. Bottom line, that means less books acquired. Publishers won’t take a flyer on something interesting anymore–if they’re not convinced that the book will sell well, it’s almost impossible to get a contract. And since less books are being sold by bookstores, that monetary loss works back up the chain, and advances are down. I’ve heard phrases such as “Fifty is the new hundred,” though I don’t think everything’s been cut in half. But it’s definitely gotten tougher out there. But a great idea and great writing combined in a kick-ass proposal or novel trump everything.

For the author trying to get published, this means they need to polish their writing just as they always have. The problem with 90% of the queries I see is that the author’s not ready for prime time. Every writer wants to jump straight to a book contract even if they’ve never been published before. That almost never happens in nonfiction–if they don’t have any publishing credits, they need to get published in short form in a reputable magazine. That makes them professional, and NY publishers take notice of that. It means that a reputable magazine–and by that I mean one with standards of editorial acceptance, meaning they don’t accept everything–considers their writing to be good enough to pay money for. Without that, well–unless the author has an extremely strong platform, publishers are reluctant to take a chance on risking tens of thousands of dollars on someone who’s never been published anywhere, much less written a published book. Would you pay someone $50,000 to build you a house if they’ve never constructed anything, not even a chair? That’s at least how much a NY publisher invests in even the smallest book–advance, editing, design, printing, shipping, marketing, etc.

What do you think about all these technological changes happening? How have they changed the marketplace?

It’s just starting, and I don’t think anyone knows exactly where it’s going. In ten years the business model will probably be drastically different. I think most of us are holding our breath and waiting to see what happens. But there will always be a need for publishers. Although if the public expects a new book to be $10, no one can make money at that price point.

What’s hot now, what are editors looking for?

What’s hot now probably won’t be hot in 2-3 years, when a manuscript being started today would be published. Writers should write what they have a passion for. Occult romance doesn’t look like it’s going away, but I’d be surprised if it’s as hot a few years from now as it is now. The nature of a hot subject or genre is to expand quickly and then cool.

And what type of manuscripts and proposals are you currently looking for that never seem to get?

It’s hard to say what types of material I never get–it all goes back to the writing. Good writing is almost underestimated, I think, and it’s the element that separates what buyers will pay from what they won’t. Book editors are fond of saying, “It’s all in the writing,” and I think it’s true. I don’t think most writers work hard enough at improving their writing. I’ll probably get a hundred emails expressing outrage at that statement, but so be it.

What’s the best way for writers to approach you? And what’s one of your pet peeves when writers query you?

For nonfiction, I need a well-thought query letter telling me about the book: What it does, how it does it, why it’s needed now, why it’s better or different than what’s out there on the subject, and why the author is the perfect writer for it.

For fiction, the novel has to be finished, of course; if I agreed to look at partials, I’d never have time for anything else. But a short (2 to 5 page) synopsis–not a teaser, but a summary of all the action, from first page to last–and the first 30-50 pages is enough. Again, this material should be polished to as close to perfection as possible. Most of the fiction I see looks like a first draft that was spell-checked, grammar-checked, and sent out. I don’t think most writers understand how much revision is done by established writers. Self-editing is difficult, but you’ve got to become decent at it. And of course the first few pages better be very, very good. If I’m not grabbed by the first 5-10 pages, I don’t read any more. I know an editor won’t–why should I?

Producing publishable writing is hard, if you’re doing it right. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

And finally, what is something about you that very few people know?

I was raised on PB&Js, and still eat entirely too many of them.