Dan Conaway, Literary Agent (part 1)

by Susan Henderson on October 29, 2008

Dan Conaway has been Executive Editor at Putnam, Executive Editor at HarperCollins, Director of Literary Acquisitions at PolyGram Films, Story Editor at Citadel/HBO, Creative Executive at Tribeca Films, and Associate Editor at W.W. Norton. While at HarperCollins, he gained a big following as the anonymous blogger, known as Mad Max Perkins, of BookAngst 101. Now he’s an agent at Writers House, an agency that represents such authors as Stephenie Meyer, Neil Gaiman, Ken Follett, Nora Roberts, Stephen Hawking, Barry Eisler, Ridley Pearson, Christopher PaoliniM.J. Rose, Dav Pilkey (Captain Underpants!), and Jim Sheeler (2008 National Book Award nominee).

Dan is not seeking new clients at this time. So chat with him here, send him oatmeal raisin cookies if you like, but please don’t send manuscripts. Got it?


Does a writer really need an agent?




On second thought—no. If the writer doesn’t care particularly about publishing her book? Or only cares that it gets published, as opposed to caring how it’s published? And isn’t especially concerned about publishing more than one book? That writer doesn’t need an agent.

Want a potentially sustainable career as a writer, though? Absolutely, categorically yes.

What about those who’ve sold their manuscripts on their own? Do they need an agent?

Let’s imagine you’re a terrifically fortunate individual licensed to operate a motor vehicle in the State of New Jersey. And one day, as result of your good fortune, nasty Aunt Trudi—who you were nice to, for reasons unbeknownst to me—chokes, and croaks, on account of a chicken bone. And, lo and behold, that turquoise 1957 Cadillac convertible she’s had up on blocks all these years is yours!

OK, I have no idea whether the ’57 Caddy came in turquoise, nor whether it sported the elegant tailfins I see so clearly on nasty Aunt Trudi’s. But let’s agree that it’s a lovely car, and valuable too, and something you’re probably not going to leave unlocked overnight on a side-street of Newark or Jersey City. Above all, let’s assume that, now that you own it, you’re going to want to drive it.

So let me ask you this, O Fortunate One: Is it your hope that this car will be your car, still, in a year? Two years? That, five years from now, you’ll still be able to turn the key and have that massive V-8 engine come roaring to life? Or is it your view that, since you got the car for free, you are free, also, of the obligation of having it serviced? Is it your intention simply to drive it hard, until it dies—and your expectation that, when it does, you’ll happily collect your thermos and snow-scraper from under the passenger seat, say one last goodbye to nasty Aunt Trudi, and shed nary a tear for the future sunset drives along the Hudson that might have been?

Okay, nut. And that means…?

What I’m saying is that negotiating an advance is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the value an agent can bring to a writer’s career; and the writer who manages to sell her book without an agent almost certainly loses more in the long run than the 15% she saves in commissions on that initial contract. (But even in terms of finances: most unagented authors sign away all sorts of rights—translation rights, film rights, and so forth—that an agent would reserve and sell separately, rights that can, and often do, generate as much or more income for a writer as whatever that initial offer would have been worth.)

People do, sometimes, have sustained careers without agents, but it’s more and more rare, and if (as happens sometimes) the editor who championed an unagented novel gets a new job at Little, Brown before that novel is published, the unagented author is most often shit-out-of-luck. An agent has leverage (simplistically, because he has multiple clients, clients the publisher may covet) within a house that an unagented author can’t match. Thus, for instance, the orphaned author with an agent is almost always going to be better cared for than she who is without.

So what should you do if, as in the fantasy, an editor finds your story in a small quarterly somewhere, gets in touch with you, reads your novel, loves your novel, and offers (say) $2,500 or $25,000 for that novel? You should say, Thanks—but before I accept, I need an agent—who do you recommend?

In as few words as you can, what’s the difference between an agent, an editor, a publisher, and a publicist? Can you, for example, skip the agent and replace him or her with a publicist?

Let me start with the easiest first: choosing a publicist instead of an agent is like hiring your kid’s ballet teacher to drive a back-hoe. What publicists know (and do) is focused entirely on the last quadrant of the book’s life, whereas what an agent does is spread out across the entire process, weighing in on many decisions along the way that can, sometimes, help ensure that a book doesn’t wind up shipping, say, 2500 copies. There’s no guarantee that staying on top of those small details will result in a great publication, but—well, no amount of publicity in the world is going to rescue a book that’s shipped 2500 copies.

I’m sure there are a thousand how-to books that can give this sort of information more concisely, but basically ALL of these people function, at different times and in different ways, as the traveling salesmen and –women who bring your book to market.

Agent sells to editor. Editor sells to editor’s boss, known typically as the publisher or the editor-in-chief. Publisher and editor jointly sell to various in-house departments—sales, marketing, subsidiary rights, publicity. Those departments then turn the selling back out-of-house, to their respective areas of responsibility (bookstores, reviewers, book clubs, foreign publishers), all toward the end (in principle) of generating increasing levels of enthusiasm for your book. The publicist is the last link in this chain, the person whose job it is (in principle) to convey to the outside world an image of a raging mass of in-house enthusiasm so great that any clueless member of the reviewing / reporting / interviewing / taste-making caste who isn’t on board NOW, in advance of the riot about to erupt in Cell-block E (E for Excitement!) is going to be a laughingstock in two weeks’ time.

See how simple?

And what about the “author sells to agent” phase—can you talk about that?

The writer’s gotta write the best and most perfect and most convincingly true iteration of the story s/he wants to tell, tell it so well that, sooner or later, after five tries or fifty, and despite enormous odds, it sneaks past the various subjective and institutional armors and defenses—circumstance & exhaustion & taste & (etc)—and plants a big fat arrow in the center of the bulls-eye with at least one single reader—and that’s how an agent becomes your agent: through alchemy.

Very rarely do first-time writers working in (let’s call it) literary fiction and nonfiction have any real marketable assets beyond what’s on the page. So usually it doesn’t comes down to whether somebody is or isn’t prepared to purchase 50,000 copies of your story collection to distribute via infomercial, does or doesn’t spend summers with Katie Couric’s nanny’s boyfriend. Usually it comes down to the chemical reaction that takes place when a particular set of eyes becomes eradiated by a particular manuscript that sets the synapses firing in a different way.

With a straight face, I’m going to ask: Do you edit your clients’ manuscripts? And do most agents mark them up with so much (truly illegible) ink?

Every agent’s different in this regard, and I probably spill more ink than most, but, yeah: generally authors should expect to get substantial editorial feedback from their agents. The more work a writer’s willing to do pre-submission, the better the chances are of the book selling, so I tend to push pretty hard if the author’s amenable. Once a book’s been sold, though, the agent needs to take a backseat to the acquiring editor.

One big difference between the editing I do now compared to when I was an editor is the work I do helping authors develop their nonfiction proposals, which is some of the most demanding and satisfying work I’ve ever done. It’s fascinating, actually, to be so intimately involved with figuring out what a book is really going to be about, how the story’s going to be told, addressing all sorts of questions that hadn’t ever really occurred to me before. You’d think that there’s a cookie-cutter formula for a good nonfiction proposal, but there’s not, and each arrives at its shape in completely different ways. I love it.

How does a writer begin the search for an agent?

The obvious stuff: have a reasonable sense of what your work might reasonably be compared to, then familiarize yourself with those works, then extract from the acknowledgments pages of those books (or from Michael Cader’s Publishers Marketplace) the identity of the agents for those books. And then figure out how to get to them. A blind query letter addressed to “Dear Michael Chabon’s Agent” is perhaps not the best way to go—but it’s a small world, even more so thanks to the literary blogosphere, so with a little dogged ingenuity there’s almost always some friend-of-a-friend access to be had that might improve you chances.

And what are some signs along the way that the search is going well?

I have no way to gauge that, honestly. If you send out a hundred query letters and 10 people say, Sure, send it along, I’d guess that’s a pretty good start. If the rejections when they come contain some specificity, that’s better than none, suggests that you’re connecting at some level. But there’s no way around it, this is a hard process. If there were a technique for distancing yourself from the responses you get, a Zen pill that allows you not to take it personally—but there’s not, of course.

The thing to remember is how profoundly subjective the experience of reading is; and for the most part it’s no less subjective for agents and editors than for anybody else. My personal experience, both as an editor and now as an agent, is that every single time I’ve tried to ignore my gut instincts about the writing itself (that is, every time I’ve decided pursue something I didn’t really love), or to convince myself that a topic was interesting to me even if I didn’t have a visceral (positive) reaction to the words as they lay on the page, it was a mistake. Consequently I pass on lots and lots of competent, professional, publishable stuff. And that’s how it should be. If that’s how I see your work, you don’t want me to offer to represent you. You want the guy who’s blown away by it. “I think this is publishable” is too low a bar.

If agents are so hard to come by, should a writer dare to be picky?

Absolutely. The only thing worse than no agent is an agent you don’t trust or who you suspect doesn’t love your work. The relationship between agent and writer is like marriage except without the sex. It’s often intense, and personal on all kinds of levels, and it requires enormous amounts of trust.

One thing I’d recommend: before you sign with an agent, ask around, find out who else he represents, what they think of him. Don’t be afraid to ask the agent for names and numbers of clients whose work is in the same writerly universe as yours. If he’s offended by the request then you don’t want him as your agent. It’s that simple.

Anything particularly concern you about the relationships writers have with their agents?

Here’s a thing I see too much of: writers who are afraid of their agents. Hey, folks, the agent works for you! Without you, without your “product” to sell, there’s no business, no commissions, nothing. It breaks my fucking heart, the number of times I hear actual adults in this business worrying about imposing on their agents. If you’re afraid of your agent, you need a new agent. You need to get back in therapy, too—but that’s another conversation.

If you think about the collection of query letters and manuscripts you’ve rejected, what would you say they had in common?

Here’s the thing: there are no reliable tricks. I did a presentation on query letters at a writers conference in Austin 15 months ago, and one old fucker stormed out when I told my classroom of retirees that the only part of a query letter that ever makes a difference is damn good writing. He got further incensed when I told him that a long letter’s a waste of both our time, since I know most of what I need to know about a writer’s chops in about a line and half. In the end it’s all about the writing.

If you look at the work you’ve accepted, what would you say it had in common?

I loved it. Loved something about it absolutely. I don’t mean it was perfect, it doesn’t have to be perfect, nothing’s ever perfect—if you think people are turning down your work because it’s not quite perfect, you’re deluding yourself, because an editor or an agent likes nothing better than finding something that’s wonderful but not quite “there” yet, something that they can make a bit of a contribution to.

I’m relatively new to agenting (I joined Writers House about 18 months ago) so perhaps this’ll change—but at present I’m still green enough to imagine that if I love something, somebody else is going to love it too. Which is another way of saying that if I love it then it doesn’t occur to me that I can’t sell it, regardless of the limitations, say, of the genre to which it belongs. And that’s why, sooner or later, I will sell it.

If you look at the work you accepted but couldn’t sell, what would you say it had in common? What happens to the wonderful people with promising manuscripts you find unsellable?

So far, the stuff I’ve been unable to sell—with one exception—has been stuff that was outside my wheelhouse, projects aimed at markets I have no personal experience in, or stuff I chose with my brain rather than with my heart. Failing to sell a book is an exhausting and demoralizing process for any agent, and infinitely more so, of course, for the author. And it’s for those worst-case scenarios, especially, that it’s so important that you trust your agent, that you’re confident that your agent really believes in your work; conversely, it’s because of these circumstances that I know more and more clearly that it’s a mistake for me to agree to take on somebody’s work unless I’m completely crazy about it.

If I am completely crazy for it? Then we’ll succeed, sooner or later—if later, then perhaps we’ll have put to good use some of the feedback from editors who’ve rejected it, nuggets that help us determine a course of revision that might help address a flaw we’d missed the first time around. Back in January ’08 I began submitting a novel that straddles genres and is hard to categorize—a book I’d have loved to publish as an editor, and something I expected I’d sell for a lot of money. Six, seven months later, after 61 rejections and one substantial revision, I finally put it in the right editor’s hands, and she fell in love with the book in the same way I had.


Okay, guys, jump in with your comments. And then check out Part 2 of this interview….

{ 78 comments… read them below or add one }

Nathalie October 29, 2008 at 3:00 am

Ah so I don’t need an agent!
(Although I am told otherwise by various people)
That was a very interesting discussion indeed and I am looking forward to the second part. Thank you both for this. Questions might (or not) arise when sufficient caffeine has been brought in.


EllenMeister October 29, 2008 at 6:00 am

Terrific interview! Thank you, both.

I do have a question. Dan, you said that once a book’s been sold, the agent needs to take a backseat to the acquiring editor. But how does that work? Do your clients still send you their work before they show it to their editors? Do they send it to you and their editor simultaneously? Do you provide feedback at that point?


marilynpeake October 29, 2008 at 10:23 am

Thank you for such an informative interview! I have a few questions for Dan Conaway. What happens if you read a manuscript that you find well-written and publishable, but you don’t love it enough to offer representation? Do you let the author know that it’s a good manuscript, or do you send a form rejection letter? It’s often very difficult for writers to know if their work is publishable after receiving a few rejection letters. Also, do you ever represent authors based on their ability, rather than on one specific manuscript? Thank you for your time.
– Marilyn Peake


Amy_Nathan October 29, 2008 at 11:55 am

With regard to the old fucker – I think that’s reminiscent of the fact that many writers, in addition to the general public think they understand the publishing business. You did those folks a service, if they believed you. As a writer I have people telling me all the time, “You should write a book and send it to a publisher.” I just smile and say, “Great idea.” It’s like a secret club — those who have the information, process it, play by the rules and make the system work — and it’s blogs and websites and books and interviews that give writers who want them — the tools to make it work in this and any publishing climate. Thanks!


SusanHenderson October 29, 2008 at 1:08 pm

Hi Nathalie! What part of the interview made you decide that?


SusanHenderson October 29, 2008 at 1:08 pm

Dan’s away on a business trip, but hopefully he’ll pop in at the end of the week and answer these great questions.


SusanHenderson October 29, 2008 at 1:12 pm

Great question, Marilyn! And welcome!

We’ll see what Dan says, but here’s what I think. At the crux of this whole process, from the writer’s perspective, is the ongoing sense of being crushed. When I was a magazine editor, I was always so careful to tell writers when I thought their work was publishable and who might want it. It took some extra time, but I didn’t want my subjective view about what was right for my magazine at that particular time to give anyone a false idea that they weren’t really talented.


SusanHenderson October 29, 2008 at 1:14 pm

Hi Amy, and yay for the shout-out to all the bloggers and secret-spillers who are trying to make this road more navigable.


billiehinton October 29, 2008 at 1:45 pm

What a great interview!

My first novel has had two agents and was shopped around to 11 editors with great responses but no sale. I decided last year to give it one more shot, and Mr. Conaway graciously read it and sent me a letter back that made me burst into tears. Not because he turned it down (he did) but because he laid out the same praise I’d been hearing all along and then, very succinctly, exactly nailed the problem, and I was broken-hearted but grateful to finally get feedback that resonated.

I’ve moved on to the next novel now, and wahhhh! I’m so sorry to learn he’s not seeking new clients, because of course he was the first one on my list to query the new one!

You’re lucky to have him and vice versa!!


marilynpeake October 29, 2008 at 3:03 pm

That’s wonderful that you did that, Susan. After too many rejection letters with no other feedback, many writers are tempted to give up their search for publication.


Nathalie October 29, 2008 at 3:04 pm

The part that says “If the writer doesn’t care particularly about publishing her book? Or only cares that it gets published, as opposed to caring how it’s published? And isn’t especially concerned about publishing more than one book? That writer doesn’t need an agent.”
What I really care about is writing. And I have a great job I would never surrender.


SusanHenderson October 29, 2008 at 4:15 pm

It’s kind of been a mission of mine, born of being crushed again and again, that anytime I’m in a position of power, however small, I can use it to heal something, to show someone an easier path, to give away a secret that could have saved me ten years of knocking on doors.


SusanHenderson October 29, 2008 at 4:16 pm

Hope Dan responds to this cuz I’m curious what he’d say.


SusanHenderson October 29, 2008 at 4:17 pm

He did that with my book, too. He’s just genius at finding the kink that’s holding a book back.


Kimberly October 29, 2008 at 4:33 pm

This is fascinating and perfectly timed, as I finally have enough courage to begin my own search for an agent, albeit of a slightly different vein. It seems like the same rules apply across the board.

Thanks Susan and Dan! I’m looking forward to the answers and to part two!


billiehinton October 29, 2008 at 4:35 pm

I agree, Susan. A lot of folks have read that ms and no one else nailed it. I consider it a tremendous gift. (thanks, Dan!)


CGraham October 29, 2008 at 4:37 pm

Hey, great interview, Susan! Can’t wait to read the rest of it.


marilynpeake October 29, 2008 at 4:40 pm

Oh wow, that’s so wonderful to hear. I had assumed you’d been published by a major publishing house without struggle. You give me hope. 🙂


darbylarson October 29, 2008 at 4:50 pm

I think I am in a similar boat (is your boat orange?) and is why I’ve kind of given up the search for an agent, not that I put much effort into it (a few handfuls of very sparsely written queries that have yielded zero). I’ve got a job, and I can’t imagine the idea of being an author replacing that job short of a lottery situation. Writing is fun, but all the headaches over publishing doesn’t sound very fun to me. So I will push my thing to the indie presses who seem, to me, to be pushing (push!) more boundaries with respect to what people want to read, instead of just feeding them the quote status quo unquote. (boat!)


Nathalie October 29, 2008 at 5:00 pm

Actually I write a lot to alleviate stress from work. Suppress work and the drive just dwindles away (I see that whenever I take more than a week off work).


djtuffpuppy October 29, 2008 at 10:59 pm

Thank you. This has been very interesting. I look forward to the second part.


SusanHenderson October 29, 2008 at 11:23 pm

I’m about 100 behind on mail, so be patient with me. I’ll catch up by Friday.


SusanHenderson October 29, 2008 at 11:28 pm

Hee. I like your orange boat, Darby. You know I’m a huge fan of indie publishing; and if that’s the route for you, you might want to revisit my interviews with CLMP’s Jeff Lependorf and Powell’s Kevin Sampsell:


SusanHenderson October 29, 2008 at 11:30 pm

Another way to alleviate stress is to check out Nathalie’s photography:


SusanHenderson October 29, 2008 at 11:34 pm

I have yet to meet a writer, at any level, who hasn’t struggled. It’s funny, I was in a bookstore yesterday and noticed a friend’s book was now in paperback, and I read the back of the jacket, and it said, So-and-so’s brilliant first novel, etc, etc. And what the jacket doesn’t say is there were, I think, FIVE unsold novels before that (very successful) one. Stamina is probably as important as talent in this business!


SusanHenderson October 29, 2008 at 11:35 pm

Make sure you talk to that person I mentioned to you about a literary/film agent.


SusanHenderson October 29, 2008 at 11:35 pm

Hey! And if C stands for Chris, Hey, Chris!


SusanHenderson October 29, 2008 at 11:36 pm

Part 1 is a great how-to, but Part 2 is my favorite because it shows off his heart.


DConaway October 29, 2008 at 11:46 pm

Hi, Marilyn. I don’t know what other agents do, but as a rule I do try to let people know if I think the quality’s there. As to your second question: yes and no. If a manuscript doesn’t work for me but I see something on the page that I really respond to, I’ll say so very clearly, invite them to try me again with their next project if they haven’t already found representation. And for nonfiction–which 95% of the time gets sold on proposal rather than on finished manuscript–I’m more willing to consider signing up somebody whose chops I love but who (say) hasn’t yet found quite the right subject, if in conversations it’s clear that we’re likely to have the ability to brainstorm well together. And I guess it’s possible that I could SO love a fiction writer’s voice that I’d offer to take somebody on despite feeling the current specific manuscript being flawed beyond my capacity to help fix it–but I don’t believe that’s happened so far. (One exception is Eugene Cross, a wonderful short story writer I took on not because I relish trying to sell a collection of stories, but because he promises me that, one day, he intends to write a novel.)


Xujun October 29, 2008 at 11:52 pm

Hey, Dan is so right! I got an agent at a reputed NYC agency about three years ago and I was always afraid of her. She wasn’t communicating and I didn’t dare to ask why. I didn’t dare to call her , or even email her when needed to. Eventually I left her after 1.5 year of trying. Now I can see those were the signs of a bad “marriage” right from the beginning. Thanks, Dan, for telling us we writers can be picky on agents, too!


DConaway October 29, 2008 at 11:58 pm

Hi, Ellen. It varies a lot, depending on who the author’s been with longer (agent v. editor) and, therefore, most comfortable with; what the time constraints are, production-wise (e.g., is the book late? or is there plenty of time?); what else is on the editor’s plate at the time the ms is delivered (that might make it impossible for them to give feedback for a long time); and so forth. Ideally I’d say the ms should go to agent and author simultaneously, but sometimes the manuscript will come to me first, and sometimes it’s going to be necessary for me to read or even edit it before it goes on to the editor. More often I read alongside the editor, providin big-picture comments that will (hopefully) complement the editor’s more detailed edits.


Heather_Fowler October 30, 2008 at 12:13 am

Isn’t that a hilarious thing? And heartbreaking? A band on MySpace had this wonderful expression on their profile that made me smile and cringe–“An overnight sensation…after ten years playing the bar-scene…” I love pitching my first novel as my “debut” novel–when I have 190 short stories and 400 poems and more than a decade’s worth of writing done *in the dark* so to speak. But, what can you do? *grins* I plan to just write a few more novels and THEN I’ll have 3 novels to play Russian Roulette with as to which can stake the claim as being my first, according to market/luck/fate.

Ha! I enjoyed this interview! Your agent is a good man, too.

Note to self: Stamina! Right. That means stop letting rejection or infraction become a PTSD excuse for inaction. &c It’s beautiful, your statement above about healing others and wielding power and honesty for good aims. I always do feel that way when I come to LitPark–like it is the fabulous, expansive zone of Susan’s beating heart. I am SO BUYING YOUR NOVEL the second it comes out. 🙂


SusanHenderson October 30, 2008 at 8:06 am

Aww. It’s very nice to see you popped your head in here cuz I know you’re busy.


SusanHenderson October 30, 2008 at 8:08 am

How sweet are you? But the truth is, I come to LitPark because you guys are like super-electrocardiograms and keep my heart beating.


SusanHenderson October 30, 2008 at 8:09 am

I’m so glad to see you here, Xujun! How’s Swimming with Mao going? I can’t wait to read it.


Xujun October 30, 2008 at 8:41 am

Sue, sorry I hadn’t been here often during the last two months – I was too busy doing the book marketing thingy. I’m happy to tell you that I’ve just sold the Asian rights to “Apologies Forthcoming,” so that’s something. 🙂 Now the marketing period is over I can resume my writing for the memoir. And I really look forward to reading your book!


SusanHenderson October 30, 2008 at 9:15 am

I’m so glad to hear that! xo!!


SusanHenderson October 30, 2008 at 9:18 am

Hey, not to steal Dan’s thunder, but if folks are coming here to get some helpful information about finding literary agents, it would be totally dumb not to mention Miss Snark, the anonymous agent, who’s put more honest and useful info on the web than anyone else. So please stop by here:


Aurelio October 30, 2008 at 10:17 am

It seems like I need to hire an agent to sell me to an agent. Or become my own agent in order to get an agent. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling frustrated by this. We writers are not all great self-promoters. (If we were we wouldn’t need agents.)

I’m curious if timing is a factor in subbing. Are there particular times of year when it’s better to query?


Aurelio October 30, 2008 at 10:19 am

Her pictures of food always make me hungry.


DConaway October 30, 2008 at 10:22 am

Hi, Aurelio. Other than avoiding proximity to major holidays, timing’s not so much an issue. Publishing gets real quiet in August, when lots of people go on vacation–so some agents may be less available at that time of year.


DConaway October 30, 2008 at 10:27 am

I couldn’t agree more–Miss Snark is a must-read for anyone thinking about the world of agents and publishing. You can (and should) spend hours there–and while her tone can at times be, well, snarky, that blog is loaded with case studies on what works and what doesn’t. Plus she’s a wonderful and very funny writer. The fact that she’s not doing it actively now doesn’t matter–her examples are spot-on.


Ric October 30, 2008 at 11:00 am

Just curious, but does a web presence – longtime blogging, having a blog on PMarketplace, showing up in comments at LitPark, Miss SNark etc, affect whether you spend a few extra minutes looking at a query and/or samples?

As in, Oh, Yea, I recognize that name – it’s about time he got off his lazy ass and starting marketing his stuff?


Aurelio October 30, 2008 at 1:58 pm

Good to know. Thanks, Dan.


marilynpeake October 30, 2008 at 2:29 pm

Hi, Dan,

Thank you so much for your detailed answer. It’s very difficult to struggle in the dark writing novels without ever knowing how agents make their decisions. I’m currently writing a novel that several agents have expressed interest in reading when it’s completed, so I’m crossing my fingers that this will be “the one” that leads to representation by an agent. I’m looking forward to reading Part 2 of your Interview!
Marilyn Peake


marilynpeake October 30, 2008 at 2:34 pm

Hi, Xujun. Great to see you here! Congratulations on selling the Asian Rights to “Apologies Forthcoming”!


Nathalie October 30, 2008 at 3:55 pm

Thanks for the plug!


Nathalie October 30, 2008 at 3:55 pm

I am getting complains.


NFD October 30, 2008 at 4:12 pm

Hey Susan and everybody else from back in the day. Its been too long. Anyway, on to commenting. This was a really insightful interview. I was actually approached by Dan Lazar from Writers House when FUTUREPROOF was still self-published and was picked by the anonymous POD reviewer and blogger PODdy Mouth. I remember that he wanted me to write him a “story arc” or something to that effect. Well, I sucked at it. So I was wondering if Dan Conaway might comment on that.

Also, just a general comment to all you guys out there still trying to secure an agent and a publishing contract, remember that this habit….this neverending NEED to write and be acknowledged as not having wasted your time on all the writing—I’ve begun to start looking at the whole fucking thing as a kind of curse. Cultural critic Clive James put it best when he said “Talent does not belong to its possessor. Its possessor belongs to it, and can only find freedom by accepting that he is a slave.” I dont want to sound like an ingrate because I swear to you I am incredibly greatful that my novel was finally picked up by Harper and I have one of the greatest agents on earth. She’s also just a genuinely great human being. So that’s the preface to the following: as Susan has already attested regarding weight loss and everything else that comes with the frustration of this entire endeavor, writing and pulling my hair our during the last six years of constantly re-editing and looking for an audience (I self-published in the hopes that if I got enough readers the publishers would be more likely to look at my book—I was right–eventually. Harper actually approached ME just when I was like “Fuck this book.” So my strategy, though it took 3 years, did work), I in so many ways wish that I’d learned to be a garbage collector or something besides ‘author’. The toll writing has taken on my life is immeasurable. 2008 has literally been the worst year of my life, and so many incredibly awesome things have happened in my professional writing life during this same time. I just haven’t been able to enjoy them because my private life went straight to hell almost immediately after I signed the contract last September ’07. The motherfucking ink was still wet as they say. Without the ‘motherfucking’ part. Anyway, I’ve seriously been asking myself if getting publishing is some twisted version of that old infamous monkey’s paw. The whole dead son banging on the door and shit.

So…listen. I love being a published writer. I have accepted the fact that I’m a slave to this. I guess I’m just telling you guys to be careful what you wish for. And don’t let people ever tell you that you are destroying your book’s chances if you self-publish. It fucking works if you really market the hell out of yourself and know you have a great product.

~Frank Daniels


Xujun October 30, 2008 at 4:20 pm

I have a question for Dan. When I was with my ex-agent, she tried to sell my story collection with an unfinished memoir. She didn’t succeed in selling anything, but one publisher expressed interest in the memoir. Later when I was leaving the agent, she said if my memoir ended up being published by that publisher, it would count as her sale. I’ve since sold my collection by myself and am now looking for a new agent for my memoir. I wonder how I should handle the residual issue with the ex-agent. I prefer not to deal with her again. Should I try to avoid the publisher who expressed interest before, or, since my memoir has changed almost completely, should I try to make the case that this is a different book?


SusanHenderson October 30, 2008 at 4:31 pm

Frank, It’s good to see you here. And I’m really sorry it’s been such a tough year for you. Doesn’t it seem like you’re due for a downhill coast sometimes, and then, year after year, you feel more like Sisyphus?

Let me link your book, even though you can only pre-order it now. It’s an absolutely killer story – makes you want to shut your eyes and turn and look all at once.


SusanHenderson October 30, 2008 at 4:32 pm

That just sounds slimy and wrong, and I hope there’s no truth to her claim.


SusanHenderson October 30, 2008 at 4:33 pm

Hanging out at LitPark helps you, for sure!


lance_reynald October 30, 2008 at 8:24 pm

in all fairness, I queried 3 agents. not a single one took a bit of time to get back to me on Pop Salvation. and Harper brought a lovely offer to the table without an agent.

Time and time again I try to get the finding an agent thing rolling and get a litany of excuses as to why it isn’t happening for me…

in the meantime, I’ve worked hard to broker myself… have come across some rather beautiful blurbings, have an editor I love working with and have graciously accepted that in the world of literary agents I might as well annotate my business cards with the word “pariah”.

great interview. interesting insights.

but, Dan is clearly the exception in the field.

I’ve not found the world of agents the least bit interested in a single word I might have to say.


SusanHenderson October 30, 2008 at 8:33 pm

You know, it’s funny, because I’ve been to a number of places (in person and virtually) where an agent will strut in as if s/he thinks the writers in the room are enamored, and I’m always thinking to myself, Do they even know the reputation they have among 85% of writers? Because I don’t think they’d be strutting.

But Dan can strut. And so can you.


DConaway October 31, 2008 at 7:23 am

The agent’s claim depends, first, on whether there’s an agency contract, and what the terms of that contract are, and how long ago it was that the agent rep’d the project. One option might be–in the event that the memoir were to be sold to the same editor who expressed interest in the first place–to have the new agent and the old split the commission. Or, if the terms of the contract say the old agent would be entitled to the commission, your new agent might want to steer away from submitting to that editor in order to avoid the complication. But ultimately–once you have a new agent–this issue will be your agent’s to sort out. You focus on the writing.


LaurenBaratzLogsted October 31, 2008 at 11:40 am

What a great post! And how fabulous to see Dan here. I wrote one of the last guestblogs to appear on Book Angst 101 and did not realize he wound up being the wondrous Susan’s agent.


jodyreale October 31, 2008 at 12:54 pm

I always wonder which one is harder: Getting the agent, or writing the book.


SusanHenderson October 31, 2008 at 12:59 pm

Writing the book. For sure.


SusanHenderson October 31, 2008 at 1:00 pm

Did you know who he was when you did your guest blog? Next Wednesday, we’ll be talking a lot more about Mad Max… and other cool things.


LaurenBaratzLogsted October 31, 2008 at 1:18 pm

No, I did not know…and he wouldn’t tell me!


Xujun October 31, 2008 at 5:52 pm

Good advice, Dan. Thanks! I’ll leave the issue to my future agent and focus on the writing.


caterfly October 31, 2008 at 6:19 pm

Dan, I have an agent. A really good one. She loves my book. But it has been almost a year and we have a pile ( 15) of thoughtfully written “thank you but not quite right for us” rejections. And a few really good publishers for my material also have not even offered a reply. I am a new author and my book is hard to pigeon hole into one category and many comments have suggested that is an issue, though most of the replies have described the book as fascinating, intriguing, original, thought provoking… I am not trying to pat myself on the back here, (why would I when my book will not sell), but when do I know I have reached a dead end? We still have another dozen or so publishers to approach. It has been a very slow paced process and frankly the horrible state of the economy cannot be working for me. Any suggestions or comments?


DConaway October 31, 2008 at 9:13 pm

Only 15 rejections? That’s barely a week’s work for me! No joke: almost every single book I’ve sold so far has accumulated more than 15 rejections along the way. So a couple of things to keep in mind. First off, you’ve got more than a dozen publishers still to go, because if Editor X rejected the book 6 months ago, I’d definitely be going back to a different editor at that same house now, explaining that the book now has been completely revised since X read it. (Say so even if it ain’t true…) In the meantime, though, I urge you to try to forget all about that book, and get deeper into your next one. If it takes six more months before your agent finds you a publisher, and you’re working the whole time, then you’ll be that much further along on Book 2 when you finally get The Call. And if you don’t wind up selling it? Then you’ll sell the second one, and have the first in the drawer in the event an editor falls head over heels.


DConaway October 31, 2008 at 9:26 pm

Hi, Ric. Once in a while bloggers get book deals based (mostly) on the strength of their web presence, though that’s happening less often these days. In terms of queries etc, it certainly can’t hurt, though it’s unlikely that an editor or an agent is going to recognize anyone’s name through comments on others’ blogs… But in the end the only thing that’s really going to matter is the work itself, and whether or not there’s a chemical reaction between the reader and what he’s reading.


SusanHenderson October 31, 2008 at 11:08 pm

Welcome! And I think Dan’s answer is really smart and reassuring.


Carolyn_Burns_Bass November 1, 2008 at 1:11 pm

Susan, it’s a good thing you mentioned that Dan is not taking on new clients, because I would have launched a query today. I want an agent like Dan.

Reading through Dan’s comments confirmed my concerns over the way my former agent handled my first book.

I’ve heard that some agents have fallen out of love with a book and lose their drive to sell it. I suppose that’s why agents like Dan won’t take on books unless they are passionate about them.


MaureenMcGowan November 1, 2008 at 2:05 pm

Amy, this made me laugh and reminded me of my non-writer friends who, when I’m trying to explain my progress toward publication, give me advice like, “Why don’t you send your book to Oprah?”


SusanHenderson November 1, 2008 at 9:52 pm

Hi Maureen. I hear those kinds of comments all the time. And my husband, who’s a costume designer, gets similar ones: “I just saw a great Zefferelli movie. You should costume his next film.”


SusanHenderson November 1, 2008 at 9:54 pm

I have a feeling there are some other great agents out there, but Dan certainly sets the bar high, and I feel awfully glad to have him on my side.


zett November 23, 2008 at 4:55 pm


(I hope you are still responding to questions). I’d like to know your thoughts on first-time novelists marketing their work and/or themselves on the internet before hiring an agent. I’d be interested in reading about your experiences and thoughts on the matter. Cheers, you and Sue, for sharing here. It helps.


SusanHenderson November 23, 2008 at 9:10 pm

Hey, Zett, I just tucked the boys in, so call me back whenever you’re free.


DConaway November 25, 2008 at 11:01 pm

Hi, Zett. For most novelists, and speaking (very) generally, I’d say establishing some sort of visibility online is probably the third most useful thing a first-time writer can do to get attention/notice in this way. The second most useful thing (and, because of barriers to access, perhaps more impressive overall) is getting published in glossy print magazines or top literary quarterlies. Depending on where you’re published, and how often, that can be a terrific credential/calling card. But in my opinion the most important thing a writer can do, finally, is to write and write and write and write a terrific book, then rewrite it again so that it’s more terrific still–till it’s as good as you’re capable of making it.

(By the way: There’s another comment thread further down, initiated by Ric, that also touches on the question of how an online profile does/doesn’t attract notice among agents.)


zett November 26, 2008 at 11:11 pm

Hi, Dan,

I find it intimidating that a novelist should also be a good short story writer, because the short story is not my true medium. This is in response to the usefulness of being published in top literary quarterlies. Thank you for pointing me to Ric’s comment. Your answers are helpful, although I do confess that I find this whole business of agents and contracts and visibility very terrifying. Wish me luck.

Cheers, Zett.


Lee July 21, 2009 at 8:59 am

Thank you Susan!
Reading your post is a fresh breath of inspiration, even if I am still stuck at the estranged end of being ready for an agent or publisher.
This is a nice chance to wonder what it will be like when I “break on through to the other side!”
Thanks for keeping some of us going during these times when burning old manuscripts might be more gratifying than useful!


Marta M. Weeks June 17, 2012 at 2:42 am

Would flip for representation by Dan Conaway!


Gerald Sallier October 6, 2013 at 10:34 pm

Finally, someone in literary world who isn’t just trying to string you along until they can suck what they can out of you. I stumbled across this interview while prepping a manuscript to shop for agents (sigh, again) as the majority of my work since then has been… erm, yea. Anyways, this one blog was more helpful than an entire year of trying to make up for not getting an art degree. Thanks!

I do have one question/concern though regarding self-published fiction. We’re all young, we’re all naive at some point, and sometimes we think self-publishing could be a good idea. …then we find out that it’s pretty much… well, it is what it is.

So my question to you is as follows: should someone completely remove his/her book from the Amazon marketplace before sending a manuscript to agents, or is it fine to keep it up? I assume that agents know that sales rank means very little in such a small sect of the literary market and the negative opinion most hold about self-published fiction that isn’t being given away for free.


Meg Cuccuini July 17, 2018 at 2:22 am

I am enthusiac, hopefull, forever optimistic, and apologetically asking for your help with contacting Dav Pilkey for an author visit to 4 elementary schools in NJ this upcoming 2018-19 school year. My name is Meg and I am the Author in Residence Co-chair for Bear Tavern Elementary School. Mr. Pilkey has successfully made my child an avid reader. I can’t thank him enough. I would love to invite Mr. Pilkey to our schools for a visit. I know this is a long shot but I thought I’d try. I wish you well and am grateful for any consideration.
Thanks and take care!


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