Before opening her literary agency, principal Betsy Amster spent ten years as an editor at Pantheon and Vintage and two years as editorial director of the Globe Pequot Press. She has been described in the Los Angeles Times as “a dogged prospector of…literary talent” and celebrated in a profile in the American Society of Journalists and Authors newsletter for her “no-nonsense style and whimsical sense of humor.” She is a frequent guest speaker for PEN USA’s Emerging Voices Program, UCLA Extension’s Writers Program, USC’s Masters in Professional Writing Program, The Loft, and Portland State’s Publishing Program and frequently moderates panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
The agency’s areas of interest include: Literary fiction, upscale commercial women’s fiction, voice-driven mysteries and thrillers, narrative nonfiction (especially by journalists), travelogues, memoirs (including graphic memoirs), social issues and trends, psychology, self-help, popular culture, women’s issues, history & biography, lifestyle, careers, health and medicine, parenting, cooking and nutrition, gardening, and quirky gift books. They do not represent romances, screenplays, poetry, westerns, fantasy, horror, science fiction, techno thrillers, spy capers, apocalyptic scenarios, or political or religious arguments.
Q: Do you read self-published novels or short stories looking for talented writers you would like to represent?
A: I have done that but I don’t do it very much anymore—for some reason, nearly all of the writers I approached turned out to have only one short story under their belt, which meant they were a long way from having a publishable novel. There’s an agent in New York, though—Nat Sobel—who is famous for scouring lit mags. He’s launched a lot of writers that way. I’ve had better luck with nonfiction—I’ve found a lot of my clients when they were covered in or contributed to newspapers, magazines, and other media outlets.
How do you view authors who have published previous work with an independent press? Can these sales, if they are average for a small press (and therefore low for a bigger house), hurt the author’s chances of selling future work to a bigger house?
Editors do sometimes cite low sales of a previous book when they turn down a project, but I’ve come to feel that this simply means the book isn’t right for them. Many editors at large houses are looking to fall in love with new work and are able to place low sales at a small house in context.
Do you, and agents in general, expect to guide an author through revision before submitting a book to editors?
This varies from agent to agent. You’ll generally find that if an agent used to be an editor (as I was), they expect to work with an author on their work before it’s submitted to editors. I always hesitate to underscore this, though, because it can encourage writers to come to me too soon, before their work is fully cooked. I feel I can work well on material that is 5/6 of the way there—but if it’s only halfway there, you shouldn’t be looking for an agent yet.
Are you open to resubmissions from writers you’ve rejected in the past? What advice would you have for writers wanting to re-approach an agent?
In theory I am, but in practice I find resubmissions rarely work. My advice is to make sure you do a thorough revision. When an author comes back to me in a month or two, I know it isn’t going to work.
How does an agent go about trying to sell a book to a publisher?
It depends on the project. Usually we have an A list, a B list, and a C list of editors in mind, with the A list likely to spend the most money and the C list (because they are smaller publishers with less overhead) likely to take the most risks. We figure out how we want to pitch the book–how can we describe it quickly in an alluring way? How can we portray the author as someone who will be a good ally in promoting the book? Does the author have a notable platform? What makes the project special or unique? Then we approach the first round of editors and hope we get a quick response from someone, because we can leverage that interest with the other editors. Sometimes we will have sufficient interest to schedule an auction, where publishers bid against each other. Other times a publisher will be so intent on acquiring the book that they will offer a head-turning amount of money to pre-empt it. Still other times we feel happy when a single publisher comes to the table.
Is a query letter alone enough for you to sort works you are interested in from those you aren’t?
Yes, in the sense that my reader brings query letters of interest to my attention and deletes the rest. But ultimately my decision to represent something depends on how I feel about the manuscript or the proposal.
I am writing a hybrid memoir/non-fiction book, and am not sure how best to pitch it. (It is a personal quest for courage through riding along with the canine police unit, but it is also the story of these police officers and their dogs). I’d like to sell it on proposal, and would love to hear your thoughts about pitching dual-genre books. I’ve received conflicting advice from writers; some have said finish the manuscript, while others have said because there’s such a strong non-fiction element, it’s likely to sell on proposal.
I could imagine this selling on the basis of sample chapters if they’re “shapely” enough—i.e., if they give a sense of how the book works. This strategy works best if the book is organized thematically. If an overarching narrative arc is the book’s most important feature, agents and editors might want to see more so that they can be sure you know how to tell the whole story.
What would you say to a writer who has written a great memoir, but does not have a platform? It seems many of the classic memoirists (Mary Karr, Frank McCourt, Jeanette Walls, etc) did not have platforms, did not style themselves experts in their subjects, did not blog or tweet. So how much does the writing, versus the platform, matter to you as an agent?
The writing is far more important. Sometimes the author and I will “reverse engineer” a platform—in other words, look at what kind of outreach the author has and figure out a way to increase it before submitting the material. But at that point I’ve made a commitment to the author and the material.
How willing are you, and agents in general, to work with writers in developing a platform, connections, magazine articles, interviews?
This is the author’s responsibility. My job is to educate writers in some detail about what publishers find persuasive. Then the author needs to figure out how to accomplish that in a way that plays to his or her strengths. We both acknowledge that not every plank in a platform is possible to achieve. But the author needs to do his or her best. I’ve had great luck with authors with promising material who were able to hear me when I said, “You need to spend the next six months or a year building your platform.”
Would agents generally be offended if they were asked to only represent one country: a Canadian agent for Canada and a US agent for the U.S. market, for example?
It depends on the project. If it has enormous potential, the agent might not care. But most agents—especially those who devote unpaid time to helping shape a project—want to be able to amortize their efforts over every territory.
Thanks to Betsy for taking the time to answer these questions!