By Daniel Ford
My usual correspondence with literary agents tends to involve a lot of weeping and angst, so I’m always thrilled when an agent takes the time to patiently explain the publishing process to our readers.
I connected with Christopher Rhodes, a literary agent for The Stuart Agency, after I heaped praise on his client Taylor Brown’s Fallen Land. It was one of the rare times I gave an agent homework knowing it would result in positive answers (okay, so I slipped him my query letter and a sample chapter, I’m not an idiot)!
Rhodes’ insights into the publishing realm should give aspiring authors all the knowledge they need to sensibly chase their literary dreams.
Daniel Ford: How did you get your start in publishing?
Christopher Rhodes: I grew up in New Hampshire and I worked at a bookstore in high school and this gave me experience enough to land a job at the Borders’ flagship store in New York City at the World Trade Center.
I started working at Borders shortly after it opened in 1996 and stayed through 1999. The three-floor store was insanely busy from 12:00 to 2:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, and I loved working the cash wrap and learning what people were buying. Booksellers gain a wide knowledge of the book market just by seeing and touching books on a daily basis.
While at Borders, I took on the responsibility of maintaining a local interest book kiosk at Windows on the World, the restaurant and bar on the top floors of the North Tower. For a kid from small town New Hampshire who dreamed of living in New York City, this was pretty exciting stuff. Eventually, through friends, I met a man who did publicity for Simon & Schuster and he got me an interview for an entry level sales position there. Off I went to Rockefeller Center and a career was born. From sales I moved upstairs to marketing and worked for the inimitable Michael Selleck before getting hired by literary agent Carol Mann who taught me this side of the business.
A handful of us from that Borders have gone on to really exciting careers in publishing and many of us are still friends. Maybe you’d call it being in the right place at the right time, but I’m also the right person. I fell in love with books as a teenager and I just can’t imagine doing anything else. Publishing was lucky to find me!
DF: Since entering the publishing world, what major changes have you seen?
CR: One major change I haven’t seen since entering the publishing world is that e-books have not beaten up print books and stolen their lunch money.
I started working in the sales division of Simon & Schuster in 1999 and if you had asked me then, I would have told you that the printed book would disappear in three year’s time. There was a fear in the air surrounding the unknown technology and what it would mean to trade book publishing. Turns out the fears were justified, except it wasn’t the e-book we should have been afraid of, it was Amazon.
Lessons are still being learned but I feel like the beginnings of a silver lining have started to appear, especially evidenced in the revolution of the indie bookstore and its power to drive the market. I have two debut novels publishing in January—Taylor Brown’s Fallen Land (St. Martin’s Press) and W.B. Belcher’s Lay Your Weary Tune (Other Press)—and both of them have received enormous pre-sales support from indie bookstores, Brown’s predominately in the southeast where he lives and where the novel is set and Belcher’s predominately in the northeast where he lives and where the novel is set. This kind of specified, regional support is immeasurable and so meaningful to the success of a book. To be able to put an author in front of a bookseller, to have them shake hands and have a conversation, and then to have the bookseller tell her customers about the book, I get chills thinking about this philosophy of salesmanship. I’m very grateful to the publishers my authors are working with who understand the importance of putting a human face behind the books they are selling: St. Martin’s Press, Other Press, Tin House Books. To me, this is a throw back to old school publishing and bookselling, pre-Internet days, and I’m glad it isn’t a major change.
DF: What steps do you recommend an author take when trying to land an agent?
CR: The first step, and the one that is often overlooked by would-be authors who email me asking for representation, is the step of becoming a writer.
Over and over again, in reading submissions and queries, I notice that writers are trying to find an agent too soon in their careers, and this is true for both fiction and nonfiction writers. I would love to believe in the myth:
Unknown writer connects with big name literary agent! Seven- figure deal and film option follow!
That’s all very Lana-Turner-sipping-a-Coke-at-a-Hollywood-drug-store, but it isn’t reality. What I do as an agent is meet an author after she has put in the very hard work—writing, publishing in journals and national magazines, building a marketing platform, winning awards, being noticed for her work, or becoming an expert in her field—and navigate her through the business of trade publishing and get her the best possible deal (which doesn’t always mean the biggest advance).
As an agent, I don’t see myself as a star maker but as a star enthusiast who walks with an author on the last mile to shape her book project into something that will catch an editors eye. Then, if I’m lucky, I get to stick around to manage her career. I also get to be a confidant and business adviser to the writer, but writers make themselves a big deal by being good at what they do and by devoting time and energy to their craft. I read a lot of fiction query letters and nonfiction book proposals and the first things I look at are the author’s credentials. If you are asking me to represent you but have not proven yourself as a writer, I can’t help you.
Other important steps include writing a strong query letter (more on this below), being persistent but professional, especially if you have the credentials to back up your persistence. Remember that I am busy and that although reading query letters and submissions is a most necessary part of my job, it is also a part that I have to do on my own time. Having a roster of active clients means that book projects are always in various stages of the publishing process and active clients are given priority. When you are an active client, you will expect this to be the case. Trust me.
The final step I’ll mention here is perseverance. If you are talented, have strong credentials, have written a fantastic query letter or book proposal, and have been persistent and professional with an agent, then don’t give up. On more than one occasion I’ve seen a book project I’ve passed on that sold a few weeks later by another agent. Just because I don’t understand how to sell a certain concept or I don’t fall in love with a novel enough to go to bat for it, doesn’t mean that another agent won’t feel completely differently about it. In the mean time: see you at Schwab’s!
DF: How can writers develop a quality query letter that catches an agent’s eye?
CR: I think writers should stop trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to query letters. There are plenty of examples of good query letters accessible via the Internet and all you have to do is pick one and mimic its format, paragraph by paragraph, but with your own original content.
Bear in mind that I read a lot of query letters and instead of this fact translating into, “he must want something fun and quirky and original with a pink font and a bunch of non sequitur information about my goldfish,” it means I value consistency above all things. I like to know that I can skip to the bottom of the query letter to glance at your credentials, or that I can bring my eyes to the first paragraph to read the brief description of the book.
My pet peeve is when writers give personal information in a query letter. I am not your therapist. A few weeks ago my college intern emailed me to say she didn’t know what do do about a query we received from a man who wrote in the first line of his letter that he was dying and that we were his last chance to have his book published. That’s a lot of pressure for a 21-year-old student getting ready for final exams! I had her forward me the email and I deleted it without reading. That might sound harsh to you, but it is impossible to be objective about the work if a writer is making it personal from the very beginning.
I can see through gimmicks and to me they are signs that in all likelihood your book project isn’t very strong. Let the work stand for itself and give me the facts.
DF: What is the most common mistake you see from first-time authors?
CR: It is hard to pick the most common, but a mistake I see over and over again from writers is that they are unwilling to have their work vetted or work-shopped by their peers. I work with a lot of debut writers, both fiction and memoir, and the best relationships I have are with those that are used to having their work critiqued. The revision process with an agent can be brutal.
Many writers get used to this process in an MFA program but an MFA is not a requirement to publishing a book. Many towns have writing groups and if not, you can start your own. Ask people (not friends and family) to read your work and be willing to listen and take feedback.
Consider this: if you send me a manuscript and I like it very much, I’m going to ask my intern Lori (who is fantastic) to read it and to weigh-in, then I’m going to ask Andrew Stuart, owner of the agency for which I work, to give me his opinion. Then, if I take on your project and we are fortunate enough to find an editor who responds to the manuscript, that editor will have to convince his fellow editors, his publisher, the sales force, the marketing team, and others at the publishing house that your book is worth taking on. It is well worth your time to get a number of people to help you shape your manuscript before you start submitting to agents. I always tell potential clients that their manuscript needs to be 100% complete as far as they are concerned before they send it to me and then they have to be prepared to be told there is a lot more work to be done.
DF: What do you look for when you're reading a manuscript?
CR: I’m always looking for beautiful language and a distinct voice, but currently I’m desperate for plot. I keep getting my hands on gorgeously written manuscripts that don’t take me anywhere and I have to say no because the books are too quiet. Look at 2015’s big fiction successes: A Little Life, A Brief History of Seven Killings, and Fates and Furies. These books are sweeping and epic and that’s what I’m looking for right now. I love for a novel to take me on a journey. It doesn’t have to be far but I want to keep moving. I have to be compelled to turn the page. I was indoctrinated into novel reading by the works of Morrison and Steinbeck and Tartt and Cunningham, and I’m very sensitive to voice, prose, and plot all working together to propel a story forward. It’s elusive, but it’s out there.
DF: You must read a ton during the day. Are you able to unplug from your professional persona and enjoy reading when you’re off the clock?
CR: Actually, I don’t read all that much during the day because there isn’t time. I hear this from other agents and editors as well and the general consensus, I think, is that we do our reading for work on our own time.
Part of my job as an agent is to know and to understand the current book market, and this means, on top of reading solicited and unsolicited submissions and revisions of manuscripts I am working on with clients, I also have to keep up on current books that are selling. I need to read books that are working and apply that knowledge to projects I’m considering. I have taught myself to call this latter type of reading “pleasure reading” as it doesn’t directly correlate with a specific business project.
And, like any good bibliophile, I keep a list of books, old and new, that I want to read and I am adding to this list constantly. Being an agent means being a book enthusiast and this trait can be a double-edged sword because there is so much I want to read and if I overhear someone talking about a book excitedly, I get so overwhelmed that I’m willing to drop everything and start reading it immediately. I have trained myself to be the type of reader who has many books going at once and right now, other than manuscripts I’m reading for work, I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus, Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, and Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. All of them are blowing my mind, by the way.
To answer your question: for this literary agent, when it comes to reading I am never off the clock, but there are times when I am less on the clock than other times.
DF: Who are some writers you’ve discovered that readers should be aware of?
CR: I’m hesitant to use the word “discover.” If anything, I feel like I’ve been fortunate to have great writers discover me. I’ve never had to talk myself into taking on a novel but I have had to talk writers into letting me take on their novels. Also, for every novel I’ve taken on, I have known from page one that I love the book. No exaggeration. I can’t offer representation based on page one, but in every single case, in hindsight, I’ve known that I love the book based on the first page. That’s what good writing does.
In the case of Belcher’s Lay Down Your Weary Tune, I read the first chapter and had to have my friend Beth Staples, editor for Lookout Books and Ecotone, talk me out of calling him and offering him representation before finishing the novel. The first novel I sold was Jennifer Pashley's The Scamp (Tin House Books) and the first line of the manuscript (it was changed in revision) was “She killed the baby.” Come on!
My favorite story about signing a client is Andrew Hilleman’s. Andy’s manuscript World, Chase Me Down (Penguin, 2017) was 172,000 words and I was loving it! But it was so long that I couldn’t read it fast enough and Andy had a couple of other agents considering the book. I was scared I would lose the novel so I ended up offering him representation before I was halfway through the manuscript. He accepted my offer based on the fact that I had recently sold Taylor Brown’s debut novel. Andy had ordered Taylor’s short story collection in the meantime, loved it, and wanted to be represented by the same agent who represented Taylor. Since then, Taylor has read World, Chase Me Down, given it a fantastic blurb, and raves about it at dinner parties!
DF: What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
CR: Stop talking about writing and write.
DF: Can you name one random fact about yourself?
CR: As I type this, I’m wearing a sweatshirt that belonged to my maternal grandfather, Alton Nelson. It is blue with yellow lettering and it reads: "It’s hard to be humble when you are Swedish." My good friends, writers Xhenet Aliu and Timothy O’Keefe, suggest I sell the design to Urban Outfitters, collect my millions, and take an early retirement.