Remember in the olden days, when movies were based on nothing more than a screenwriter’s brainchildren? Now movies are based on novels, childrens’ books, even theme park rides. And which superhero is helping bridge the publishing world with the glittering stardust of Hollywood? That’s right, a hard-working, bookstore-scouring, voracious reader like one Ms. Sarah Self, literary agent at The Gersh Agency and champion of writers everywhere.

WordHustler sat down with Ms. Self to get the skinny on the convergence of Hollywood and the publishing industry, the kind of queries that hook her, and the lure of a good, old-fashioned zombie story. Read on to fill your cup with the elixir of publishing (and Hollywood) SUCCESS!

WordHustler: How did you get your start in the industry?

Sarah Self: I went to school at Northwestern University and got my start in the industry by working/interning for Lynda ObstJodie Foster, and Stacy Sher and Michael Shamberg at Jersey Films. In college I knew that this was the business I wanted to work in, so every summer I would come to LA and do internships. I did a lot of coverage and started building my resume.

Then when I graduated everyone told me I should get agency experience but didn’t think that I wanted to be an agent. I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do- maybe more in line with being a producer- I definitely knew I wanted to create. But agency experience really helps, despite what some may think. Agencies put it all together. Of course the project starts with the writer, but the agency is really the link that connects everybody. That’s where you have directors, writers, talent and they all come to an agency as the center point. It’s the perfect place to start if you’re not sure what you want to do, because you work with all the elements. So I started working at CAA for Bob Bookman, who’s the head of CAA’s Film Department and still my mentor today. He’s at the top of his game.

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WH: Going from a Hollywood agency background to working for an agent who is also involved in book publishing, were you drawn to the publishing industry?

SS: I started working for Bob as his assistant and found that it was my dream job: working with authors who are in the movies. I worked for him and became a junior agent CAA, but didn’t think I wanted to be at an agency long-term so I worked in development. But then had this moment where I looked around LA and looked around my peers and didn’t feel inspired. I found the development process to be stifling and dismal. You see the same people going after the same scripts and everybody is so reactive- no one is really taking any risks.

I started to freak out, so I decided to move to New York because I’d romanticized New York from when I worked at CAA with authors. I knew I had to shake it up. I knew that The Gersh Agency had a NYC office and didn’t have anyone doing books. WMA, Endeavor, ICM and CAA [other Hollywood agencies] already had saturated NYC book departments. So I went immediately to the company that didn’t have anyone doing it and I created my own job. If you sit and wait for your dream job to come, it never will. You have to be proactive. So I created the job and said, “Let me run your New York book department.” I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t have any clients, I had never even been a real agent. To be an agent you have to know the ins and outs of making a deal. But I just jumped into it.

WH: As one of the few book agents working in Los Angeles, do you find your job to be challenging since you’re one of the lone bridges between Hollywood and the publishing industry? Especially now that Hollywood is leaning more heavily on the publishing industry- are you over-saturated?

SS: I think every agent is probably over-saturated. We’re part of a bigger trend, which is that agents are more and more becoming producers. So the role of the producer is being diminished in the traditional sense in that it’s not just about me taking a book and sending it to producers, and them sending it to the studio and making the movie. Now I have to package the book- attach talent, directors, etc- and then give it to the studios. More often than not, I’m starting to go to manager/producers or go to agencies and package materials there. I also package internally within Gersh. I have no need to keep it internal, it’s what’s best for the client.

I think Hollywood is relying on publishing yet is also reluctant to take big steps with material from publishing unless publishing has already performed. The book ofTWILIGHT, everyone forgets, had already been optioned a couple of times before Summit finally made it. It all comes down to risk. It’s all about having an opinion and having a voice and taking a stance. If you try to like what everyone else likes, you’re going to be at the end of the trend. If you try to wait for someone to find your book and your script in their huge stack, they’re never going to find it. You have to keep pushing and keep being proactive.

WH: Do you find you have a lot of agents calling you with a tiny book that isn’t published yet and they’re trying to sell movie rights? Or do you deal with books that have already been published?

SS: I think that everything is changing. Book agents are still calling with that little book they just sold. But this amazing zombie book called BREATHERS was something that I found in Publisher’s Marketplace. It had been sold and I called the agent because I love zombies and said, “This sounds great.” She sent it to me and I loved it, so I packaged it. On the other end of the spectrum, I got a call from an agent yesterday who is sending me a small, literary difficult book. Overall, publishers don’t know what Hollywood is looking for because everyone wants to have the small, perfect Oscar nominee and no one knows what that is.

WH: What draws you to a book? Is there a particular genre you like?

SS: I love anything dark. I love horror- especially psychological horror. I love worlds and subcultures. I’m really interested in death metal, for example, or anything that’s a unique world.

WH: Do you ever find books that you love that you don’t think would translate to the screen?

SS: Yes but if I love it, I figure out how to translate it to screen.

WH: What’s the last thing you read and absolutely loved?

SS: The last thing I read that I loved is Dame Darcy’s book, which is akin to THE DANGEROUS BOOK FOR BOYS, called THE HANDBOOK FOR HOT WITCHES. The parallel she makes is how to be a strong, sexy, confident woman and the parallel being that it’s a witch, not a bitch. You can be tough and be smart and do your thing and if guys call you a bitch, you’re a witch. The whole book follows the witch theme with a how-to spell guide and witchy recipes. It is so awesome. I love it. I fell in love with this book and was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this, but I will sell the movie rights.” It’s all about passion.

WH: Why do you think Hollywood is moving away from generating original content and relying on remakes, sequels, and books?

SS: I think for a while representatives were getting really lazy. There were certain people in town called “The Spec Boy,” which were reps who would just go out and sell spec scripts and create this fake buzz. There were so many instances of slamming not totally ready material out there and studios were being duped into buying it because there wasn’t anything else and because it was on a “list.” So it became this “We should be buying this” herd mentality. Finally the studios looked around and said, “We have so much bad material, let’s go back to what’s always been consistently viable, which is books.” There’s also a platform to books, remakes and sequels that screenplays don’t have. That’s I think the number one thing.

But look, if there’s still great material, it gets put together. Great scripts still sell. Producers still have deals with studios, who are still making movies. But today people have to rely on platforms and branding- I know that’s a word everyone hates hearing, but that’s the way the market is going.

WH: Well put. What types of book adaptations are you looking for that you haven’t found yet?

SS: Something that’s really about a cool world, a non-fiction world or a sub culture that I might not know about yet. Whether it’s related to music, etc, I don’t care. I sold this book- it’s a great story called THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI. It’s a nonfiction book written by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. It’s very clinical and dense – these guys knew everything about Houdini. They are amazing researchers. But it was a book that when I sent it to producers, people were just tuning out.

So I kept sending it and sending it for four years and finally I was like, “You know what? This isn’t working and I believe this is a movie. I’m going to change the pitch and turn this into something else.” So I changed the pitch to: “This is the next SHERLOCK HOLMES and DARK KNIGHT.” All the big superheroes have already been exploited, who’s a big international star that we haven’t done yet? Houdini. Its Robert Downey Jr, it’s Warner Brothers, it’s glossy, and there you go. Done. So I pitched it to someone at Summit Entertainment [makers of TWILIGHT], they loved it, and it sold. My point is that if you love something, you can sell it.

WH: What advice can you give aspiring writers, both prose and screen, out there?

SS: Don’t write what everybody else is writing. Just because THE HANGOVER is making a ton of money and won a Golden Globe, please don’t write something that is THE HANGOVER meets DADDY DAY CARE. By the time you write it, it will have already been done. I think Diablo [Cody, screenwriter of JUNO and Sarah’s client] is a great example in that she wrote a movie about a 16-year-old girl who gets knocked up and decides to keep the baby. If she had pitched that to any producer they would have said, “Huh? What are you talking about? No way.” But she did it anyway.

It’s true when they say: write what you know. Stick to that. Don’t try to write what people want you to write and don’t copy what’s already out there. There are so many reps tell their writers to: “Go write THE HANGOVER” and that’s so wrong. It’s all about showing that you have a voice and being provocative and being different. You have to do it as a representative and you have to do it as an actor- you have to have a different look and a different style. Look at music – it’s a perfect parallel in that you have all these one hit wonders and then you have Lady Gaga who doesn’t give a f#$% and she knows if she looks crazy and is amazing, people are going to notice her. And it’s worked! You have to get people to notice you.

When I get queries all day long, I usually hit delete. I delete them because they are really long and the writers don’t know how to craft a query and they’re boring. So I just started hitting delete. Then today actually, for the first time in a long time, there was a query that stuck out. I was going through emails and I was swamped and there was something funny in it and the title really summed up what it was going to be. You could tell this person had done their research and knew what deals I had done, too. So I wrote back: “Yeah, send it. I’ll read it.” I’m not encouraging people to send ridiculous things, but be bold. Otherwise, it all just goes by really fast and you’ll just get lost in the sea.

She speaks, we listen. So what are you waiting for? Tighten your prose, polish your query, then spend some time seeking out agents who match your aesthetics and aspirations. Targeting your submissions to agents who you’ve researched shows them you’ve put in the time and you’ve got the drive to succeed. Why not sign up for our Digital Submission System to help keep track of all those wonderful queries you’re sending out to the world?

WordHustler wants to help you find your perfect agent, editor, and writing future. Hopefully soon you’ll catch the eye of an accomplished agent like Ms. Self then be on your way to publishing (and Hollywood) success! Fingers crossed!


Ladies and gentlemen of the court, all rise for the noble and knowledgeable Danielle Chiotti, literary agent at Upstart Crow Literary and esteemed judge of WordHustler’s Literary Storm Novel Contest (NEWSFLASH: due to popular demand, we’ve extended the deadline to February 26, 2010! You’ve still got time to submit!). Danielle is passionate about great writing, finding amazing new clients, and helping writers succeed in the publishing industry.

Luckily for us, Danielle made time in her busy schedule to sit down and discuss what draws her to different books, how important the query letter really is, and how she plucks talented writers out of the slush pile. Will you be the next gifted scribe to catch her eye?

Read the interview to find out, then polish those manuscripts and send them out!

WordHustler: How did you get your start in the publishing industry?

Danielle Chiotti: Completely by accident, actually. I graduated with a degree in Creative Writing, and spent a year waitressing before I basically stumbled into a job doing reader’s reports for a small literary agency. A few months later, they asked me if I wanted to come in and learn about being an agent. I had no idea what that meant, but I thought, “Oh, why not?” I’ve been working in publishing ever since.

WH: You’ve worked all over the publishing industry, at places like Kensington Publishing and Adams Media. What is the main difference between editing and agenting, and why did you decide to make the switch?

DC: Literary agents have a lot more autonomy than editors do; we’re not beholden to a certain set of parameters for publishing a book. I loved my work as an editor, but there were always so many rules about what I could and could not acquire, depending on the needs of the publisher. As an agent, I can truly sign the projects I love–in any area I choose.

WH: What draws you to a fiction book? Non-fiction?

More... DC: Goodness. The obvious answer for each of these questions is: Good writing!

For fiction, it’s really all about the voice. I’m drawn to stories in which the voice grabs you in the first line and doesn’t let go. The three main narrators of Kathryn Stockett’s THE HELP, for example, just blew me away. I also read Elizabeth Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE over the holidays, and I just can’t stop thinking about Olive. Such a complex, flawed, and interesting character. Of course, plot is also important in fiction, but most of all, I look for characters who are so interesting and unique that they could be telling me about something really boring–like wallpaper– and I’d be positively riveted. I also tend to favor strong, flawed female characters, and fish-out-of-water stories.

For nonfiction, I tend toward narrative that explores a previously unexplored topic, or that brings a fresh take to a perennial topic. For example, Michael Chabon’s MANHOOD FOR AMATEURS is certainly well-trod territory, as far as “dad lit” goes, but so beautifully and heartbreakingly written that the topic doesn’t feel stale. I also adore food memoir.

WH: You also represent a fair amount of YA authors. Do you think the YA world is more challenging than the adult world?

DC: I think each has its challenges, and I don’t want to say that one is more difficult than the other. What I will say is that since YA has been the category “du jour” for so long, it’s getting crowded, and the competition is fierce.

WH: Who are a few of your favorite authors out there today? (Obviously you can include people you rep…it’s only fair!)

DC: Of course all of the authors I represent are my favorite authors! They are an enormously talented group of people. I’m honored to be working with them, and I’m always thrilled to read what they’re working on next.

My reading tastes range far and wide. Anyone who has read my profile on the Upstart Crow site knows of my undying devotion to E.B. White and CHARLOTTE’S WEB, which is pretty much the book that started it all for me. I’ve read Michael Chabon’s THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH so many times that the pages are falling out. I think I mentioned earlier that I adore food memoir, and so I’m a devoted fan of Ruth Reichl and all of her books, especially COMFORT ME WITH APPLES. I’ve also always had a soft spot for retired romance author LaVyrle Spencer; I used to steal her novels from my mother’s bookshelf and sneak them into my room!

WH: What types of books are you looking for that you haven’t found yet?

DC: A book with a kick-ass zombie heroine–think BREATHERS, only with a female protagonist. I keep putting it out there on Twitter, but no one has risen to meet my challenge yet!

WH: What’s your take on the publishing industry today? In dire straights or blooming? Both? Neither?

DC: There’s been much debate on the state of the publishing industry today, lots of doomsday speculation about the death of publishing, and even some heated debates about the role of literary agents in an author’s career, especially with the growth in popularity of e-books and the like.

I tend to think that much of the online chatter is just that: chatter. Publishing has proven itself time and time again to be a resilient industry, and though there have certainly been some dark days in the recent past, I’m always amazed by the ability of the industry to pick itself up, dust itself off, readjust, and thrive.

No matter how the content is published in the future, publishers will always be looking for talented authors, and thus authors will always need an advocate to help them navigate the publishing process and think about the trajectory of their career in the long term. So I guess that’s a long way of saying that I remain optimistic about the future of publishing, in whatever form it may take.

WH: Let’s get into the nitty-gritty: what percentage of authors that you decide to represent come from the unsolicited submissions?

DC: Oh, are you going to make me do math? No fun! The truth is, the bulk of my current client list has come from unsolicited submissions. I rely very heavily on my unsolicited submissions to find talent, and I give them very serious consideration. I’ve found (and signed and sold) some absolutely amazing writers as a result.

WH: How important is the query letter? Do you want any sample pages or does the query make enough of a first impression?

DC: Every agent seems to have a different take on query letters. For me, a clearly-written, professional query letter is incredibly important. That said, it’s nearly impossible to gauge a project’s true worth from a query letter. So at Upstart Crow, we’ve made it part of our submissions policy that writers are invited to send along the first 20 pages of their manuscript with their query letter. For more information and a complete set of submissions guidelines, visit here.

WH: What are three things in a query that make you want to read more?

DC: Ah, this is an interesting question. I know that most writers would prefer that I answer in absolutes, but the more queries I read and consider, the more convinced I become that queries are not at all a black and white issue. But in an effort to be specific, the three things in a query letter than make me want to read more are:

1. A concise summary of the book.

2. A unique/compelling premise.

3. An indication that the writer as thoroughly researched my areas of interest/background and feels we’d be a good match. It’s pretty easy to tell when a writer hasn’t done their homework and doesn’t really know a lot about the agency or my specific interests as an agent.

But if I can be totally honest here, reading a query or sample pages is kind of like going on a blind date–it’s all about the spark. When I read a query and sample pages, I’m not only looking for the elements I listed above, I’m looking to feel a connection to the writing, the story, and most of all–the characters. Call me a hopeless romantic, but when I read a query or sample pages, I’m looking to fall in love at first sight.

WH: What are three things that let you know this project/writer isn’t for you?

DC: 1. A query that tries to be too flashy/stylish, but that leaves me with too many unanswered questions about the story. It’s best to be concise and up front about the story in your query letter, and to summarize it to the best of your ability.

2. Unoriginal or “copycat” ideas that are riding a current trend (vampires, for instance!).

3. Anything that is in the mystery/thriller category, or poetry or short stories.

WH: What advice can you give aspiring writers out there?

DC: Writing your novel and then querying agents is a long process, but you have to keep the faith that something will happen for you. Be persistent and constantly dedicated to your craft!

Don’t ever stop reading, don’t ever stop asking questions, don’t ever stop striving to push your writing to the next level. Complacency is the enemy of any writer.

Also, while Internet is a great resource–for networking, researching and the like–I find that many writers are using it for a diversion these days. If you’re spending more time on writing websites, message boards, and Twitter than you are on your own writing, you should set aside time to unplug and get back into it.

WH: Do you think WordHustler helps writers successfully get their work out there and into your hands, professionally and effectively?

DC: Of course I do! It’s a most excellent resource for writers. Good luck, and write well!

We find the judge GUILTY of having amazing taste and publishing wisdom to spare! So you heard her, Hustlers- polish those manuscripts, perfect those queries, and work on getting your projects 100% up to snuff. Then send them out digitally via our brand-spankin’ new Digital Submission System which helps you find contact info and track all of your submissions in one easy place.

Yes, we said ALL of your submissions because everyone knows that getting published is a numbers game. Aim to have ten submissions out and in play at ALL TIMES. Doing this ensures that writing success is just within reach. Don’t forget to submit your novel to our Literary Storm Novel Contest as well! Danielle could very well decide your manuscript is a real WINNER! All hail the judge!

Have you ever wanted to sit a literary agent down and ask them all those burning questions bouncing around in your brain: How important is the query? What kind of books get you excited? How many author clients do you REALLY find in the slush pile?

So have we. And so we did. Enter Adriann Ranta, newly-arrived agent at Wolf Literary Services who has spent years shepherding writers through the editing and agenting processes. Adriann handled all the hard-hitting writing questions we dished out, and even asked for seconds.

Read on to discover what Adriann considers the best kind of query letters, what she thinks about YA books, and why she loves the word “percussive.” Then it’ll be time to get an agent for yourself! Success never tasted so good!

WordHustler: How did you get your start in the publishing industry?

Adriann Ranta: I graduated with my obligatory, directionless liberal arts degree having no idea what I wanted to do with books, but knowing I had to do something with them since they’re all I’ve really felt passionately about. After considering and quickly declining a phone sex job as an outlet for creativity, I got a job at The Editorial Department, the oldest freelance editing firm in the country, based in Tucson, AZ.

I worked as their managing editor of Between the Lines, gathering info and interviewing professionals in the industry. Eventually, I moved to New York and through a variety of internships, assistant positions, and odd jobs found that agenting is the niche that most suits me.

WH: What’s the main difference between editing and agenting, and why did you decide to make the switch?

AR: I really enjoy the entrepreneurial spirit of agenting. There’s a huge amount of flexibility in what an agent decides to take on, and it’s heavily based on individual sensibilities and gut. An agent is present in most every aspect of publication (from line-editing a rough manuscript to cover consultation and publicity) so it feels impossible to have a boring day.

Then there’s the chance to “discover” breathtaking new books, meet some of the warmest, most passionate people in an industry devoted to something I love, and championing authors through a difficult and unpredictable career. I still enjoy the editing process, but I find agenting more varied and eventful.

WH: What draws you to a fiction book? Non-fiction?

AR: With both, voice is very important to me. There are a lot of aspects of a manuscript that can be fixed through the editing process, but voice seems to be one of those things that you either have or you don’t. If the writing itself is boring, stilted, awkward, unrealistic, or self-conscious I don’t care what it’s about, I can’t read it.

I personally enjoy edgier books with quirky, unique protagonists. I love spunky, fresh narrators that show a different view of the world we see every day. I have a hard time with fantasy with no rooting in the real world.

An engaging voice is crucial in trade non-fiction, and a bizarre topic, new perspective, or unique credibility usually hooks me.

WH: You also represent a fair amount of YA authors. Do you think the YA world is more challenging than the adult world?

AR: The only aspect I find challenging is the misconception that YA is a dumbed-down version of an adult book. The tendency to underestimate what teenagers are capable of reading is especially frustrating. The market for YA, however, has shown to be a thriving genre with tons of exciting new voices.

WH: Who are a few of your favorite authors out there today?

AR: Ugh, I have always struggled with this question! I adore Tana French‘s police procedurals, I absolutely devoured Cory Doctorow’s LITTLE BROTHER over the course of a recent weekend, and currently can’t put down Stieg Larsson‘s bestselling series. Also Sherman Alexie, Tom Robbins, Junot Diaz, and tons more.

WH: What’s your take on the publishing industry today? In dire straits or blooming? Both? Neither?

AR: I think that publishing is economizing just like other businesses are-neither dire straits nor blooming. I’m interested to see where we go with ebooks (Nathan Bransford recently made an interesting post about this), though I personally can’t imagine ever foregoing a physical, bound book for an electronic one. It’s depressing to think about a world without bookstores everywhere, but the people I speak to are just trying to be informed and flexible.

WH: Let’s get into the nitty-gritty: what percentage of authors that you decide to represent come from the unsolicited submissions?

AR: Since I’m just starting to build my list at Wolf Literary, I’m relying a lot on the slush pile at the moment. Unfortunately, it’s inevitable that I’ll start getting roped into mass emailed submissions rather than personalized, researched queries, so that percentage will get a bit grimmer.

WH: How important is the query letter? Do you want any sample pages or does the query make enough of a first impression?

AR: The query letter is indescribably important! We do ask for the first 50 pages of the manuscript, but if the query letter doesn’t exhibit the author’s skill as a writer or the hook of the manuscript, there’s no reason to read beyond that pitch letter. The query letter should be the apex of an author’s writing skill.

WH: What are three things in a query that make you want to read more?

AR: One of my authors used the word “percussive” in his query letter, which was the absolute perfect, most thought out word choice. So:

1)      Clever, elegant word choice
2)      Clear, engaging, succinct prose
3)      Research into agency guidelines and individual tastes

WH: What are three things that let you know this project/writer isn’t for you?

AR: 1)      Lack of professionalism (typos, pink stationary, head shots, scorpions set in acrylic resin…)
2)      No research into how we’d prefer to accept queries or what my interests are
3)      Obsessive emails/phone calls/faxes/smoke signals beyond just “checking in”

WH: What advice can you give aspiring writers out there?

AR: The representation process is very subjective, which makes personalization and research incredibly important. Sending a manuscript to an agent that pointedly doesn’t represent your genre is a waste of everyone’s time. Be patient, be persistent, be positive-just like any other professional relationship, sometimes random timing is everything. (That was unintentionally alliterative.)

WH: Shameless plug alert: do you think WordHustler helps writers successfully get their work out there and into your hands, professionally and effectively?

AR: I’m a huge fan of any vehicle that helps writers and agents find each other.

You heard it here first, Hustlers. Adriann accepts queries via email, which means you can sign up for our brand new Digital Submission System and be able to access Wolf Literary Services’ contact info and track your submission to them, all in one organized place: WordHustler. Sign up today!