An Interview With
Jeff Kleinman.
In Search of Missed Subway Stops
Answers, Advice, and a Glimpse Into the Life of a Literary Agent

Jeff Kleinman is a literary agent and intellectual property attorney with Graybill & English, LLC, a literary agency and law firm which works with all of the major U.S. publishers (and, through subagents, with most international publishers).† Heís a graduate of Case Western Reserve University (J.D.), the University of Chicago (M.A., Italian), and the University of Virginia (B.A. with High Distinction in English).† As an agent, Jeff feels privileged to have the chance to learn an incredibly variety of new subjects, meet an extraordinary range of people, and feel, at the end of the day, that heís helped to build something - a wonderful book, perhaps, or an authorís career.† His authors include Philip Gerard, Ron McLarty, and Barbara Holland.

His project interests include:

Nonfiction: especially narrative nonfiction with a historical bent, but also health, parenting, aging, nature, pets, how-to, travel, nature, ecology, politics, military, espionage, equestrian, memoir, biography.

Fiction: very well-written, character driven novels; some SF&F, suspense, thrillers; otherwise mainstream commercial and literary fiction.† 

No: childrenís, romance, mysteries, westerns, poetry, or screenplays, novels about serial killers, suicide, or children in peril (kidnapped, killed, raped, etc.).

Lily: Walk me through a usual day in the life of a literary agent. Give me an idea of what itís like to have your job. 

JK: The jobís like most others, I suspect, in that I get into work, answer phone calls, read the mail, deal with whatever needs to be dealt with (contracts, author issues, publicity questions, etc.), and work on proposals.

Probably the biggest difference between this job and another is that so much time needs to be spent outside the office, reading and evaluating manuscripts and proposals. †Itís generally too difficult to do that during the workday, so most of my reading is done in the evening or on weekends.† Since thatís the case, and since a lot of the time Iíd rather be playing with my daughter or working around the house, itís crucial that the material I read be as engaging as possible.

Lily: What made you decide you wanted to become a literary agent? Are you a writer, as well?

JK: No, not a writer.† Iím an intellectual property attorney, specializing in art and entertainment law.† The lawfirm I used to work for was affiliated with a literary agency; I started reading and evaluating manuscripts, and dealing with contract issues.† I slowly found myself doing more and more agent-like stuff.† When our firms all split up, I came on board with the literary agents, and have never looked back.

Lily: How many clients do you typically work with at a time?

JK: Thatís a tough question - I like to only be sending out (i.e., selling) one manuscript or proposal at a time; but in the meantime Iím dealing with books that are already published (discussing publicity/marketing with publishers and authors), working on proposals that are still in early stages, and so forth.† Generally Iím probably juggling about a dozen ďbigĒ things at a time, and probably a dozen or so ďsmallerĒ issues, as well.

Lily: How many manuscripts do you look at in an average week?

JK: I used to read 2 or 3 manuscripts a week, but now Iím asking to see much much less, so itís probably a manuscript a week or so.† Thatís full manuscripts. 

Iím also probably reading between 25 and 50 ďfirst three chapters / 50 pagesĒ, and another 200 or so blind queries a week. This is all for projects that I donít represent yet.

Lily: How long does the process generally take from the time a client first contacts you until their book is published? Can you tell me the various steps of this process?

JK: Fiction: when I agree to take on a novel, the author may still have to go back and do some additional tinkering with it - so however long that takes.† Once a final draft hits my desk, I like to get the manuscript out within two weeks or so.† Depending on the project, Iíll hear back from editors from anywhere between 24 hours and 8 weeks.†† Once a publisherís made an offer on a book, it generally takes another 2 months to deal with contracts.† After the final manuscriptís handed in, the publisher generally publishes it within 9-12 months (it takes this long to get cover endorsements, contact long-lead and short-lead magazines, and so forth).

Nonfiction:††Usually I sell nonfiction based on a proposal.† When the proposal is finished (which may take the client and me anywhere from a couple of weeks to eighteen months to get into the best possible shape), the sequence of events is similar to that of fiction.† The only difference is that the nonfiction book hasnít been written yet - so the author, editor, and I sit down and figure out how long the author will need to actually write the book, which of course gets factored into the calculation.

Lily: Why is fiction harder to sell than nonfiction?

JK: Itís so much more subjective, first of all - so what one person loves, another may not.† That goes for editors, agents, and bookstore readers.† Second, fiction tends to be dominated by brand name authors - so it may be difficult for a first-time author to get enough reader recognition.† Third, fictionís harder to promote - think about a media interview; itís so much easier to talk about a nonfiction topic than a novel.

Lily: What qualities must a query letter contain in order to capture your interest?

JK: Thatís tough to define, too.† The bottom line is that there must be something that keeps me reading - that makes me turn the page, to look at the manuscript itself.† Itís some indefinable quality of the writing, I think - really good writers tend to write really good cover letters.

That said, hereís something I wrote a while ago that might help:

The Anatomy of A Successful Query Letter
* Single Page Letter
* Paragraph 1: Catchy but professional introduction (how you heard of agent, great plot idea, etc.)
* Paragraph 2: Your experience (credentials for writing the book - can be professional and/or personal experience). Your credentials are crucial for nonfiction, and may be less important for fiction, where the quality of the writing is paramount, but sell yourself. Nobody thinks itís bragging.
* Paragraph 3: Description of the project in one or two sentences. If fiction, one- or two-sentence ďlog lineĒ, plus word count; if nonfiction, a brief description of the project, plus finish this sentence: ďMy book is the first book that...Ē
* ALWAYS include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE), as well as all other means of contacting you (phone, fax, email).
* Always include the first sample pages (or chapters) if fiction; sample pages (or chapters) if nonfiction. At the very minimum, include the first page of the book along with the cover letter.

Lily: If you were to make a list of things a writer should NOT do when querying an agent, what would be on that list?

JK: Donít:
* Make the cover letter longer than one (1) page.
* Include quotes from friends, relatives, or religious mentors who think the book is great.
* Mention other manuscripts sitting in your drawer, asking the agent to choose which one to see.† Discuss only the best, strongest, most saleable manuscript you have.
* Send it until itís the best-written, tightest prose you can possibly write.
* If this is an email query (note: many agents donít accept email queries, so check this ahead of time), donít include attachments or force the editor to link to your Website to read sample materials - make it as easy for them as possible.

Lily: What qualities must a novel contain in order to keep your interest and have you feel good about its marketability?

JK: Pat Lobrutto, one of the smartest guys in publishing, has two criteria for novels which Iíve taken to heart:

1.† I miss my subway stop reading it (translation: thereís some indefinable canít-put-down quality about it - this has nothing to do with it being a thriller or anything like that; thereís just something about the prose that makes me forget where I am and what Iím doing, and just keep turning the pages).

2.† I gush about it to any poor slob who will listen (translation: books are still sold via word of mouth.† So if I donít find myself wanting to talk about the book, chances are that a bookstore reader might not, either).

Lily: How is the market for new books these days? Which genre is currently most in demand? 

JK: Certainly with the consolidation of publishing, and the huge importance of trade bookstores, itís getting harder and harder to sell books - but I still think that people are reading and buying books and talking about them.

As for genre - no clue.† I donít really think about stuff like that; it doesnít seem to help me sell books.† I try to sell what I love, and hope that others do, too.

That said, I think that narrative nonfiction (a la Seabiscuit, Perfect Storm, etc.) certainly has a very receptive readership both among editors and readers.

Lily: What is the hardest part of your job?

JK: Rejection.† I hate rejecting people, and I hate getting rejected by editors.

Lily: Aside from the commission, what is the most rewarding thing for you, as a literary agent?

JK: Selling a book that I love - itís an amazing, incredible feeling to know that I made something happen.

Lily: What is your advice for aspiring writers? What sort of things should a person do to increase their chances of a successful career as a published author?

JK: I think the biggest thing to do is to write.† Write not to get published - write because you love to do it, because the characters or story or whatever it is captures your heart and soul.† That passion cannot be faked. 

That said, the next thing to do is to engrave Strunk & Whiteís Elements of Style on your arm - donít make typos, learn the basic grammar and punctuation constructions.