"Agents are Mysterious People" - Interview with Agent Michelle Wolfson

I'm thrilled and honored to present an interview with Agent Michelle Wolfson of Wolfson Literary Agency. Michelle is the agent of one of my favorite on-line blogging buds, the brilliant and talented Kiersten White.

Michelle and I were involved in a twitter chat regarding exclusives, and one thing led to another, and I roped her in, I mean gently persuaded her to be interviewed by moi on Write on Target. Michelle is a funny, down to earth, and extremely dedicated agent - exactly the kind of agent I hope will represent me one of these days.

So, ladies and gentlemen, it is my great honor to present the lovely Michelle Wolfson.

So, Michelle, tell us a little about your agency and your background.

I have a broad and varied work background, but have spent the last six years as an agent. My own agency is approaching the two year mark, which is a huge professional milestone for me.

Two years? Congratulations! That is a wonderful achievement. What genres do you represent?

One thing I love about agenting is that I can choose to take on almost anything if I fall in love with it. My standard interests tend to be commercial fiction—women’s fiction, mysteries, thrillers, romance, and YA. In non-fiction I like fun, practical guides and quirky projects. I’ll also do an occasional memoir.

What are you currently looking for?

I would say that I’m rarely looking for things in the way that you probably mean that question unless I go with a general “the next big thing” kind of answer. I’m always looking for projects that I fall in love with and for projects that feel big to me. I’m not always right, but I want projects that have that home run kind of feel to them.

What have you sold lately?

I’m working on Fall submissions now so my summer submissions are my most recent, starting with debut author Kiersten White’s three book deal to HarperTeen. The first book in the trilogy, PARANORMALCY, will be coming out in September 2010. I sold another book for Alexandra Levit, a weekly journalist for the WSJ and career writer. The new one sold to Berkley and is called YOU’RE NOT THE EXCEPTION, YOU'RE THE RULE: Debunking the 10 Myths of Business Success. And Alexandra has a book coming out in January from Ballantine called NEW JOB, NEW YOU. Finally, AJ Menden has two more books in her Elite Hands of Justice series lined up at Dorchester, tentatively scheduled for June 2010 and December 2010. She’s gotten some fabulous reviews for the first two, and her fans are eagerly awaiting the next books in the series.

I love the diversity of your writers. Moving on to a subject that is near and dear to my readers' hearts, approximately how many queries do you receive each week?

About 100, give or take a few.

I imagine it varies greatly from week to week, but approximately what percentage of queries do you request sample pages from?

It really does vary. Looking through my folders I see a ton of requests in September and very few in August. So in a given week I might not request any, or I might request as many as four or five.

Are most of your queries “cold” or are many of them referrals?

By far the majority of queries are cold queries, but I definitely get referrals too.

How many new writers do you typically take on in a year?

It really depends. I don’t have a set number in mind, but when I fall in love with a project then I want to take someone on. Obviously there are periods when I have more or less time and that factors in too, but generally four or five.

How many authors are you working with? How many have you sold work for?

I’m working with 16 incredibly talented authors right now who are at various stages of the process from newly signed to multi-published. I love the writing of each and every one of them and have every confidence they will all be published authors one day.

An agent who loves everyone on her list. Every writer's dream! Regarding requests for sample pages, do you always request a partial first? If so, how many pages do you request? Does the number vary?

Yes, I almost always request a partial first. I typically request 50 pages, but that number varies based on my level of excitement from your query. At conferences, however, I use a very complex system to determine how many pages I request based on my level of interest, the time of day we meet, how far into the conference we are, how many business cards I have left, how dry my contact lenses have gotten, and a few other secret factors which cannot be disclosed here. But suffice it to say, when the pages come in, how many pages I requested can tell me a lot. This is actually sort of true. Agents are mysterious people.

(Hmm. Maybe I'll start carrying contact lens drops with me when I meet with agents...)

When it comes to fulls, you sometimes ask for exclusives. How do you determine which fulls to request exclusives for?

Since this was the twitter discussion that led to this interview, I’ll spend a little extra time on this question. As I mentioned above, I almost always ask for a partial first, so by the time I am requesting a full, I have already started the ms and I’m really excited to read it. (It’s incredibly rare for me to request a full based solely on the query.) I usually request four weeks for an exclusive because things can get crazy here and I like to have a little extra time. So what should an author do? Well, if you don’t want to give an exclusive, don’t give one. If someone tells me no, I will generally get the ms anyway and read it as soon as I can. (Hmm...I see my exclusives forever slipping away.)

My main experience has been that people don’t give exclusives when they have other agents who have the full ms already. In that case, I always take it anyway and just ask that they let me know if they receive another offer of representation, and to please give me a chance to read and respond. I have been on all sides of this situation—meaning I have been the first agent to offer representation and an author has given other agents a chance to read and respond and the author has chosen me, or sometimes the author has chosen another agent (What?! I hear you ask. I know!! But it’s true). Or I have been told that another agent offered representation and then I’ve been given a chance to read quickly and sometimes I love it and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes they choose me and sometimes they don’t.

So the real question revolves around a writer who doesn’t want to give me an exclusive just because they don’t want to give me an exclusive. There’s no other interest, but they are worried about tying up their manuscript or whatever. So they say no, or maybe they respond to my four weeks by saying you can have it for three weeks. So I say 3.5 weeks and you have a deal. Okay, no, just kidding. I say ok. What am I going to say? But is that really how you want to start our relationship? I’m basically telling you that I’m so excited about your manuscript that I can’t wait to read it, and you are going to quibble with me about an extra week? Publishing is a slow process and by no means do I take on everything I request a full on, so it's no guarantee, but it’s the next step in the process. Why not just relax and enjoy it (while you are doing what you should be doing, which is working on your next book)? Essentially, I don’t see the harm in an exclusive, but if you don’t feel comfortable, don’t do it.

Do you only read one ms at a time? For example, if you have 10 fulls on your desk, do you read them one at a time, or do you read more than one simultaneously?

So consider this scenario: I have read your partial and loved it, prompting me to request the full (on a four week exclusive basis which you immediately granted me of course), but in between the time I could get from my eReader back to my computer to find your contact info etc. and request that full and you could respond and send it to me and I could get the full thing on my eReader, what am I supposed to be reading? So I start something else. Then, later that day maybe I’m not reading at all but actually at my desk working (although if you are keeping up with the story, I’m already in the middle of two manuscripts), and an email comes in from someone whose manuscript I requested a few days ago. I recognize the title from the subject (because if you read the query guidelines on my site you’ve put the title in the subject) and I think oh, I remember this one and it sounded so good and I get distracted for a moment and pull it up on my computer screen and start reading it in Word and it’s so good that I have to immediately put it on my eReader and while I’m doing that I put those other few ones that came in that didn’t make it on in the last batch…and before you know it I’m in the middle of five manuscripts. But no, as a general rule I try to read them straight through!

If the writer already has at least one partial out, is that okay (if you're requesting an exclusive)?

Yes, that’s fine. Since the next step would be for those agents to ask for a full, at that time you could just say that you have someone looking at the full on an exclusive basis for X number of weeks. On a related note, I think exclusive partials are ridiculous and exclusive queries go beyond that to an actual pet peeve.

I never even knew exclusive partials or queries existed! I'd have to agree, that makes no sense at all. Regarding feedback, what kind do you give on partials? What about fulls?

As much as I wish I could give feedback on everything I read, I just can't. My clients come first--trust me, this is a quality you want in an agent. If I haven’t volunteered feedback, at best I just felt indifferent, like I liked it but didn’t love it (I know that’s not helpful, but that's just how publishing works), and, at worst, I actually disliked it. If writers push too hard demanding to know "WHY," I can get cranky and those exchanges never end well for anyone. Sometimes even my polite, helpful (I thought) emails have been met by serious crazy rants, so I say, please get a critique group. That's not my job--until I sign you.

Is there anything else you’d like to share, anything at all?

I really love agenting and I think that by taking on a select group of talented and wonderful clients/people, it keeps my work fun and interesting all the time.

Thank you, Michelle, so very much. Your insights into the business mixed with your unique brand of humor have made this interview a true delight. I wish you continued success with your agency and your list of talented writers.
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