Friday, September 10, 2010

Interactive Interview with an Agent: Barbara Galletly

Happy Friday, all! Today’s INTERACTIVE interview features Barbara Galletly of Georges Borchardt, Inc. Details on the interactive part are on the other side. Enjoy the interview, and then I’ll meet you at the bottom.

KV: How did you get into agenting?

BG: I heard about a job (at Georges Borchardt, Inc., where I still work) from a friend, working with a couple of French publishers (I studied French and translation in college) and a lot of authors I had read in college and was totally in love with, and--I can't remember this, but according to my boss--I gave an impassioned speech during which I declared that advocating for the kind of daring and serious books my agency represents was all I really wanted to do. I have always been a reader, and a hugely judgmental one at that, and I seem to have rather luckily stumbled into a job where my opinion means something.

KV: How would you summarize your personal agenting philosophy? What do you expect from an agent-author relationship?

BG: I guess it would still be the same as it was in the beginning. I think my job as an agent is to stand up for authors brave enough to write daring stories, to offer explanations that make us think as much as they give us facts. There's a lot of great writing, but I want to represent those books that aim to challenge the status quo and disrupt the way we might be drawn into thinking about it. Whether it's fiction or non-fiction, I think this is the kind of book that is most important. Publishers aren't always eager to take on projects that aren't easy, and that's what I'm here to try to change. Of course an agent's job is also to protect her author's rights before and after a contract is signed.

KV: What client work do you have coming out soon? What drew you to those writers and/or projects?

BG: I co-agented something over the summer that I'm very excited about--it's a novel called LAMB by Bonnie Nadzam, which Kate Johnson and I sold to Judith Gurewitsch at Other Press. This is a really beautifully told story about a man who does something terrible to a young girl, but the author is able to get the reader to empathize with this man.

KV: What genres do you represent? What genres do you definitely NOT represent?

BG: Literary fiction, narrative non-fiction, works in translation. No commercial/genre fiction or self-help, diet, business books.

KV: What query pet peeves and/or pitfalls should writers avoid when querying you?

BG: I don't like getting mass e-mail submissions! Especially when I can see the names of the other agents and their e-mail addresses…

KV: What are you looking for in a manuscript right now?

BG: I think it's important that a manuscript comes with an author who is dedicated to building a personal platform, who has more than one project in them and is looking for a career as a writer.

KV: What's the best way to query you?

BG: I know it's a pain, but if a letter or e-mail is addressed specifically to me, I'm much more impressed.

KV: How do you feel about a writer's including a few sample pages at the bottom of the query? Do you find that more assertive or obnoxious?

BG: I am happy to ask for the amount of material I would like to read (I will usually ask for three chapters if I’m interested). But if the text is already there, it does make life easy. So really, I think it depends on the query and it’s fine either way.

Thanks, Ms. Galletly, for these responses. I was particularly drawn to your statement about wanting to represent books that challenge the status quo. I suspect that will resonate with a lot of us.

All right, now for the fun part:) You know the drill: Leave a question in the comments, and Ms. Galletly will answer it sometime in the next little while. This is a one-day-only event, so I’ll be cutting questions off at midnight PDT. But in the meantime, have at it!


Elena Solodow said...

Great interview!

For Ms. Galletly:

Was there a book in the past ten years that particularly challenged the status quo? And/or was there a book in your lifetime that really drew you into the publishing industry?

Anne R. Allen said...

How refreshing to hear about an agent who is interested in literary fiction!

We're always told that literary fiction doesn't sell, and if you can call your novel anything else (like women's fiction or YA) you should do it. We're also told that if you haven't got an MA and/or a story published in the New Yorker or the Paris Review, you shouldn't try to publish literary fiction. Want to comment on that?

Barbara Galletly said...

Elena, thanks for your question. I think the status quo evolves very slowly, but successful books that I see moving our attention in an interesting new direction are ones like Anne Carson's translations or her new NOX, or Paul Harding's TINKERS. Books that are different and challenge us to think more about why we read and what to read.

Oddly, the book that drew me into publishing was probably Anna Karenina. Reading that after high school, I realized for the first time (recognizing what a translation is, what it does, why we need it) that there are a lot of different factors that go into book publication. It's so cool to be able to take part!

Anonymous said...

Anne, this is certainly an interesting question! YA, "women's fiction," or even literary fiction are of course all labels that are helpful to publishers and bookstores marketing titles. Furthermore it’s often genre books that sell the best because they find their audiences easily and authors have loyal fans. However, it's important to note that it’s hard to make a name as an author in any genre, regardless of whether you eventually become a best seller. I think it's essential that you worry first about what you're writing, and worry second about what to call it since you rarely can control it. Additionally, there are lots of opportunities to start building a reputation in any genre, and that’s important to work on. Get your work out to small journals, publish it for free every now and then, blog or tweet. Get yourself known to the people who interest you and who you want to impress, and you’ll begin to create a niche for yourself in the place you really belong. I think the freedom afforded by the internet to publicize yourself is really helpful to literary publishing, and a lot of small presses are flourishing. They may not always be small, and you may well grow with them. In short, do the thing that’s right for you and, with hard work and some luck you’ll find success.

Barbara Galletly said...

Oops. That last "Anonymous" was me...

I also wanted to add that labels, while helpful, are really always contentious. You've probably seen that there's a lot said lately about the fact that literary fiction by women often gets "maligned" as "women's fiction"--you may be hearing a lot of this in response to the overwhelming success of Jonathan Franzen's FREEDOM. But as Anne points out, and as remains the case, things that are easily placed in commercial categories are easier to sell.

Anonymous said...

Great interview! How would you describe the market for translation? Does your job as an agent change when the work originates in a different language?

Barbara Galletly said...

Anonymous, thanks for your nice comment! The market for translation is an interesting one, especially because it seems to me that it's growing. There are some wonderful publishers that have always done translations, and a wonderful job with them (Grove, New Directions, Dalkey, Viking, University of Nebraska) and there are lots of new smaller presses that are also doing exciting book length translation projects (Archipelago, Three Percent, Ugly Duckling). There are still more examples of great publications and organizations, especially online, that publish and review translations (Words Without Borders, Complete Review, PEN World Voices, Granta, the millions I'm forgetting this second) that are encouraging growth in publication of translation. That said, Three Percent is named for the percentage of all books published in translation each year in the US... Let's say there's room for continued growth, and it's not always easy to find a publisher even for an amazing work in translation.

Translation deals aren't just different because they require different publishers (and editors who understand the original language, in many cases) though, they're also different for contractual purposes. There's an author (or, for many European books, the original publisher is the proprietor) and also a translator that must be taken into account, either initially or after the initial deal has been struck. When the two parties split the royalties, they each receive less at the end of the day. Or, if the translator is working on something like The Iliad or Don Quixote that's in the public domain, s/he's treated more like an author. I should also add that it's often the translator that finds a publisher and convinces him or her to take their project on.

I could obviously talk for hours about this, I'd be happy to talk to you further if you want to email me directly!

Krista V. said...

A question that has plagued me for years: Why is nonfiction so much easier to sell? Are there really that many more nonfiction readers than fiction ones, or is there some other market dynamic at work?

(As an aside, I think it's really interesting that you work with translations. I never realized how important the translator is until I was reading FAUST in college. No matter how good the original work is, the translation can only be as good as the translator. (And the translator of my copy of FAUST was good.))

Emma Heins said...

Amazing interview! I really enjoyed reading your answers! I was wondering if Kindles and Nooks and iPads have had and impact on the publishing world? Also, are the determining what people are interested in writing or reading?

Nina said...

I just hate those books that make you empathize for the offender, which also may be one of the reasons why I am completely drawn to them. The Norwegian writer Karin Fossum has a talent for that, and I've read all of her books. She is the only one I know who can evoke such feelings of sympathy in a human begin who doesn't deserve it at all, so I'd love to read a book where someone else has the same ability to do so.

Forcing you to love something you hate is something I consider as art!

No questions though, but good luck =D

Esther Vanderlaan said...

How do you like editing?
How do you become an editor?
Have you written any books?
And if so, what are they about, and do you like writing books?
What kind of tales do you edit?
Such as novels, short stories,children's books, young adult, adult, etc.

Thanks for answering!!!

Anonymous said...

One more,

Anna Karenina was also a very exciting book for me. Are there any other books that have captured your attention in that way? Any suggested reading? Thanks!!! And wonderful reading your answers!!

Michaela G said...

It sound like you've got a lot of experience with book translation. If you have a book that you would like to have translated, how do you go about finding a good translator?

Also, in line with a previous comment, are novella-length books becoming more popular with the advent of e-readers, since the overhead of publishing a physical book is eliminated?


Barbara Galletly said...

Hi Krista V. Nonfiction is easier to sell for a few reasons. Most importantly, there don't seem to be as many people who enjoy stories for the sake of stories as there are who want to learn about what really happened. It's sometimes said that people don't have time for make believe, or to make believe for a whole book. Some of us disagree!

More importantly, nonfiction books take advantage of current events and get great coverage in news media--books about politicians who have made mistakes or succeeded, about movie stars or rock stars, sports teams or particularly controversial competitions, are popular in the way tabloids and reality shows or exposes are. People want the inside scoop.

Barbara Galletly said...

Emma Heins, I think this is a great question. Electronic reading devices have been great, in my opinion, primarily because they've gotten more people talking about books. There a lot of ongoing debates about which is better, what the devices should do and not do for the reader, how we should buy electronic books and what they should cost. And people are really trying them out! They're not just buying the devices, they seem to be buying more books.

I have an iPad, which is great because I can keep a lot of reading material in a relatively small and comparatively light-weight space. Two of my co-workers have Sony Readers, one has a Kindle. My boyfriend reads on his cell phone! And meanwhile book publishers are trying to take advantage of this. I think it's great that we will be seeing some books that contain cool images and videos, color, audio, and other special effects. Check out Electric Literature and other cool new publishers that are doing fun things with books that have really never been done before!

Barbara Galletly said...

Esther, I am not an editor, but I love to edit! As an agent my job isn't as much a matter of correcting grammar and syntax as much as to help a writer refine and configure her essay, chapter, novel, or whatever we're working on, to best suit her vision for the piece. I work with writers of adult literary fiction and nonfiction including book-length and short works, but not with children's books or young adult stories and novels. I am not a writer (though sometimes I write poems) but I do like writing. Maybe you can tell by how long my responses to these questions are!

Barbara Galletly said...

Anonymous, two favorite authors whose books have expanded my ideas about what books can do: Lydia Davis and WG Sebald.

Barbara Galletly said...

Michaela G, Thanks for your question. I really hope I continue to gain lots of experience with translation! I think primarily I have found that one must explore--this is where the internet really comes in handy. But so far it seems to me that universities and graduate level literary translation programs are the best places to find not just great links, but also great translators to champion one's previously untranslated work. Students are looking for works to translate, and they may have greater access to funding that allows them to take on projects, especially experimental or "difficult" ones. Also, literary journals like Words Without Borders or Pen World Voices may be able to help because they have readers of many languages to help them.

Re: your second question, you're exactly right, length may become, and in fact seems to be becoming, less of an issue as digital books grow in popularity. Well, this may not be true of established writers whose novellas sell well already. But it seems to be true of new writers whose early works are shorter--it's no longer problematic to figure out how to publish and price and find a place on the shelf for a novella because of its physical size. Electric Literature, which I mentioned previously, is doing some novellas by previously unpublished writers--I wish them much success.

KayM said...

Hi Barbara,

I enjoyed your comments and am very interested in translation as an occupation. Is this filed predominantly focused on another language to English for the US market or is there a lot of demand in other languages/countries? What is the best school for this/specific degree?


playgroupwithsylviaplath said...

Barbara --

Do you or your agency prefer authors to come with complete proposals ready to market, or do you like to be involved earlier in crafting of the package once the initial proposal is submitted. I have heard of agents working both ways -- and am curious what the right stage for approach is -- not too early, not too late (like Goldilocks porridge, I would guess).

Thanks. I found the discussion on genre fiction and narrative non-fiction particularly interesting.

Myrna Foster said...

Thanks for the great interview!

Ms. Galletly, would you be interested in a memoir that was self-published a couple of decades ago and sold-out because the writer was known among respected aviators as a pioneer and inventor? I'm not trying to turn this into a query, but I do wonder how you feel about looking at projects that have been self-published. The writer I mentioned was my grandfather.

Krista V. said...

Great questions, everyone, and awesome, awesome answers, Barbara. Thank you for all of these detailed and thoughtful responses. Tons of great information crammed into such a small space.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful interview!

Ms. Galletly, recently (and not so recently) literary fiction writers have been using speculative fiction to spin thought-provoking literary tales (McCormac, Atwood, for example). As a writer of what I consider fiction that cradle literary and commercial fiction with speculative elements, is this something your agency represents.



Barbara Galletly said...

KayM, there is probably a greater demand for translators of English into other languages because there's a greater tendency for English-language work to be translated for foreign consumption than vice-versa. There's certainly a need for translations into English, but unfortunately there's not a lot of money in that pursuit for the translator. I'm not really sure about what the best school would be, though I know there are many interesting translation programs in this country and abroad.

Barbara Galletly said...

playgroupwithsylviaplath, I think it's appropriate to have a proposal ready to go. If we have changes to suggest we'll certainly share those, but it's important to us to understand as much as possible about what you're going for before we get involved. We also need to see that you've put in a lot of hard work and that you're dedicated to your project before we get involved. After all, it's your story and will be your book!

Barbara Galletly said...

Myrna Foster, thanks for your question. This is a difficult thing to assess specifically, but I think yes, it is difficult to find a new publisher for a book that is out of print and several decades old unless an editor felt a strong attachment to it or there was something in the memoir that was relevant or timely now. However, self-publication is getting more and more easy, efficient and affordable, and this is a great way to make a book available again especially when it's already written and ready to go to press. If your family members and peers of your grandfather are asking for copies, print-on-demand, e-book or one-time print run editions all sound like good options. I wish I could be more helpful with particulars!

Barbara Galletly said...

Ken, thank you! I think it's important to consider a work on its own, and to think about previous and continued successes and failures later. I would definitely be happy to read and let you know what I think!

Barbara Galletly said...

I have had a great time with this Q+A, thanks to all for your comments and questions.

But most importantly, Krista V., Thank you so much for having me here! It has been a real treat.

Krista V. said...

I'm glad, Barbara. You're welcome anytime:)