Thursday, June 9, 2011

Interactive Interview with an Agent: Jeff Ourvan

I’ve got another good one for you. Today’s interactive interview features Jeff Ourvan of Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency. Details on the interactive part are at the bottom. Happy reading!

KV: Are you a writer yourself? What did/do you write?

JO: Yes, I’ve written two thrillers and also two non-fiction works about sports, one of which, HOW TO COACH YOUTH BASEBALL SO EVERY KID WINS, will be published next spring.

KV: How long have you been agenting, and how did you get into it?

JO: This is my first year as a literary agent. I was for a long time a PR guy and spokesperson and then a corporate attorney, in addition to working as a magazine editor. I also studied creative writing for many years with the novelist John Rechy.

I wanted to bring all these skills together so had considered agenting for several years. I knew of the Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency because Jennifer successfully represented my wife, who is a published novelist with Harper Collins. And I found out I enjoyed working with authors a lot more than I did with lawyers.

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

JO: I was on the author side of this coin long before I was an agent, and so I’m keenly aware of how much heart and soul and work and tears it takes to write, let alone market, a successful book. And I know from personal experience that authors place their hopes and dreams in an agent’s hands, so I take that responsibility seriously. I work closely with my authors, and I hope I help them to bring forth their very best--which, from my perspective, means marketable--work before we ever take that work to editors and publishers.

The relationship between writers and agents has to be based on mutual consideration, a shared vision, and a common objective to work diligently and professionally. E-mails and phone calls have to be returned.

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

JO: I have some terrific projects right now, including a memoir from a former top leader of Hezbollah; a memoir from the only Jewish-American spy in Baghdad; a very clever romantic comedy set at Harvard University; a zombie novel that both turns the genre on its head and reads like Edgar Allan Poe; and several exciting YA and sci-fi works.

All of these authors are new, excellent, page-turning writers. Also, they offer something different, something not out there yet that people--meaning publishers and editors--would be intrigued to either learn about or to experience.

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

JO: I favor nonfiction works--international, sports, music, history and memoir--and commercial fiction, including thrillers, mysteries, international, YA, and really just about anything other than children’s picture books.

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

JO: Well, since you ask, please spell well and use proper grammar. I’m in part judging ability based on the care writers take when they query me. Second, just get right to the point. And third, try to control the use of adjectives and superlatives when describing yourself or your work--less is more in that regard. But I went through a couple hundred queries today so I might just be cranky.

KV: What’s the best way to query you?

JO: E-mail is preferred.

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?

JO: Yes, it can be helpful to paste a few pages of the manuscript below the query. I typically know from the general query whether I'd want to read more, but in a case where I'm on the fence a few attached pages can help me to capture a sense of writing ability and style.

Thank you, Mr. Ourvan, for these responses, and good luck to everyone who decides to query. I imagine that will be quite a few of you, as Mr. Ourvan represents a wide range of genres:)

I’m sure everyone knows the interactive drill by now, but for any newcomers, here’s a brief refresher: If you have a question for Mr. Ourvan, feel free to leave it in the comments below. He’ll drop in periodically throughout the day and leave his answers down there in the comments as well. We’ll wrap everything up at 4:30 p.m. EDT (or 1:30 p.m. PDT), so don’t dilly-dally!


Jenilyn Tolley said...

Thanks for the interview, Jeff and Krista!

I wondered what your feelings were on middle grade and chapter books. You mentioned that you liked all children's books (except for picture books). Does that mean you are actively seeking in those genres?

Also, how do you feel about fantasy and science fiction?

Thanks so much!

Michelle Merrill said...

Great interview Jeff and Krista! I like that Jeff mentioned the relationship between the writer and agent in having a shared vision and common goals in how they work together.

My question is about word count. I assumed word count meant that you look at the bottom of your Word Document to find how many words your novel includes and round it for all intents and purposes.

The other day a friend of mine said that the real word count that you should mention in your query is the number of pages your book is times 250.

I hope that makes sense. What is your opinion, Jeff? Go with the document word count or do the multiplication? It can be a big difference.

Thanks for your time.

Myrna Foster said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Myrna Foster said...

Thanks for the interview, Jeff and Krista!

Jeff, you mentioned that you have "several exciting YA and sci-fi works" coming soon. Could you tell us more about them? I'd like to know what kind of YA projects you've already acquired.

Jeff Ourvan said...

Hi Jenilyn, I'm a big fan of both sci-fi and YA fantasy, and by all means I look for works in those genres. As for middle school and YA in general, I'm keen for works that have potential crossover appeal to an adult readership . . . so the works that attract me in those genres would perhaps also incorporate some sophisticated themes.

Michelle . . . thanks also for your comment. I prefer seeing the specific word count right on the cover page, rather than the 250 words/pg estimate. I guess it's like the difference between using a precise tape measure vs. walking off the distance with my somewhat imprecise three-foot stride!

Jeff Ourvan said...

Hi Myrna, thanks for asking. Two YAs I'm most excited about include SuperModel UN, an adorable tale of a 7th grader who escapes to the UN - and its status as an international territory not subject to local laws - to avoid a custody order subjecting her to live with her divorced mom in suburbia. While at the UN, she also ends up brokering a peace deal and avoiding a nuclear conflict.

A second work, The Doublewalker, features a 14 yr old African American girl who falls through her dilapidated housing project elevator into a purgatory-like underworld where ancient gods violently fight for worshipers to preserve their fleeting immortality. While struggling to get home, she realizes that their battles also jeopardize our world.

A sci-fi book I'm excited about, The Alien Mission, is a serial killer thriller that takes place on several planets in the 23rd century....

Michelle Merrill said...

Great analogy. Thanks!

Myrna Foster said...

Those all sound intriguing. Thank you!

Jodi R. said...

Loved this interview - thanks Krista and Jeff. I had to chuckle about your cranky comment - it must be crazy making to read through so many queries, especially when many are riddled with errors! (Please writing gods -don't let me make any stupid mistakes here!!!)

I'm intrigued and impressed by the range of your list - and your obvious enthusiasm for your projects! Might you be equally enthused about women's fiction and/or chick lit?

Jodi R.

Jeff Ourvan said...

Oh good, I'm glad someone chuckled! I'm not really complaining about how queries come to me, as I've found some terrific authors through that process. Didn't intend to intimidate anyone from querying me.... Especially the next JK Rowling or Stephen King wherever you are.

Women's fiction in general is a definite yes. The chick lit sub-genre less so. That market is saturated and tough for new writers to crack. I'm afraid chick lit has to be really different and fabulously written to catch my attention.

Jodi R. said...

Don't worry - it was classified as a pet peeve and not a dealbreaker, so we know you won't toss us on our ears if we have the odd typo!

If I could be greedy and hopefully not too obtuse (ack! now I'm using to many adjectives!), I'll venture another question: How do YOU define women's fiction and chick lit? (Fingers crossed...)

Thanks again!
Jodi R.

Krista V. said...

Great questions so far, and equally great answers. Keep 'em coming, everyone!

I have one more: Do you respond to every query, and if so, how long does it typically take you to reply?

Jeff Ourvan said...

Let me take the easy one first - I try to respond to every query received, although the ones I decline outright will likely not receive a detailed response. Where I read a manuscript but ultimately pass I will send a more personal note expressing (gently, I hope) what I liked and didn't like about what I read. I try to respond within 3-4 weeks or less, but it doesn't always work out that well. More than 6 weeks is unusual.

For me, women's fiction is anything that targets women as primary readers. It can be written by a man but still be women's fiction. Romance as a genre is certainly a big part of women's fiction, and romance specifically often has to be an ingredient in such works. Chick lit, to me, is often more urban and typically involves younger, single protagonists looking for love. I think it's more breezy and cheeky, and good chick lit is also funny and ironic.

I will reveal here to the world for the first time that I inspired a character in a chick lit book that my wife authored, called Diamonds Take Forever. She claims it's a novel but I alone know it's a real-life documentary...

Jodi R. said...

Thanks for that Jeff. I'm still not sure about my genre, so I guess I'll just have to send along a query to you...

Thanks again Krista - this is such a wonderful opportunity for us! (And where is everyone today?!?)


Krista V. said...

And that's a wrap! Thank you, Mr. Ourvan, for spending the day with us. See you all next week!

Kelly Bryson said...

Thanks! It's nice to read everybody's questions:)

Krista V. said...

You're welcome, Kelly! Looking forward to meeting you today:)