Friday, July 27, 2012

Interview with an Agent: Danielle Svetcov

“Interview with an Agent” makes a comeback with Danielle Svetcov of Levine Greenberg Literary Agency! Settle in for a good one…

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

DS: It’s such a long, twisty story, but here goes: I graduated from college in 1995 with a journalism degree; for about six years I worked as a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers; I got tired of selling (without an agent); and I wanted to become a better writer. So, I got an MFA in fiction, which turned me into the sort of writer who didn’t want to sell anything of my own and who preferred to sit in a dark room and write short stories that only I could enjoy.

But I didn’t want to become irrelevant, and I was still a news junkie, and I had (and continue to have) a streak of “must fix that problem now” which needed regular exercising. And so, on a whim, I replied to a help-wanted ad on Craiglist in 2001 or 2002; an agent with Levine Greenberg Literary was seeking a part-time assistant; the agent’s name was Arielle Eckstut; she’d moved out to California to establish the agency’s West Coast office. She hired me while we were sitting in her kitchen looking at her cookbook collection, drinking Constant Comment tea. I remember thinking: I like the way her life looks. She worked alongside her husband, a client turned spouse. Each book was a new adventure. So I joined up.

I started off drafting letters, reading manuscripts, and book doctoring. First it was five hours a week; then ten, then twenty. Then I began doing the same for the agents in the NY office. I was still writing my fiction; I was even working at an improv theatre part time, because I was so unsure of where to commit myself. I knew I wanted to be around creatives; I knew I knew more about media than most; I felt I could make writers into better writers. But could I make myself a better writer?

I remained on the fence for some time.  The agency urged me to start selling books. “But I’m not in NY,” I argued. “But I don’t know if I’m cut for this.” They ignored my arguments and kept egging me on. They are tremendous cheerleaders. It’s in their DNA and it’s part of a successful agent’s working model. So, I began. Hesitantly. My second sale was a hilarious book called Skymaul: Happy Crap You Can Buy From a Plane, a parody of Skymall magazine. I met the authors, Kasper Hauser Comedy Troupe, while working at the improv. I thought, “If I get to laugh this hard and get paid, I should do this.” I also get to cheer writers on, steer their careers, talk about books all day, and exercise that “fix it” muscle, daily.  The job is actually good for my health.

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

DS: This is a good question; I don’t think I’ve ever addressed it in writing before…or in my head, in this fashion. Here goes: when I like a person or believe they’re talented, I immediately begin thinking of ways to assist that goodness or talent. This isn’t just publishing related. I am that meddling lady who fixes friends and clients up on blind dates, sends them want-ads for jobs I believe they’d be great at, cuts articles out of the paper they must read, finds them better apartments to live in. This instinct is genetic, I think, and I’m so lucky and pleased to have found a career that’s allowed it to flourish (legally).

Also at play in everything I do: my Midwest journalism training (“if your mother says she loves you, check it out”) and my political stance toward the world (“if we all lived a little smaller, there’d be a lot more stuff to go around”). Said another way, I ask lots of questions, I’m a word economist, and I’m constantly questioning “the norm.” When I take on new clients, one of the first questions I ask is: “Why do you want to write and sell a book?” Another is, “What do you know about the publishing process?” And another, “What are your expectations of this experience? Money, fame, pain?”

I don’t feel good about taking on a client until I’ve asked these questions and heard answers that make it sufficiently clear to me that the author knows what he/she is getting into and is really in it for the right reasons and the long-haul. I want to know that they’ve done their research or plan to, PDQ. If I get a whiff of fly-by-night-ism, I’m out the back door. Books are just too hard to make and sell. And life is too short and crazy.

Rereading this, I fear I sound a little cuckoo. I’m not. I’m just passionately rational and expect the same from my authors.

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

DS: I have a few humorous political projects coming out in time for the election; one is called 365 Wrongs from the Right: A Conservative Delusion-a-Day Calendar; the other is called Don’t Let the Republican Drive the Bus, a parody of Mo Willem’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. I love funny authors. I love anyone who wants to take the piss out of dogma. And I particularly like it when an author wants to take the piss out of the dogma they find themselves wrapped up in. I call these my irreverent reverents, i.e. the authors of Yoga Bitch, Bike Snob, etc.

I’m also very excited about a book called It’s Not You, It’s Brie, by a cheese obsessive named Kirstin Jackson. I have a lot of food and cookbook clients. I know my way around a roux.

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

DS: I represent mostly nonfiction (minus self-help, spirituality and diet); I am particularly fond of narrative nonfiction, those true stories that operate like novels--i.e. dramatic tension, great character development, an arc; all built on the back of research and the reportage that’s woven out of it. Amazing.

I also rep fiction, though not much right now. I want to rep more. I’m giving myself time. Lots of time. I want to build the right fiction list, not just any fiction list. When it’s done (twenty to a hundred years from now), it’ll have quirky but grave mysteries set in England, Roman à clefs by Midwestern farmer-poets, and modern day’s Laurie Colwin.

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

DS: Oh, I dunno. Don’t follow too closely a manual’s instructions on how to query. Be human. That’ll serve you the best. Know something about who you’re querying. Engage me in conversation.

KV: What are you looking for in a manuscript right now? What are you tired of seeing at the moment?

DS: I’m looking for the author to be an expert at whatever is being discussed, to know the subject and the marketplace, and to know how to sell whatever he/she is hoping to write. Don’t come knocking ‘til you’ve figured out how to bring your idea to market, even fiction. I may have an idea or two, but you should have a dozen.

KV: What’s the best way to query you?

DS: By e-mail. Phone messages disappear. E-mail does not:

Thank you, Ms. Svetcov, for these thoughtful responses. And good luck to everyone who decides to query. If you know your way around a roux, you should give her a try:)

P.S. If you’re looking for feedback on your MG, YA, or new adult manuscript and missed yesterday’s post about next week’s contest with Teen Eyes Editorial, definitely check that out!


Susan said...

What a lovely piece. I can picture the interview in the senior agent's kitchen, over tea and cookbooks. Thanks for sharing!

Jemi Fraser said...

Awesome interview! I love the meddling! :)

Kimberly Gabriel said...

Great interview! I love her answers!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Susan, I liked that image, too:)

I agree, Jemi. I think it's sweet that she's a matchmaker in every aspect of her life. Agenting is a great job for someone like Ms. Svetcov!

Kimberly, I thought her answers were really great, too. So thoughtful and informative.

Myrna Foster said...

I don't think that insisting her clients are rational makes her sound "cuckoo" at all. :o)

Thanks for the great interview!

Jodi R. said...

"Passionately rational." Love it! Thanks for another great interview, Krista!

Leslie S. Rose said...

What a trippy road to agenting. Fun interview.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

I didn't think so, either, Myrna:)

You're welcome, Jodi! And I loved that line, too.

Leslie, I always like hearing how an agent got into the business. Every agent seems to take a different road.