What would you ask a literary agent?

Jeff Jarvis blogged (here, here, and here) about the shortcomings of BusinessWeek columnist Sarah Lacy’s interview of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the South by Southwest (better known as SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, this week. Lacy appeared to make superficial assumptions with a distasteful arrogance. She approached the interview with Zuckerberg in an overly casual, self-assured manner that caused some observers to sense her conclusions about Zuckerberg and Facebook were uninformed. It looked as though Lacy wasn’t listening to Zuckerberg or wasn’t on the same wavelength, which turned some vocal members of the audience, including Jarvis, against her.

Jarvis later suggested:

If I were up there [on stage], I’d have blogged a week before asking SXSWers what I should discuss with Zuckerberg. And if things still went sour with my own questions, I’d have opened up the discussion to the floor with the simple question: What do you want to know?

Jarvis is usually right about these things. He wants journalists like Lacy to serve their audiences, not their own or their interviewees’ egos and not the media conglomerates’ agendas. Jarvis understood that many of the SXSW attendees were accustomed to getting news and information from blogs rather than, or in addition to, print and broadcast media. They were already extremely well informed, and they expected to take away new knowledge from SXSW.

Like a panel discussion at a professional conference, a blog has the potential to be more civilized than news reporting, more like a salon. Thoughtful discussions and debates among blog commenters can allow time for rational thought, diverse participation, and the introduction of supporting evidence, because blogging need not occur in the heat of the moment. In some ways, blogging has established a higher standard for news media by eliminating the mediator.

Earlier this year, Chuck Sambuchino, an editor for Writer’s Digest Books, gave me the enjoyable assignment of interviewing literary agents for his Guide to Literary Agents Editor’s Blog. The interviews are posted online as Q&As, so their value depends far more on the personalities and expertise of the agents I contact than on my skill as a blogger. A little research helps me choose which questions to ask, but it’s not investigative journalism. The Q&As are good exposure for literary agents, they drive traffic to the Writer’s Digest site, and they offer useful information to readers. There’s virtually no downside.

Jarvis, of course, would tell me to ask you to suggest questions. What would you ask a literary or script agent? Which agents do you want to read about on the Guide to Literary Agents Editor’s Blog, and what general advice do you want from them?

You can post your questions and interview suggestions here or send them in an email message to mail@robinmizell.com. To ensure I recognize your email for what it is, please include “Agent Question” in the subject line. Frankly, I’m reserving the right to decide which questions are appropriate, but I have a feeling you won’t disappoint me.

4 Replies to “What would you ask a literary agent?”

  1. Robin,
    This is a very interesting post. Your Q and As with the literary agents were of particular value. It’s telling, I think, that the responses that the agents gave are very much in line with the responses you would expect from acquisition editors at publishing houses if you went straight to them, bypassing the agents. We are all looking for the same thing: good compelling writing, with an imaginable market of potential readers. Thank you.
    David Sanders

  2. What I want to know is really very simple: what kind of work do you represent? This question goes beyond genre to determine if a writer’s material matches the agent’s general areas of interest. I also find some of the most entertaining and informative agent blog posts to be about query letters: best and worst examples.

    I’d also like to know how they’d ideally like to be approached in person, should they be open to meeting new writers at conferences and other professional events.

    Although I can’t help but think of “Tootsie” in this regard, when Jessica Lange’s character tells a dressed-as-Dorothy Dustin Hoffman her idea of the most refreshing male pick-up line. When Hoffman’s Michael repeats this same line to Lange word-for-word, all it gets him is a drink thrown in his face.

  3. David and Tara:

    Your comments are appreciated. As additional information about literary agents becomes available on the Web and in hard copy, aspiring authors are expected to conduct more and more research before querying them. These recent comments by Janet Reid of FinePrint Literary Management are a good example. We can probably anticipate that acquisitions editors will begin making available online more detailed information about what they’re seeking.

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