For unpublished authors eager to see their words for sale on bookstore shelves, finding a literary agent is often the first step in their publication process. But how do you know which literary agent might be right for you? And once you find them, how can you persuade a literary agent to take you on as a client? What credentials and platforms are literary agents looking for from authors? How can you craft a book proposal that will get an agent to sign you?
I asked Iris Blasi, who’s been in the publishing industry for 15 years, first as an editor at Pegasus Books, and now as a literary agent at Carol Mann Agency, what she’s looking for from new authors, what kind of platform they need and what types of books she represents.
What kinds of books are you interested in? What aren’t you interested in?
I do a fairly broad range of books; the vast majority I work on are nonfiction. I represent a broad swath of biography, memoir, history, science, business, big idea books, pop culture, cultural criticism, true crime, and narrative nonfiction.
I have a particular soft spot for projects stemming from a strong and/or quirky journalistic, academic, or personal obsession. For example, I edited follicle expert Kurt Stenn’s Hair: A Human History, a Kurlansky-esque look at the biological, evolutionary, social, and cultural history of hair, and Wild Moms, a science book about motherhood in the animal kingdom by ecologist and mother of four Dr. Carin Bondar.
In terms of books I’ve not edited, I recently loved Bill and Rachel McCarthy James’s The Man From the Train, an inexhaustible pursuit to solve the mystery of a century-old serial killer, and Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, for which Taddeo spent a decade tracking the sex lives of three American women.
I also love books that look at topics through unique lenses. What is an interesting entry point to history or science or economics? I loved publishing Katrine Marcal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, which was a feminist re-examination of the myth of the “economic man.” I love interdisciplinary books that bring in a host of angles to look at a certain topic—think Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game, which uses science, psychology, sociology, history, and more to look at con artists and why we fall for them. I’m interested in big idea books that educate us about a particular subject and, in doing so, tell us more about ourselves.
In terms of what I’m not looking for right now: Fiction. I have done some fiction on the editorial side, the majority of which was mystery, thriller, and upmarket literary fiction. That’s an area that I like and I remain open to it in the future but I’m not currently seeking fiction. There are many people who do it wonderfully, but I come out of a journalism background myself so nonfiction is my specialty and my first true love.
If someone isn’t an expert in their field but has a passion for a topic, do they have a chance of getting signed with you?
Absolutely. I love to work with journalists. The journalist doesn’t have to be the person who is the expert on something, but there has to be a uniqueness of their vision that explains why they’re the person to write the book as opposed to somebody else. They have to have some larger understanding of who the players are and who to speak to because we’re relying on the journalist to be the expert in providing that synthesis of that larger topic. They might know how to find those experts and talk to those people who’ve had those experiences. That would in some way mean that they are the expert on this story.
In those cases, should they have published on this before?
It can be helpful. Everything in publishing is always an art and not a science. It can be helpful if they’ve published because that can be a testing ground for the reception of their idea. It’s a good testament when we’re trying to sell the book to the publisher to say they’ve covered this topic and it was received in this kind of a way.
Everybody wants to have some sort of idea that there’s a market for it. A publication track record can show not only that there’s an audience for something, but that this is a person who’s engaged in that subject matter.
For a lot of books I love, a larger book comes out of a smaller reported piece. Sometimes I’ll work with authors and say, “What you covered here is only the beginning of it.” Books provide an opportunity to tell a larger story that can be constrained by the shorter format of print publication or even online. Books can give the space to tell that larger story because you bring in some elements of history or background on the topic that you couldn’t provide in an article.
Can you give an example of someone in that category who’s written the kind of book you want to see proposals for?
I loved Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods. He had written an article in GQ about a hermit who lived in the woods of Maine for 27 years with virtually no human contact. The article was incredible, but when he wrote the book, he had all of this space to open up the adventure narrative to a powerful meditation on solitude, almost like Thoreau meets Into the Wild.
One of my recent obsessions was with the story of The Watcher; it’s this house in New Jersey where a new family bought it and started to receive threatening notes. It’s been an ongoing saga. There’s a piece in New York magazine that bowled me over by Reeves Wiedeman. He’s such a fantastic journalist. It’s that kind of thing where that’s Amityville Horror meets In Cold Blood. It’s not paranormal because there’s no ghostliness to it, but there’s a ghostliness to the story. It’s about the dynamics of the town in an interesting way. You can’t get to all of that in a 10,000 word article; you need 90,000 words to get there. It’s going to make for a hell of a book.
Does a piece have to go viral to warrant literary agent interest?
An article doesn’t have to go viral. People say memoirs can be so tough, there’s a lot of spaces for first person journalism. The world is so saturated with so many different kinds of material that pure virality can be very difficult to achieve.
You want to see that something is bubbling up in an interesting way. You want to hear that somebody is doing something that is resounding with an audience, that you get that sense that people want to hear more about it. That can happen at Longreads or Narratively or places like that. Longreads is a space that is already pressing up against the outer edges of the article format. There are some pieces, whether or not they’re purely viral, it’s clear they’re ready to break out of that container and become something bigger.
Does the author need to be someone “important” or widely published? What qualifications does the author need to bring to the table to have their proposal be considered?
This is one of the things in publishing that fundamentally has never changed. You need a great idea with the writing chops to back it up. The question of platform is one that’s becoming increasingly important but I think platform can mean a lot of things. That’s the whole bucket of everything that author brings to the table. That can be a unique educational background. I remember getting a proposal that caught my attention because the author held the first Ph.D. in sex toy history in the United States. Hallie Lieberman wanted to write a book about the history of sex toys that ultimately explored the story of our changing sexual mores and evolving cultural values. It seemed the perfect marriage of subject and author.
In addition to her academic credentials, Hallie already had a good publishing track record where she was demonstrating that she knew her subject matter and knew a way of translating those ideas in a way that would get the attention of an audiences. What goes hand in hand with that is she had an understanding of the media and already had connections. She knew the top people in her subject area—if she had worked with them in an academic capacity, if she had interviewed them, if she had spoken with them about some of her scholarly work.
Not everybody needs to know Oprah to have those sorts of connections matter, but that was really important. That book, Buzz, which has one of my all-time favorite covers, was published in 2017, and everything I’d hoped for it came true—it was covered in the New York Times Book Review, New York Post, Washington Post, and so many more. It was crazy. Hallie’s now finishing the proposal for a book on the history of the gigolo and it’s the kind of history that feels so incredibly relevant today in its exploration of a re-examination of the patriarchy and a look at the politics of women’s pleasure.
Hallie’s a perfect example that you don’t need a million followers on Instagram to get a book deal. A lot of people can have a big following online, but the engagement has to be there. There are so many things people can do to amp up those numbers now. You want an army of loyal followers and you want people who are engaged and interested in your work.
What’s important to me is somebody who knows not only who their audience is but how to reach those people. Because if they have an understanding of that and they’ve demonstrated they can do that in a limited capacity prior to a book, that then means my passion and my energy and the backing of a publishing house and a marketing team and publicist are just adding fuel to the fire that they’ve already started.
Read part 2 of this literary agent interview, where Blasi discusses the specifics of memoir, what authors can do to increase the likelihood of an agent signing them, and her editorially-focused process of working with authors.