Monday, December 13, 2010

Interview with literary agent Marsha Cook

I recently had the opportunity to promote myself and my books on Children's Author Discussion with Fran Lewis on blogtalk radio. I shared the air with several great authors, including Marsha Cook. She is a literary agent in addition to her writing career, so I brazenly asked for and she graciously agreed to an interview. In addition, she has agreed to field your questions, if you put them in the comments on this post today! Be sure to read the interview all the way through, then if there is anything left unasked, feel free to ask it. All I ask is that, if you disagree with something she says, you treat her with courtesy.

Jennifer Walker: Let's start by learning a little about Marsh Cook as a person. You are an author yourself--tell us about your work.

Marsha Cook: I love writing and I must admit I have spent more of my time promoting others more than myself. I am now promoting my work but I would much rather write all day. It is so much easier for authors to do different promotional projects to get there work out there than years ago and that is what I try to help authors do.

I have written three children's books, THE BUSY BUS, THE MAGICAL LEAPING LIZARD POTION and SNACK ATTACK. I have also written SALA, MORE THAN A SURVIVOR, a Memoir of a Holocaust Survivor and LOVE CHANGES, a mainstream novel. I have also written twelve screenplays and have had two of them optioned for movies.

Jennifer Walker: What made you want to be a literary agent, and what makes you a good one?

Marsha Cook: I became a Literary Agent basically because there were very few agents that were willing to help writers in the way I could. Most agents don't really understand how hard it is to write a book, even one that isn't a best seller. I always believed, and still do, with someone believing in you as a writer success can happen. Dreams do come true but most of the time not without help.

Jennifer Walker: Tell us a little about your agency. Do you have a company philosophy on how you represent authors and what sort of work you like to take on? How many queries do you receive, and how many new writers do you take on per year?

Marsha Cook: My philosophy has always been to keep writers writing and not have them give up. Most writers give up when they realize they will be rejected by most of the publishers and for screenwriters they will be rejected by many production companies. Rejection letters that I receive usually make me work harder to prove them wrong.

I receive thousands of queries a year. I don't take as many clients as I did in the past because I really believe authors need management and an agency that helps them get where they need to go. One of the problems that exists is authors have always heard don't pay an agent because when you sell they will get a commission, however most writers don't stay in the game that long and the agent never makes any money.

Years ago I paid an agent and I didn't mind because it does cost quite a bit to send projects out to production companies and publishers. I think if they changed the rules back to where that can happen more authors would be taken by Literary Agents. Life is different to most people these days, which means sometimes things need change. I don't feel anyone should work for free; however, that is what I have done for years. Don't think if an agent charges money that means they are taking advantage of you.

A good agent will help a self- published author market their work and that does mean authors should pay for these services and not feel that they are being taken advantage of.

Jennifer Walker: Can you share some of your agency's success stories?

Marsha Cook: We have been very successful at getting our clients work read , by producers and publishers. We also have had several optioned book for movies. Most importantly many of our clients have self - published their books and they are doing very well with their sales. They are happy and that makes us feel great.

Jennifer Walker: What are some of the biggest mistakes you see when people seek you out for representation? What sort of mistakes are deal breakers that will cause you to throw out a submission?

Marsha Cook: W e have never just thrown out a submission. One mistake is to say this is the greatest story ever…right there I know this is a person that will not be in this business for a long time.

Jennifer Walker: What are the most important things a writer can do to get you to want to learn more about their book?

Marsha Cook: Also talk about their credentials and how long they have been writing. That really does matter.

Jennifer Walker: I've been taught to make sure I have every i dotted, every t crossed and every duck in its row before submitting to an agent or editor. Have you ever received a submission that was all wrong, but something in it caused you to look past all that and take the author on anyway?

Marsha Cook: I am not like other agents. I first look at the work. The story and the characters matter to me. They can always have an editor fix their grammatical mistakes but if the story isn’t there that would be a problem. I’m not big on bringing out the red pen and finding fault with everything.

Jennifer Walker: How important is it to you as an agent for a manuscript to be well edited, by a professional if necessary, before you see it? Isn't the publisher responsible for editing?

Marsha Cook: The manuscript should be in pretty good shape and we would never send a script or book out that is not edited. I need an editor and so does everyone else, if not before we read it after. Every writer needs an editor and that the writer has to pay for. If a publisher does take it they will edit it however they want but when we send it out it has to be the best it can be.

Jennifer Walker: How do you feel about the huge surge in recent years of self-published authors and what this means to the industry? How do you feel about these authors querying you--do you want their book to have made a certain threshold of sales before you will consider them for future projects? Do you ever take on self-published books to try to sell to publishers (I'm wording that weird, so I hope you understand what I'm asking)?

Marsha Cook: I think most publishers are so used to rejecting books they sometimes miss great stories. I actually think self-publishing is a great way to start a career when the writer can’t get published traditionally. Taking on self published books is what we do. These books can be sent out to producers, because producers are always looking for a good story they can develop into a movie.

Jennifer Walker: Does the author having a book published with a small press give them any better or worse chance of getting representation with you?

Marsha Cook: It doesn’t matter because we look at the content. If the story is there we will take them.

Jennifer Walker: Jonathan Franzen stated in a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review that novels are going the way of newspapers, only faster. Do you feel that novels are still relevant, important and salable?

Marsha Cook: I think there will always be books, but there is a big shift in the market because of kindle, nook and all the e-readers. I think novels are always going to be revalant.

Jennifer WalkerYou represent a lot of screenplays. Do you think any book can be a movie? If not, what should an author look for in their book to decide whether they should try writing a screenplay for it?

Marsha Cook: Not every book can be a screenplay but there are so many that can make great movies. In a screenplay there has to be some degree of speaking and action. If there isn’t enough dialogue or action in a book it may not translate into a good movie.

Jennifer Walker: Now that we've gotten to know you, some of my readers might want you to represent them. Are you currently accepting queries, and are there certain types of projects you are looking for--or not? Where can writers find submission guidelines?

Marsha Cook: We are taking clients after the first of the year. They can submit by query letter. They can check out

Have some questions for Marsha? Post it in the comments section, and she'll come on and answer them!


Daniel said...

Thanks so much for the interview, Jennifer, and thank you Marsha for taking the time to answer these questions!

My main question is whether you think it's a better idea to start soliciting interest from literary agents and editors at major publishing houses first, or if it's smarter to start with self-publishing and try to build up your reputation until big publishers notice you?

I've read that one of the biggest factors in getting published is your platform––but since first-time authors don't have one yet, how would you recommend they go about building one?

Lilah said...

Fantastic interview! Well-written and interesting! Marsha, I like that you consider the merits of the story and characters more than mechanics when evaluating clients. The competition for agents seems fierce, from my experience (but perhaps that has something to do with genre, as well). The supply of writers versus the demand for agents makes the process skewed from a writer's perspective. It seems to me that every agent will have his/her own style, perspective, and priorities. Given that, here are a few questions:

How can writers best maximize their potential for good representation?
What markets are hottest right now?
Is there an advantage in applying to East coast agents or West coast agents? Does an agent's proximity to publishers make any difference in the agent's ability to pitch books?

Thank you, again, for presenting the interview and for answering questions from the peanut gallery!

Anonymous said...

What type of writing do you do? Actually today on my radio show we discussed how important it is to start doing marketing early.It was about children's books but the info was helpful to all authors. I think self - publishing is the quickest way to start a writing career. I have several shows on my website under radio shows If you have any questions you can call my office or e- mail with any of your concerns. There's so much to think about when writing but the majority of time is spent on marketing.
Good luck with your writing and please don't give up.

Marsha said...

It doesn't matter where you are located as an agent. You can call or e- mail publishers and they do respond to agents regardless of where they are located. My WGA is from the EAST Guild office.

Try to send your best work for representation but agents should care about potential projects their clients will have in the future, I do.
Good Luck