Alice Speilburg is an agent who has joined us at A Rally of Writers for several years. She has always brought attendees great insights into the world of publishing and tips on how to make it through the competitive field. She answered a few questions for us on her process. www.speilburgliterary.com
How has the publishing process for you as an agent changed since you started?
In most ways, the process is very similar. I help an author polish a manuscript, I send it to editors I know who are looking for something like that, and we wait until we get a response that isn’t “No.” Perhaps one of the things that has changed is that the editors I know are at a higher level in their department. They have a little bit more authority to argue for a book than when I first started sending them projects five years ago. On the other hand, some of those editors are getting out of NYC, for one reason or another, and so they’re now agents or freelance editors. It’s fairly easy for an agent to work remotely. Most of us work for small businesses that are flexible. But editors often work for publicly traded companies that aren’t always as willing to let their employees work across the country. Until that changes, I think I’ll continue to see a steady stream of turnover as editors hone their skills in the city and then leave for a more flexible worklife.
What are the biggest things that writers need to do before submitting to you?
Writers need to workshop their book, or send it out to beta readers to figure out how to make it even better than it already is. If I reject it once, I’m not likely to look at it 5 more times until it’s right. So skip the first five submissions, take that time to make it better, and then send me your final draft.
They also need to have a sense of how their book fits into the market. What other books are similar? Where would their book be shelved at Schuler Books? What kind of people are going to read it? Knowing the answers to these questions will help writers pinpoint which literary agents and/or small presses to pitch, and will make the submission process a lot smoother.
With so many books coming out in a year, is it hard to get the eye of an agent or publisher, even if it is a spectacular story?
Yes, it is difficult. Often a spectacular story is not enough. The book also has to have spectacular writing. We need to be both compelled by the story and by the way the it’s told. And of course, the book needs to be seen by the right people. You can minimize your number of rejections if you focus on people who are particularly drawn to stories like yours. Check the acknowledgements pages of similar books, read agent/editor interviews in publishing news sites, follow publication announcements in Publishers Weekly, which often lists the agent and the publisher of each book.
I think I ask you this every year. How important is platform for a writer?
I just read something from Jane Friedman (author marketing guru) that author platform can be explained in so many different ways, but it boils down to ”visibility to your target audience—which translates into an ability to sell more books.” This is so important, to all published authors. It doesn’t always mean that you have to have thousands of followers on social media, but it does mean that you have to know your readers and know how to reach to them. Readers want to connect to authors. Authors who take no interest in their readers aren’t going to sell many books.
What are you looking for this year?
This year, I’m looking for magic. I’ve recently read The Secret History of Witches and The Bear and the Nightingale, I love the way magic weaves its way into these historical novels. But we can’t dwell in fantasies all the time. I’m also looking for cultural narratives, microhistory, and pop science written by journalists and academics.
Andrea King Collier
Freelance Journalist and Author
For A Rally of Writers 2018
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