Daniel Lazar is an agent with the esteemed literary agency Writers House. For five+ years, he’s been building his own list for them, with an emphasis on distinctive, unboxed fiction. We’re thrilled he took the time for a WU Q&A about agenting in general, what it’s taken to hook him in the past and what he’s looking for right now.
Interview with Daniel Lazar
Q: Tell me a little about yourself. What got you interested in the book business in the first place? What was your journey to agenthood like?
DL: I originally wanted to be an architect, but a previous internship at an architecture firm back home helped me realize that wasn’t for me. But I’d always loved books. I came to New York for school and got an internship at Writers House which turned into a full time job after the summer. I started out reading slush on Al Zuckerman’s couch and taking his dictation… I worked my way up, and five years later, I’m still here. (Luckily I graduated from that couch, and I do have my own office now.)
Q: What’s a typical day like for you?
DL: Well, my clients know I’m not generally—cough—a morning person. My day usually starts out on email, lots of phone calls, then more emails. There’s usually lunch with an editor or an author. More emails in the afternoon; more calls to make and return. If I’m selling a book, I’m usually focused on the (fun but stressful!) semantics of an auction or pre-empt. My colleagues and I are often wandering into each others offices to chat about submissions, editors, covers, titles, and on and on. I often like to work late. My authors know they could easily get an email from me at 1 am, but rarely at 9 am.
Q: What’s surprised you the most about this business?
DL: How utterly chaotic it can be. Books that sell for three dollars can go on to become huge bestsellers. Or less happily, the opposite. There’s a rhyme and reason to publishing, but there are so rarely any guarantees.
Q: Can you provide a few examples of clients who hooked you with either voice, plot, characterizations, a great query or synopsis? What did it?
My client Evan Kuhlman, in his query letter for WOLF BOY (Shaye Areheart Books) caught my eye by mentioning one character’s “museum of fucked up things.” That one line instantly had me eager to see more.
Jennifer Niesslein approached me for her memoir PRACTICALLY PERFECT IN EVERY WAY (Putnam) with a terrific platform, and more importantly, an eloquent, perfectly executed, high concept pitch:
By following the most popular, the most interesting, and the most ubiquitous self-help advice out there, I’ll see if I can transform my middle-class, flawed self into a happier, better person.
When Ingrid Law wrote to me about her debut middle grade novel, SAVVY (Dial 2008), a book I’m sure you’re going to hear about next year, she mentioned a family of children, each with their own “savvy power” and then she said:
But on the Thursday before the Friday before her most important birthday, an accident on the highway stacks up cars like Sunday pancakes with Mibs’ Poppa at the bottom…
– high stakes, wow, but even better, so magically depicted even in that one line. How could I resist?
The best query letters don’t cover every inch of plot. They’re simply written well. They’re specific. Evocative. Full of atmosphere. Packed with details, but not weighted down by them.
Q: There’s a great book out now called Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose. The bottom line is slow analysis. What, for you, defines reading like an agent? What’s going on in your head at page 10, page 40, page 100?
DL: Page 10 – Wow, this is great. I really dig this.
Page 40 – Wow, this is still great. I can already picture sending this to X Editor, Y Editor, and my goodness, it would be perfect for Z editor.
Page 100 – Wow, this book is still great after 100 pages! I can’t put it down. I need to finish it tonight.
Q: Have you ever read a story, fallen for it, and felt you weren’t the right agent for it? How did you handle that?
DL: If I fall for a story, I’m the right agent for it. Sometimes I read projects that I can tell in the right side of my brain (the Agent’s side) is Good. But the left side of my brain (the personal, subjective, Reader’s side) isn’t feeling it for some inexplicable reason. Then I’ll try to show it to a colleague at Writers House or mention some other agents.
Q: What’s your take on “hybrid” stories (those stories that don’t neatly fit on a shelf in the bookstore)?
DL: Frankly, unless you’re writing into a specific genre with prescribed guidelines, ALL are hybrid stories that don’t fit neatly. Until someone miraculously decides it should.
Q: Can you name a few books on your keeper shelf, and name your all-time favorite read?
DL: If you’d see my apartment you’d know it’s more like a keeper wall!
But here are some all time favorites:
— The Fortunate Pilgrim by Mario Puzo
— The Godfather by Mario Puzo
— The Kid by Dan Savage
— The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
— The Velveteen Father by Jesse Green
— Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
— Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
— Blankets by Craig Thompson
— For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander
— The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
— Who Was That Masked Man Anyway, by Avi
— Redwall by Brian Jacques
Q: I’m assuming you’ve made The Call to plenty of authors, telling them you’d like to rep them. Some of these calls must’ve elicited interesting moments. Care to share your funniest?
DL: Well, usually The Call is prefaced with some email exchanges, so the writer already knows I’m hot on the case. But one client was, I suppose, so shocked that I was actually a real person who actually loved her book, she accidentally hung up on me. I didn’t take it personally.
Q: What are your top five tips for getting your would-be agent past the first five pages?
DL: 1) Do your research. A modicum of googling on most agents who are actively looking for clients will turn up an agency website, and interviews or links to more information.
2) A great letter that feels clearly targeted to the agent.
3) Start your story where the story starts.
4 & 5) Write a good book!
Q: What distinguishes Writers House from other agencies?
DL: I don’t know enough about every other agency out there to answer this fairly. But I can say: Writers House is one of the major agencies in the industry – we’ve got the heft and infrastructure of any of the corporate shops, but the feel and attention of a boutique. I also feel like my colleagues and I are especially focused on client management. We don’t just sell books; we try our best to focus on authors and strategize how to grow their careers over the long term.
Q: Does Writers House generally gravitate toward writers who’ve already been published? Will they pick up an unpubbed writer if the work is promising?
DL: All agents like writers who have published credits to their name. But yes, we’re always on the lookout for new writers. One of our biggest books is Stephanie Meyer’s TWILIGHT series. Her agent is my terrific colleague Jodi Reamer. Meyer was a brand new writer plucked out the slush pile by an eagle eyed assistant, and has grown into a publishing phenomenon since then.
Q: What are you personally looking for right now, and how should someone query you?
DL: It’s easier to say what I’m not looking for—self-help, cookbooks, picture books or romance. Other than that, check our website: www.writershouse.com and click on my page for more info and guidelines. (Queries by email are usually the fastest.)
One of the great things about being an agent is that I can be a generalist. I can take on anything that sparks my interest. But these days I’m particularly eager to find more literary fiction, women’s fiction, historical fiction, memoir and middle-grade fiction. And oh! I’m oddly intrigued by witches. I’d love to find a new modern day witch story, like Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic or Natasha Mostert’s Season of the Witch.
Thank you, Dan Lazar, for a great interview! We’ll watch out for Ingrid Law’s Savvy in the coming year.