Donald Maass is not only one of New York’s top agents and president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, he’s also the author of several novels and fantabulous craft books for writers. If you’ve hung around Writer Unboxed for any length of time, you’ve undoubtedly heard Kathleen and I rave about Writing the Breakout Novel. The book and its companion workbook are perhaps the writer’s best tools when it comes to juicing a work for more conflict, plot twists and dynamic characterizations.
We’re honored that he took the time to answer our questions about his agency, the business in general, his book and more. Enjoy!
Part 1: Interview with Donald Maass
Q: How did your love for books evolve? What were your favorite reads while growing up?
DM: The first book I can remember reading on my own was an anthology of mystery stories for kids that was “edited” by Alfred Hitchcock. One of the stories (by Ed Hoch) featured an uncle who was a mystery writer who had recently attended a convention with seminars on crime and detection! I thought that was the coolest thing ever. When as an adult I became a full member of the Mystery Writers of America it was the fulfillment of a childhood dream.
Q: How did you start in the industry? What was your journey from student to owner of an agency?
DM: I did two undergraduate years in London, and worked there for a literary magazine. One day I was asked to messenger an envelope to a “literary agency”. (It was called William Morris.) I asked what a literary agency was. I was outraged that a middle man would take ten percent of a writer’s earnings! (Obviously, I now feel a little differently.) Back in America my first job was as an assistant at Dell Publishing. I was briefly a junior editor, but got downsized. The only job I could find was at an agency. I liked the work. I spent more time with authors than I had as an editor. After a year I opened my own shop.
Q: Here’s something I’d bet most people don’t know about you: You wrote a lot of fiction in your early agenting days, in both the romance and young adult genres. How did your experiences as a writer affect your path and decisions as an agent?
DM: I wrote fourteen novels in the Eighties and learned a number of important things. I learned to plot. I learned what works in revision letters. I learned what it feels like to work in isolation. Most importantly, I came to see that 99% of success is in the manuscript. Everything else flows from that. Today my grasp of fiction technique has grown (more on that later) but my fundamental conviction remains: Success is built on story.
Q: Say I’ve just emailed a query letter and the first five pages of my manuscript to your agency, per the guidelines on your website. Who reads it? What happens next?
DM: Queries and samples accumulate until Wednesday afternoons, when we have an agency-wide “Query Meeting.” We have a reading lounge in the middle of our loft-office. Working as a group we cull through the material, passing around, reading aloud, talking and evaluating. There are several hundred queries a week. Out of those we request maybe half a dozen partial manuscripts. Out of those, we request a smaller number of full manuscripts—maybe one hundred per year.
Q: A scenario: You’ve read a full manuscript, fallen in love with it and have asked for the author’s hand in a business coupling. What is the process from this point? How long does it take, on average, for a manuscript to turn into a shelved book?
DM: Next step? A pre-nup. Kidding! You make it sound so romantic. There’s an agency agreement to sign, a pitch and marketing plan to approve and then…waiting. Submissions take time; sometimes not much, sometimes a lot. This waiting is nerve-wracking for writers. Believe me, we are tempted to multiply submit all projects just to keep anxiety levels down. But multiples and auctions are way overdone in our industry and are not right for every project. Eventually, though, there’s a deal. A further round of revisions may follow, then cover sketches, galley proofs, blurb requests, website publishing…finally, a book. How long from manuscript to bookshelf, overall? A year would be quick. Eighteen months to two-and-a-half years is the norm. It can be longer, but that’s rare.
Q: What do you wish the slush pile would deliver to you today?
DM: Here’s a partial wish list:
A Huck Finn-like fantasy featuring a raft trip down the Mississippi, with magic.
An African-American Lord of the Rings.
A noir novel featuring a Muslim detective–but not about terrorism.
An American epic like Of Mice and Men about today’s underclass, illegal immigrants.
A ghost story that’s truly contemporary—but not recycled Eighties horror.
An historical novel that weaves in scientists and big ideas.
A New York in mid-Century novel along the lines of Empire Rising.
A dog novel as great as Call of the Wild.
A literary romance with a heroine for all time and a tragic ending, written by a man.
The next The World According to Garp, about an idiot savant.
[Note: The Donald Maass Literary Agency website also posts a monthly "wish list." Check it out HERE.]
Q: Are cross-genre books harder to market? How do you approach trying to sell them to a publisher?
DM: More cross-genre novels are being written today than ever before and, yes, they’re harder to market. That’s because they’re harder to shelve. There’s no Barnes & Noble section for “Erotic Romance with Elf Detective”. It’s got to be either “romance” or “fantasy”. (In all likelihood it won’t be “mystery”.) Fortunately, the style and intent of most manuscripts tell you where to start.
Q: How much influence do you have over whether a book is published in hardcover, trade paperback or mass market paperback? And how much does it matter?
DM: That decision ultimately is up to the publisher but most novels have a logical format that will get it quickly into the hands of the right consumers. Usually we’ve got an idea and submit to hardcover or paperback editors, accordingly. Does it matter? Yes. A popcorn read will get creamed by reviewers, so why beg for punishment in hardcover? A literary novel will tank in mass market, so hardcover or trade paper is the way to go. And so on.
Q: How has the industry changed within the last decade? Is it more or less difficult to get published now than it used to be? Why?
DM: Getting published, first time, is no more or less difficult than it’s ever been. Staying published…that’s a different story. That’s harder. Novelists are washing out faster than ever. Computerized inventory tracking by chains has become a religion up and down the line. All anyone seems to care about today are BookScan numbers. How many units did your last title sell, last week?
Q: Is the market saturated with any particular type of book? What do you see publishers moving away from?
DM: Vampire and other paranormal series are harder and harder to sell. (Gee, do you think there are too many?) Conspiracy thrillers are everywhere. Science fiction has dwindled. Erotica is selling half what it did a year or two ago. (If you read it you’ll know why.) Fantasy is so crowded with best sellers that new writers are having trouble winning readers. The YA bubble has got to burst—everyone’s expecting it. Let’s see, anything left? Look at the best seller lists. They’re dominated by thrillers and literary-commercial blockbusters like Water for Elephants and The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. That’s hopeful. But, hey, why are you chasing trends? That’s a game rigged for you to lose.
Q: One of the things that seems almost contradictory to me about this business it the hard skin you need to manage rejection and how that jives with the need to dig deep within yourself to write a story that will attract attention. How can a writer do both—give profoundly of themselves while also shielding the creative spirit when rejection strikes?
DM: Be sensitive when you write, have a thick skin when you submit…yeah, it’s contradictory. I don’t like that “be thick-skinned” advice, though. Not that you should weep over every rejection slip, please don’t, but thick-skinned implies brushing off rejection and plowing ahead against all odds. For me, rejection is information. Often it’s not quality information but its information nevertheless. It tells you that you have work to do, and sometimes even points you in the right direction.
Q: A writer has crafted a book he believes in his gut is a breakout novel: it has it all, including a unique setting, authentic characters, a captivating plot that unfolds in surprising ways, scads of conflict and more. Is there a way for him to approach the query and synopsis in the same “breakout” way? What can he do to be sure those few pages are doing his work justice?
DM: Say less. Don’t hype. Let your story do the work. Just a few story basics and a hint of what’s different about yours will be enough. Remember, the purpose of the query letter is not to convince me that you’re a breakout author. Its purpose is to get me to read your work. If the query letter accomplishes that, it’s done its job. The manuscript itself will take over from there.
Q: Do you find some publishers resist breakout novels if those novels are written by unknown commodities?
DM: Far from it. A breakout-level novel is a welcome event no matter who the author, newbie or veteran.
Q: Is it arrogant to compare yourself to a known author in your query letter, in order to convey style? It this a recommended approach?
DM: The problem with most comparisons is that they over-reach. “Fans of David Baldacci will love my political thriller!” Oh, yeah? Try toning it down. Compare to writers at a lower level, or say you’ve “learned” from David Baldacci. That’s more credible. Many new writers are afraid to compare themselves to their true competition, other debut novelists, for fear of painting themselves small. Actually, it works the other way around. An honest comparison locates you on the genre map and starts me thinking about which editors would be right for your project. Calling yourself a “sure-fire bestseller”, on the other hand, just makes your expectations sound impossible to fulfill.
Q: I’ll admit to a selfish motivation with this question: Is it worthwhile to mention experience as a published nonfiction writer in a query for a fiction manuscript, or doesn’t it really matter?
DM: Sure, go ahead and mention it. It doesn’t certify that you write superb fiction, but it does say you’ve got a writer’s discipline.
Q: How important is it to look at an agent’s client list before querying, and how can you use that list to help you decide if that agent is right for you?
DM: Some experience with the kind of fiction you write is a good quality for your future agent to have, wouldn’t you say? Check it out ahead of time, it’s easy. Most agents today have websites that include a list of their clients.
Click HERE for Part 2 of my interview with Donald Maass, when we’ll chat about–you guessed it–Writing the Breakout Novel!