Barbara Rogan: Playing The Field As Editor, Agent and Author

Barbara RoganBarbara Rogan is a former book editor, literary agent and the author of nine novels, including her latest, A Dangerous Fiction, which is a tale of suspense and mystery set in the publishing industry.

Her books have been translated into six languages. She is also the coauthor of two nonfiction books.

She has taught fiction writing at Hofstra University and currently teaches for Writers Digest University and in her own online school, Next Level Workshops.

Barbara Rogan Interview

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Barbara Rogan Transcript

Tim Knox: Barbara Rogan has been in publishing her entire career. She started as an editor at Fawcett books, then started her own literary agency, and eventually jumped the fence to become an author.

She has written nine books, including her latest, A Dangerous Fiction.

This was a fascinating interview because Barbara has literally worked both sides of the fence, no pun intended.

She also teaches fiction writing and offers advice to authors on how to become successful themselves.

Here then is my interview with Barbara Rogan on today’s interviewing authors.

Tim Knox: Barbara, welcome to the program.

Barbara Rogan: Thanks, Tim. I’m delighted to be here.

Tim Knox: Before we get started, if you will, give us a little background on you.

Barbara Rogan: Well I’ve worked in publishing my whole career, as an editor first. I worked for Fawcett Books in New York, then as the head of my own literary agency. Then I left that to focus on writing and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. I’ve had nine books published. The last one, A Dangerous Fiction, just came out with Viking Press.

Tim Knox: That’s one of the reasons I wanted to have you on the program. You’ll be like having five or six different guests. Let’s go back and start off early. You’re concentrating on the writing now. Have you always been a writer? When you were younger was that what you wanted to do?

Barbara Rogan: Yeah I always wanted to write since I was a kid, since I first read Medline L’Engel, A Wrinkly in Time, and suddenly realized this is what I want to do with my life. So that was with me forever. When I got out of college and started thinking about how to support myself I thought that publishing would be a good idea. It would give me some acquaintance with the field and it would hopefully give me some useful connections and I was drawn to it. I loved books. I loved working with books.

So I went for a career in publishing and it turned into quite a good and distracting career but I kept writing and I always wanted to write. That was my ultimate destination.

Tim Knox: I was looking at your website earlier on your bio page. This reads like a novel in itself. You came out of college, took a year off to travel and then you went to work I guess for Fawcett but then you moved to Israel and started a literary agency. Tell us about that.

Barbara Rogan: Well again I wanted to stay in publishing and I saw the opportunity to use the fact that I had a little background in American publishing to build bridges between Israeli publishers, who are prolific translators of world literature and American publishers.

So I started an agency to that end and it worked quite well. There was a great need for it and that was my life for 10 or 12 years. That was my day job. I also kept writing on the side but it was difficult to do everything. I had a young family at that time and a business to run and books that I really wanted to write.

Ultimately after 12 years of working as an agent, I made the decision to switch to the coalmining side of the industry and become a writer.

Tim Knox: Now this has absolutely nothing to do with the topic but you were a horse wrangler in the Galilee.

Barbara Rogan: I was.

Tim Knox: How did that happen?

Barbara Rogan: Well there were only two professions I ever really considered. One of them was publishing and the other was horses. Things could have been a lot different because the first job I was offered when I came out of the intensive language school that I took in Israel was as a horse wrangler up in this ranch in Galilee.

I went up there and I really liked it. It was fun and a wonderful way to spend a few months but in the end I was drawn back to my ultimate interest, which was books and publishing.

Tim Knox: Did you wear a cowboy hat or a Yamaka? So what exactly drew you to Israel? I’m not that familiar with the publishing industry there. Is it as vibrant as it is here in the United States? Was it back then?

Barbara Rogan: It was pound for pound much more vibrant in a way. Israelis were and still are great readers and they translate at least 60% of their fiction from other languages into Hebrew, which made it a great market for me.

Tim Knox: At what point did you decide to come back to the States?

Barbara Rogan: Well sort of an existential turning point in our lives because I really felt the need to write. I had some success. I had a couple of novels published and well-reviewed and published and translated into a bunch of languages, so that was promising and that’s what I really wanted to do.

We needed to make a major break from our life in order to do that so we did. We moved to the US. I sold my agency. My husband changed professions and was prepared to support for me a while while I established myself writing. That’s pretty much how it happened. I went on writing and fortunately kept on being published.

Tim Knox: Let’s talk a little about the publishing side of things. You said you were always a writer. You got into the industry to kind of keep close to it. Tell me a little about your journey as a writer. When you were younger do you remember the first thing that you wrote that you thought might be good enough to actually do something with?

Barbara Rogan: I was in a class in 5th grade of very bright kids with a great teacher who decided to write a play. It was a parody of Oklahoma. It was called Mother Russia and it was a group process that we did in writing this play.

To my amazement, because I was a very shy and quite kid, I found that I was writing 80% of this play and it was just natural for me and it was easy for me and I liked it. I think that was the beginning. That’s when I started to think about writing.

People who are drawn to writing as a career are also great readers generally as kids and I was that as well. I kept reading and reading and writing little things along the way until finally I wrote something that was publishable.

Tim Knox: What was that?

Barbara Rogan: It was my second novel. My first novel was never published, which is typical of writers. My second novel was a book called Changing States and that was published in the US, Israel and in Britain all at the same time so it got a nice little bit of a splash and a nice beginning for me.

Tim Knox: What year was that?

Barbara Rogan: It was a long time ago.

Tim Knox: I love it when writers never give me dates. “It was a long time ago.”

Barbara Rogan: I think it was around the time my first son was born. It would be about I’d say mid-80s.

Tim Knox: What was that book about?

Barbara Rogan: That was a book about the daughter of Holocaust survivors who grows up in America but is brought to Israel, where she falls in love of course with a Palestinian. It delved into a lot of the political things that were going on in sort of a Romeo and Juliet type of story.

Tim Knox: How did you get that published? Did you get an agent? At the time were you still in your agency? What’s the timeline?

Barbara Rogan: I was still an agent at that time. When I wrote that book it was just shortly after I became an agent. So I had a lot of agent acquaintances in the US. I sent the book out to someone to read, one of the agents that I really liked and cliqued with and she liked it. So it was way easier for me than it is for a lot of people but I think that’s because she looked at it very quickly. I don’t think she would have taken it on if she didn’t think she could sell it and in fact she was able to sell it.

Tim Knox: I’ve heard this from other folks. Your agent may be your friend but if they don’t feel they can sell the book they’re not going to take it on.

Barbara Rogan: The agent’s capital is their time. That’s all they have to spend so they just can’t spend it on books that are not going to work.

Tim Knox: Let’s talk about the agenting side of things. The publishing world is changing. The old method I think was you had to get an agent in order to get to a publisher and now that’s changing somewhat. I think a lot of authors, myself included, still query agents. I think getting the agent is kind of the way we’d like to start off but a lot of authors have an issue or have trouble doing that.

Talk a little about ways that writers may be able to do a better job of attracting an agent or what is the process they should go through?

Barbara Rogan: Well first of all you’ve got to educate yourself about the process. Fortunately it’s easier to do that now than it ever was. The problem now might be that there’s too much information out there and a lot of it clashing.

I like sites like Absolute Write. It has a wonderful forum for writers, CompuServe forums. Those are places with lots of published writers as well as unpublished so you don’t have a case of the blind leading the blind.

I think first of all you really need to educate yourself about the process. Learn how to write a query letter. Again, there is a lot of help out there on the internet. Take it professionally. Do a professional job of it. Do your research.

Tim Knox: How about that thick skin?

Barbara Rogan: You’ve got to have that. If you don’t have it to begin with, you absolutely have to develop it because rejection is unfortunately an inevitable part of every writer’s journey.

Tim Knox: The one thing that you mentioned that I’ve heard before and it’s really good advice is do your homework on not only the process but on the agent themselves. The more you know the better it is when it comes time to query that agent. Knowledge is wisdom.

Barbara Rogan: Right. For one thing, you need to make sure that the person is legitimate because there are a lot of sharks out there in those waters and not everyone who calls themselves an agent really does the right sort of work. You need to check them out on sites like Writers Beware and Absolute Write forum. You also need to know why you’re writing to a particular agent.

When I advise writers on query letters I tell them that one paragraph should explain why they’re querying that particular agent because there should always be a reason. You shouldn’t be sending things out blindly. You should be targeting your submissions and that way you’ll get a better response.

Tim Knox: So rather than saying, “Hey I found you in Writer’s Digest…”

Barbara Rogan: Oh that’s just ridiculous. People do that all the time or they even write letters to ‘Dear Agent’ instead of using the person’s name. You’re judged first of all on the professionalism of that query letter so it better be professional, compelling and pretty much by the book. The bursts of creativity should be saved for the book and not necessarily splurged in the query letter.

Tim Knox: When you were agenting full-time what was the thing or things that would capture your attention when it came to a writer? Was it the writer, the query letter, the aspect that you may have somewhere to easily place the work?

Barbara Rogan: That’s a good question. That’s something I talked about in A Dangerous Fiction, which is the last book I wrote which is set in a literary agency. Agents are generally drawn to the profession because they love books and some of that love spills over into the writer, although not necessarily, but they really love books.

There’s nothing more exciting to an agent than finding something that’s really good. Sometimes it comes in through a recommendation. Sometimes it comes in through the slush pile. They are out there, they’re looking and that’s the first criteria – something that really excites them.

Then they ask themselves whether or not they can sell it and they try and think of who they would sell it to, how they would sell it. This is what I did as an agent. You really need to have some sort of plan in mind to do justice to the book. If you have those two factors then it’s a book that the agent’s going to make a bit on.

Tim Knox: Do you ever take on clients and the first book didn’t work out so you worked with them on subsequent books?

Barbara Rogan: I’d have to really think about that one. I know it’s happened to a lot of writers that I know. The fact that an agent doesn’t sell one particular book is not necessarily a reason for the writer and agent to part. Those kinds of things happen in the careers of writers, especially in long careers.

Tim Knox: I was having a conversation yesterday with J.T. Elison and we were talking about agents and she was making the point that it really is where it can be quite a rollercoaster ride. Just because you get an agent doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and unicorns. There may be ups and down along the way. Her point was as a writer she had to be flexible and listen to what they were telling her because it was quite a rollercoaster ride.

Barbara Rogan: Right. Half of what the agent does is sell the book but the other half is moderate and inform the expectations of the writer because they’re usually wildly unsound. People don’t know what it’s like until you get into it and, yes, there are very often problems along the way. They’re good problems to have. If you’ve got an agent. If you’ve got a publisher, the rest of it is good problems to have. A lot of people are still striving.

Tim Knox: Does the agent really put the stock then in the writer? The faith has to be in the writer that even though this may not be a blockbuster book, I have faith in this writer and that’s why I’m going to take them on as a client.

Barbara Rogan: Yeah but you do have to think you can sell the book. If that particular book doesn’t sell, well that happens. That just happens to a lot of writers, especially these days when the market is so difficult. It’s not necessarily a reason for the writer and agent to part, unless the agent has lost faith in the writer or vice versa. Then sometimes there’s a parting of ways.

Tim Knox: And that’s okay.

Barbara Rogan: Yeah. Marriage is supposed to last forever. Ideally agent/writer relationships do and some of them really do make it that way but a lot of writers go through one or more agents before they find their true home.

Tim Knox: Let’s get back to the actual writing now because I know you’re eight or nine books in now.

Barbara Rogan: Something like that. It depends on how you count them. There are one or two that were only published in Hebrew and not in English so I never know whether or not to count those or not. I’ve written about nine novels and I co-authored a couple of nonfiction books as well.

Tim Knox: We talked a little about the first book. It was well received, published internationally.

Barbara Rogan: Yeah it did quite well for a first novel. It got reviewed in the New York Times. It got a terrible review in the London Times, which scarred me for years. They quoted the one and only sex scene in the book verbatim and I was embarrassed to show my face. It was like the worst review I’ve ever had and it was my first. Like I said, you do need tough skin to be a writer. It never really gets much easier.

Tim Knox: Tell me a little about your subsequent books. Did they continue the political overtones of the first one or have you moved around in genres? I’m looking at your books page and it looks like you’ve had quite a variety here.

Barbara Rogan: Yes that’s because I’m very self-indulgent and I want to write about whatever I want to write about. That can mean changing genres. In the beginning I wrote books that were sort of more overtly political. The name, the genre that’s applied to them doesn’t necessarily mean much more than where they should be shelved in a bookstore. Sometimes those genres bleed together. Some of the books I wrote were considered literary fiction, some women’s fiction and my last three or four books have been thrillers, mysteries and I really enjoy that genre.

Tim Knox: What has drawn you to the thrillers?

Barbara Rogan: Well for one thing I’ve always liked to read them. People should write what they enjoy reading I think. For another, they have a definitive form. They’re sort of like sonnets are to poetry, mysteries are to fiction. They have a shape. They have certain requirements and you can be very, very creative while playing within those lines but it gives a shape to the book that to me is very satisfying.

Tim Knox: Do you have a favorite genre that you enjoy writing in?

Barbara Rogan: Well I like both literary fiction and thrillers, really well written thrillers. They have to be good or I don’t enjoy them. I’d say those two are my favorite genres.

Tim Knox: Are you one of those authors who the entire time you’re reading a mystery you’re doing your damnedest to figure it out?

Barbara Rogan: Oh yeah and I usually fail.

Tim Knox: It’s the old, “I would have written it this way.” I had an author tell me once, “I cannot enjoy reading a book because I write it in my mind as I do.”

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Barbara Rogan: I tend to edit books in my mind as I read them unless they’re very well written. I’m reading with a red pencil in mind.

Tim Knox: You’ve had a good relationships with Simon & Schuster and Harper Collins and the larger houses. How did that come about? Did they pick up your early books and that relationship has continued on?

Barbara Rogan: Well yeah. Simon & Schuster published three books of mine. They did Suspicion and Growing in Eden and one other book. It did very nicely with them but then there was one book that didn’t work for them and I went with a different publisher with that. But I stayed on good terms with everyone and when it came time to put the books out as eBooks they were happy to do that. That was a great thing for me to have most of my old books available to readers either as eBooks or as paperbacks.

Tim Knox: [Cuts out 20:34]

Barbara Rogan: It is. The hero is Jo Donovan and she’s a literary agent. It’s basically a thriller that’s set in the New York City high stakes publishing world because she’s not just an agent; she’s pretty high up in the pecking order.

She is a person who came up very fast and suddenly. She married a very famous writer and when he died she became the owner of a literary agency. She loves it and she’s really, really good at it and she’s made a great life for herself out of nothing. Some stalker appears, a very disgruntled writer and her entire life starts to change.

So it’s a thriller and it’s also a look at publishing from the inside.

Tim Knox: Interesting. Is Jo Donovan based on you in any way?

Barbara Rogan: No, she’s who she needs to be for the story. She’s actually a lot tougher than I am. I would have collapsed under the weight of calamities that I piled on this poor character. She was a lot stronger than I was. She also has a lot of faults, some of which might be mine but I think they tie into what happens to her in the book. She can be a person who tells herself fictions about her own life as well as buying and selling fictions and that becomes a factor in the novel.

Tim Knox: But I bet she’s never wrangled horses on the Galilee. Do you work with an agent now?

Barbara Rogan: Yes, my agent is Gail Hochman and we’ve been together for quite a few books now.

Tim Knox: What did she think of A Dangerous Fiction being about the publishing industry?

Barbara Rogan: She gave great feedback. She’s an expert in how things work now. I’m an expert in how things used to work so it was really great to have a reality check and somebody to tell me if I strayed off the path and just somebody to put questions to. How would you handle an auction these days? How often do you make an offer to a writer and find he’s accepted someone else’s, because that happens too.

Tim Knox: If you were just now coming up in the industry do you think you would like being an agent these days?

Barbara Rogan: The ones I know are pretty pressured. It’s a difficult time. The industry is very much in flux and agents roles are changing as self-publishing becomes more of a feasible possibility. For example, a lot of writers have backlist books that have reverted to them and they need a way to put those back out onto the market. Agents’ roles are evolving and I think it’d be an interesting, if difficult, time to be an agent right now.

Tim Knox: That was a very interesting comment right there because I do talk to a lot of writers that have been around for a long time and they’re just now getting the rights back to their backlist and some of them don’t know what to do with it because they’ve never had to deal with that sort of thing in the past.

Barbara Rogan: Right and I was lucky in that Simon & Schuster reissued their books themselves so I didn’t have to deal with that. The books that did revert to me were sold. They’re published now by Open Media. So once again I don’t have to do anything about that except support them as best I can through various platforms.

Tim Knox: What are your thoughts on self-publishing?

Barbara Rogan: It’s not one size fits all. It depends on who you are as a writer and what your goals are. For some types of fiction, self-publishing has proved viable and more than viable, profitable. My feelings about it are evolving.

On my blog, In Cold Ink, I interviewed a writer named Lorraine Bartlett who had published traditionally and had bestsellers for years. She told me she’s making far more money right now as a self-published writer than she ever did as a published writer and that’s certainly something to give you pause.

So I think it has a lot of great applications but it’s not right for every type of fiction and it’s not necessarily the best place to begin. If you can get a traditional publishing deal, in most cases a writer is better off doing that first.

Tim Knox: Your thoughts on how the industry is changing now with all of this, the digital things that are going on, the self-publishing, eBooks. It’s somewhat of a different world out there isn’t it?

Barbara Rogan: Yeah it’s tremendously different from every perspective. I did not bring my crystal ball with me unfortunately so it’s hard for me to say where this is going to go. I know that everything has changed.

For example, from the writer’s point of view, you have so much more contact with readers than you ever did in the past and you have instant feedback as well, for good and for bad. You used to send in a book and it would be published and you’d wait three or five months and reviews would sort of drift in and that was about it. That was the extent of it, a letter once in a while forwarded by your publisher. Now I talk with readers every day.

Tim Knox: You’re a lot more accessible now than you were. Do you enjoy that? I think we met on Twitter. Twitter seems to be the hangout. It really has made accessibility to authors relatively easy from the readers. Of course I guess that makes it a great way to market to them as well as build that relationship.

Barbara Rogan: I think it’s expected and you have to do it. I was surprised to find out how much I enjoyed it. It’s just fun to do. I’ve met fantastic people on there and once you learn to channel the information and not be overwhelmed and really use the tool the way it’s meant to be used, I think it’s fantastic. I love that readers can find me.

I don’t market my books per se. I rarely do that but I can get word out about exciting things that happened.

Tim Knox: Right. Everyone I talk to I think really is enjoying that, although it is kind of odd. If you’ve been around for a while, back in the old days – the old days being five years ago – it was very difficult to reach your favorite author. Now you just go on Twitter and there they are.

Barbara Rogan: Yeah, a lot of them are anyway. Some of them are still holding out. Like I said, it’s pretty much expected of writers to be accessible and if you’re lucky enough to actually enjoy then that’s great. If not, too bad.

Tim Knox: You’re stuck there. That’s one thing we talk a lot about on this show, especially with self-published authors or hybrid authors. They have to do all that stuff themselves. No longer do you just get to write and then hand that off and then everything is done for you. It really has become a business wherein the author has to be the entrepreneur, the marketer, the PR person, et cetera. How do you manage all of those tasks?

Barbara Rogan: I don’t do them. I absolutely dread the thought of self-publishing my work. I’m not saying it’s bad for other writers. Because I know how much work goes into publishing a book properly… they say that 31 people, 31 different people will do things to your book as it passes through the stages of publishing, and all of them have a function. The writer alone, that’s really difficult.

Tim Knox: It is almost overwhelming and that’s what I hear a lot. “I don’t have the time to write because I’m so busy doing all this other stuff,” but it’s kind of a catch 22. Without all this other stuff no one would be reading your writing.

Barbara Rogan: And you have to keep writing and writing quickly because part of success as a self-publisher is to keep the product coming. You have to write a book a year or that’s nothing. People write two, three, four books a year in series and just pump them out there. That’s part of what it takes to really make money at self-publishing these days. It’s not a place for literary fiction.

Tim Knox: I know authors who literally pump out a book every six to eight weeks. They’re a machine. I hear this and I’m like there’s no way but then I go look at their list on Amazon and they’re cranking it out.

Let’s talk a little about the fundamental side of writing. You’ve been doing this awhile and have eight or nine or ten books in. Do you still write on a schedule? Are you a very structured writer? How do you do that?

Barbara Rogan: Yeah I’m fairly obsessive when I’m working on a novel. I really work on it five or six days of the week. I’m just really slow, which is why there are gaps between the books. I do write a lot, just about all the time. The only exception is that I’ve been teaching over the years and I have small but very intensive classes that very definitely interfere with my writing schedule. So I try to work around those or actually I schedule the classes around the writing.

Tim Knox: I really do like your website, BarbaraRogan.com, because you do give back a lot – the workshops and the lounge and the blog there. Do you feel that is something that you don’t have to do it but you choose to do it? Did anyone ever do that with you?

Barbara Rogan: Oh I’ve had a lot of help along the way, absolutely. I do feel that it’s a useful function. There’s so much misconception about publishing that I want to do my little bit to try and give a different perspective on it from someone who’s been in it her whole career. So that’s the reason for the blog primarily. I write a lot about both the business and the craft of publishing. I do see it as giving back.

Tim Knox: I think that’s one of the things that I really like about your website. You do write from both sides.

Barbara Rogan: Yeah, I see from both sides.

Tim Knox: It’s always good to have that perspective because it’s rare I think to find someone who is an accomplished author as well as an accomplished agent and can ride both sides of the fence. I think that’s one thing you and I talked about earlier. Here’s someone who’s kind of been on both sides of the fence and got the t-shirt and now you’re here sharing it with others. I think that’s great.

Barbara Rogan: It’s a different world from the inside and I also really hate it when young writers are told and come to believe that it’s a fixed game and unless you know somebody you can’t get in it. I see new writers getting published all the time. I had maybe a dozen students go on to publish in the last year or two and none of them had published before. It’s absolutely doable if you set the bar high enough.

Tim Knox: In the minute or so that we have left let’s give some direct advice. The audience for this show very much is those authors who are looking to either get an agent or get a publisher or doing self-publishing. They’re trying to get noticed and trying to sell books. What is your best advice to these folks?

Barbara Rogan: I would tell people not to rush it. There’s a great temptation to put books out prematurely, either to submit them prematurely or to self-publish them prematurely. I think that’s a great enemy to the young writer. It’s tempting but it’s instant satisfaction and it doesn’t really advance the craft.

I would say to take time to learn the craft, take courses if you can and make sure that the book is really ready to go before you send it out there undefended into the world.

Tim Knox: I love that. You’re sending it out there undefended into the world.

Barbara Rogan: In A Dangerous Fiction I compare it to sending a toddler out to play alone in Times Square. Sending a book out like that just isn’t right. You’ve got to take the time to do it and you’ve got to respect the craft and learn from it, learn from writers that you admire.

Tim Knox: A Dangerous Fiction is out now?

Barbara Rogan: It’s out now. It just came out in paperback with Penguin Press. Because it just came out in paperback, the eBook price is also lower. I hope your listeners will enjoy not only the mystery but the peek into publishing.

Tim Knox: Yeah, is it a good behind the scenes look at what goes on, other than the murder or whatever happens?

Barbara Rogan: Yeah there aren’t usually many murders, although the incident that starts the story, which is the stalking incident, actually does happen more frequently than you’d like to think. But it’s a pretty accurate look at what publishing is like, maybe a little bit dramatized for the story but pretty accurate I think.

Tim Knox: Very good. The book is A Dangerous Fiction. Barbara Rogan, tell everyone where they can get information on you and your blog and your books.

Barbara Rogan: My website is BarbaraRogan.com and my blog is on that website. I’m also on Twitter as @RoganBarbara and I have a Facebook page, Barbara Rogan/author. I’d love to hear from readers.

Tim Knox: We’ll put links to all of those and I’m so glad that you and I had this time together. I think we’ll be talking again.

Barbara Rogan: I really enjoyed it. Thank you, Tim.

Tim Knox: Thank you, Barbara.

 

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