Joëlle Delbourgo: A Top Literary Agent’s Advice On Becoming A Successful Author

Literary Agent Joëlle DelbourgoJoëlle Delbourgo is President and Founder of Joëlle Delbourgo Associates. She represents a broad range of adult nonfiction and fiction, as well as a select and growing list of young adult and middle grade fiction and nonfiction.

She began her career at Bantam Books, where she discovered and launched the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series for kids, which sold millions of copies worldwide.

Joëlle is as sought-after speaker, panelist, workshop leader and instructor at writing conferences, such as the Madison Writers Institute, the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, Jackson Hole Writers Conference, and also teaches each year at Rancho La Puerta (“Rancho Reads and Writes”).

Her authors include New York Times bestselling fiction writer Ben H. Winters, winner of both the Edgar Award and the Philip K. Dick Award (The Last Policeman, Countdown City, World of Trouble), Dr. Michele Borba, educator and parenting contributor to The Today Show, New York Times bestselling authors Dr. Susan Forward, Ashley Rhodes-Courter (Three Little Words).

Joëlle Delbourgo Interview

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Joëlle Delbourgo Transcript

Tim Knox: Joëlle Delbourgo is my guest today. Joëlle has spent her entire career in the publishing industry, first as an editorial assistant at a publishing house, then as the owner of her own literary agency.

As a famous collector of agent rejection letters, I find interviewing literary agents to be particularly interesting.  Exactly what is an agent looking for? What do they expect? What makes the author and the work appealing?  And how can we authors better our chances of signing with an agent.

I found Joëlle’s insights to be extremely helpful as she talked about how the industry is changing, how publishing is evolving, and how agents are adjusting their business models to meet those changes head on. Here then is my interview with literary agent Joëlle Delbourgo on this edition of Interviewing Authors.

Tim Knox: Joëlle, welcome to the program.

Joëlle Delbourgo: Oh, I’m delighted to be here Tim.

Tim Knox: I am so happy you’re here. If I have ever gone through hell and high water to get someone on this program, it’s you.

Joëlle Delbourgo: Well, the weather has conspired to keep us apart.

Tim Knox: It really has. Well, the weather is clear. So we’re going to dive in feet first here. So it is great having you on. You and I have a lot to talk about from a literary agent standpoint as well as someone who works with a lot of authors. But before we get started, if you will, give us a little background on you.

Joëlle Delbourgo: Well, I have spent my entire professional life in publishing. It has been kind of a love affair I guess. I started out in a graduate program in English literature and comparative literature at Columbia with the intent to be a college professor and figured out very, very early on that it would be a really difficult row to hoe and because I love literature and I loved words and I could communicate well, publishing seemed like a really good option. I was very, very fortunate that I was able to land a publishing job very easily and that the early years of my career were very – an expansive time in the publishing industry, a time of tremendous growth and explosion and opportunity.

So I started out in editorial actually as an editorial assistant and made my way up the ladder and after more than two decades of doing that, I’ve decided I wanted to do something more entrepreneurial and put my own individual stamp on what I was doing and that was what spurred me to become an agent.

Tim Knox: Now when you’re working for a publisher in an editing capacity, it really is kind of the other side of the fence from the agenting process, isn’t it?

Joëlle Delbourgo: Yes, it is. You’re the buyer and now I’m the seller although in fact the buyer, the editor is also a seller in a way because they have to sell their publishing house on whatever it is that they want to buy and so in fact I had a lot of good experience that could be immediately deployed as an agent and also knowing the mindset of the editor and the publisher and having been – I was actually an editor in chief for many, many years at a division of Valentine, division of Random House and Harper Collins.

So I really know what the other side is like. I know what those meetings are like. I know what those conversations are like and although publishing continues to change and evolve, having been an insider is a tremendous asset to me and to my clients.

Tim Knox: Talk a little bit about the process of jumping over that fence, of going from the editor’s side to the agenting side. Was there a different approach that you had to take to the work?

Joëlle Delbourgo: Well, the truth of the matter is it was like jumping off the cliff. I understood how difficult it was going to be or just challenging it was going to be. I might not have done it. The biggest hurdle was not so much going from the inside to the outside. The biggest hurdle was going from being part of an enormous publishing company with all the support system and the colleagues and the knowledge that a publishing house attracts and then becoming an entrepreneur and having to envision what I wanted to do and being the president of the company, the CEO, the COO and also the editorial assistant to myself.

That was the bigger leap working sometimes in isolation or with a small group of people. It was a tremendously different experience. I did not go into an existing agency. I created my agency from scratch and to be honest, I didn’t really know what I was doing.

I knew a lot about publishing but I had a lot to learn about this side of the business and how to make it very, very successful, which I think I have done.

Tim Knox: I think you have too. I think it’s really interesting though because I’m an old entrepreneur. I’ve written business books. I teach a lot of business classes. It really has never occurred to me until right now that when you do start an agency, you very are – much are starting a business from the ground floor up and you – I love your point that you went from a big company to doing everything yourself. So do you remember your first client and how that came about?

Joëlle Delbourgo: Oh, it’s a great story actually. I had published Lee Smith, a Southern novelist in paperback for many years when I was at Valentine and then I had gone on to Harper Collins and one day Lee Smith sent me a manuscript of a writer that she felt had a lot of promise and it was sitting on my desk but buried under many other manuscripts.

So all of a sudden I find myself having made this big statement that I was leaving, can form an agency, that this was my lifelong dream, which wasn’t entirely true. But it was a good line and I’m clearing out my office and I see this manuscript and I go, “Oh my god. I can’t believe that Lee Smith sent this. It has got to be good and I haven’t read it.”

So I went home my first day as an agent and I read the manuscript and it was fantastic. It was called Moon Women and the author is Pamela Duncan, who now teaches literature in North Carolina where she’s from.

It was a multi-generational novel about just real women, real relationships. It was just – she has such a great ear and such love for her characters.

So I called Pam and I said, “I’m really embarrassed. I’ve had this for a while. I don’t know if you found an agent. But if you haven’t, I would be very interested in representing you but I have to tell you, I have no clients. I just started the business. You would be the first one.”

So she was very happy and very excited and then I opened my doors officially a few months later and made a very, very significant sale for her, mid six-figure sale for two books, and that launched her writing career at Valentine and when I called her to tell her that I had made the deal, I couldn’t reach her.

It turned out there was a hurricane or something going on in North Carolina and she was at the beach with all the generations of her family and so I went and called the police. I said, “Listen, I have a very important message. I have to get it to this woman. It’s going to change her life.” They said, “Did somebody die?” and I said, “Well, no.” They said, “We can’t just go to her house.”

So I took a couple more days. But then when I did finally reach her, there was a lot of whooping and hollering and everybody was very, very happy and that really was what it was going to be about for me, which is I’m happiest when I can change somebody’s life in that way, bring wonderful – whether it’s wonderful literature or ideas, usher them into the conversation, the cultural conversation and then nurture that talent and develop that talent hopefully over a long period of time.

Tim Knox: I love that story. So you had gotten her a mid six-figure book deal. You couldn’t get a hold of her and you called the police and they say, “Did someone die?” And did you not say, “I’m dying to get a hold of her”? That’s the purpose.

Joëlle Delbourgo: More or less, more or less.

Tim Knox: Well, I will tell you what. If I was here, I would have been a little ticked at the cops. That’s just me. So you mentioned earlier about how much the publishing industry has changed over the years. Talk a little bit about that because things with self-publishing and digital publishing, it really is a different world than it was – just what? Five, ten years ago.

Joëlle Delbourgo: It certainly is. It’s constantly evolving at such a rapid rate and I think that when the internet sort of took off and when all these technological developments begin to happen, publishing sort of put its head in the sand for a while. At least I did and many, many colleagues of mine did.

It was like, “Would this just all go away?” because we kind of like publishing the way that it was and then a lot of publishers took a real bath by investing in CD-ROM which was supposed to be the big new thing. So they had a lot of trepidation about all these new forms of dissemination of work to readers. But the truth of the matter is that a publisher’s mission has always been to bring a writer’s work to readers and to as many readers as possible and as many different forms as possible.

Technology has really made it possible to do that in such exciting ways and there are actually new forms of storytelling that are emerging as a result. So I would say in the early part of the 21st century, there was kind of a paralysis.

But everybody sort of got with the program and now print books interestingly while their sales are maybe not as great in number, but they’re very healthy in a way because people now realize that there’s a certain kind of book you might want to read in a beautiful hardcover and there’s another kind of book you might want to read on your electronic reading device and there are some people who are dedicated to one or dedicated to the other, but many, many people who read in many different ways all the time.

Tim Knox: I think that’s a really interesting point that the industry was kind of slow to change and almost wishing all this new stuff would just go away. So they could just get back to business as usual.

Joëlle Delbourgo: Exactly. Then also there was a sense of doom. It was a sense of this is the end of publishing and then one book that I really love is Michael Korda’s Another Life. He was the editor-in-chief at Simon and Schuster for a very – for forever basically and one of the eminent editors in the business and he says in the book somewhere that every decade that he was in publishing was supposed to be the end of publishing.

It’s really true. There has always been a little bit of a sense of threat and look, I mean there may be fewer readers in the future. But the truth if people are – they’re reading all the time. The question is, “What are they reading? Are they reading books per se or are they just reading content that’s being created by bloggers or what are they reading?” and I think they’re reading a lot of different things at different times in different ways in different forms. But the storytelling is not going away and a book is a wonderful, wonderful way to capture a story and I think it will continue to be strong.

Tim Knox: I agree wholeheartedly. I think my teenage daughter is a good example of this. She’s 19 now but she has always been an avid reader and she has a Kindle and she has books on the Kindle. But if there’s a particular book that she loves or a series of books, she has to have the book. You know what I mean? It’s that tactile experience of holding that in her hand. She has a bookshelf in her bedroom and she just loves to look at her books.

So I think there will always be that. We’re not going to get through like the Book of Eli, that movie where there are no books left and everybody is searching for the bible, right?

So I think the need is always going to be there. Well, let’s talk about your agency now and what you do exactly. I’m an old author. I think every author dreams of signing with an agent and going on from there. But you can’t sign everyone, can you? You have to have certain requirements that you go by.

Let’s talk a little bit about the kind of folks that you do represent and the kind of books they write.

Joëlle Delbourgo: I represent a really wide range of authors. I think one of the reasons I wanted to become an agent was I have so many interests and there are so many different sensibilities of writing that I respond to and when you’re in a publishing house, your job tends to be defined. You’re an editor of self-help or you’re a literary fiction person or you’re a mystery editor.

But by becoming an agent, I could develop an umbrella that allowed me to pursue all of my interests. So in general, we represent adult fiction and adult non-fiction. That’s very broad. Within the adult fiction, I would say it sort of spans commercial fiction, what we call quality commercial fiction which is that kind of book-club fiction. A little bit of literary fiction. I wish I could find more really exciting literary fiction because in fact literary fiction can be commercial and can be mainstream sometimes.

Within non-fiction – so well, let me back up a minute. In fiction, we really look for a distinctive voice. One of the things I would suggest to writers is to pay incredible attention to the first few pages of their work that they’re sending out because I will make a judgment based on the first sentence and the first paragraph that I read.

So your book may be brilliant but if it doesn’t pick up until page 350, I’m never going to get there. I know that sounds harsh but if you really look at the great, great novels, that first sentence and that first paragraph call you in immediately.

So voice, sense of place, character development. Sometimes we’re drawn to a novel that just has a great – what we call high concept. You know, sort of a handle. But that’s what I look for. Quality but it doesn’t have to be – literary commercial can have quality as well and a sense of pacing and storytelling that moves because readers today are impatient. I mean we live in a very fast world.

I also represent selectively some mystery authors and believe it or not, recently a couple of romance authors. I’ve just made a deal with Harlequin in the UK and that was so much fun. Even when you’re looking at something like romance, there’s an art to writing a really good romance.

So I’m really excited that I’m constantly sort of stretching even in the fiction to do things that perhaps I’ve never done before. I’ve done a fantasy trilogy in the last year. One of my authors is a fascinating and brilliant young man named Ben Winters and he writes genre-blending novels. So he has written a trilogy called The Last Policeman and it’s about an asteroid is going to collide with the earth. There’s no question this asteroid is coming.

There is a young rookie cop who’s ready to solve his first crime and he has a real sense of morality and mission. But the whole world is falling apart around him.

So I’m using Ben as an example because he doesn’t fit nearly into a category but he’s selling brilliantly and he was able to win the Edgar Award which is top mystery award for the first Last Policeman book. The second one won the Philip K. Dick Award, which is a top science fiction award and the third and concluding volume has just been nominated for an Edgar and we will find out next month if he won that.

So here’s a writer who’s just so imaginative and so distinctive and I couldn’t be more excited to work with him and just feel like I’m on a fabulous ride with him.

In non-fiction, I look for groundbreaking new ideas, new perspectives. Somebody who can make me look at something in a way that I’ve never looked at it before and in narrative non-fiction, I look for the same qualities that I would look for in fiction, somebody who can write lyrically, who can tell a story that moves, who can develop characters. All those qualities are present in narrative non-fiction and I think I wish more writers would try to write narrative non-fiction and not just always think they have to write the great American novel.


Then I also tried to publish books that I just think are important, could change people’s lives and bring a body of work to the fore that can make a difference. I also like to learn and I think that I’m sort of one of those lifelong learners.

Publishing allows you to be sort of in graduate school for the rest of your life. So I’m constantly – I do a lot of history. I’m always looking for science. I would love to find a brilliant book in neuroscience, health, wellness, what we call bond-mind-spirit, business books, economics. There’s really not anything that wouldn’t interest me if it’s done the right way.

Tim Knox: Right. Do you find that oftentimes you are attracted to an author more so than a particular book that they may be trying to pitch you? Do you know what I mean? Do you find authors who maybe they don’t have the right book this time but maybe down the road they might?

Joëlle Delbourgo: Well, I often say give me an interesting person and let me figure out what the book is within.

Tim Knox: So as an agent, talk about the things that you do as an agent. What exactly are the services that you are going to provide this author and what services are you not going to provide? Do you find that sometimes authors have expectations that you may do things that you are not going to do and vice-versa?

Joëlle Delbourgo: I think it’s really important when an author signs with an agent to have an in-depth conversation where you share what your mutual vision is of what that relationship is going to accomplish, so that there isn’t a misunderstanding.

I work differently with different authors. Books come to me in many, many different ways and at different stages. So sometimes I’m growing an idea from seed. Sometimes somebody is bringing me a proposal with chapters. Sometimes they’re bringing me an entire manuscript and sometimes it’s unbelievably polished and ready to go. That’s very rare. Sometimes it needs development work.

It has to be worthwhile because one thing that writers need to understand is that agents are not paid for their time. They’re paid for their result. So we are only paid when we actually sell the book.

That means that we have to turn down a lot of very, very interesting projects that maybe have a lot of potential but we may not be able to put in that level of development time and nurturing and kind of educating the author to the extent that the author might need it.

So I have to be really, really careful about how I use my time that I’m in – I always say to a writer my time is my most important asset. Obviously I do spend a lot of time helping authors shape material. What I won’t do is I won’t edit an entire manuscript. I will edit a proposal. I will give a writer feedback on a manuscript and on chapters. I will make some notes. I will get them kind of big picture items.

If I think that they need in-depth editing, even though my training is as an editor, I will recommend an editor to them, that they should work with and whatever it takes to get the project to the point that I feel confident that I can go out into the market and try to sell it.

Tim Knox: Let’s talk a little bit about your expectations of the author that you take on as a client. You know what their expectations are. But from your side, what is it that you expect from an author that you take on as a client?

Joëlle Delbourgo: I expect them to have fire in the belly for whatever it is that they’re writing. I look for that, like real passion. I expect them to be realistic. I expect to have an ability to listen because I’m not always going to tell them what they want to hear and somebody who’s truly collaborative, somebody who’s appreciative of the process as a partnership process where we’re each going to provide whatever strengths we have to get to a result.

So I look for professionalism and one of the things I often say when I’m doing workshops and seminars for writers is do your home work. Really do your homework. Do not cold call an agent. We all have websites. We’re all interviewed on programs like this. You can find out a lot about the people that you’re approaching.

So you want to approach in a very intelligent way, a very strategic way and you want to show that you’re somebody who will work well with an agent. I have a policy right now that I – I don’t want to work with difficult people. They may be geniuses but I want to work with really nice people and it should be fun.


Tim Knox: The question I was about to ask you is, “How important is it to you that you do the homework on a particular agent before you go just blast out queries and approach agents who clearly are not the proper agent for you?” So it is important that they do that homework.

Joëlle Delbourgo: Yeah. It’s not that hard to do. There are so many resources. You go to Barnes and Noble and there’s like a whole section of resources for writers. There are so many good books about every aspect of this process. There are books that contain examples of non-fiction proposals, examples of query letters. There are lists and lists of publishing houses, lists of agents. Every agency has a good website these days. You can Google any agent and find out a lot about them. You can go to the AAR, which is the Association of Authors’ Representatives and they have certain guidelines and criteria for agents joining that association. It’s kind of like the Better Business Bureau of agents and that’s a very good resource to go to and you can hunt by category and find who is an agent, who works in those categories that they’re writing, so very, very important to do that homework.

Going to writing conferences can be really useful as well. You can get such an education by doing that, networking with other writers, being part of a spirit writing group. Really building a support system so that you don’t make mistakes because those mistakes will lead to rejection and rejection leads to depression.

Tim Knox: True enough. Well, let’s talk a little bit about the process itself and I would assume with you it typically will start with the query letter. Give the audience a few tips on how to – how do they craft the query letter that’s going to grab your attention?

Joëlle Delbourgo: Well, the first thing is to not say something really boring in the first paragraph. Like I have written a brilliant 67,000-word novel. Like, that’s a big statement. You’ve got to get right into that query letter with something very, very arresting, that’s going to get that agent’s attention.

You need to know how to describe what kind of book you’re writing. You need to know what your genre is and you need to know what the book or the underlying premise of your work is. Sometimes that’s hard where a writer is very close to his or her work.

So again, like if you have a writing group for example, you can work with them and get their feedback to really, really hone what you’re going to say in that first paragraph to get the agent’s attention.

Then I think that the query letter should tell a story. I always want to know what’s the story behind your writing this book. Like, how did you come to write this book? Where was this coming from within you or within your experience? Did you see a gap in the marketplace?

So tell me an interesting story because sometimes when I sell something to a publisher, I’m actually – that original story – so I will give you an example. Let’s say you read an article about an event that occurred in 1932 and you’re so taken in by the event that was described that became the point of departure for you to develop the sense of place and time in which you’re situating your novels.

So that’s interesting or let’s say you have had a personal experience with an illness and you write about a character who’s very sick but you’re also informing it from what you know.

So I always like to hear the story behind the story. The letter shouldn’t be more than a page. It should tell the agent something about you, what your credentials are, what you bring to the table, if you’ve published before. I really encourage writers to try to get published in some form before they start contacting agents. In other words, in literary journals, online zines. Try to get something that shows that somebody other than you thinks your work has value.

Tim Knox: So really, it would be helpful and I think a lot of people think it’s backwards. I want to get an agent, so I can get published. But you’re saying it would be really important to do some publishing on your own just to get some traction and – you’re not starting from ground zero if you were.

Joëlle Delbourgo: Exactly, exactly, because the publishers are looking for that as well. So they look to agents to screen for them. They look to us to know what they’re looking for and to only send them sort of the cream, because they don’t have time to be dealing directly with authors most of the time and so we need to take that responsibility very, very seriously.

Tim Knox: So if you get a query letter that piques your interest, do you then ask for a synopsis? What is your process?

Joëlle Delbourgo: Well, usually I will get a query letter. It will either just be the query letter or sometimes somebody will embed an excerpt of their book in the query letter itself. Don’t send an attachment because we don’t like to open attachments in case if there are viruses and things like that.

It’s fine to multiply submit but don’t send out an email to undisclosed recipients and then list every agent in the industry. Again, every website for an agency will have usually a tab of submission guidelines and they will be very, very precise about what they want and the form they want it in.

Tim Knox: Let’s talk a little bit about the synopsis. Give me a – your idea of what’s the perfect synopsis that you get.

Joëlle Delbourgo: Well, I don’t necessarily – I don’t like to read a synopsis personally. There are some publishing houses that require them. To me, it’s like really boring to read. This is what happens and then this happens and then that happens and this other thing happens.

I’m much more interested in knowing what’s the heart of the – if it’s a novel for example, what’s the heart of the novel? What’s the heart of the memoir? What are the themes? What’s the point of view? What happens? Is this a work of suspense? Is this a work of personal meditation and exploration? What are you trying to accomplish?

Tim Knox: Yeah. Most synopses – as someone who has written them – can be very dry.

Joëlle Delbourgo: Exactly.

Tim Knox: Almost like reading directions. Is there a particular query that you’ve received recently and a client maybe that you’ve signed that really got you excited, that you – this is someone I want to work with?

Joëlle Delbourgo: It does happen. I would say that we probably sign about five to ten – five authors a year that come unsolicited and usually it is a query letter that got our attention. Yes. I also sign a lot of people through referral and so that’s another reason it’s important for writers to have a network because we take the recommendations of our own authors very, very seriously.

Tim Knox: Right. You mentioned the dreaded R word earlier, rejection. Now, every author is going to get rejected. You’ve heard the stories of the best selling novel that was rejected 100, 200 times. Give us your thoughts on rejection. Because I know it’s not personal. But it’s a little bit like Tony Soprano saying it’s not personal. You know what I mean? If an author gets a rejection notice, how should we take that?

Joëlle Delbourgo: It’s not personal but it is personal because it is your work. But rejection is part of the game. I mean when I’m selling something as an agent, I get rejected too on behalf of the author. I mean I’ve had a lot of rejections and they can upset me or sometimes I’m like I can’t believe they rejected this fabulous project or whatever.

So rejection is part of it and what I say is let it roll off your back. If there is something in that rejection that you can learn from, take it as an offering. Sometimes an editor will make a very astute comment or an agent will make an astute comment in rejecting your work and you can benefit from that and apply what they’re saying.

But let it roll off your back and just say, “OK. I’m going on to the next.” So for example, when I do a submission to a publishing house, I actually work in a very old-fashioned way. I will have like an index card and I will have the names of the editors and houses that I’m going to be approaching.

When an editor says no, I just cross them off the list. Then I go, OK, I don’t need to worry about that person anymore. Who can I focus on? Let me focus on the people who are actively interested.

So actually the biggest favor somebody can do to me – for me is to tell me if they’re going to reject something because I understand that rejection is part of it.

Tim Knox: As an entrepreneur, I mean we all deal with rejection. But let’s talk a little bit about the way things have changed. We mentioned this a little bit earlier but it really is a different world now than it was. Talk a little bit about the self-publishing that you see now as well as a hybrid publishing. What is the agent’s place in that process?

Joëlle Delbourgo: Well, I think self-publishing is really interesting and it’s kind of coming of age. It’s becoming much more respectable and for some authors, it’s a very smart option. It may be a smart option because it’s the only way that you can get published but it may also be a smart option for certain kinds of authors where it can be very lucrative. For example a business author who might have a big speaking workshop schedule and ends up selling a lot of books direct at the back of the room at these events.

It can be very lucrative to do it through self-publishing. You get a much higher return on every copy sold. But in general, I would say – and I’m prejudiced because I used to be a traditional publisher. If you can get a real publishing deal, go for it. Who wouldn’t want an entire team of professionals working with them?

What I will sometimes say to an author is, “OK. You want to self-publish. That means now you’re the author but you’re also the publisher. You’re the sales director. You’re the marketing director. You’re the copyrighter. You’re the production department. You’re the designer. You will oversee the printing. Do you know how to do all these jobs? Is this how you want to spend your time?”

So I really think having a really good team doing all these things for you and with you is really desirable. But I and many other agents are doing this too. I actually do have like a little tiny sliver of my company that helps a few authors get self-published through an arrangement that I happen to have with Perseus.

Again if you’re going to self-publish, you might want to work with an agent who does this because the agent can guide you through that process and help you to choose the right path at the right time. Give you a lot of advice about publicity marketing, sales distribution, etcetera, so a lot of agencies are actually seeing that there’s a need there. What I can tell you is that most self-published authors are shocked when they see their statements of how few copies they sell.

Tim Knox: Yeah. The one complaint that I get from every self-published author is I didn’t know I would have to do all this work. Like me, I did my business back in ’05 and I had an agent and John Wiley published it and that was such a nice process. But trying to self-publish, I find OK, I’ve got to be an entrepreneur, the marketer, the PR person. I’ve got to edit. I’ve got to do all that sort of thing and I have had really successful self-published authors tell me, “I barely have time to write.”

So I think you’re right. I think if we can – if an author can sign with an agent, get a traditional deal, I think most may go that route and those that don’t will find out that this is a lot of work. But it may be what they’re cut out to do.

So I think there’s green grass on both sides of the fence. So let’s talk a little bit about location. Where are you located?

Joëlle Delbourgo: My office is in Montclair, New Jersey, which is 15 miles west of New York City.

Tim Knox: OK. Do you think that makes a difference being close to New York?

Joëlle Delbourgo: Yes, I do, because we may live in a digital age but publishing is still a very personal business and lunch is very important in publishing still, still today. What lunch is about is about forging these deep, personal bonds between agents and editors where we don’t just learn technically what the job is that the editor does but we learn something about what makes them tick as people and their personal lives and their personal interests and that in fact ultimately also informs what we sell them and how we sell it to them.

There’s an editor for example Tarcher which is a Penguin division, with whom I think I’ve done nine or ten books. We just love each other. We understand each other. I know her taste. I know her sensibility. Sometimes she does reject some of my projects. But there’s a real camaraderie and trust between us and we work very, very well together and that benefits the author. So I place with her.

So I do think it’s harder for agents who are further away from New York. If you can come in at least once a month and do a round of meetings, that’s great. But if you’re unable to come to New York very often, I do think it’s a disadvantage.

Tim Knox: Yeah. Do you find it in your business especially it really is about the relationships?

Joëlle Delbourgo: Yes. It’s so much about the relationships and the good news is that the people generally are just wonderful people. They’re so dedicated. They’re so smart. They’re so passionate and it’s very, very stimulating to sit down and talk with somebody, with a colleague in publishing. I always come back from every lunch or meeting that I have with a lot of new ideas and I’m sometimes able to also sell them something that I maybe have never thought to present to them, because of something that I l earned.

Tim Knox: We talk a lot about change on this show and you and I have kind of talked about that. Do you see what you do changing in a way that you do it on a daily basis now?

Joëlle Delbourgo: Well, absolutely. I think we take on more and more roles as time goes on. I think that both editors and agents’ jobs have become more comprehensive. For example, we will coach a lot of our authors on social media marketing. Well, that wasn’t part of an agent description 15 years ago but today it is.

So yes, I think it has become more complex and – but that’s fun. That’s a lot of fun.

Tim Knox: Yeah. Do you rely on social media a lot for what you do?

Joëlle Delbourgo: I do. I am on Twitter, @JLDelbourgo. Please follow me. I am on Facebook and I pick a post pretty much almost every day. I have a very dynamic website as well and I feel like it’s really important to be a part of a conversation. So I don’t think it’s a waste of time and the way that I use Twitter for example is I do a lot of curation. In other words, I send out a lot of tweets that are about interesting articles that I read, about trends in publishing or advice for writers. Sometimes it’s my own tips. Sometimes I’m sending out information other people have contributed that I think is good.

So I think of it as this is Joëlle Delbourgo’s literary magazine and she’s sending out all this content to writers and it does get picked up and it does get read and I think that’s really terrific. Then I also hear back and I think people need to understand that social media is a two-way communication. I find out. I get a very clear sense of what are the tweets that people are interested in and what are the ones that they’re not interested in.

Sometimes people will raise interesting questions and so on. So I think it’s very dynamic and it should be part of what everybody does. I think one mistake that a lot of authors make is they say, “Oh, when my book comes out, I will launch a website. I will get on Twitter and I will do these things.”

Well, you have to do it now. You have to do it right away. You have to do it every day. No writer should not have a website at the very least. It’s like not having a business card.

Tim Knox: Sure. Do you like the accessibility that Twitter gives people to you? Because I would think before Twitter, you’re not going to find Joëlle on a website where you can actively have a conversation. Are you comfortable with that?

Joëlle Delbourgo: I’m very comfortable with it, yeah, yeah.

Tim Knox: Very good. Well, just before we recap now, let’s talk a little bit again about – and you listed this earlier. What are you looking for now? What kind of material? What kind of clients are you interested in?

Joëlle Delbourgo: Well, at this point, I’ve been in business 15 years. So I consider the company is in its what I call young maturity, which is to say that we have a lot of authors under our roof. Among those authors, we have some that are producing repeat work. So I want to have the time to focus on developing those people’s careers. But at the same time, I’m always, always looking for something new, something exciting, somebody who has a voice that resonates with me.

I think that’s true of most agencies, even the very well-know, well-established agencies. We’re always looking for the new thing. But it has to be really good.

Tim Knox: Sometimes you find the old thing like Sam Barry.

Joëlle Delbourgo: Absolutely.

Tim Knox: I love Sam and Elaine Orr is one of your clients.

Joëlle Delbourgo: I love Elaine. Elaine and I have been working for years together. There was an eight-year hiatus between the publication of her memoir about growing up in Nigeria as a young girl and when she came to me with her novel. I knew she was working on the novel. In the meantime, she was publishing short pieces, literary fiction and non-fiction in literary publications. I was waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting. Boy, was it worth the wait and now she’s working on her second novel which is under contract.

Tim Knox: She was probably one of my favorite interviews to do. It was like talking to just an old friend. I think you introduced us, so thank you for that.

Joëlle Delbourgo: I’m so pleased. I’m so pleased. I do want to say one thing Tim. You did ask me earlier and I didn’t answer. What does an agent not do? An agent is not a publicist. An agent is not part of the marketing department. So that is not part of what an agent does. An agent can help you think about those things and can put you in touch, tell you whether you should hire a publicist or not, whether you need somebody to help you with search optimization. We could give you a lot of advice. We’re kind of all-encompassing consultants.

But that’s not part of our job definition and another thing that agents do do that I haven’t touched upon is – but it’s very important is we negotiate these deals and we negotiate your contracts and it’s not really a lot of fun. At least I don’t like doing it very much. But it’s so important and I think it’s important for authors to understand that when we’re negotiating a deal, it isn’t just about the upfront money that we’re going to get for you or the big publishing house we’re going to get for you. But it’s every clause of that 20-page single space on legal size paper contract, making sure that an author is well-protected and gets the strongest possible contract and that’s really, really an important part of our job.

Tim Knox: Very good. Tell the folks where they can find out more information from you. You mentioned your website, which I think is a wonderful resource. What’s the address there?

Joëlle Delbourgo: It’s So you do have to know how to spell it, D-E-L-B-O-U-R-G-O dot com, and please visit.

Tim Knox: All right. You mentioned you’re also on Twitter and Facebook. They can just search for you there.

Joëlle Delbourgo: Yes. We have a company page, Joëlle Delbourgo Associates and on Twitter it’s @JLDelbourgo.

Tim Knox: Very good. We will put links to all of this. Joëlle, it has been a pleasure. I’m glad we finally got around to doing this.

Joëlle Delbourgo: I am too, Tim. It has been a lot of fun speaking with you.


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