Rachelle Gardner: An Insider’s Advice On When and How To Sign With A Literary Agent

Rachelle GardnerRachelle Gardner is an agent with Books and Such Literary Agency, representing both fiction and non-fiction.

In this interview Rachelle shares her wisdom and insight on when an author should approach a literary agent and how to increase the chances of getting representation.

Rachel is looking for mainstream commercial projects for both the Christian and general markets.

In non-fiction and memoirs, she looks for authors with established platforms, strong marketing hooks and an understanding of how to use social media.

She’s also seeking all kinds of fiction, and authors must have a completed manuscript to be considered.

Rachelle Gardner Interview

Scroll down for a complete transcript of the interview or click the Play button below to listen to the interview now. And don’t forget to leave a comment to let us know what you thought of this interview!

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Rachelle Gardner Transcript

Tim Knox: Rachelle, welcome to the program.

Rachelle Gardner: Great to be here, Tim.

Tim Knox: I’m just thrilled to have you here. As we were talking on the pre-call, you are our first agent on the program so congratulations on that.

Rachelle Gardner: That’s very exciting. I’m so happy to be your first agent.

Tim Knox: I’m happy to have you because we get a lot of questions on the website about the agenting process. The authors want to know what does an agent do, do I need an agent, what’s the benefit – that sort of thing. I’m very thrilled to have you on the show today. I’m going to grill you but I’m pretty sure you can handle it.

Rachelle Gardner: I’ll try and stand up to it.

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

Rachelle Gardner: Well I’ve been an agent since 2007 and I have about 60 clients that I work with. The number kind of varies off and on but that’s the number of active clients. I work with fiction and nonfiction. Before that I worked for two different publishing companies and had a good deal of time where I was working on my own as a freelance editor and writer.

Before I entered the publishing world I actually started off in Hollywood working at the 20th Century Fox Studios. I kind of have a varied background in media and I love what I do, love working with authors and being an agent kind of brings together all of the skills that I’ve developed over the years.

Tim Knox: What did you do at Fox?

Rachelle Gardner: I worked in the specials department at Fox Broadcasting. Back when I first started working there we were this upstart baby network doing a lot of really fun programming. We put together some big shows like The Billboard Music Awards and the Emmy Awards and a lot of smaller shows as well.

Tim Knox: How exciting. How did you finally end up being a literary agent?

Rachelle Gardner: Well when I left television I knew I wanted to be in books so I made a fairly seamless transition into working in a publishing company that was actually based in Santa Monica, where I lived, so that was pretty nice for me.

Then after that I did work for another publishing company, spent some time on my own as an editor and writer and then the more I worked with authors, the more I realized that authors really did need agents. I had worked with agents a lot, had done a lot of negotiating with agents but I’d never really considered being one until I realized how much an agent could be such a benefit and an advantage to an author’s career.

Being an agent kind of combines all of the things that I really enjoy doing, which is working with the books and the material as well as working with the author building and developing their career. Of course it’s a lot of platform building and strategizing a career over a long-term. To me, that’s just really exciting.

Tim Knox: Have you found that the career of an agent is different now in this digital world than it was a few years ago?

Rachelle Gardner: Well one thing that kind of makes me laugh sometimes is some of the people who have been agents for a really long time, maybe 20 years or even more, I think they might be a little bit more surprised right now and a little bit more caught up by how everything has changed so much. The job was always the same for them.

I kind of came into agenting right when things were starting to change. I already had a blog and Facebook and Twitter were just about to get started. Things were already changing when I first became an agent but then of course over the last 5 years or so things have changed exponentially, not only with digital media but in publishing as you know.

Part of the skillset of an agent right now is really keeping up with all the changes and being okay with it, rather than try to hang on to the way that things used to be. You really do have to be reading and keeping up with everything, learning social media, learning how it all works. Yeah, it’s much different than it used to be.

Tim Knox: Have you found the publishing industry as a whole is kind of slow to adapt?

Rachelle Gardner: I would say it kind of looks like it from the outside but I know that inside that the publishing companies are working very hard at doing everything that needs to be done. They do actually have huge departments dedicated to digital media, data, analytics, all of the things that big companies have to do.

From the outside, it is going to take a while before people can really see that I think but to be fair we’re talking about the kind of business that a lot of these companies have actually been in business for over 100 years and they’re very, very large. Of course it does take time for those kind of businesses to change.

I do now that they are changing. They are doing what needs to be done because if they weren’t they would have already disappeared.

Tim Knox: Sure. I think you made a really good point there. They’ve been doing it this way for so long, it’s really difficult for them to change overnight.

Rachelle Gardner: Actually it’s impossible. A company that’s that big and has been doing something in certain ways for so long, it takes a lot of new people, a lot of people that understand new ways of doing business as opposed to old ways of doing business. Those people actually aren’t very easy to find. Yeah, it does take time.

Tim Knox: Let’s talk a little about what you do as an agent. You mentioned some things. You hold hands, you cheerlead, you advise, you sell. Primarily what is the job of an agent? There are a lot of authors out there who think, okay, all I have to do is land an agent and I’m in the gravy. What is the primary job of an agent?

Rachelle Gardner: Well the primary job of an agent is to, gosh, what’s the primary job?

Tim Knox: There are so many.

Rachelle Gardner: There are many. One of the things that we do obviously is match up writers with publishers. That process of us maintaining good, strong relationships with publishers and understanding what each publisher wants and needs and being able to then bring the authors to them, sell their work to the publishers, that’s a big part of the job.

Once we do get a publisher to make an offer then another big part of the job is negotiating that contract. Contact negotiations have become harder and harder over the last few years as things have been changing so much. There are a lot of issues of rights reversion that we have to pay attention to. There’s a lot of the digital issues that we have to constantly be staying on top of and making sure that we’re protecting our authors’ rights in the long-term.

We also have just the fact that with the economy being so rough and particularly in publishing it’s kind of rough. Publishers are tightening their belts a little bit and that can cause them to put some things into contracts that put a little bit more of the risk onto writers. These are the kinds of things that an author probably would not ever see or understand in a contract, but as an agent it’s up to us to recognize those things and to work really hard to not let our clients sign a contract that’s not going to be in their favor in the long run. Contract negotiations are huge.

Then there’s just the day-to-day. All throughout the publishing process we are there to answer questions, to be there for the author. As they’re dealing with their publisher they may have disagreements that we need to step in on. They may need to extend their deadlines. They may not like the title or the cover that their publisher wants for them and those are all the kinds of things that an author can step in on.

We of course also sell sub-rights, which is foreign and film rights, those kinds of things. We help our authors with their social media platforms. There’s just a never ending list of things that we are available to our authors for.

Tim Knox: So really as an agent you’re kind of riding both sides of the horse. You’ve got the relationship with the publishers as well as the relationship of course with your clients. You’re kind of in the middle negotiating back and forth. You’re an advocate. You have to kind of keep everybody happy. Talk a little about that. How hard is that to do?

Rachelle Gardner: Well we are the advocate for the author but the authors do need to understand, and most of them do, that in order for us to be the best possible advocate for them we also have to have great relationships with the publishers.

So if an author has an expectation that I am just going to be a shark and go in and just try to negotiate from here to eternity on a certain contract and just be really mean in my negotiations or whatever, I’m not going to do that because that’s not going to be in any of my authors’ favor when it comes to my relationship with that publisher in the long run.

My goal is always to advocate for the author but also to keep those relationships strong because that’s what works for all the authors. I don’t find it particularly difficult to walk that line. I think that kind of comes naturally to me. The only time it can be a problem is if the author thinks I’m not maybe negotiating hard enough and they might not always understand that’s probably not going to work even in their favor in the long run.

Tim Knox: Let’s talk a little about that, about the expectations of authors, particularly those who have never worked with an agent before. When you sign a new client who’s a new author do you say, okay, here’s what I do and here’s what I don’t do?

Rachelle Gardner: I don’t typically say here’s what I do and do not do. I do give them an idea of what to expect and when we will communicate and how we will do that. I don’t find that authors typically have really unrealistic expectations of me. They sometimes have unrealistic expectations of the process or of their prospects in publishing. So that can be a little more difficult.

I do find that once we’re working together authors pretty much understand that say in the beginning we start off and we’re working on the proposal together and we’ll go back and forth with that. Then when I’m shopping the project to publishers I’m just keeping them updated every now and then. They seem pretty satisfied because I just bring them along with me as we’re going and kind of educate them along the way.

Tim Knox: Let’s talk a little about how an author gets on the radar, gets noticed by an agent. I’m an author, I talk to a lot of authors. The nice thing about rejection slips now is they’re digital. You don’t have to walk to the mailbox to be rejected and I think that’s a wonderful thing.

Let’s talk a little about the submission process. How does an author submit to you? Is it a query first? What is your preference and your process?

Rachelle Gardner: The standard process is to send a query letter to the agent or the agency. All the agents and agencies have their submission guidelines on their websites. You can also find those a lot of times in some of the books and online resources that are available that let you know how to do that.

That’s not the only way. That’s one way. We do recommend that you think of other ways to come in contact with agents as well as other writers so that you become more and more comfortable with just the whole area of publishing and how agents work and just the world of writers. I recommend that you try to go to some writers conferences once or twice a year if you can. That just gets you much more comfortable with the idea of agents and also there are so many opportunities for learning.

You may want to find a couple of agent blogs that you enjoy reading and subscribe to them so that you can read them on a regular basis and even leave comments on a regular basis if you like. Every point of contact with an agent, for you, is going to make you more comfortable with the idea of agents and it’s also going to give the opportunity for agents to become familiar with who you are, even recognize your name.

I do have clients that I have taken on after they’ve been reading my blog for quite some time and been regular commenters and then when I see their name in my query submission pile I go, oh, I recognize that person. Every point of contact helps.

Another way to get the attention of an agent, and this is probably one of the best ways and this is a good reason to go to conferences and hang out with other writers, is to get a referral from another author, maybe an author who is already represented by an agent. Now authors are going to be very careful who they give referrals to. They don’t want to be recommending someone to their agent who is really not ready. If over time you’re in a critique group or you have made friends with other authors you’ve met at conferences and they have agents and have read enough of your writing that they’re willing to refer you, that’s one of the best ways.

I happen to be an agent who takes on very few writers without a referral because there are so many that come to me just through the submission process. I prefer to just look at the ones from whom I did get a referral from someone else. I do have several of my clients who are very good about contacting me when they’ve come in contact with another writer who they think is really good and a great prospect for me. Getting a referral from another author is a good idea.

Tim Knox: That’s a nice way to… it’s part of the vetting process. A referral is going to be a little more pre-vetted than someone just coming to you cold turkey.

Rachelle Gardner: Exactly and typically I will have someone say, “I’ve been in a writer’s group or critique group with this other author for about two years. I’ve watched their writing develop and I know what they’re working on and I think they’re ready for an agent.” This might be someone saying this who’s already my client.

They already know what it’s like to be published and work with an agent. So they’re telling me, okay, I’ve watched this person grow over time, and that gives me a high level of confidence before I ever even see anything from that writer. So getting a referral is just one more way of standing out from the crowd.

Tim Knox: One of the other things that you said was do your homework on a particular agent. I would imagine that you get a lot of queries from authors who really haven’t done that homework. They don’t know anything about you as an agent. They don’t know the genres that you rep, that sort of thing. Save yourself some time and save the agent some headache by doing your homework.

Rachelle Gardner: Yes, doing your homework is always a good idea. If you do that, it’s nice if you say it in your query letter. You mention something that you read on that agent’s blog maybe or something that they said on Twitter so that the agent knows that you did your homework. That can make you stand out a little as well.

I do understand there’s a lot of agents out there and writers just don’t have all the time in the world. I understand that they might not be researching every single agent in detail, and I get that. It’s not a requirement but it certainly is going to be a little bit easier if you’re only targeting the agents who have any possibility of liking what you’re writing.

Tim Knox: Exactly. So the referral angle aside, what do you look for in a query letter? Give us some tips. How do you craft a query letter that is going to peak the interest of an agent?

Rachelle Gardner: That is a really good question because everybody has their own way of standing out from the crowd. You definitely need to be interesting. That’s really important. You’ve got to write something in your query letter that’s not boring and right from the beginning jumps out at the reader of your letter and says, hey, this is an interesting idea.

One of the things that I think is impossible for writers to understand is how hard it is for any idea to feel fresh for us. When you have query letters coming at you dozens a day, every idea has been seen 100 times. Working hard to from the very beginning let that agent know how and why your idea is fresh. It could be on the oldest subject in the world but it’s a fresh take on it – that’s what’s going to stand out.

I’ve got to understand from the beginning what’s going to make people want to read this book when there are already a lot of other books on your topic, whatever it is.

Tim Knox: Right, so when you get that query letter there needs to be something that really excites you as an agent and makes you want to talk further with this author about potentially taking their work to market.

Rachelle Gardner: Exactly. That’s the point of the query. Make the agent want to hear more.

Tim Knox: Because at the end of the day you’re going to have to go sell this work. You’re going to have to sell this to those publishers, which is no easy task in itself. As an agent you have to be excited about the work but you also have to have full confidence in the person that you’re bringing on as a client.

Rachelle Gardner: Absolutely. Remember, you have to sell it to the agent and the agent has to sell it to the publisher but the publisher has to also sell it to the public. So from the very beginning you’ve got to be using language that will make every single person down the line go, oh wow yeah, that would be a good book. It can’t seem a run of the mill, oh just another book on marriage. From the very beginning you’ve got to be asking yourself, if someone’s shopping in the bookstore or on Amazon and there are a hundred books there on marriage, what’s going to be the one that makes them choose yours over someone else’s? Just remember it’s not just you selling to the agent but it’s all the way down the line to the reader of your book.

Tim Knox: That is such a good point. I’m an old entrepreneur. When I’m not doing this I’m actually a business person. I teach business classes. One of the things we always teach is your product must be different. You must have some kind of competitive advantage that the public is going to latch onto and become your fan base. Really what you’re saying is it’s the same thing with authors and books.

Rachelle Gardner: Absolutely. You really do have to have something that’s going to make people want your product, so to speak, over someone else’s. With novels, with fiction it’s a little bit different than with nonfiction. People will buy many, many novels in the same genre and read them. Still, even if they’re going to buy many novels, there are many more available than what they can read so there still has to be something that draws them to yours as opposed to someone else’s.

Tim Knox: Do you think there’s a point where authors get to… let’s say they are bestsellers, have built a huge fan base and really their name on a book sells more than the book itself, do you know what I mean?

Rachelle Gardner: Absolutely. That is absolutely the truth and for some authors they may build that kind of a following from their first book if their first book happens to hit a nerve. There’s a lot of serendipity that goes into that but there are some books from the first book people want more from that author. Certainly authors who are already bestsellers and have many books, lots of people will always just be looking for anything with that author’s name on it and they’ll buy it.

Tim Knox: The trick is getting to that point.

Rachelle Gardner: Exactly.

Tim Knox: So we talked a little about the query letter. Let’s talk now about the synopsis of the book. As a writer it’s always been difficult for me to boil my book down to one or two pages in a synopsis. Maybe I like the sound of my own voice too much. What’s your best advice there? What are you looking for?

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Rachelle Gardner: Well are you talking about fiction?

Tim Knox: Yeah, fiction.

Rachelle Gardner: Yeah, it is very difficult to write a synopsis for a novel that is actually readable. A synopsis pretty much by definition is a boring kind of writing. I think what you have to do is once you’re done with your book you have to approach the process of writing your hook and your tag line and writing your synopsis as a whole other job. Don’t think, okay now I just have to write the synopsis and I’m done. No, this is a whole other job that I need to pay attention to because it’s not easy.

We read a lot of synopses of books. As much as we want to read them because we need to know the whole story, it’s kind of hard to read them without falling asleep because it’s very difficult to do. If you’re able to write a synopsis that kind of stays interesting and keeps the person reading through to the end, you’re already way ahead of the pack.

What I recommend in your synopsis is a couple of things. First, you’re probably only going to be able to write about the main plot thread. You may have two or three or four subplots going and there may be a lot of complex happenings in your book but you’re going to only be able to possibly, gently allude to those other plot threads. You’re going to mostly have to talk about your main plot thread and your two to three main characters, maybe four.

The secret is not to get too complex. When I’m reading a synopsis, if I get confused I tune out and then I’m done. I really need to be following the main plot thread and just get hints of what’s going on in your other plot threads.

A synopsis, I assume you’re talking about the complete one that tells the whole story of the whole book because that’s a different process than writing let’s say back cover copy or just a brief overview. You do need to tell the whole book, the whole story from beginning to end probably in about two pages single spaced.

What you want to do is just hit the high points and then after you’ve sort of written it out and you then read over it and think to yourself, “This is pretty dry and boring,” then you have to use your creativity and go through it paragraph by paragraph and just ask yourself if there’s any way to liven up the language. By definition it’s going to be kind of flat language because it’s removed. It’s not the story. You’re talking about the story.

Keep it from getting too complex because the over complexity confuses the reader and then they tune out and they don’t want to read it anymore. If you have an agent or editor or someone who doesn’t want to read anymore, that’s not good for you.

Tim Knox: If you have lulled your potential agent to sleep, it’s not good. As an agent you know they’re going to be dry. Are you trying to imagine them in a much more lively light?

Rachelle Gardner: Absolutely but the other thing to know is probably nobody’s going to make a buying decision based on your synopsis. If I’m reading the synopsis it’s because I’m already really interested in your book and now I just want the nuts and bolts of how this story goes from beginning to end.

Typically what an agent or an editor in a publishing house is going to do is they’re going to read your hook or your tagline and then your brief copy that’s sort of like back cover copy and then go straight to your first chapters. With fiction that’s what it’s all about. If I read the first couple of pages and I want to keep reading then I’ll keep reading. If I don’t then you’re done.

So if I have a proposal in front of me and it has a small amount of copy that’s like back cover copy and I’m really interested in it then I’ll read that. Then even if there’s a synopsis there I’ll skip it. I won’t even read it and I’ll go straight to chapter one. Later in the process if I’m really interested in this book – now let’s say I’ve read your first three chapters and I go, wow, I really like this, I like how it starts. Now I want to know how the rest of the story goes so now I’m going to go back and read your synopsis.

I’m not making my buying decision or my representation decision based on that synopsis. It’s going to be based on your writing first and then the synopsis is just going to tell me do you know how to draw this story out to the end and keep it interesting until the end?

Tim Knox: Have you ever gotten a submission that you really liked but you didn’t take it on because you didn’t think it would sell?

Rachelle Gardner: Oh I think everybody has that, even in publishing houses or in fact especially in publishing houses. One of the things that happens to us all the time is the editor just loves something but then once they take it to their pub committee where the sales and marketing people and the CFO and everyone is involved in making those decisions, they can’t sell it and they’re heartbroken.

A lot of times that happens in publishing companies and it will happen for me when I think, wow, I really love this. This is something I would read but I don’t know of any publishers that are looking for this right now and I just don’t think I’d be able to sell it so I can’t take it on.

Tim Knox: You just said something there. You don’t know a publisher who is looking for something like this right now. So really what it comes down to is whether or not you like it or not, there has to be a publisher who is doing this kind of story.

Rachelle Gardner: Yes and that’s one of the reasons why we need to stay very close with our set of publishers that we work for, for whatever genre that we specialize in. Knowing those things and being in regular conversations with the editors is what helps us to understand who’s looking for what. It doesn’t have to be super, super specific but we have to at least have an idea.

A lot of times publishers will be telling us don’t even bring us any of that at all. We are not doing any suspense so don’t even show us suspense, or whatever it is they say, and we’re aware of those things. We can’t take something on if we honestly can’t think of any publishers who are likely to be interested in that.

Tim Knox: How do you tell that to the author?

Rachelle Gardner: We just say that. I mean if you had sent a query and that was my response, like I really did like what you wrote but I wasn’t able to take it on, the response to you might be just a standard query rejection or I might add in a couple sentences saying, “I really liked what you wrote, unfortunately it’s not something I feel I would be successful selling right now.”

Tim Knox: Let’s talk a little about that rejection word. It’s such an ugly word. I reject you. Really, while you are rejecting someone you really have made a decision made on the salability of the product in the market. For us authors out there who get these rejection letters every now and then – it’s not personal, it’s business. Is that the best way to take it?

Rachelle Gardner: Yes it’s true and yet I do understand it’s personal. When you’re a writer and putting yourself out there it feels personal and get that. Understand from the agent’s perspective and the publisher’s perspective it absolutely isn’t personal. It is about business. It’s about what they think they can be successful selling. It’s never about ‘this won’t sell’. It’s always about I, as an agent or the publishing house, don’t think I know how to be successful with this.

I f you understand that it’s not a personal rejection of you and it’s also not a global statement on whether you project is saleable; it’s only a statement about that person that you sent it to.

Tim Knox: And a lot of times it all has to do with fit. Does this fit what the agent does, that particular agent?

Rachelle Gardner: Absolutely. It also has to do, besides the fit with that particular agent, it also has to do with what else that agent already has on their plate. I am not going to take on a project that would tend to directly compete with another client that I already have.

Like I said, there are some genres like historical romance, for example, that a lot of people can write in and be successful in at the same time. But there are other genres where the category might be a little bit smaller, maybe a nonfiction genre and I’m going to be careful not to take on anybody new that would tend to directly compete with my current client.

Tim Knox: Have you found that there’s a lot of… I hesitate to use the term copycat authors but those authors that whatever’s hot that’s the kind of book they’re going to write and submit. Everyone used to want to be Dan Brown. Now everybody’s writing teenage vampires.

Rachelle Gardner: You know, I know that that’s out there but I don’t really feel that coming at me. I really feel like writers want to write what they want to write. If a category is very interesting to them already, like they are loving reading vampire fiction then it’s natural and it makes sense for them to say, hey, I’m going to write vampire fiction too. It’s not so much just trying to follow the trend but it’s also they love it so they want to do it.

I guess it’s kind of maybe cliché to think of authors trying to follow the market trends but I don’t find it necessarily to be true when you talk to individual authors. In fact it’s much harder to get them to think about the market because they really just want to write what they want to write.

Tim Knox: You also rep nonfiction, correct?

Rachelle Gardner: I do.

Tim Knox: Tell us a little about that process and what you’re looking for there.

Rachelle Gardner: Well in nonfiction it is about coming up with an idea that you have a fresh take on because there’s certainly nothing new. You want to have a topic that you’re passionate about, that you have a fresh take on and with nonfiction, ideally what you want to already have in place before you’re even thinking about writing a book is you already have a platform related to that topic.

Perhaps you’re a very popular blogger, and by very popular I mean you’re getting 100,000 blog views a month at least or maybe you’ve got some kind of a speaking platform where you’re going out and speaking to large audiences on a regular basis. You’re already kind of a go-to person on your topic. People already kind of know you for that topic. You want to have already a platform built rather than go, “Here’s my book idea and now I’m going to try and build a platform around it.”

Tim Knox: When they submit a book proposal to you, it needs to be based on that platform. There needs to be a specific message. I wrote a business book years ago and one of the things is you have to have a hook, especially when you’re writing a business book. When they submit that proposal to you do you prefer them to have the book already written or will you just accept the proposal and think about taking them on?

Rachelle Gardner: Well it’s typical, the way that things have been done in nonfiction for a long time is that you can have a book proposal and let’s say three sample chapters and you can sell the book based on that. Once you’re contracted you can finish writing the book but that book proposal is so important.

It’s a business plan and that is serious business right there. It’s got to have a chapter by chapter outline clearly communicating what’s going to be in every chapter of that book. It’s going to have a lot of author information and salesy information to help an agent and then a publisher understand where it fits into the marketplace, what are all the books that are already out there, what are the books that are going to be competing with it and what’s the kind of language that’s going to be used to sell it to the consumer. How is it going to stand out?

So you’ve got a book proposal that is a full business plan and sales tool and it is very, very important in selling that nonfiction book.

Tim Knox: Right. As an agent who represents fiction and nonfiction, is your process the same for both of those? When you get a work in do you know right away which publisher you want to approach?

Rachelle Gardner: I typically do and it’s always going to be I know which publishers – there need to be several; I can’t take on a book that I only think there’s one publisher who would be interested in it. Yes, I do know which publishers I’m going to go to and sometimes I’ll get an idea and I’ll think, oh so and so! This editor! They’re going to love this.

The process is very similar for fiction and nonfiction. It’s still looking at the proposals, looking at the actual manuscript or whatever of it is written and then figuring out which publishers might be interested.

Tim Knox: From the author’s side of the fence, what are reasonable expectations for that author? If you sign an author this week, what am I expecting?

Rachelle Gardner: Well the best thing to do is ask because if an agent is signing you then they’ve already spent some time with your material and they’ve already got an idea of how much time this is going to take. I have had some book proposals that were pretty much ready to go and just needed a very small amount of editing on my part, maybe some brainstorming on a new title and maybe we needed to beef up the author marketing section or something. It’s going to be ready to shop to publishers in a very short amount of time and so I will be talking with them about that process and let them know that when I sign them.

But I have had others, particularly in fiction, where I’ll say here’s the deal if you’re going to sign with me. I have a lot of notes for you on this book and I imagine it might take you six months to do your revisions and then I’ll look at it again. I’m signing you because I see the potential and I think with these changes this book can be amazing but it’s going to take you some time and hard work. I’ll typically tell them that before we sign so that they know what to expect.

So it could be a wide variety of processes that could take place. I had one author that I worked with her on the book for two years before we shopped it but once we did, I sent it out and I had several publishers read the entire manuscript. The whole book was written. They read it beginning to end over the weekend and called me back on Monday wanting to make me an offer. We had worked so hard on it for two years and it was completely worth it because we made it into the book that I knew would sell.

Tim Knox: Do you find that most authors are receptive to your feedback when you tell them, okay, we need to do this, this and this – especially a two year edit?

Rachelle Gardner: Well we usually don’t know it’s going to be a two year edit, which is a good thing, because it would be hard for all of us to take if we knew it was going to take that long. The other thing is that just widely varies.

Everyone’s different and some people are a little bit more impatient than others and think oh gosh, I’ve already been working on this so long and now you’re telling me it’s going to take this much longer. Other people, even though it might be a little bit difficult to swallow, they also think well this person has some knowledge and some expertise and can possibly make me make my book better and help me be a better writer so why not? It’s not going to cost me anything. They’re receptive to that.

Tim Knox: As an agent how do you deal with those authors who are not realistic in their expectations?

Rachelle Gardner: Well typically I’ll try not to take them on to begin with. Unrealistic expectations always crop up along the way. There’s nothing we can do about it. But I find it very hard for me to deal with because I’m living in reality every day. I don’t control how things work but I do know how things work so a lot of my job is communicating that, communicating reality. I’m often the recipient of a shoot the messenger kind of attitude, as if this is all my fault that the publishing industry is this way.

The way that I deal with unrealistic expectations with someone who is already my client is I have a lot of gentle but very honest conversations with people. There’s nothing else you can do. As you can imagine, the way things have been changing in publishing the past few years, I have to have a lot of those conversations.

I do have to say, yes, a lot of this book marketing is on you. That’s not just the way of publishing, that’s the way of the world now so let’s work on how you’re going to do that. We don’t have time to sit around being angry and upset that that’s the way it is. We just have to do it. It can be difficult and we just have to deal with it day to day.

Tim Knox: One thing I keep hearing on this show – I’ve probably interviewed close to 100 authors now and especially from those that are doing the self-publishing route but even those that aren’t, you really have to be entrepreneurial in your approach to your career as an author now. There is the marketing and all the stuff.

The good old days where you get an agent on your first letter and they get a big old contract for you and you just sit back and cash checks and write – those days are gone. You have to really be proactive in your own career, don’t you?

Rachelle Gardner: You absolutely do. I don’t have time to go all into it right now but those good old days actually didn’t really exist for many people. In any case, those days are gone and people have to understand that it’s not the publisher’s fault, it’s not even unique to publishing. This is the way our world is changing.

Imagine being an advertising agency that’s been in business since the 1930s or 1940s. Imagine how things have changed for you. People who advertise, all big companies everywhere have had to change the way they figure out how to reach their market, how to reach the consumers who need to buy their product. Publishers and authors are no different.

The thing that is different is the fact that now you are expected to do a lot more but the thing is 10 years ago and all the time before that, the tools didn’t even exist. Now the tools exist for every single author to market themselves fabulously, to find their own audience, to figure out where that audience is hanging out online, put together a marketing strategy to reach that audience, to build a following.

You never had that before. Yes, it’s a lot of work. Yes, it’s very entrepreneurial. But the tools exist to do it if you’re willing to do it.

Tim Knox: One thing I’ve noticed is the ones that do seem to be having trouble are those authors who did have that setup for years and years, some of the folks that have been around forever. I’m not going to mention names but I had one author tell me, “This is a whole new world for me,” and he had probably sold 3 or 4 million books.

It really is a new age and I think there are a lot of opportunities available to the author but you do have to understand that you’re going to have to get up and go do that, whether you have an agent or publisher or not.

Rachelle Gardner: Right. I mean if you’re a top tier 1% type of author then you’re not going to have any trouble. You can still keep doing what you’re doing. If you’ve been publishing for many years but you’ve always been a midlist author, if you do not get out there and start doing the social media and doing what you need to keep up your end of the bargain, your publisher is going to drop you.

The thing is, traditional publishers are not brands. By and large consumers don’t care who published the books that they want to read. Authors are brands and as an author you have to own that. I am my brand so what am I going to do to put my brand out there in front of people?

Tim Knox: Very good. Now where are you located?

Rachelle Gardner: I’m in Colorado.

Tim Knox: Do you find that the location of an agent matters at all?

Rachelle Gardner: I don’t. That’s one of the great things about publishing these days. You can work almost anywhere and I happen to live in an area that’s very surprisingly full of writers and publishing people and there are actually a lot of agents in Colorado. It’s a pretty good writing and publishing community here. I don’t know if it’s just the mountain air or what.

I do travel to meet with publishers and I go to conferences and I do that several times a year. Other than that I’m actually able to meet with a lot of people here in Colorado fairly frequently. Then of course there’s Skype and everything like that. It’s wonderful. I really like being able to live exactly where I want to live.

Tim Knox: Are you looking for new clients now? Are you looking for a specific genre? What are you doing?

Rachelle Gardner: As far as what I’m looking for, I’m not real heavy on looking for a bunch of new authors right now. I am looking for really powerful memoirs. I’d say that’s probably the number one thing I’m looking for – stories of transformation and amazing things happening in peoples’ lives and of course to be able to sell something like that these days you do kind of have to have a media hook to your story. If you think about what’s a media hook, you think about your story and you think would Good Morning America be interested in having you on because of something that happened in your story? Is it the kind of thing that traditional media outlets would pick up on and go, oh wow, this is so interesting, we’ve got to have that author on.

I am just a really big fan of powerful memoirs. That’s probably the main thing I’m looking for right now.

Tim Knox: Very good and how can folks get in touch with you or send you a query letter, read your blog? What’s your website?

Rachelle Gardner: I’m at RachelleGardner.com and you can pretty much get to everything from there. I have links to my submission guidelines and links to our agency website, which is BooksAndSuch.com. All the information is there. There are a variety of ways to reach me. All my Twitter and Facebook and everything is listed on there. I’m pretty easy to find.

I really enjoyed talking with you. I’m so glad I got the opportunity and I think the main thing I want to say is even though it’s a different world in publishing than it used to be, it’s such a great time to be a writer because there are so many opportunities, whether in traditional publishing or self-publishing. There are so many opportunities to reach your audience through digital media and it’s a really exciting time. People are reading, reading, reading as much as they ever were. Don’t despair. You’ll find your path.

Tim Knox: Rachelle Gardner, I appreciate you not rejecting my request to interview you.

Rachelle Gardner: I would never do that, Tim.

Tim Knox: Have a great day.

Rachelle Gardner: You too. Thanks a lot.

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One Thought on “Rachelle Gardner: An Insider’s Advice On When and How To Sign With A Literary Agent

  1. dan5747 on November 21, 2014 at 5:26 pm said:

    Tim – love Rachelle and loved this interview. I like the fresh perspective from a competent agent – another piece in the publishing arena.

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