When I queried literary agents, I figured my first choice agent was probably out of reach. Imagine my surprise when the fabulous Courtney Miller-Callihan from Greenburger Associates called back with a “Yes!”
Courtney is just as fun and savvy as everyone says she is. I’m so glad she’s here today to talk about the inside scoop on publishing, how to dazzle an agent, and the zombie apocalypse…
Moriah Densley: Welcome, Courtney! First off, I noticed your website mentions that among other genres, you’re interested in nonfiction projects on “unusual topics.” Get many of those in your inbox? Would you be interested in, say, an instruction manual for zombie eradication? (See? I told you this was about zombies.)
Courtney Miller-Callihan: Thanks for having me! I get some fantastic nonfiction projects from time to time, and while fiction makes up the bulk of my list these days, I still love working on nonfiction, because the rules are so much more straightforward: does this idea make sense as a book, is there an audience for the book, is the author the right person to write the book? As far as zombie eradication, this is an important topic for sure, but I think the field’s a bit crowded, with none other than Max Brooks himself having written what might be the definitive book.
MD: Tell us a bit about yourself – where you’re from, how long you’ve been in the business, your background in publishing, and maybe something surprising most people don’t know about you:
CMC: I was born and raised in Southern California, and moved to New York in the “early aughts” to work in publishing after finishing my master’s degree (English literature, if you’re wondering) at The Johns Hopkins University.
My first publishing job was in the contracts department at Random House, which was a fantastic education for an agent. I did that for a year, then moved over to subrights, still at Random House, where I sold audio rights, magazine rights, book club rights, and large print rights. That, too, was a great education, because a subrights department (which also handles foreign rights and film rights deals) operates a lot like an in-house literary agency, so it gave me a lot of experience negotiating deals. I also attended editorial and acquisitions meetings, marketing meetings, sales/launch meetings, and more, which gave me some great and hands-on experience watching the stages of the publishing process at a major publisher.
I started at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates in 2005, first as an assistant to the wonderful Faith Hamlin, who specializes mostly in nonfiction, mystery novels, and children’s books. I sold my first book in 2007 and started representing romance in 2011, the same year I moved back to Southern California. I go to New York for meetings, conferences, and general schmoozing purposes at least a couple of times a year, but I love being back on the West Coast.
Something about me most people don’t know: hmm. I’m very crafty; my two biggest hobbies (except for reading, of course!) are knitting and quilting. I’m a bit of a sucker for a story that incorporates some element of “women’s work” in this way. Pamela Schoenewaldt’s debut novel, When We Were Strangers, uses a needlework metaphor throughout to tell the story of its seamstress heroine.
MD: We keep hearing chick-lit and vampire books are difficult to sell, and New Adult is the hot item. Do you think that’s true? What do you see trending on the market right now? And what’s not selling?
CMC: Market trends change so fast that I’m always hesitant to say too much in this format (remember, kids, the internet is forever!), but it’s true that the romance editors are probably most enthusiastic about New Adult right now, since it’s a relatively new category and everyone’s hoping to find the Next Big Thing. There’s a sense that sales in paranormal romance (especially vampire and werewolf books) are on a downward trend, and historical romance, especially Regency, has gotten harder to sell in the past year, too.
That being said, after almost a decade of being nearly-dormant, romantic suspense seems to be making a pretty vibrant comeback, especially with the e-first imprints like Avon Impulse and Carina Press. A lot of these sales trends are very cyclical. Believe it or not, three years ago, it was pretty tough to sell contemporary romance. Two years ago, it was pretty tough to sell erotica and erotic romance. It’s a mistake for writers, agents, and editors to give up on any of these categories, but if you’re having trouble finding an audience for your work, it might be worth experimenting with a new subgenre that’s experiencing stronger sales.
MD: What kinds of submissions would you like to see more of?
CMC: I’m always looking for historical fiction, women’s fiction, and romance, all with a great voice and a great hook. I’d love to add more unpublished New Adult and romantic suspense to my roster, but I’m open to any romance subgenre if the writing is really strong.
MD: I think authors love tips on how to approach an agent. Please share some advice on what makes a good impression on you, and what makes you stop reading.
CMC: Professionalism is critical. The query letter is your first chance to make an impression, and while I think writing queries and writing manuscripts are two different, maybe unrelated, skills, the ability to pitch your work in a compelling way is really important.
Authors are expected to do a lot these days to market their books, whether they partner with a publisher or self-publish their work, and to market a novel effectively, you have to be able to distill its “hook,” to tell people what’s great about it very, very quickly. (I’ve found Twitter, with its super-short character limit, is great for teaching this skill, if you put in the time to practice.)
Your job in the query letter is to tell me what’s great about your book—to convince me to read it. There are a lot of common mistakes, and a lot of other places you can read about those mistakes, but here are three, just for fun.
1. Making too-grandiose claims about the work. “Guaranteed bestseller” is a remarkably common phrase in queries—but no one, not even authors who are already household names, can make such a guarantee!
2. Saying that the manuscript would make a great movie. I want you to tell me it’ll make a great book.
3. In the manuscript itself (I like writers to query with the first three chapters and a synopsis), the mistake I’m seeing most frequently right now is a story that starts too soon, sometimes a chapter or more before the real action of the novel is underway. Make sure your manuscript starts when the story does.
MD: Thank you so much for visiting today, Courtney. Before you go, will you tell authors how to submit to your agency?
CMC: I open and read all my own queries, and would love to hear from you. My submissions guidelines are on my website.