BEANERY ONLINE LITERARY MAGAZINE
DR. UWE STENDER PRESENTATION ON LITERARY AGENTS
On February 12, 2009, literary agent Dr. Uwe Stender spoke at a one-day workshop sponsored by the PennWriters: Pittsburgh East Writers. Dr. Uwe Stender is a Full Member of the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives) and founder of the TriadaUS Literary Agency, Inc., in Pittsburgh, PA. To read a review of his presentation, click on Review of Literary Agent Dr. Uwe Stender’s Workshop. Below is a report on his presentation.
(To view photo of Beanery Writers Group members Sal and Chuck, discussing their work with Dr. Stender, click: http://www.flickr.com/photos/beaneryonlineliterarymagazine/3298270971/ )
Between November and February, Dr. Stender sold two books—an accomplishment that isn’t good “but not terrible,” he said. “A sale a month is good,” he noted, adding that there were about twenty other deals he could have made two years ago. However, the market is changing.
“These were about twenty nonfiction works with strong platforms, by multiple published authors. Publishers won’t buy them because they are cutting back on midlist books.” They are in trouble, Dr. Stender believes, and can’t purchase books because
because the economy is a mess and because of the decisions they have made over the years.
Up until eight years, the publishing industry was strong, due to the best-list titles (books selling over ten thousand copies a year). The publishing industry moved toward purchasing best sellers, and spent high dollars on certain books that would sell many copies, rather than mid-list books. The example Dr. Stender gave was books about Scott Peters. The problem was that these books sold quickly, but did not sell well over the long term.
Dr. Stender believes that the mid-size book list publishers are doing better now, since there is less investment and there are better long-term sales. Furthermore, he believes that the economy will get better in some point, and that “there is an opportunity in disaster to make better decisions.”
Another reason Dr. Stender believes the large publishing houses are having problems is that companies that used to compete against each other have combined. Because of this, the model of book publishing has changed.
“Lots of people are being laid off,” Dr. Stender noted. “Lots of editors.”
He also noted that Walmart is, in a sense, killing the publishing industry. First, Walmart will not purchase thrillers unless they are written by big-name authors. Second,
Walmart does not purchase multiple-genre books, eg. those mixing sports and true crime. They want to know where to shelve the book, so it needs to be a single genre.
And Amazon is putting the candle out due to an audio book situation.
What does all this mean to the agent? Dr. Stender looks for strong nonfiction books, or clever unique projects having a “platform.” Still, the odds of the tough market in fiction is stacked against him. “If I can sell three to four fictions a year…,” he noted.
He explained that a “strong platform” could be a topic about a national television personality or a local one with a national topic, having a nationally recognized person endorse the book, having the author on the Today Show (or even Oprah), or even having a speaking schedule where you sell your books. Publishers like college professors, say from Harvard, Yale, or Stamford.
Some genres, like the self-help category, have no chance of being published without the author having been previously published, no matter what the author does. And chick lit just doesn’t cut it in today’s market. Genres that are increasingly difficult to sell include the thriller, terrorism themes, and mysteries—however, a really cozy cozy mystery might make it, if there is an obscure hobby appealing to the over-forty woman with a female as the main character.
“Short of that, some nonfiction can slide through—or a compelling memoir that is true.”
Some genres have better success, he believes. Clever young adult fiction, well-written with a hook, is what young kids today will read. There is interest in women’s lit (there is a fine line between this and chick lit, which cannot be defined…) which is more serious and has depth (and is difficult to write).
Dr. Stender said he could tell “right away” what a publisher will buy. “I read two pages. If I don’t like it I put it down. You have to hook reader in first five pages, up to page twenty. I have to have faith if what is waiting for me makes it worth reading the first pages. The writing then must grab you.”
The fiction writer needs to present Dr. Stender with the “perfect book. It has to get my attention. Then I read it. If I sign you, you have to rework it as many times as necessary, because for me, as an agent…I can’t sell books that are good or great. I need super books. These are the only ones publishers will buy.”
Writers should not write for the current market, because it will change in the lengthy time (a year and a half, for example) between the time you are signed by an agent and the book is ready for market. During that time, the work will be being rewritten—and rewritten—and rewritten—and will be sent out to publishers. Dr. Stender recommended that writers write what they want to write, rather than writing to the current trend.
In today’s publishing world, “For the writer, it is more difficult than ever before to get an agent,” Dr. Stender said. However, writers need an agent because you have no chance to get publisher without an agent (although some writers do: Harlequin and Dorchester and Kensington might offer you a deal).” The agent’s 15% commission is worth it—there are things in a contract that the agent will catch. Even if you have found your own publisher, Dr. Stender will sign you for 15%, because, he said, he can open doors to getting you a better (long term) contract.
Finding an agent can be difficult. “You have to have the connections, eg from a conference, so you take a leap of faith, talk to them directly. Don’t take information from Internet.” He warned about “scam guys,” who say “give me $500 or more, and I will send your book out.” All they are required to do is send it to one publisher to fulfill the contract. Dr Stender emphasized that a writer should NOT pay anyone for publishing their book.
He gets 42,000 queries a year, and still believes in “unsolicited material. It’s the way I started my business. To start, I had to take unsolicited material. If they are good writers,
I might sign five to twenty a year.” What turns him off in queries are spelling mistakes—“Four to five will lose me,” he said. He is also turned off by outrageous statements such as, “I am the greatest writer in the world.” He dislikes query letters telling him too much about the book—he wants to hear something that will grab him. He also dislikes query letters that are too long, that sound awkward, that don’t get to the point, that tell all you did in your life. He suggests you write one paragraph about it, and something “relevant” about your work on it (eg. that you sold previous books or had two hundred speaking engagements).
“I’m looking to find the golden diamond in the rough, something I can sell,” he said, “but due to the volume of queries I get I am looking for something I can reject.”
Currently, he is looking for literary fiction.
(Dr. Stender’s remarks on rejections, self-published books and how to prepare your book to market it to an agent will be duly noted in future posts on those subjects.)
ADDITIONAL READING on writing: