Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Agent Interview: Anna Olswanger of Liza Dawson Associates

Anna Olswanger wears a number of hats in the book world. In addition to being a literary agent with Liza Dawson Associates in Manhattan, she is the author of Shlemiel Crooks, illustrated by Paula Goodman Koz (Junebug, 2005), a 2006 Sydney Taylor Honor Book and a 2005-2006 Koret International Jewish Book Award Finalist, and is the coordinator of the Jewish Children's Book Writers' Conference each fall at the 92nd Street Y in New York. A frequent traveler on Amtrak, she teaches business writing at the Center for Training and Education at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and writing for physicians at Stony Brook University School of Medicine and Hospital. Anna lives in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. Her website is www.olswanger.com.

What inspired you to become a literary agent?

I've always enjoyed the business behind books. When I moved to the New York area, I thought I would like to enter book publishing or start a small press. I enrolled in the Certificate in Book Publishing program at New York University, and took a course with a literary agent. I hadn't thought about being a literary agent, but I enjoyed the course and subsequently interned with the instructor. When that internship ended, I interned with Liza Dawson, who offered to bring me into her agency.

How long have you been agenting?

A little over a year.

Would you describe yourself as an "editorial agent"--one who comments on manuscripts or one who concentrates more exclusively on publishing issues? Why?

This will change, but right now I'm both. As an editorial agent, I work with authors to revise their manuscripts because I want to have a reputation as sending out only the best work. I also concentrate on publishing issues because I like the business behind publishing--finding out which houses are trying new things and then submitting manuscripts to them. As I gain more clients, the publishing issues will take precedence.

Why should unagented writers/authors consider working with an agent?

Some authors don't need an agent. They may enjoy submitting their manuscripts and getting to know editors; they may also enjoy negotiating their own contracts. Some advantages of working with an agent are that the writer knows the editor will read her submission, she doesn't have to talk money with her editor, and she has access to people in the book world, such as foreign rights agents, that she wouldn't have access to on her own.

What questions should a writer have answered before signing with an agent?

Make sure you know what percentage the agent receives (15% domestic and 20% foreign are standard). If the agent charges for other services, such as photocopying or foreign postage, make sure you're comfortable with these charges.

Are you accepting unsolicited submissions?

I accept email queries at anna@olswanger.com and will respond with my submission guidelines, which will probably change over time. In general, I will look at anything because I'm not convinced that queries do justice to manuscripts. I will almost always ask to see the first five pages, the author's bio in a paragraph, a book synopsis in a paragraph, email address for my response, and a SASE with 2 oz. postage if the author wants those five pages returned.

In terms of markets (children's, adult, fiction, nonfiction, genres), what sorts of manuscripts appeal to you?

In all markets I want a strong voice, a strong narrative arc, and writing that reveals an author's intelligence. Obviously, whether any of that is apparent is my opinion only, so writers should never take a rejection to heart. I'm especially looking for historical fiction, mysteries with an element of fantasy, and text/art packages, whether for children or adults.

What makes a submission stand out? What are you looking for in terms of the cover letter? The writing itself? What, if any, prior writing experience is likely to intrigue you (MFA in writing, prior book publications, prior magazine publications, etc.)? Should authors send previously published books?

Frankly, I'm not much interested in an author's credentials or marketing ideas. I just want a piece of writing that feels individualistic and tells a good story. Authors don't need to send me previously published books. I'm not the kind of agent who is interested in signing up an author who looks good on television. I want an author I admire for her creativity and skill, and whose work I want to spend many hours with.

How many writers have you signed since starting off, and how many manuscripts do you receive each month?

I currently have ten clients, and I'm receiving about 100 manuscripts a month.

How much contact do you have with your clients? Just business emails? Regular phone dates? Retreats? What kind of relationships do you look to build and why?

I prefer email contact because that is fast and efficient. I don't like spending a lot of time talking on the phone because that begins to interfere with my ability to get work done on behalf of my clients. I want a relationship where we both respect each other and work hard for each other. An author has to trust that even when she or he doesn't hear from me, I am doing what I can to sell the work.

What are your feelings on writers marketing to more than one audience, i.e., children's and YA or YA and adult?

Writers need to write whatever books they have inside of them, regardless of the market, although I have to say that it's hard to work for an author who only writes picture book texts and is prolific. It's not a wise career move for either of us to be sending out that author's picture book texts constantly and to different editors. It makes the author look as though she can't be happy with a house (or the house with her), and realistically, neither publishing houses nor the reading public can appreciate more than one book a year from an author.

Cynsational Note

Learn more about children's and YA literary agents on my website.

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