#57: Behind the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with literary agent Noah Ballard by Maria Gagliano
August 13, 2014
Only three weeks left until the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference hits downtown Brooklyn. As we confirm final details with our panelists, we can’t help pull a few of these guys aside for an early conversation about their work with debut authors. Today we riffed with Noah Ballard, who recently set up shop at Curtis Brown after several years working with Emma Sweeney. Noah will be on our Pitching an Agent: The Maddening Art of Writing a Query Letter panel on September 7. The weekend’s complete panel schedule can be found here.
How many queries do you typically receive in a week? And how often do you ask people to send more material after you’ve read their pitch?
When I was working with Emma Sweeney, we typically received anywhere from 100-500 queries per month. Maybe more. Typically, we’d only request five or so per week, if that many. Now that I’m building my own list at Curtis Brown, I’ve been more proactive about reaching out to writers directly instead of waiting on submissions. But, I still receive 30-40 submissions per week, and I request two or three.
When receiving a query, how much do you care about whether the person has been published in literary magazines, has an MFA, or has some other sort of platform or ‘street cred’?
For fiction, it’s really great to see credits–whether they are short stories, reviews, etc.–in some top tier magazines. An MFA is nice, too. It shows that the author cares about the craft and took the time to really hone their process in a controlled environment. But, just like there are a million magazines and websites out there to publish a writer’s work, there are also now a million MFA programs. Just as getting a short story published doesn’t guarantee a sale of a collection, an MFA doesn’t guarantee a book deal, either. At the end of the day, both are really about establishing a writer’s community. The best queries I get are referrals from clients, professors at programs where I’ve done presentations, editors, and friends. It’s so important to have great contacts, and those relationships are built by getting involved with magazines, MFA programs, reading series, etc.
In terms of non-fiction, agents and editors are always trying to build a writer’s platform. The two essential components for non-fiction are the hook and the platform: the hook is what makes the book interesting, the platform is the argument that this writer is the best person to tell this story. The platform is a mixture of ethos and showing–often through other publications or social media presence (sigh)–that the writer is renowned in whatever field or topic they are writing about.
But, that all said, if the book is just really, really good, all of that can be worked on later.
Where do you typically look for debut authors? Do most of your clients come from blind queries to your inbox, or through some other avenue?
I have been really active on the conference/MFA/graduate program circuit as well as attending as many readings as I can. I like talking with people face-to-face. Yes, it’s difficult to know whether or not they can write from a conversation, but it’s always important to know that these writers are out there in the community and they are actively participating in a larger conversation–fiction or non-fiction. Writing must be done in solitude, but publishing is a business based on relationships, conversations, and shared ideas. It’s always a good sign when a potential client is excited about that facet of their career, too. I would have to guess that 75% of my clients are people I’ve met first–the other 25 being from unsolicited manuscripts.
What are some critical elements of a query letter that you often find writers get wrong?
One of my biggest pet peeves is writers who don’t know that their work is part of a conversation. I sat down with a writer at a conference some weeks ago, and he pitched me an epic war novel–the Great American War Novel of the 21st century. So I asked him, “Oh, are you reading Kevin Powers, David Abrams, Ben Fountain, Brian Castner?” And he looked at me and said, “I honestly haven’t read a war novel since The Naked and the Dead.” Be real, guy!
Writers need to be reading. I understand that a lot of writers don’t like to be influenced while they’re on contract by reading other fiction, but you have to know with whom your work is communicating.
Another terrible mistake is to compare a writer’s work to completely unrelated authors. I had a recent query letter that described a short story collection as “continuing the literary tradition of Nicholas Sparks and George Saunders.” Mr. Sparks knows his market, his readership, and the compelling nature of the erstwhile romance, but he’s not a comparable author to George Saunders. Clearly, they just thought, “This is literary, but oh, there’s a love story in here. Who’s a bestselling author who deals with love?” As a writer, you have to punch your weight and figure out–at least generally–where you sit on the shelf. Your agent will do the fine tuning, but never compare the same book to Sparks and Saunders.
If your dream manuscript were to hit your inbox today, what would it be?
Something mean, muscular, edgy, funny, irreverent, controversial and loud. Or maybe a cookbook. Tough to say day to day.
Noah Ballard is an agent at Curtis Brown. He received his BA in English from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He is interested in honest and provocative new writers of both fiction and nonfiction. Noah has appeared across the country speaking at MFA programs and writing conferences where he has spoken about query letters, building nonfiction platforms, and submission etiquette. His clients include Justin Taylor, Tom O’Donnell, Mark Wisniewski, Nicholas Seeley, Josh Gondelman, among others.
Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, baker, and Business Director of Slice. Her writing has appeared in BUST magazine, the Huffington Post, and Salon, among other publications. You can find her on Twitter and at mariagagliano.com.