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Interview

#SLWC17: Meet the Speakers – An Interview with Folio Literary Management Agent Jeff Kleinman

by Maria Gagliano

The 7th annual Slice Literary Writers’ Conference in downtown Brooklyn is four months away, and to kick off the countdown, we’re chatting with some of the agents, editors, authors, and book pros who help make our community such a supportive environment. To start, we spoke with literary agent Jeff Kleinman about how he feels the book world has changed in recent years—and how it’s stayed the same—especially for emerging writers. Jeff will moderate the SLWC panel Welcome to the 2017 Book World on Sunday, September 10. Conference attendees can also sign up to pitch their work to Jeff in person at a one-on-one meeting.

So much has changed in the book industry in the last ten years. How have some of the biggest changes you’ve seen influenced the way emerging authors break into the industry?

JK

For me, the formula is pretty much the same, but the actual mechanism for achieving results has shifted rather dramatically. Here’s the formula – which obviously will vary from project to project, and genre to genre:

[Author] + [Platform] + [Writing Style] + [Premise] = Book Deal.

So let’s break this down.

Author. You still need an author. You hope the author is promotable, well-spoken, interesting, passionate about the subject matter.

Platform. As self-publishing has increased, and as the media universe has gotten increasingly cluttered (with, among other things, amazing TV shows), having readers find the book is growing increasingly difficult. So the more the author has a built-in audience (with an existing email newsletter list, 10,000+ followers on various social media, TV or radio show, etc.), the easier the book will be for readers to discover.

Writing style. For traditional publishing, a distinctive voice seems more and more critical – across all genres of books. (Not sure what voice is? Read a paragraph of Virginia Woolf, and then a paragraph of JD Salinger – and see if you’d ever be able to confuse them. That’s voice.) The more the writing is polished and assured, as well as distinctive and still very readable, the better.

Premise. More and more, people want to be able to sum the book up in a concise and smart way – this seemed more important to Hollywood 10 years ago, but it’s growing increasingly important to publishers, too.

So what’s changed?

Platform has gotten vastly more important. Social media is something that agents certainly gauge, but we’d rather see a dynamic, engaged email following than twitter or Instagram followers. The more the author’s name is known to that target audience, the better. Voice, too, is more important than ever.

Have the ways in which you find new clients/authors changed in recent years?

JK

Not really. Although now I look at podcasts more than blogs to find clients. But I still use pretty traditional methods. I know some of my colleagues really make use of Twitter, but that’s not a social medium I’m comfortable with. I’m too old, I guess, and it’s too overwhelming – I have enough trouble just managing my email inbox!

What are your thoughts on slush? Do writers have much hope in connecting with an agent by sending a blind submission to their inbox? If not, what else can they do?

JK

Slush is tough – that hasn’t changed. I do periodically find projects that way, though – I sold a novel last year at auction to Knopf that a woman sent to me as a standard query. It’s already gone on to sell in 17 other territories, so clearly the slush pile can work!

Apart from that, referrals and conferences are always standard ways of finding agents.

Can you tell us about a debut author you’re particularly excited to launch this year? How did you discover the author?

JK

Just one? Can I do two?

First is GINNY MOON, by Benjamin Ludwig (Park Row Books, May 2017). Found the novel through slush, and worked on it with the author for a couple of years before it sold on exclusive. A heartbreakingly lovely story, told by an autistic girl desperate to get kidnapped by her birth mother. An Indie Next Pick, and B&N Discover New Writers Pick.

Second is THE REMINDERS by Val Emmich (Little Brown, May 2017). Read the author’s earlier novel through slush; he wrote a new one and sent it to me; worked with the author for another year before it sold on a preempt. Here’s what the author says on his webpage:

The Reminders is the story of an unlikely friendship between Gavin, a grief-stricken actor who’s just lost his partner, and Joan, a ten-year-old girl born with the uncanny ability to recall every day of her life in cinematic detail. When Gavin strikes a deal with Joan – help with a songwriting contest in exchange for sharing her memories of his partner, Sydney – the duo are set on a quest that forces Gavin to not only question the purity of his past with Sydney, but the course of his own future. Told in the alternating voices of these two irresistible characters, The Reminders is a hilarious and tender exploration of loss, memory, friendship, and renewal. A Discover New Writers Pick.

What’s your one piece of advice for emerging authors hoping to connect with an agent? Are there any blind spots writers tend to miss that hurt their chances of getting ahead?

JK

Focus on premise and voice. Really come up with a dazzlingly interesting premise, and nurture the premise with a wonderful, fresh, compelling voice that really stands out among the pack.

It really feels like authors don’t pay attention to either of those pieces – the stories feel too familiar, the writing is good but not great. Really find some tough critics to bounce your work off – other writers coming to the Slice Conference, for instance. Listen to their criticism, and if that little voice inside you says, “Ah, cripes, she’s right,” when she gives you feedback, listen to it and make the book really sing.

*****

Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, and co-founder/Business Director of Slice.

Jeff Kleinman is a founding partner of Folio Literary Management. He represents upmarket and literary fiction and narrative nonfiction.  Some of his authors include the New York Times bestsellers The Art of Racing in the Rain, The $80 Champion, Mockingbird, and The Snow Child (Pulitzer Finalist). Among his most anticipated projects in 2017 are Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter, Kathy McKeon’s Jackie’s Girl, and debut novelists Benjamin Ludwig’s Ginny Moon and Val Emmich’s The Reminders.

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