Amy Boggs, Donald Maass Literary Agency
This week’s LitChat interview is with Amy Boggs of Donald Maass Literary Agency. After a summer internship, Amy joined the Donald Maass Literary Agency in 2009 as the assistant to Donald Maass. She was promoted to Contracts Manager in 2010. Together, agents Donald Maass, Jennifer Jackson, Stacia Decker, Cameron McClure, J.L. Stermer and Amy Boggs represent more than 150 novelists and sell more than 100 novels every year to leading publishers in the U.S. and overseas.
Amy is looking for fantasy and science fiction, especially urban fantasy, paranormal romance, steampunk, YA/children’s, and alternate history. Historical fiction, Westerns, and works that challenge their genre are also welcome. She is seeking projects with characters who are diverse in any and all respects, such as (but not limited to) gender, race, ethnicity, disability, and sexuality. She is not looking for thrillers, women’s fiction, or picture books.
Email Amy with your query, first five pages, and short synopsis pasted into the body of the email.
Thanks, Amy for your in-depth and genuinely invaluable responses. We truly appreciate the support!
Actually, it wasn’t at university but in high school that I was on my school’s literary magazine. I was fortunate enough to go to a pretty good high school, and so I had learned a great deal about critical reading. Editing the literary magazine, however, helped me apply that thinking in a more real-world way. Instead of critiquing the works of literary canon, my class got to analyze works written by our peers. It was illuminating, and through class discussions, we worked to try to determine what makes good writing. At the time, I had no idea that agenting existed, but that same exploratory process is certainly alive in how I read queries.
LS: How far removed (or how close to) your post-university ambitions are you today?
I am something of an anomaly in that I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I graduated college: an agent. The fact that I already achieved that goal never ceases to flabbergast me. I have been exceedingly lucky.
LS: Did a love of books as a child inspire or influence you in your chosen career path? What was your favorite book as a kid?
Absolutely. I was obsessed with books before I could read (thanks to fabulous parents). When I was 14 I realized that creating books was actually an industry, and from that moment on I knew I had to be a part of it. As for a favorite book, that was constantly changing, but those that come immediately to mind are Louis Sachar’s There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s The Boys Start the War/The Girls Get Even, and Bruce Coville’s My Teacher is an Alien (which I loved so much I totally plagiarized it in a third grade creative writing assignment).
LS: What’s the single best advice you’ve received so far about the publishing industry?
I’m afraid this isn’t terribly applicable outside of agenting, but “Only sign authors you think you’ll be happy to work with 15 years down the road” has been invaluable to me. An agent’s job never ends with brokering a book deal. We are author advocates and business partners, and you’d be surprised how much of our time is spent taking care of business for books that were published over a decade ago. I don’t want to sign any client just for a quick buck; I want to do business with them for the long haul.
LS: As someone whose career is focused on great fiction, are you ever able to read a book for pleasure without editing it?
Well, for me critique has always been part of the pleasure of reading. In high school or college, if I was reading a book and came across a part that didn’t work for me, I’d mentally rewrite it until it did before reading on. So yes, I do read books for pleasure, but that doesn’t mean I don’t edit them as well.
LS: What are the top five elements writers should assure their manuscript has before querying?
1. A main character the reader gives a damn about, and a reason for giving a damn about them in the opening pages. The reader is about to spend a few hundred pages/8 reading hours with your main character. If they don’t have a reason to do so, then they might give up on your book. It’s also important to establish this before too much plot craziness begins. Going off to a school for wizards or going to face The Reaping aren’t nearly as interesting if the character doing those things isn’t worth bothering with.
2. A plot that doesn’t hinge on a “for some mysterious reason/because of fate, this thing happens” event, or on the villain being a complete idiot. (Note: my personal bias might be showing.) The first is annoying and lazy and smacks of “I couldn’t think of any other way to make the plot happen, so just accept this.” The second goes against Rule 12 of Evil Overlord List which states: “One of my advisers will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation.”
3. Line-by-line tension. Are you ever in the middle of a book and just find your eyes wandering off to the side as you start thinking about your grocery list instead? I hate that. I don’t want it in my manuscripts. I want a manuscript where when I get to the end of a line, I simply *have* to read the next one. There are different ways to achieve this, but one way is to not include anything extemporaneous. A big part of this is trusting the reader. Trust that if you tell them something once, they’ll remember it; it doesn’t have to be repeated by various characters. Trust that they have woken up and gotten ready to go to school and that you don’t have to describe that process to them. That sort of thing.
4. A well-thought-out and researched setting. This goes for all genres. So often I see works where the setting is never more than “generic Small Town, USA” or “vaguely-medieval Europe fantasy world.” In real life, different places have different flavors to them; customs, laws, air quality, foods. I’ve spent the majority of my life between Salt Lake City and New York City, and you could put me down in any street in either and I would never mistake it for the other. Writers need to know their settings just as intimately and get that uniqueness across in their manuscripts.
5. An ending that goes with the story. Sometimes I get manuscripts where it feels like the author just stopped when they reached the accepted word count. I don’t want black screens with “To Be Continued…” scrawled across in white letters. I don’t care if a manuscript is part of a series, the book has to have its own ending. Also, if the ending requires characters acting unlike themselves or making mistakes they wouldn’t make, it can be very unsatisfying.
LS: What do you think about self-publishing? Do you think this is a ‘trend’ or will the publishing industry have to change to satisfy a new publishing model? What impact will this have on agents?
The thing is, self-publishing has been around as long as publishing, so it’s hardly a trend or a new publishing model. There have always been books that publishers didn’t feel had a big enough audience and authors who didn’t want to tie their art to corporations. The change now is a new method of distribution which makes self-publishing so much easier and cheaper for an individual author, which means more competition for authors both published and self-published. The publishing industry’s chief concern, however, is the method of distribution and how to better sell their authors’ books, whether in digital or physical print. For me the most telling move in all this is that Amazon, who was making plenty of money doing nothing more than allowing anyone to upload their work onto its site, started a publishing company modeled after traditional publishing companies. They are putting a lot of money into that company, so I can only assume they believe publishing is not going away.
As for agents, good ones are authors’ business partners. They will be on top of what’s changing and fight for an author’s rights no matter what the industry looks like. If all an agent did for an author was secure and negotiate a book contract with publishers, all authors would go agentless after establishing themselves. We do a lot of work that doesn’t involve US publishers.
LS: What’s the biggest mistake you see querying writers make?
Not researching agents well enough. By no means are writers required to cyberstalk an agent; in fact, don’t, that’s creepy. But at the very least writers should visit an agent’s website and read up on them, both to find out what they’re interested in and get an idea if you want to work with them. That’s something that authors can forget, that they are looking for someone to partner with, not just anyone who will say, “Yes.” Also, it’s a good idea to check up on the agency and make sure they are legitimate. I recommend looking at Writer Beware, Preditors & Editors, and the forums at Absolute Write.
LS: What questions should writers ask prior to signing with an agent?
Lots of them. It’s simply good to get an idea of who the agent is, how they work, and if that will work well with how you work. Talk to the agent about what you see for your career and see what their thoughts are on that. Discuss future projects because that could highlight some possible future troubles before you’re in too deep to prevent them.
There are of course the questions you want to ask to better determine that the agent is capable and competent. I suggest checking out these posts by two agents who more thoroughly go over some questions you might want to ask.
LS: Fangirl question: In a death match who would win…Harry Potter, Edward Cullen or would Katniss give them both a spanking?
Ooh, toughie. Harry Potter clearly has the most power (magic generally trumps), although Edward has speed on his side and Katniss has stealth. It would depend on the arena; any kind of wooded area or obstacle course, Katniss would win. Open floorplan, the winner would be Harry.
LS: What book are you currently reading?
A Midsummer’s Nightmare by Kody Keplinger. I got it at a BEA party and am already halfway through. I swear, Kody’s pages must be laced with something. YA contemporary isn’t really my bag, but I can’t get enough of Kody’s books. She has this amazing skill of taking a character who is a terrible person and making them compelling from page one.
LS: What makes the manuscripts you take on stand out? What are the elements of your ‘perfect’ manuscript?
If I had that secret, I would bottle it and sell it. At the query/pitch level, there needs to be a unique aspect of it. I want to perk up and go “Oh!” upon reading. This doesn’t mean “as long as it’s different, it’s better;” I just don’t want to confuse your query for the others I’m reading. This is why I try to note query trends on my Twitter feedfrom time to time, to give writers an idea as to whether their plot is overly prevalent.
You don’t even need something outlandishly different. Many reviewers of Thea Harrison’s Dragon Bound noted that the book used many elements typical of paranormal romances. They also noted that the book rekindled their love of paranormal romance just when they were getting a bit bored. Thea put enough of a twist on these ideas to make them fresh.
Compare that to Tom Pollock’s urban fantasy The City’s Son, which reviewers have called utterly unique and original (not to mention brutal). And it is, but it is also so clearly an urban fantasy. Tom pared down urban fantasy to what he felt was its core, the existence of magic in the known, and he held onto that tight as he let his imagination go wild.
What both of their manuscripts had were strong stories, characters worth following, great writing, and a compelling voice, on top of that “Oh!” moment.