Laurie Abkemeier, DeFiore and Company
This week’s LitChat segment features Laurie Abkemeir of DeFiore and Company. Originally from northern California, Laurie cut her teeth as an editor at Hyperion, where she was responsible for five New York Times best-sellers, including Brain Droppings by George Carlin. In 2003, Laurie became a literary agent, exclusively representing nonfiction. You can follow Laurie on Twitter where you’ll find her AGENT OBVIOUS TIP OF THE DAY–the inspiration for her app, now available as a free download for the iPhone and iPod Touch.
Thanks, Laurie for chatting with us!
LS: You created the Agent Obvious app for agents, writers, etc. What was your inspiration for the Agent Obvious tweets and for the app?
In May of 2009, I received a query for a humor book and the query wasn’t the least bit humorous. It inspired me to post, “AGENT OBVIOUS TIP OF THE DAY: A query for a humor book should be humorous.” I didn’t intend for it to be a regular feature, but I got a lot of great responses and I immediately thought I was onto something. I soon starting posting Monday through Friday, and the feedback from writers, editors, and other agents was wonderful. Many months and hundreds of tips later, one of my authors released her own app (Amy Spencer’s “Half-Orange Optimisms”), and not long after, another author suggested that I turn my Agent Obvious tips into a book. I didn’t think the tips alone would be substantial enough for a book, but I knew they would make a great app, and it gave me a chance to learn the process firsthand. It was a lot of fun to put together, and it’s been an important lesson in the challenges of branding and self-promotion. I worked with a team of developers and designers, and I had one of my very artistic authors create the logo.
LS: Your Tumblr page is beautiful and it gives a good amount of press for your authors. Why do you choose to do this for your authors and does it make a difference in sales?
The Tumblr blog started out for much the same reason that I made the app: I wanted firsthand experience about something that people had been discussing and buzzing about. Turns out Tumblr is a lot of fun. (I did the same thing with Pinterest — tried it to see what all the fuss was about — but I haven’t fallen in love with it in the same way.) At first, my blog was more personal than professional, but it quickly became most useful as a way to showcase my authors and their books in a different way than on the DeFiore and Company website. Since Tumblr links directly to Twitter, I can use the blog to share longer pieces with a wider audience. I’m not sure it has any impact on sales, but it’s another way for me to keep the conversation going. It also proves that it’s possible to maintain a blog and Twitter (and Facebook, Goodreads, etc.) and work full time on a list of dozens of authors. It leaves my authors very few excuses not to promote their own work.
LS: What qualities should a non-fiction story and/or memoir have to stand out among the crowd?
For memoir, it either needs to be wildly funny or have a category backbone. If you’re not going to make me laugh, I need to learn something in the process. If you can do both (see The $64 Tomato) that’s the best of all worlds. Also, it’s becoming increasingly important that a memoir be able to exist in another category — like travel or pets or gardening – otherwise the book ends up being shelved in autobiography/biography next to books by celebrities and political figures, and it’s harder to get noticed next to those books.
For non-fiction, it’s about having an existing fan base or following of some sort, and being unique. The easiest book to sell is the one that’s never been done and has a clear target audience. A recent example is I’D RATHER BE SHORT by Becky Murphy. I sold her book at auction within two weeks of submitting it, in spite of the Fourth of July holiday. There’s no other book like it, it’s funny and the illustrations are fabulous, and there are literally millions of petite women. A unique book for a specific audience that happens to be enormous. Plume plans to publish in fall 2013.
Of course there are many smart, well-researched proposals by talented experts who don’t have a big following or a specific audience anyone can point to, and I sign and sell those often just as easily, but if you’re a writer, it can be harder to assess those qualities about your own work and make adjustments.
LS: How did you get involved in the publishing industry, specifically becoming an agent?
While in college, I wanted to be a journalist. I worked for newspapers, a radio station, and I interned at ABC’s Nightline. I never considered publishing. But upon graduation, I was engaged, and he had a job offer on Wall Street. I wasn’t about to break into journalism in the largest media market in the world, so I sent my resume out to magazines and book publishers. I got lucky when my resume landed on the human resource director’s desk just as an editorial assistant job opened up at Simon & Schuster, and soon I was working for two editors in the Touchstone/Fireside division. I quickly fell in love with the business. Eighteen months later, I made a lateral move to Hyperion where I started as an editorial assistant and rose to the rank of senior editor. Then I decided to take a break and start a family. When I was ready to get back to work, I was living outside of Atlanta, which meant a job as an editor was out of the question. I called up my former Hyperion editor-in-chief Brian DeFiore who had since opened DeFiore and Company and asked if I could join him. I always swore I would never be an agent, but it seems that motherhood erased that memory, and I’m happy that it did.
LS: What do you enjoy most about being an agent?
I love working with authors to create their best work possible. I love being on the ground floor of developing ideas that become books (part of my job involves reaching out to people and suggesting that they write a book). I really love being on the side of the author and developing that close, trusting relationship over the course of many books together. There are several authors I’ve worked with since my first year as an agent. One of them was a student in college when I sold his first book; now he’s a professor and about to publish his fourth book. There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction in helping someone grow their writing career that way.
LS: What qualities do you look for in a writer before signing?
Believe it or not, the first quality I look for is that the person actually is a writer. I do occasionally work with people who need a ghostwriter or collaborator, but I prefer to work with people who write their own books. The other basics that I look for are whether the author is an expert in the subject, whether the author has an online presence, and whether the author has a good grasp of the competition. I’m always surprised how many authors haven’t researched the category, or worse, have never read any of the competitive titles. If you — a supposed target buyer for the book — haven’t demonstrated an interest in other similar books, it’s hard to argue that there’s a hungry audience or that your book will stand out among the others. I’m always amazed when I talk to an author who wants to write a memoir, but when I ask him how it will differ from the three other memoirs on the subject, he’s never even heard of them. It’s so important to do your homework.
LS: What advice can you give for an emerging writer in their search for an agent?
Do your homework. Target agents who share your sensibility and have a track record of selling. Always check the agent’s website and query instructions.
Write a query letter in your voice, but that is also the voice of the book. The best query letters tell me clearly what the book is about, why it’s unique, and who the author is. You’d be surprised how many people don’t do those three simple things.
Be ready to send your material within hours (or at least one day) of getting a request. Don’t query until you’re material is polished and ready to go. Assume you will only get one shot at this, because that’s usually the case.
LS: Has using social media been beneficial to your career as an agent?
As an agent, I love Twitter. I stay in touch with my authors and help them connect with each other, which is invaluable. I connect with interesting people across all industries. I get a sense of what people are talking about and responding to. I get to put myself out there so that writers can get to know me and whether they might enjoy working with me. I also think it sends an important message that I’m not simply telling authors to use social media; I’m also using it. Editors have told me they appreciate that I’m knowledgeable and encouraging (to put it mildly!) when it comes to authors promoting their books across online platforms.
LS: What type of books do you like to read for pleasure?
I love narrative nonfiction. My favorites of the past year have been Moonwalking with Einstein, Born to Run, The Swerve, In the Garden of Beasts, Destiny of the Republic, Lost in Shangri-La… I could go on and on. I love history and science and a dash of adventure.
I also love books that help me get better at whatever I’m doing. In that realm, I really enjoyed Insanely Simple: The Obsession that Drives Apple’s Success by Ken Segall and So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, one of my authors. His book comes out in September, and it’s going to make a big splash.
I also enjoy reading books aimed at writers, such as Storycraft, Thinking Like Your Editor, and Wired for Story by Lisa Cron (another author of mine). I spend a lot of time editing, and these books help me be more effective.