LitChat: Cameron McClure, Donald Maass Literary Agency

This week’s LitChat interview is with Cameron McClure of Donald Maass Literary Agency. Cameron joined DMLA in 2004, and handles the agency’s foreign and film rights as well as her own growing client list.Prior to this she worked as an assistant agent for Curtis Brown. She represents mostly fiction, and is especially looking for projects that combine genre style plotting with literary quality writing. She’s also interested in seeing literary fiction, mystery and suspense, urban fantasy (fantasy and SF set on earth), and projects with multi-cultural, international, environmental, and GBLT themes. She’s drawn to non-fiction that reads like fiction, and that explores subcultures or topics that haven’t quite broken into the mainstream.

If you’re interested in querying Cameron, e-mail her with the query letter and first 5 pages pasted into the body of the e-mail.

Thanks, Cameron for supporting LitStack!

LS: Cameron, thanks so much for joining us. We’re honored that you’re here. I read on your Twitter bio that you’re “fanatical DIYer.” So, as a fellow DIYer, I have to ask: DIY Network or HGTV? Have you landed an exceptionally cool thrift store or antique find? What’s been your favorite DIY project that you’ve tackled?

I actually don’t keep up with the DIY shows; I’m into DIY on a much smaller scale. I’m not sure I would ever remodel my own bathroom or rewire our electricity. Refinishing furniture is more my speed. My mother’s family is Mormon, and the DIY ethic is very strong in that culture, you have women making their own clothes, growing some of their own food, choosing when it’s practical to make things instead of buy them. That sort of self reliance has always appealed to me. My father’s family is Jewish, which means I grew up under two of the thriftiest cultures, so I get this visceral thrill from saving money. I recently spent about $10 to make a year supply of my own laundry soap, and the most expensive item was the bucket to store the concentrate! I’m also a big fan of making what you need with what you have, and since I do a lot of my shopping online we have a constant supply of cardboard boxes. I’ve become very adept at making things with cardboard, we actually have some small furniture items that have held up shockingly well. It’s a way for me to save money and customize my own furniture.My favorite DIY project was building a bike from mostly spare and recycled parts, complete with a childseat to transport my son. I’m now working on a bike that can transport 2 children. Don’t worry, it won’t involve cardboard!

LS: As a mother, it must be difficult to juggle a personal and professional life. Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask ‘how you do it all’ because, let’s be honest, men never get asked that question. But I will ask, what do you hope your sons will understand about your chosen profession?

My older son is three-and-a-half, so he’s starting to ask questions about why I go to work, and why I have the international copyright symbol tattooed on my wrist. I tell him that I help make books. He loves books and stories, so he gets it. I think we both keep the books in mind on days when it’s hard for me to leave. I hope that when my sons learn how to read that they will get as much enjoyment from books as I do, and treat them and their authors with the same respect and reverence. I hope they value storytellers and storytelling. And even if they never connect with any of the books I’ve worked on, I hope they understand why I love my job enough to spend time away from them.


LS: How did you end up in publishing? Was it always something you were interested in?

I moved to New York City when I was 23 years old, with an old broken suitcase and no job, and the idiotic idea that I would ride the subway around until somebody recognized what an analytical reader and deep thinker I was and hire me to hold forth on Literature. What actually happened was that I lucked into an assistant job at Curtis Brown working for an agent who handles primarily romance novels. It was a great education in commercialism to go from reading the stuff you read as an English Major to reading romance novels. Yes, I was always interested in publishing. I love to read, and I always wondered about the publication process and the story behind how each book found its way into my hands.

LS: Were you a child who loved books? If so, what was your favorite? Has that favorite changed over the years?

Yes, I was, and I had a lot of favorite books, I think probably a new one every year. I remember being in grade school and loving Christopher Pike. I was just talking with my coworkers about all the survival books we read as kids, stuff like My Side of the Mountain, Julie of the Wolves, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Hatchet, Call of the Wild and how appealing those books were to me at the time. I really thought I’d find myself stranded somewhere, and have to make a lean-to – more than that, I looked forward to it. I grew up in the 80s and 90s, and there wasn’t anywhere near the amount of YA there is today. Looking back, I think I went straight from Susie Hinton and Robert Cormier to Stephen King and John Grisham.

LS: As an agent, I’m sure your bombarded by querying writers. What’s the most unusual or unique query you’ve ever received. Were there questionable gifts or liquor involved?

What comes to mind is a book about werecows that had the whole office riffing for days. I was once sent a bottle of Jack Daniels. I’ve been sent chocolate, and one author hand delivered two cheese pizzas along with his submission. We don’t get inappropriate gifts so much anymore since e-mail queries have become the norm.


LS: As someone whose career is focused on great fiction, are you ever able to read a book for pleasure without editing it?

Oh yes, all the time actually. That’s how I know I’m reading something really special. If I’m so caught up in the story that the analytical brain just shuts up and goes for the ride.

LS: Many writers seem eager to query before their manuscripts are ready. What are the top five elements you believe writers should assure their manuscript have before querying?

1. Characters.
2. Conflict.
3. Setting.
4. Voice.
5. Tension / narrative momentum.


LS: What’s one question you wish potential clients would ask but never do?

 

Actually, the last few writers I’ve signed have been extremely savvy, and have asked all the right questions, and haven’t been afraid to ask hard questions too. That would be my advice, don’t be afraid to ask questions, even uncomfortable ones. Especially uncomfortable ones. The most unexpected question I was ever asked during one of these conversations was from an author who wanted to know, “what will happen to my books if both you and Don [the president of the agency] die?”


LS: How has self publishing and the popularity of the ebook impacted literary agents? Do you believe traditional publishers will have to change the way they function because of self publishing?

With self publishing becoming easier, cheaper, and less stigmatized, traditional publishers have to adjust to the reality that they aren’t the only game in town. Both publishers and agents have had to take a hard look at what they bring to the table, and consider their relevance in certain areas (such as, what are gatekeepers to do when there is no gate to keep?). Agents must become more strategic in their career planning, now that self publishing is a viable option.Good agents will help authors decide which model is right for which book, and when.

An example: I have an author whose first novel debuts this fall. He has a novella that ties in, and wanted to self publish it. Instead, we sold the novella to his publisher as an e-book only. He’s giving up a lot in terms of royalties, but he’s getting editing and copyediting, formatting, meta data, cover art, and promotion. This author is a busy guy who would have paid out of pocket for these services (or forgone them) and he has no existing readership. So at this point in his career, self publishing didn’t make sense.

Another example: I have a published author who proposed a new series. I shopped it around a bit and didn’t get any offers, because the new series doesn’t neatly fit into any one category. Instead of continuing to try traditional publishers, we decided to self publish. The author already has a following, the time and know-how to do some of the steps herself, and didn’t want to have a long gap between her old series and the new one. Most readers won’t care that her book crosses genre lines (for the most part, only publishers and booksellers care about that). In this case, self publishing made more sense.

With e-books, we are finally seeing them become a strong source of revenue for authors. E-books are giving new life to backlist, and many traditional publishers are launching e-only imprints, where they can experiment with books they wouldn’t be able to publish on their established lists. In this, I think we’ll see some of the big New York imprints become a bit more like small indie publishers, able to take risks and publish smaller books without the pressure of hitting large numbers.


LS: I know you’re a fan of fantasy and urban fantasy. Despite loving both, what’s the one thing that you’re really tired of reading about?

Loners. I think we are all tired of reading about some young impoverished disenfranchised person living on the fringes of society with a lot of piercings and tattoos and emotional baggage and self loathing. Or the orphaned child who is really a prince, or magician, or the chosen one, or whatever. It’s much harder to develop isolated characters. Which isn’t to say that it can’t be done. It just has to be done extraordinarily well since it’s become such a common trope.


LS: What are you reading right now?

At the moment I’m reading Buzz Books 2012,which is collection of excerpts from some of the books featured at BEA (Book Expo America). It’s free to download as an ebook, and I think all aspiring authors should check it out, most of the writers in there really know how to write gripping opening pages.


LS: Can you finish this sentence for us? “It would be my dream to represent the next__________”

Jeffrey Ford

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