For our second installment of LitChat, we are honored to chat with Daniel Lazar. Lazar is a highly sought-after senior agent at Writers House, one of the industry’s largest and oldest literary agencies. His list includes a variety of commercial and literary fiction for children and adults. For children’s books, he represents primarily middle grade and YA. Titles Lazar has represented include Newbery Honor-winner Savvy by Ingrid Law (Dial/Walden); The Last Invisible Boy by Evan Kuhlman (Atheneum); Billy Bones by Chris Lincoln (Little Brown); Mike Steller: Nerves of Steel by KA Holt (Random House); and The Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell (Aladdin). (Source).

Thanks, Daniel, for supporting LitStack!


LS: Thanks for chatting with us, Daniel. How did you end up in publishing and does any first assumptions you may have had about your career differ from the reality of your job?

I’m honored to be here. I started as a summer intern after my freshman year, so truthfully I had very few assumptions. I was just grateful for the stipend. But I suppose I did very quickly learn just how many moving pieces it took to produce those books I took for granted all those years at the library and bookstores.

LS: Did you read a lot as a kid? If so, did that love of reading influence your decision to become an agent or what you studied? What was your favorite book as a child?

I read voraciously. I had books taken away from me in class by teachers a few times, too. (They returned them to the library, thankfully.) I read pretty broadly: I sped through all the Hardy Boy case files, Goosebumps, everything by Avi, everything by Roald Dahl, and Bruce Coville, and Gordon Korman, and the Redwall books, up to The Godfather, The Fountainhead, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and also my sisters’ Babysitters Club and Junie B. Jones books. Some of my favorites were: Beezus and Ramona, Who Was That Masked Man Anyway; Harriet the Spy; The Fortunate Pilgrim (grown up!); The Witches; Matilda … I have a very visceral memory of reading Intensity by Dean Koontz, in high school, in the dorm, and literally skipping a class so I could finish it. I should stop before I run out of space.

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

Definitely. Some recent examples: Room by Emma Donoghue, read in one gulp on the train; and The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, read in chunks every night before bed. They were sheer pleasure, no work involved.

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?

I don’t know that I can narrow it down to a neat five, but I often think you should be writing, putting it away in a drawer for a few weeks, then rewriting, and repeating that process until you’re so sick of your manuscript, you’d rather give away your child or your pet before thinking about changing one more comma.

LS: Do you think, because of self-publishing, there’s been an influx of writers who seem more concerned with the “business of writing” rather than the importance of a great story?

Not necessarily. I find the rise of self-publishing fascinating, actually. I think if anything it’s proven to writers just how much business — time, energy, paperwork, numbers, specialized expertise — goes into creating and selling a great book, business that’s often taken care of for them by the pieces of “traditional” publishing. For the writers who prefer to focus more on the writing, and not spend the time and expense on the grunt work, there’s still a hugely viable and, yes, profitable business model available. And for those who can balance both writing and the business — in fact, thrive on that — it’s a really exciting time, because there’s now a much more viable and, yes, profitable business model available too. The biggest hurdle to publishing independently was distribution, and e-books have largely mitigated that hurdle. The result is that both traditional and indie publishers are changing their models and working harder and that is all the better for both writers and readers, I would say.

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

This is still a moving target of an answer. But it’s been interesting times. We can actually help our authors self-publish titles that either never found a publisher, or that have reverted back to them after falling out of print by traditional publishers. (Note: This doesn’t mean we agents at Writers House are becoming publishers; it means we’re aiding our clients, as we always have, in navigating a publishing model. We still make our compensation only by commission.) And for traditional publishers, they’re thinking carefully about how to improve the experience for authors — one great example is the “Author Portal” that several of the major houses have already released, allowing authors to log in directly and easily check sales figures, a process that in the past was often more (at times intentionally) convoluted.

LS: Most novice writers see landing an agent as “making it.” The truth is, that’s just the beginning of their publishing journey. What do you wish new writers understood about publishing timetables?

This is actually changing, too, with e-books — but in general, if you sign a publishing contract today, you won’t see your book available for sale for at least a year. Probably more like 18 months. For a few books, this timeline is just impossible (mostly timely non-fiction) — but for most of the books I work on, there are very good reasons and systems in place for this timeline. That’s the upside. The downside is that this timeline requires authors to endure periods of limbo, of waiting — for edits, for copyedits, for a publicity campaign, etc. — and that limbo can be killer. Knowing this in advance, and preparing for it productively, is, I think, a very helpful tool.

LS: What questions should writers ask potential agents prior to signing?

Writers can ask how many other clients they have; how many of those clients are actually active at the same time; how the agent is most effective at communicating (although, of course, it’s your agent’s job to adjust to you, not you to them, but if it’s all the same, some people are faster and better on the phone, others are faster and better on e-mail); they should definitely also ask how editorially involved or not involved the agent plans to be. You want to make sure this agent is someone whose eye you trust, because she or he needs to help you make your future books better, or might even be someone who, down the road, will urge you to put a certain manuscript aside and focus on something else. You want them to be someone who you trust to fight fairly for you 95 percent of the time, and fight fairly with you 5 percent of the time.

LS: Writers House is an institution in the industry. Do you think the agency’s reputation demands higher standards for potential clients than other houses?

I don’t necessarily think so. On a day-to-day basis, you’re not dealing with the “entity” of Writers House, you’re dealing with your agent. The “institution of the agency” is more of a benefit to the client in a larger sense: we can leverage our position in the industry to negotiate better terms for our authors, or be on the forefront of changes in the industry as they’re happening. It’s also a benefit to me as an agent, since I’m not directly responsible for all the infrastructure a good agency requires to serve the clients. We have a full-time accounting department, contracts department, subrights department, a mail room, etc. — that allows me to focus more time dealing directly with my own clients on a day-to-day basis, and not running checks to the post office.

LS: Hypothetical question here: If a potential client publicly professes to dislike a current client, would that sway you not to sign them? Should writers who are actively looking for representation keep quiet about the books they don’t like?

I might look at that as a red flag, something to discuss honestly with the client if and when … but if I loved a book, it wouldn’t sway me.

LS: What type of book would you love to represent if it made its way into your inbox?

A book I love. And the type of book you’d want to read. How’s that for a nebulously satisfying answer?

LS: Quite satisfying, actually. Would you consider yourself an editorial agent and would you advise potential clients, or even querying writers, to utilize a professional editor before querying?

I consider myself an editorial agent, yes.

LS: What are you reading (for leisure) right now?

When reading for leisure, I tend to dip in and out of a lot of books at the same time — I’m currently focused on the marvelous galley of a novel called The Chaperone, by Laura Moriarty; Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan; Wonder by R. J. Palacio; and I am determined to read Wolf Hall by the end of 2012 and the end of the world, whichever is sooner.

LS: If you watch TV, what is the show you’re currently obsessed with?

I love TV, old and new. I can’t pick just one show. Right now, there are episodes of The Big Bang Theory, The Wendy Williams Show, Modern Family, The Suze Orman Show and Roseanne cluttering up my TiVo. Also, this new show on HBO, Veep — it’s really funny.

LS: Finish this sentence, if you would: “My clients are clients because their manuscripts had ______.”

An amazing first page that made a promise to me as a reader from the start and delivered on it — or clearly would deliver on it, with some work I could visualize — by the end. Try diagramming that sentence!

Thanks again, Daniel. We enjoyed chatting with you!

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