LitChat Interview: Jim McCarthy with Dystel & Goderich Literary Management

At LitStack, we try to keep each of you up to date on various book-love features, reviews and news items. We also recognize that there are many among you that are aspiring, novice and emerging writers who want to be kept abreast of industry news and how you can kick in the ‘glass ceilings’ that will lead to publication. To that end, we’re proud to introduce a new segment dedicated to the writers in our audience.

The LitChat feature aims to introduce you, via brief bios and Q&As, to agents, editors and publishers in an effort to inform you on the ins and outs of publishing and how to properly approach queries. We want to generate a conversation about traditional publishing and the importance of assuring that manuscripts and stories are crafted well and that your approach to being published is informed. In these interviews, we also want to focus on the importance of knowing your craft and producing quality, well written fiction prior to the query process. Further, we hope this segment will feature industry professionals who are eager to help aspiring writers learn more about the industry.

We are honored to host as our first LitChat participant, agent Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. I got the opportunity to sit down with Jim recently to discuss his favorite books, how he found his way into publishing and what not to do in a query.

Thanks so much, Jim, for chatting with us and for supporting LitStack!

The best queries specifically address why I’m the one receiving them, give information in a clear and concise way, and don’t waste time with bells and whistles. I really think queries are probably at once the easiest and the hardest things to write.

LS: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. We’re honored you’re here. I read in your bio that you started out at New York University in Urban Engineering. What made you decide to switch focus and dip into the publishing industry?

Luck of the draw. I was looking for part time work the summer after my Freshman year, and I chanced across a listing for a position at DGLM. I didn’t even know what a literary agent was, but I knew that I liked to read. I had absolutely no idea that I’d still be with the company 13 years later.

LS:What impact did your childhood love of reading have on your life and what was your favorite childhood read?

I grew up in a very conservative religious household. I don’t think I even understood there were people who weren’t Catholic when I was a kid (and I lived in Westchester!). Libraries sated my intense curiosity for what else was out there in the world beyond my intensely limited view. So I credit reading with pushing me beyond my boundaries and opening me up to the range of possibility in the world. I really waffled between popcorn reading like R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series and random books I’d pull off the adult shelves. I didn’t always choose wisely (no preteen should even attempt Camus), but there was a sense that I never knew what I was going to get, and that was thrilling.

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

I can! Well…eventually. I do want to insert myself into a lot of novels and tinker around, but truly great books can cut past all of that.

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

I went to Catholic school, so number one: proofread that mother. I won’t throw out a manuscript for a misplaced comma, but swap “you’re” and “your,” and there’s trouble in them hills.

Number two: the right beginning. A lot of fiction is sunk by the fact that people start at the beginning of what they know of the characters, not necessarily the beginning of the actual story.

Number three: an ending that makes sense. I will work editorially to help someone with the end of their novel, but there’s nothing worse than watching a book completely fall to pieces in the final stretch.

Number four: Possibly the toughest, but bad dialogue has killed MANY a novel for me. Characters need to have their own voices. And dialogue needs to be consistent. Super stylized is fine if that’s a conscious choice. But if you’re going for realistic, then you need to really make sure it reads true. I recommend a lot of authors read their dialogue out loud. If it doesn’t sound like a conversation coming out of their mouth, then it doesn’t read like one either, no matter how clever it is.

Number five: Something new to say, or a new way to say something old. We see a looooot of retreads of the same themes. If you don’t completely and totally believe that you’ve contributed something fresh and new, chances are you’ve still got your work cut out for you.

LS: What’s the biggest mistakes querying writers make?

The most common, sadly, is just not editing their query. It’s shocking the number of letters that come in with very obvious spelling or grammar mistakes in the first line. But the biggest is not adequately researching who they’re sending to. I have a pretty broad range of interests, but sometimes things come in that are so outside of my realm that I can only assume the query is currently blanketing the world.

LS: What are the elements of a strong query?

The best queries specifically address why I’m the one receiving them, give information in a clear and concise way, and don’t waste time with bells and whistles. I really think queries are probably at once the easiest and the hardest things to write. On the one hand, you have to condense 80K words down to about 250. On the other, all you have to do is present the facts.

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?  Can these people ever truly sustain a career?

I do think that’s the case, and that makes me a little sad. I want authors to be business savvy, but at the same time, I’d like them to be able to focus on the work. I’ve seen people get bogged down reading competitive titles, spinning out dozens of marketing ideas, going on endless conference tours, and losing whole days to Twitter, all the while failing to put new words on the page. There is a balance, a delicate one, but it’s increasingly difficult to find it. And those authors who get trapped in promo hell tend to be the most miserable because they lose sight of why they do what they do. No one got into publishing in order to network. They’re all here because they love to write. And that just needs to be the biggest piece of the equation, no matter what.

LS: What impact has/will self publishing make on traditional publishers? How do you think will this change impact literary agents?

This is one of the toughest questions to answer right now. A lot of people disagree with me, but I don’t think the impact on publishers will be terribly big in the long run. In the end, the majority of books need the kind of guidance and support that traditional publishers provide. Not all, mind you, but most. So I think there will always be independent bestsellers from here on out, but I believe the traditional publishing model is stronger and more important than most people give it credit for. As far as agents go, there are more opportunities on the table for authors, and that’s thrilling. I like to believe it makes our role an even more vital one as we guide authors through the avenues that are most right for them.

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

You know, it’s funny. I think this might be less true now than it was even a couple years ago. Folks are a lot savvier than they were before because there are so many outstanding resources available. But yeah, publishing is slow. It is (or should be) careful work. So sometimes that means waiting two years for your books to come out. It’s annoying as hell, but once things get going, it can feel a whole lot faster than waiting for that first book to come out did.

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

I think every author owes it to themselves to have a conversation with agents about editorial visions for the book. You want to be with someone who sees your work as you do, or whose understanding of it just makes sense to you. Beyond that, there are all the basics—what’s the best way to get in touch with you, how often will I hear from you, what have you sold in my category, where do you think my book might go, etc., etc. You need to get a feel for each other because trust is going to have to play a really big part in the relationship to make it work!

LS: You represent some remarkable authors. What made your clients stand out from the hundreds of others that queried you? Did you instantly fall in love with their manuscripts? What does it mean when an agent “likes but doesn’t love” a manuscript?

It’s so hard to really put a finger on this. It just…happens. Sometimes I’m reading a novel, and I just get really excited. And if that excitement holds over until the last page, I know I have to work on it. I just signed up a novel called Fine Young Animals by Philip Hui that gave me that feeling. For a few pages, I was thinking it was solid. Then something happened (I can’t say exactly what), and I thought, “Oh. This is going to be GOOD.” And I stayed up that night and powered through to the end. I started it at work, read it on the subway home, kept my Kindle out as I walked into my apartment, and just kept going. There are just projects you never doubt, and when that happens, you know you’re the right agent for them. When I “like but don’t love” something…it’s really that straightforward. I can admire a book and not want to spend 20 hours rereading and editing it. And then days, weeks, or months trying to sell it. Because these books don’t go away for us, so we need to maintain an enthusiasm for them. Otherwise, how could we possibly be enthusiastic advocates? I’m lucky enough that I have a great list, and I’m incredibly comfortable with my client base and confident in their output. So there’s no way I’d sign something on just because I think I could sell it now. I have the luxury of picking and choosing, so that means I can sign on only things I adore. It also means that if I love something but don’t know if I can sell it, I can take the chance on it. Nothing is more rewarding than the little book that could.

LS: What are you reading right now?

You caught me at an odd moment. Usually I’m reading fiction, but at this exact moment, I’m about halfway through Moshe Kasher’s delightful memoir Kasher in the Rye and (super out of character) the amazing sports narrative This Love Is Not for Cowards by Andrew Powell.

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

Like everyone, I suspect, I just want to find thrilling, vital, original, fresh projects. I’ve been on the lookout for some amazing horror fiction for awhile now. I love a good high concept YA novel. I’d like to take a chance with some breathtaking literary fiction. And I’d kill for something laugh out loud funny. I’ve always said that if you can make me laugh or cry, I’ll represent you. So really, anything that provokes a gut level reaction.

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