Literary Agent Deborah Grosvenor

Want to pitch to the literary agent who discovered Tom Clancy? Deborah Grosvenor saw The Hunt for Red October long before it hit the bookstores shelves. Maybe she’s destined to find her next big client at the James River Writers Conference when she joins us this October. Deborah will be taking pitches and sitting on panels throughout the two-day conference. We were honored when she took a moment to chat with us about the publishing world.

Question #1: One of the highlights of the James River Writers Conference is the First Pages panel, where attendees have the opportunity to submit the first page of their manuscript to be critiqued by a panel of agents in front of a live audience. When you sit down with a new manuscript, what are you looking for? What makes you put it down?

First, I’m looking for a great opening line, then I’m looking for the writer to create some form of dramatic tension early on in the story, something that must be resolved. I’m also looking for a compelling, believable voice and the kind of confidence that comes from a writer really knowing his or her characters and story.  In other words, I look for pages that immediately draw me in and make the story real for me, and where I feel invested in the characters and outcome. What makes me put a manuscript down is a lack of tension, when the characters and narrative are not strong enough to make me care, and I find myself wondering where the story is going and why I am reading it.

Question #2: Is there anything you wish that more writers thought about before approaching an agent?

In terms of protocol, I find that most writers today are pretty well versed in how to submit to agents. Most agents’ websites provide this information. But there are a few things writers should think about: one, if you can, try to make a personal connection to an agent before approaching him or her. The best way is to get a referral from a published author, a writing instructor or colleague, or a client of that agent. Someone whose name the agent will respect and recognize. Another way is to attend writing conferences such as this, where you can meet agents (as well as published writers and editors.) Finally, writers can always check for agents’ names in the acknowledgments sections of related books and note in their cover letters that this is why they’re approaching that agent:  because they so admired the book the agent represented. Most agents will take note of this. Along these lines, it can also be helpful, if possible, to get written endorsements of your project from published writers and/or clients of the agent.

Question #3: Genres that you’re interested in are on your website, but is there anything specific in fiction or nonfiction that you’d be excited to discover right now (besides another Tom Clancy)? 

Yes, discovering Tom Clancy was one of the highlights of my career! It’s difficult to be more specific than I’m always looking for great stories in both nonfiction and fiction:  I look for books that move me, excite me, touch me, make me laugh, change the way I view the world, and that keep me up reading. I love narrative nonfiction, meaning a factually based narrative with a dramatic arc that illuminates a larger issue. What I really like is a great story set in the context of a larger issue, so that the reader gets both a good read and new knowledge. I’m looking for more submissions of this type in science and business. In fiction, I like big, high-concept books, where there can also be a mix of fact and fiction. As I say on my website, I like books that illuminate another world and that use an historic event in a dramatic narrative. If I had to name my perfect novel, it would be big, set in another time and/or place, have a rich and intricate plot, and have characters so well defined and colorful that I would feel a real sense of loss when the book ended because I would have to leave their lives.

Question #4: A lot is happening in the publishing industry these days. Is a writer’s relationship with his or her literary agent changing too? Furthermore, do writers still need literary agents?

My impression is that today’s agents play more of an editorial role than they did in the past as editors’ time to edit gets squeezed by corporate pressures. Because of my editorial background, I tend to offer a fair amount of editorial support to my clients. I spend a lot of time helping them shape their nonfiction book proposals, but I also will edit novels, if I basically fall in love with them first.

Agents are also taking an increasingly active advisory role in marketing, in particular, in the arena of social media.  At my agency, we are very involved in helping our clients reach their readers, whether by setting up events at local bookstores, arranging blog tours, or helping them publish smaller pieces in magazines and other periodicals.  Now more than ever, we are thinking outside the box in order to help our clients expand their reach.

Finally, an agent’s role as watchdog is more important than ever, as we all strive to stay abreast of trends in the electronic market and media that are the changing the economics of book publishing and distribution and our clients’ rights and contracts.

So, yes, today most writers who want to be published by a commercial trade house do still need a literary agent. And while a few years ago I would have said one didn’t need a literary agent if one chose to self-publish, such writers should be aware that there are now a number of agents who provide services to help them self-publish electronically.

Question #5:  Do you have any recent projects that you’re excited about that have just been published or will be published soon?

  • Pirate Alley, A Novel (St. Martin’s Press) by NY Times bestselling author Stephen Coonts—Starred Publishers Weekly review
  • Hedge Hogs: The Cowboy Traders Behind Wall Street’s Largest Hedge Fund Disaster by Barbara Dreyfuss (Random House) Washington Post bestseller; Named One of the Top 10 Business & Economics Books of the Season by Publishers Weekly
  • Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game (Gotham/Viking Penguin) by John Sexton, Tom Oliphant and Peter Schwartz—A New York Times Bestseller; Named One of the Top 10 Sports Books of the Season by Publishers Weekly
  • The Coat Route: A Tale of Craft, Obsession, Luxury, and the World’s Most Expensive Coat (Spiegel & Grau/Random House Group) by Meg Lukens Noonan– “A fabulous story, brilliantly told . . . I couldn’t have enjoyed it more.”—Bill Bryson
  • Colorblind:  The Forgotten Team that Broke Baseball’s Color Line by Tom Dunkel (Grove Atlantic) “A delightful read. This is a tale worth telling.” —The Washington Post
  • Mistrial:  An Inside Look at How our Criminal Justice System Works….and Sometimes Doesn’t (Gotham/Viking Penguin Group) by Mark Geragos and Pat Harris—“A win: engaging, enlightening and entertaining”  The Wall Street Journal
  • Savage Will: The Daring Escape of Americans Trapped Behind Nazi Lines by Timothy Gay (NAL/Viking Penguin Group)

Deborah Grosvenor is one of four literary agents who will be open for pitches during One-on-One Sessions at the 2013 James River Writers Conference. Stay tuned to our website and future issues of JRW’s Get Your Word On newsletter for details on the other three.

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