I’ve been privileged to know Cameron McClure for a long time – ever since our days as assistants at Curtis Brown, Ltd. Since then she’s risen in the ranks at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. I’m very pleased to introduce her to all of you!
1) How did you become a literary agent? Did you always know that you wanted to work in publishing?
I got into it by accident. I moved to New York to work in publishing, and I thought I wanted to be an editor. But I got a job offer from Curtis Brown, working as an assistant agent, and the more I learned about agenting, the more I liked it. You have a lot more freedom to work with the kind of material you like (and believe you can sell), and your compensation is more directly tied to the success of those books. This is, of course, riskier than being paid a flat salary, but very motivating and exciting when things work in your favor. The flip side, of course, is that I take it pretty hard when books I believe in don’t work out.
2) What kinds of work do you represent? Is there anything you’re not taking on at this time?
I represent mostly fiction, though I do take on non-fiction projects here and there. In fiction I am drawn to books that are plotted like genre novels, but written like literary novels. I love genre fiction for the quick pacing and high tension, but miss the deeper character development, internal conflicts, and attention to language that you find in literary novels. Yet I can’t get interested in beautifully written novels with little external conflict. I’m open to science fiction and fantasy, crime, some young adult and middle grade. I don’t work with poetry, picture books, category romance, or prescriptive non-fiction.
3) What do you love or hate in a query letter?
A query letter needs to do two things: make me want to read more, and present the author as someone who takes their writing seriously. Many query letters try to hard – present themselves too stridently – and emphasize the wrong information. All I need to know in a pitch is the setting, characters, and conflict. That’s two or three paragraphs. Then a paragraph about the author. And our agency requests the first five pages, which I find to be enormously helpful in making the decision in whether or not to request more material.
4) How long does it generally take you to respond to queries? partials? full manuscripts?
This varies. At the moment, I am responding to e-queries within a week or two, and partials and full manuscripts run closer to a month. Though I haven’t been that quick in the past, and can’t promise that I will be in the future! I’ve been sitting on one particular full manuscript for 5 or 6 weeks, because I’m on the fence about whether to pass or ask the author to revise. The thing to keep in mind with response times is that slow response times aren’t always an indication of a slow or lazy agent. For me, when my response times become extremely long, it’s because I have a lot of client manuscripts to read, most of which are under deadline with publishers, or I have a higher than usual volume of film, foreign, audio, or electronic deals to attend to. I don’t want to undervalue my query pile, because I have found some of my best clients in there, but because there is less urgency and certain money attached to it than any of my other responsibilities, it often comes last.
5) Are there any specific conferences you recommend for writers?
No, not specific conferences, though I would be careful in making sure that a conference you attend makes sense for the type of material you write and where you are in the writing process or your development as a writer. Obviously, it doesn’t make much sense for a science fiction writer to attend a conference for, say, romance writers or thriller writers, yet you’d be surprised at how often this happens.
6) Describe your working relationship with your clients. Do you offer editorial suggestions?
I really enjoy being involved with my clients on an editorial level. Even once I’ve set an author up with an editor, they send their first draft to me, and we go back and forth a few times before submitting to their editor. I help some clients brainstorm new book or series concepts, while others prefer not to share any material until they are at least 1/3 of the way through. And when I’m shopping a new project I think it’s critical to get it into the best shape possible, otherwise it’s too easy for an overburdened editor to turn it down. Sometimes I will ask a potential client to go through a round or two of revisions before signing them, to make sure we are truly on the same page editorially and that they are up to doing the necessary work, and aren’t just trying to skate by with superficial fixes.
That said, I recently began working with a very well known and long published author, who doesn’t take editorial advice from agents. This is a first for me, as I’ve always seen editorial guidance as part of my job, but as that isn’t something this author wants from an agent, I’ve adjusted my role. It will be a welcome challenge to try and be the kind of agent this author needs.
Writing is so deeply personal, so it’s important for me to be flexible and acknowledge that not every writer has the same priorities.
7) What are some newly-released or upcoming books by your clients?
Robert Jackson Bennett’s THE COMPANY MAN came out in April – he recently won the Shirley Jackson Award for best novel, for his debut book MR. SHIVERS. John Pitts’ HONEYED WORDS, the second in an urban fantasy series about a lesbian blacksmith was published in July, and has already gone into a second printing. HEAD RUSH, the third book in Carolyn Crane’s Disillusionist Trilogy will be released at the end of this year.
Some of my clients have been putting together multimedia projects – Brian Francis Slattery recently released “Pictures from a Liberation,” a digital album where he sings parts of his second novel, LIBERATION, accompanied by musicians. Sonya Bateman’s MASTER OF NONE is being produced as an audiobook by ACX. It’s fun to be a part of these out-of-the-box projects.
Now for some fun questions!
1) If you weren’t a literary agent, what profession would you choose?
I’d like to think I’d be doing something outdoorsy and daring, like making sure scientists don’t get lost in the Amazon, or guiding a white water rapid tour, sailing around the world, or leading one of those outward bound groups, or at least heading up one those bizarre wilderness camps for drug addicted teens where they learn how to use a compass and a camp stove and somehow overcome the urge for beer. In truth, I’m sure I would still be working in sales, selling a different product. Except this time around, I would try to sell something that more Americans want to buy.
2) What non-work related book did you read last? Did you enjoy it?
Sophie Hannah’s LITTLE FACE. I read it at the same time as a friend who always solves the mystery before it’s revealed, and this book stumped her until the end. I enjoyed it immensely. A very suspenseful crime novel with lots of plot twists and extremely well developed characters.
3) What’s your favorite work-related memory?
I don’t think it’s fair to pinpoint just one. I get an enormous amount of personal satisfaction from working with authors and selling books, seeing those books find readers, and helping to shape careers. The best of these memories are tinged with that sense of inevitability, that I’ve found my calling, the thing I’m good at, and the thing I love. I also met my husband through work, so while those are favorite memories of a different sort, they are mixed up with my job.
4) If you could go anywhere in the world right this minute, where would you go?
Honestly? Right now? I would go to sleep. A most underrated destination.
5) What’s the one interview question you never get asked, but wish that you would?
No one ever asks me if I’ve gone rollerblading lately. If they did, my answer would be YES, yes I have! I was inspired (by a manuscript of all things) to dig through my closet and unearth my rollerblades. To relive the dream of the 90s. I was accompanied on my rollerblade outing by my son, who rode his bike and isn’t old enough to be embarrassed.
6) Who was your all-time favorite co-worker? I mean, in the history of co-workers around the world, who really rocked? We’re talking the best one ever…
There is, obviously, only one right answer to this question: K.L. Going! As assistants we sat across from each for nearly 2 years at Curtis Brown. The view beyond my computer was K.L.’s face. Our downtime was full of wonderful and silly conversations.
Awww… I am honored. Even if I did set you up. But considering the fact that you also worked with your future husband, I wasn’t at all sure I’d win the prize even after my considerable goading. :-}