Interview with an Agent: Jessica Faust, BookEnds, LLC
Jessica Faust of BookEnds, LLC is an agent who knows and loves the romance genre. While BookEnds represents the gamut from romance, women's fiction, mystery, thrillers, and suspense to self-help nonfiction, in Faust’s blog, you can see the attachment toward the genre that we love–romance. When I was at RWA’s National Convention, I had the good fortune to hear Faust speak on the state of erotic romance. She gave it to the authors straight so that they could arm themselves with market information but she also charged them that regardless of the market, a good book will sell.
Jane: Tell us about your background. What made you decide to become a literary agent? How did you get started in your career? What types of books do you primarily agent?
Faust: I began my publishing career in 1994 as an editorial assistant at Berkley Publishing. The two editors I worked for at the time handled primarily romance and mystery including Nora Roberts. Ironically I had not read a lot of either of these genres, but discovered very early on that I loved them both. I always think I got started in publishing as a fluke. To me it was the only road I hadn't yet tried–"I had burned out on newspapers in college and after a quick stint at Woman's World magazine discovered magazines weren't for me. Books seemed the next choice. Luckily it was the perfect fit.
I became a literary agent primarily because I wanted to do things my own way, I didn't want to commute any longer, and I liked the thought of being my own boss. Career-wise, it was the smartest move I've ever made. I love the freedom that owning my own business allows me and the rush of selling a book is much greater than the rush of buying ever was.
I agent the exact same types of books I edited at Berkley: Romance, women's fiction, mystery, thrillers, suspense, and self-help nonfiction.
Jane: What is the primary role of the agent?
Faust: I think that depends on who you ask. I believe that my primary job is author advocate. Selling a book is really the easy part (believe it or not) of an author's career. Keeping that career viable, contract negotiations, working with the publisher to promote and market, hand-holding when necessary. These are all the things an agent does that is her true role. Many unpublished authors look for an agent who will sell their book, failing to recognize how the relationship will unfold once that book is sold or worse, if that book doesn't sell. To put it simply, I think my role is to work with the author to build a long-lasting career.
I know that there has been some discussion about the decline of the slush pile at publishing houses with the move by almost every major publisher to accept only “agented” manuscripts. Is that automatically a good thing for agents?
I wouldn't say it's either good or bad. Once an unagented author sold a book to a publishing house most of them would seek out an agent soon after or even before negotiating a contract. It just makes good sense. It's the perfect time to get an agent on your side and unless you are well-versed in the ins-and-outs of publishing contracts it's best to have someone there who knows the ropes.
Jane: What is the purpose of blogging as an agent? Is it for fun or is it a business tool?
Faust: Neither actually. The original goal of starting the blog was to help teach authors the intricacies of publishing. I don't attend nearly as many writer's conferences as I used to and I felt this was unfair to writers. By attending those conferences I was able to give my very honest input and advice on the publishing industry. The blog is a way for me to do this without logging all of that air time. But it is also fun and good for business. I like the opportunity to connect with writers and hear their stories and I think it's good for people to get to know me before submitting. Hopefully they'll like me too.
Jane: You blogged in June that part of the editing process can involve you, as the agent. At what point do you do this and how do you recognize that the author needs assistance post sale?
Faust: For the most part that's up to the author. I do have clients who want me to read their books and give my opinion before sending it off to the editor. Others feel they have a strong relationship with their editors and don't need my input. It's rare that I insist and author send it to me before passing it to the editor. If I felt it needed that much work, and would need that much work, I would be reluctant to take it on and sell it.
Jane: You've also blogged about your favorite books and the list is broad and eclectic, The House of Mirth, Little Women, Small Vices, Purple Cow, The Foster's Market Cookbooks Can you find a commonality amongst those books?
Faust: I think the commonality among my fiction are strong protagonists. I love a woman with a little sass who can be tough and soft at the same time. Primarily though I just love a book that makes me feel.
Jane: Do you contract with authors you love or that you think are saleable?
Faust: Both actually. I have to love the author's voice and the book first, but I also need to think I can sell it. There are occasions where I might take on a book knowing it's a tough sell but because I love it so much I need to give it a try. It's rare though that I'll take on a book just to sell it. This never happens in fiction, but might occasionally happen in non-fiction, when I know it's something I can sell even if it's not a subject or book I'm passionate about.
Jane: There is a tendency in internet discussions to compare the publisher-author relationship to an employer-employee relationship. Do you think that is a sound analogy? Why or Why not?
Faust: That's really interesting. I've never heard that analogy and I think it's incorrect. The truth is that it's not employer-employee. The author isn't working for the publisher and the publisher is working for the author's book, but not for the author. I think the relationship is more of a partnership. The publisher and the author are working together to make their joint investment a success. The confusion probably comes because the publisher is the one writing the checks, but instead of looking at the publisher as your employer you should look at it as the financer. The publisher is the one in the partnership with the financial backing and the author is the person with the product. Together they are working to make the business they have agreed to form together a success.
Jane: What is your opinion regarding authors on the internet, on blogging, on interacting with fans on a more intimate level than what took place pre blogs and message boards? Do you think an author can hurt her reputation or help it or that it makes no difference?
Faust: I think the Internet and the personal connection authors make with their readers if fantastic. As a reader I love knowing a little bit more about the authors I'm reading. However, there's a danger. Blogging especially gives many authors the feeling of privacy. I see all the time people who've forgotten that they are speaking in a public forum (either on blogs or in message boards) and what is being said is not only read by other writers, but also fans, editors and agents. I think any reputation can be hurt when someone doesn't pay attention to what is said. So while I encourage all of my authors to get involved in Internet marketing I also remind them that it is public and the last thing you want to do is offend your editor, publisher or fans.
Jane: There have recently been rumblings about Wal-mart's change in policy regarding the offering of midlist books at its stores and recent reports that brick and mortar stores are seeing a decline in retail sales even as book sales are increasing (with the gains being made with online vendors and other, non traditional, vendors such as Starbucks). What does this mean for midlist authors and debut authors and for you, as their agent?
Faust: The midlist has been "dead–? for years. Or that's what we've all been saying. It's a struggle and has been for a number of years. It's also a mystery as to what books and authors hit and which ones don't. What I say to my authors and what I say to all authors is that it's important to always think ahead. To be prepared that things might not work as you had planned and to know that it's best to have a secondary plan in place. You might love the series you're writing now, but it never hurts to have a second one waiting in the wings. It's also important for authors to publicize and get the word out as best as possible. Selling your book is the first step in a career, a hard-working career.
Jane: Do you think that the demise of print review sources is going to mean a downturn in overall sales of books? Can the internet make up for the loss?
Faust: Not at all. The world is changing and more people are getting their information from the Internet. The market will definitely change, but I don't think that will have anything to do with fewer reviewers. As long as friends are still recommending books to other friends sales will still be strong.
Jane: You seem to be strongly involved in the romance industry. You represent many romance authors and you have blogged about the romance as a genre. What do you think that it will take for the genre to gain respect? Alternatively, should we care?
Faust: I wish I knew. It's endlessly frustrating for me to defend a genre and an industry I love so much to people who are too narrow-minded to even give it a try. Romance is no better or worse than any other genre–"SF, fantasy, mystery and for that matter even thrillers, children's books or "fiction–? whatever that may be. My question is what more can we do? We are the biggest share of the book selling market, we have national NY Times bestsellers dominating the list week after week, we are some of the top selling books of all time and yet we still need to defend what we do? No, I don't think we should care, but I do. I care very, very much.
Jane: Do you feel that being a female in the publishing industry is an advantage/disadvantage or of no importance?
Faust: Publishing is probably one of the few industries where women dominate. I've never felt that it was an advantage or a disadvantage. I feel it is what it is.
Jane: What is your most interesting story of how you came to represent a client?
Faust: In two instances I actually rejected the author's work and contacted both people later to say that I'd changed my mind. It might sound fickle, but in one instance I couldn't get the author's work out of my head. She was a great writer, but I knew the book she had sent me had a very small batch of publishers I could target. So I made her a deal. I told her I would sell that book to the one small publisher I knew would take it (I did query other larger publishers as well) if she would promise to work up a proposal for a second mystery series that I knew we could sell to a bigger house. She agreed and in one month we had two offers for two different mystery series–"both three-book deals.
The second was an author who came to me with an offer in hand. I liked the work and thought she was a great writer, but was concerned that the market she was targeting was too flooded to really thrive in. I rejected the book, but told me to keep her in mind if things with the agent she chose didn't work out. She emailed me back and said that if I was on the fence maybe I should give it a second look. I did and now we're happily working together. It pays to be persistent.
Jane: What is the best part of being an agent?
Faust: Selling a book, especially a first deal for an author. Nothing beats the rush of getting the offer, calling the author to tell her the exciting news, and negotiating the contract. I love the rush for me, but I really love telling the author the news. Nothing beats letting someone know one of their dreams has come true.
Jane: What is the worst part of being an agent?
Faust: When a book or proposal doesn't sell. I'm the one who has to share the bad news. I share in the author's disappointment, but it's also my loss. I'm upset that I might have lead the author astray and annoyed that editors don't see what I see in the book.
Jane: Do you read for pleasure and if so, what do you enjoy reading?
Faust: I do, all the time. What I read depends on my mood. It's summer so right now I'm reading a lot of thrillers, romantic suspense and other so-called beach reads. In the winter I tend to gravitate toward heavier books–"memoirs, narrative nonfiction or even the classics. In general though I read what I represent–"mysteries, romance, women's fiction and self-help nonfiction.
Jane: If you could change on thing in the publishing industry, what would it be?
Faust: There are so many things. I think ultimately though I would like authors to feel valued. All too often even published authors don't feel like they are a valued or important part of the process and it's a shame. They are the most important piece of the puzzle and it's sad they don't feel that way.