Today at Literary Labors we’re happy to interview Alice Speilburg. Not too long ago, she and her husband relocated from the New York City area to Louisville, where she started her own literary agency. A Kentucky native, Alice shares her insights about the publishing world today, as well as a host of other topics, including the advantages of starting up an agency in a medium-sized city. She is closed to queries till January 12, 2015, but after that you can reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for joining us today, Alice!
You often hear about children wanting to be writers or famous authors, but you generally don’t hear about young people aspiring to be literary agents. Was that different for you? Was being an agent something you always wanted to do, or was it something you grew into?
When I was a young reader, I figured out that there are people out there who read books to see whether they might make a good movie, and I thought that would be the coolest job. It seemed almost too good to be true. But it wasn’t until I worked in the editorial department at a publishing house that I discovered the titles of those jobs that handle various book rights – literary agents and literary scouts – started doing informational interviews, and ended up working for a literary agency in Brooklyn.
So, not too long ago you started your own literary agency – and not in one of the major literary centers in the United States. Can you tell us a little about your professional background and what led you to open your own agency?
It’s true, New York City is the end all be all of publishing centers. I moved there shortly after I graduated college and started working at John Wiley & Sons, Inc., a nonfiction publisher. After three years, I wanted to try the agent side of publishing and became an assistant at Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. It’s a very small company, and Howard was a wonderful mentor who, after about a year, encouraged me to take on a few of my own clients. I always planned to launch my own agency eventually, but it was actually Hurricane Sandy that precipitated the transition. My home in Hoboken, NJ flooded, and my husband and I decided move away from NYC, closer to family.
What are the advantages of operating as a literary agent in a medium-sized city, as opposed to somewhere else like New York City? How about the challenges?
When I launched Speilburg Literary Agency, I wasn’t sure how the location would affect me, I just knew that I wanted to continue representing authors and working with books and publishers. As it turns out, the advantages to being a literary agent in a mid-size city outweigh the challenges: the rent is more affordable, the literary community is tighter and consequently more welcoming, and I have a greater opportunity to make an impact in that community and connect to local authors who wouldn’t have necessarily submitted to me among all of the other NYC agents. I’m sure there are also authors who don’t submit to me because I’m not in NYC, and I do have to make regular trips to the city to meet with editors, but the day-to-day work on email and over the phone is the same.
Most everybody is aware that things have been changing in the publishing industry, especially in the last decade or so, and often we hear how it’s impacted writers and the publishing houses. But what about the literary agencies? What would you say? Has the change been mostly good or bad? Or is it a little bit of both?
Most changes that impact writers and publishers also affect literary agents. When publishing houses merge and consolidate imprints, I may lose an imprint or an editor that I wanted to send a client’s book to. But with the rise in digitial publishing and the reemergence of quality small presses, it also means that if that client’s book doesn’t sell to one of the big houses, we still have options for a national distribution and quality production. I have to stay on top of changing landscape to know how to advise my clients, but the changes aren’t necessarily good or bad, just inevitable.
One of the changes we’ve seen involves the enormous growth in self-publishing and print-on-demand services – parts of the industry that ostensibly don’t require literary agents. Why should writers today still consider getting an agent to represent their work?
Self publishing is a wonderful option for a lot of writers, especially those who are business savvy, have good marketing skills, and are writing in digital-friendly genres like romance, mystery, fantasty, self-help. If you’d rather not manage the freelance editors, designers, distributors, publicists and the contracts that go along with all of those vendors, or you want national print distribution, it’s going to be difficult without an agent.
When you’re looking to represent someone, what are you looking for in a client? Could you describe your ideal client?
I’m looking for talented writers, of course, but also writers who are willing to work on honing their craft, those who put their name out there and connect with readers, and those who will take my advice seriously. I also want clients who have writing goals, and would like to become career authors.
Are there any new trends in the literary world that you could share? What is it that agents and publishers are really looking for nowadays? What kinds of things won’t be selling in 2015?
At this point it’s easier to say what won’t be selling. Dystopians, especially in Young Adult, are still very difficult, have been for about a year or so now. There was a flux of WWII novels for a while, so those are difficult to sell now unless they have a very fresh, unique perspective. Contemporary realistic fiction is still very popular, though editors also have an interest in “genre-bents” or “fantasty/sci-fi lite.” Basically not your traditional epic fantasy or futuristic sci-fi, but something that might have some of those elements woven into a contemporary story.
Where do you see yourself and your agency in five years?
In five years, I’d like to see the agency grow, to take on a junior agent and have more defined subject areas. I expect it will still be in Louisville. As a Kentucky girl who once tried and failed to find a local book-publishing job, I’d love to be able to provide that to some budding editor or agent in the area.
And let’s get a little cliché now: Any advice you’d like to offer aspiring writers and those who might be at that point where they’re starting to look for an agent?
Yes! Find your local literary community and connect with other writers. Ask your library or bookstore about writing critique groups and attend writing conferences. Fellow writers can give you great feedback, and if one of them finds an agent or a publisher, they might recommend your work to the pros, which will give you a foot in the door.
Finally, let’s close with our obligatory set of questions:
Have you read A Confederacy of Dunces, our literary inspiration here at Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip)? Do you like cheese dip, by the way? Do you have a favorite cheese dip recipe you could share with us?
Alas, I have not read A Confederacy of Dunces, but I do love cheese dip. When I lived up in Hoboken, I threw a Kentucky Derby Party each May, complete with mint juleps, derby pie, mini hot browns, and of course, beer cheese dip. I believe this recipe comes from the Cabbage Patch Circle’s Famous Kentucky Recipes book, compiled in 1952.
2 lbs. good quality Cheddar Cheese.
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 onion, chopped
1 tsp. Worcestershire Sauce
1/4 tsp. Cayenne Pepper
1/4 tsp. Tabasco Sauce
1/2 tsp. salt
1 bottle stale beer
Grind together the cheese, garlic and onion in a food processor. Mix in the Worcestershire, the Tabasco, the Cayenne, salt and beer until soft and well blended. Put the Beer Cheese into small crocks and refrigerate, tightly covered, until ready to serve.
Alice Speilburg is a literary agent at Speilburg Literary Agency and has worked in publishing since 2008. She is a member of Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, and Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators, and she is a board member of Louisville Literary Arts. She is currently building her client list and represents a wide range of fiction and nonfiction. For more information, please visit her website or connect to her on Twitter @AliceNicoleH.