Interview: Miriam Goderich, Vice President Jane Dystel Literary Management

By Laura A. Hazan

The song New York, New York goes something like this: “If I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you, New York, New York.” That pretty much sums up the feelings of many writers, too. Breaking into the elusive New York publishing world equals success, and the highly sought after New York literary agent is the first step to making it there.

Obtaining a New York agent isn’t easy, but it is possible with concise, error-free queries, a well-written story and a professional demeanor, advises Miriam Goderich. She should know—she is a New York literary agent. Goderich, Vice President, Dystel and Goderich Literary Management (DGLM), started as an assistant to Dystel and 13 years later is her partner in the agency. DGLM has over 300 clients, between 100–150 are active.

Goderich and the three other agents at JDLM receive 300–400 queries a week. “People overdo it,” Goderich said. A professional one-page query letter with some precise details about the project and relevant information about the author, free of typos and grammatical errors, will be given proper consideration. Complete submission requirements are available on www.dystel.com.

Goderich feels that the query letter is one of the most important documents in the publishing process. She recommends having letters, outlines and synopsis proofread and critiqued just like a manuscript. Many of JDLM’s queries are unsolicited; others come from referrals and contacts made through conferences. Be patient, JDLM will respond to every query they receive, but it may take 3–4 weeks.

Goderich knows she wants to see the complete manuscript when that one letter “sticks in my mind. If I’m still thinking about the concept or the character a day or two later I know I need to see more.” Once JDLM receives the complete manuscript it may take up to 6 months for them to decide to represent it, especially for an unpublished writer.

“It is harder to sell them to publishing houses. Publishers want return on investment,” and with new writers there is little guarantee that will happen. New writers also present other challenges, such as “educating them on various aspects of the industry” Goderich explained. “Like any business, with some experience you know what to expect, what to ask and what to do.” Unpublished writers simply need more guidance.

Nonfiction works dominate JDLM’s client list (available on dystel.com). “Nonfiction is about 80 times easier to sell then fiction,” Goderich said. Most agencies survive on their nonfiction sales. As a writer of nonfiction “all you need is the proper credentials and a good idea,” Goderich explained. Fiction needs a compelling storyline, terrific characters and, to show that the rest of the novel will hold up, it “really does need a good opening. A great opening is not always about the writing, it can be about setting or characters,” Goderich said. On rare occasions if a manuscript has a strong character but a weak story or vice versa, Goderich might make suggestions and ask to see the manuscript again. She has even come across manuscripts with solid writing that don’t work for the agency at that time and “told the writer that I would love to see anything else they do.”

JDLM sells about 90 books a year. Together with their clients, JDLM agents edit and revise manuscripts to ensure that a strong project is being presented to the marketplace. They are currently marketing mainstream and literary fiction, and their nonfiction areas of interest are parenting, cooking, nutrition, politics, health and women’s issues. “The market is great, we’e done well this year. Even fiction is doing better,” Goderich stated. Occasionally “publishers come up with ideas and call us looking for a writer,” Goderich said. While this is not a common occurrence, it demonstrates the importance of a well-connected agent.

Goderich advises writers to do their homework before contacting an agent. Read the agency’s listing in Writer’s Market or check their website– make sure they market what you write, and if possible, stick with agents that are members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). “AAR is a good way to weed out fly-by-night agents and those that charge reading fees. As a writer you should never pay reading fees. AAR will also answer questions you may have about an agency,” she stated.

Goderich also suggests writers read everything, to help keep current and generally aware of what is being published. She also recommends reading other recent works of fiction and nonfiction because reading good writing often benefits the project a writer is working on. “We even have a book club in our agency to help us keep up on newly published works,” she said.

“The center of the publishing community is New York. It is an old-fashioned sort of business with a lot of face-to-face meetings and lunches,” Goderich explained. That sort of networking is why a New York literary agent is so important.

Keep sharpening those queries and maybe you will find yourself represented by a New York agent and one step closer to making it there.

After years of being surrounded by books in her career as a librarian, Laura Hazan has taken a hiatus to write a book of her own. Laura is currently working on her first novel and pursuing opportunities in freelance writing.