Evan Gregory began at Ethan Ellenberg in 2008. He is currently expanding his client list. He has widespread interests including: FICTION – Horror, Mystery, Thrillers, Science-fiction, Fantasy, Women’s literature. NONFICTION – Arts, Cinema, Photography, Biography, Memoir, Business, Investment, Cooking, Food, Wine, Health, Diet, History, Nature, Ecology, Parenting, Family, Politics, Current affairs, Pop culture, Entertainment, Science, Technology, Sports
Travel, World cultures. CHILDREN’S and Y/A – Picture books, Early readers, and Middle grade.
Thank you, Evan, for joining us here at WomenWritersWomen[‘s]Books!
ON THE LETTER –
What common mistakes do you see in query letters? Do you have any querying pet peeves?
I think the most common thing is oversharing on personal details, or being too long-winded. People get nervous and they write me their whole biography and a long synopsis of their work, when what I really need is a concise description of the kernel of their story.
A query should be a brief enticement for me to read further, with synopsis and material being provided after. And if the book is as good as the query, then I’ll be glad to hear about how you’ve been writing since you were in 8th grade when I call to offer representation.
I get upwards of 80-120 query emails a day, and I don’t want to miss anything magical, but I also don’t have the luxury of poring over a personal essay about one’s writing process. The other big mistake people make is being so brief that they are nonsensical, and listing things that are in their book without actually describing the characters, conflict, or plot.
Can you think about a query or two that dramatically rose out of your slush? What made them stand out?
I’ve read a lot of really great query letters for projects that just didn’t meet my standards upon further inspection. I think it’s possible to focus too much on getting the query letter perfect, when it just needs to merely be effective. I couldn’t point to one of my clients that I drew from the slush and say “that was such an exceptional query letter I had to take them on”.
A query letter is just a tool, like a hammer. It doesn’t need to be made of silver, and a filigreed teak handle, it just has to be able to hammer a nail in without disintegrating in your hands. A good work will shine through even a pedestrian query letter, so long as the query faithfully represents the work and doesn’t embellish or omit.
Do you have a preference between the personalization sentence (e.g., We met at such and such; Upon personal reference from your client XYZ; My work is similar in subject matter and tone as your client’s literary novel ABC, etc.) at the beginning of the query before the pitch or after in the bio?
I don’t, and I don’t care about personalization. I’m primarily concerned with the quality of the work, and you don’t need to know anything about me aside from that fact to get my attention. Which isn’t to say I don’t appreciate a writer who does research, but I don’t need to have my ego stroked hearing about why I made your top ten list of agents to submit to. If you were referred, you may mention it. If we’ve met, you may remind me. Apart from that, it’s a distraction. I want querying authors to get to the point.
What is your preferred query format?
I only accept queries via email, though my agency does accept paper submissions, and sometimes those paper submissions are forwarded to me. All other matters regarding specific formatting are in our submission guidelines on our website.
When an author has split with his or her agent and is querying for another, should he or she mention this in the query letter? Are those authors at a disadvantage?
I don’t know that such information is useful in a query, but I don’t think it puts authors at a disadvantage, either. It’s definitely something to mention if I offer representation, but not something that is necessarily required in the query letter unless the project you’re submitting was shopped by a previous agent and every editor in town has already seen it.
ON CLIENTS & MANUSCRIPTS –
Writers know they should label their work according to genre yet some genres are more clear cut than others. What makes a story commercial, upmarket, or literary? How does a writer know how to describe their own work?
I would advise authors to leave marketing to the marketers. If there is an umbrella term for your genre, then it’s best to use that and not get too granular about sub-genre. If you have trouble figuring out which genre your book falls into, check Amazon for comparable books/authors and see what umbrella genre they fall under and pick whichever sounds closest.
If that fails, just eschew talking about genre at all, and use comparable works to situate your book. Just be sure when you choose comparable works to use contemporary examples (i.e. don’t compare your book about whaling to Moby Dick), and use works that are less broad (i.e. don’t compare your middle-grade fantasy to Harry Potter because they’re both middle-grade fantasies and you want to be a millionaire).
What is going on in the Children’s market right now? Middle Grade?
I don’t think there’s one trend to watch out for in Children’s and MG, except for general expansion and diversification. Children’s market is really three markets segmented by age (0-2, 3-5, 6-8) and MG is two markets (upper and lower). Each market is further complicated because it depends not just on the tastes of the intended readers (see: young people) but their parents, librarians and educators.
In many ways Children’s/MG markets can seem very static (take a look at Children’s and MG best-sellers and you’ll see a lot of familiar faces holding the top spots) and that part of the market is driven by nostalgia of adults making purchasing decisions for children in their lives. But there is also tremendous dynamism in Children’s and MG, because kids are voracious readers, materials are typically short and consumable, and as children grow they need age-appropriate material to read.
There are also a slew of new branded/franchise materials available for the Children’s and MG markets which complicates the picture. New original works for children really have to stand out, know their intended readers, and serve the needs of both the retail and school/library markets. Aside from general admonitions about age appropriateness, not condescending to young readers, and shying away from shopworn tropes, there’s not much advice I have to give aside from be original, do good work, and if you’re writing upper MG fantasy focus on the story and don’t worry about the word count until you reach 100,000 words.
What are some common problems you see in manuscripts, clients included?
For submissions, books that are too short (your “novel” is really a novella) or too long (your “novel” is really a trilogy) are most common. There are a slew of first-time author mistakes I could catalog, but most people have heard them. In terms of the sneaky common problems that vex even seasoned authors, the ones I see most are, flaws in characterization, uneven pacing, and unbalanced exposition.
Characters must be consistent, and when they make decisions solely to serve the plot it’s noticeable. Pacing should be even, you don’t want to rush headlong towards a conclusion that seems to pat, but you also don’t want to bore your readers to death with long detours that don’t serve to move the plot forward. Exposition is necessary to set a scene, but too much can suffocate the narrative, choosing what to reveal and what to withhold is a delicate art and it’s easy to fail at it.
In opening pages?
Good opening pages are like walking past an open door to a room where something fascinating is happening. If your pages don’t produce in the reader a curiosity, or a desire, they’ll never cross the threshold to see what’s going on inside your book. Errors I see the most in opening pages are: failing to start the story where the story starts, telling instead of showing, burying the lede, and focusing on a protagonist’s thoughts/feelings without having them act on them.
I don’t need to read about your protagonist’s morning bathroom routine, or their commute. Character building isn’t something that happens independently of plot. To take the existentialist approach, your characters are what they do, and if they’re not doing anything then your book is going nowhere fast.
So, first thing is to start the story where the story starts. Your character has to be getting into something they then have to get themselves out of. You start as they get into it, you don’t start the day before when they are thinking about getting into it. When they get into it, show them getting into it, don’t spend your first pages explaining away what it is they’re getting into before they’re in it. Don’t have your character get into something trivial, then get out if it, then have them get into the thing you really want to focus on. Don’t spend your first pages describing the thoughts and feelings of a character that is static (a character opining as they stare into the mirror is a common bad beginning).
ON BEING AN AGENT –
I noticed your agency, like many agencies these days, offers a form of agent assisted self-publishing, can you tell me more about that?
My preference as an agent is to work with a client and a publisher on a shared vision. I believe that publishing is at its best when it is a collaboration between professionals who are all trying to do their best to usher good art into the world. Technology has progressed sufficiently enough that it’s easier for artists to interact directly with their patrons in nearly every medium, and self-publishing has become increasingly popular and for very good reason.
Publishing is selective and exclusive, because it’s not economically feasible to publish most books and hope to recoup the expenses of a payroll, materials, and distribution. Some books can take the shorter route between artists and patrons via electronic distribution networks, and some authors have the suitable entrepreneurial disposition to act as their own publisher.
Not everyone, however, has that same entrepreneurial spirit. Sometimes a client has a book for which there may be a substantial enough readership for them to profit generously directly, but not substantial enough for a publisher to be reasonably assured of a profit above their overhead. For clients that wish to write for a living, and not be their own publisher in addition, our agency lends its experience in publishing and avails itself some tailor-made tools afforded us by digital distributors interested in attracting talent to their platform.
There are also opportunities for clients who have long backlists a publisher no longer can afford to support, but that can still generate a lot of income if they remain available to readers. That is the impetus behind Agent Sponsored Publishing. While it’s not the main focus of our agency, it is an important new tool we can wield on behalf of our clients, and one that has proven fairly successful. We’re very proud of the success of Dennis E. Taylor’s WE ARE LEGION (WE ARE BOB) as an example. The novel broke the top 100 on Amazon, and continues to sell well enough that Taylor is planning a sequel. We’ve also been able to reclaim rights and re-release beloved novels by Ian M. Douglas, Bertrice Small, and Madeline Baker that otherwise may have become unavailable to readers.
More and more literary agents (as well as those of us in many other industries) are working remotely or based in cities other than New York. How does that work? Are New York and London still the hubs of the publishing industry? Do non-NYC/London agents have as much exposure to editors?
Like with most industries a majority of the day-to-day business of publishing is conducted via email, and over the phone (but mostly email). While there are still some agents who do very well pitching books over lunch, it’s becoming increasingly uncommon, especially in the newer generation. I like to joke that this shift is attributed to publishers tightening their belts and reducing expense accounts, but it’s just as likely that we can all get more done in a day if we aren’t taking meetings all the time.
Living in the same city as your counterpart is no longer as much a necessity. As far as building relationships, there are lots of opportunities for agents and editors to interact at conferences and expos, and if there’s ever a thorny issue that needs to be discussed face-to-face, plane tickets are a tax-deductible business expense.
What client-work is out now or coming soon that we should be on the look for?
Thoraiya Dyer’s CROSSROADS OF CANOPY is out at the end of January and has landed on few must read lists and has a slew of good reviews. Zero Punctuation’s Yahtzee Croshaw will be releasing his third novel WILL SAVE THE GALAXY FOR FOOD in February. Marko Kloos’ most recent Frontlines novel with the appropriately badass title of FIELDS OF FIRE will also be out end of February.
Lace-up or Slip-on Shoes?
Lace up. I abhor sandals, too.
Cookie or Cake?
Cake, preferably, though I will gladly accept a cookie too.
Snow or Sand?
Sand. I’m a Southern Californian, so I love the desert and the beach. But not sandals. I know, weird.
Football or Futbol?
Football. I’m a San Diegan, so I’m kind of a man without a country at the moment with the Chargers moving to L.A. (boo! Dean Spanos boo!)
We can’t thank you enough, Evan, for dropping in. Welcome to the WWWB family!
SUBMISSION GUIDELINES –
Email queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Evan will only accept email submissions. You may however, send submissions by mail to other agents at the agency according to the guidelines found at the following address: http://ethanellenberg.com/submission-guidelines/
For email submissions, paste all materials into the body of the email in the order mentioned below. For example, if you were submitting fiction you would begin with a brief query letter, followed by your synopsis, followed by the first 50 pages of your manuscript. He will not open attachments.
For fiction, your submission should include:
-a brief query letter
-a synopsis (1-2 pages long)
-the first 50 pages (approximately) of your manuscript
For nonfiction, please include:
-a brief query letter
-a book proposal (outline of the material, sample chapters, author bio, etc.)
For picture books, please include:
-a brief query letter
-complete manuscript (text only)
– 4-5 images of sample illustrations pasted into the body of the email
Illustrators, please send:
-a brief query letter
-4-5 images of sample illustrations pasted into the body of the email
-Link to online portfolio (if applicable)
Because of the large volume of email the agency receives I will not respond to your email unless interested. If you do not hear back from me after two weeks from sending your submission, you can safely assume that I am not interested in that project. You may submit to me again if you have a new project you think might interest me or the agency, but please do not submit the same project to the agency multiple times, and please do not submit more than one project at a time.
Evan is not interested in…
Interviewed by –
MM Finck is a writer, essayist, and offers query letter coaching and developmental editing as The Query Quill. She leads WWWB’s Interviews and Agents’ Corner segments. Her women’s fiction is represented by Katie Shea Boutillier of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.
She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and the contest chair for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association 2016 Rising Star Award for unpublished women’s fiction. Her work has appeared in national and regional publications, including skirt! magazine.
When she isn’t editing her novel, #LOVEIN140, you can find her belting out Broadway tunes (off key and with the wrong words), cheering herself hoarse over a soccer match (USWNT!), learning to play piano (truly pitifully), building or fixing household things, and trying to squeeze more than twenty-four hours out of every day.