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Literary agents discuss publishing industry

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Posted: Saturday, March 23, 2013 9:38 pm | Updated: 8:53 pm, Sun Mar 24, 2013.

In an age of overwhelming digital saturation, personal insight is essential to commanding the attention and interest of book agents and publishers. A lack of tact is an oversight — or slight — that can doom a novel.

“You wouldn’t believe how many submissions we get from people who don’t address us by name,” said Howard Yoon, of Ross Yoon Literary Agency in Washington, D.C. “People aren’t doing their research.”

Yoon’s tip and many others were shared Saturday at the Virginia Festival of the Book at an agent’s roundtable held at the Omni Charlottesville Hotel.

Unlike most of the festival’s other events, which are staged around the community, the Saturday afternoon roundtable was not focused exclusively on a book, an author or an experience, but rather the industry itself.

Joining Yoon were Byrd Stuart Leavell of Waxman Leavell Literary Agency in New York, and Bethanne Kelly Patrick, a northern Virginia-based author whose work includes “An Uncommon History of Common Things.” Written with John Thompson, the book highlights inventions and customs throughout human history.

Overall, the panel said the book publishing industry in good health, but with some caveats.

“Things are actually very healthy in terms of readers and in terms of authors,” Patrick said. “What’s sick is the business model of publishing and that’s what I’m finding is so depressing.”

Yoon, who also teaches narrative nonfiction at Georgetown University, agreed, saying the publishing model is widening the gap between the winners and losers. Previously, a mediocre book could sell 5,000 copies. Now Yoon said lackluster literature might sell far fewer than that even with the help of a publisher.

 “But out of that,” Patrick said, “is that there are new things happening all the time with independent bookstores and with people doing direct events.”

“I think the most helpful thing was learning about the relationship between the agent and the author — understanding that the agents themselves have to be very passionate about the novel before deciding what to do with it,” said Myron Ballard, who was among those who attended the roundtable.

Looking ahead, with potential mergers of the half dozen or so major publishers and essentially only one major online distribution and retail model — Amazon — “I think you’ll find people doing a lot more guerilla everything,” Patrick said.

“Our business is commission based … we don’t take on projects that we don’t think we’re going to sell. We can’t afford to,” Yoon said.

For fiction writers unsure if their work will be a page-turner, Yoon suggested a simple test.

 “You have to think, there are other people in the world who are doing this … [so] take your plot, take your characters and ask ‘How many people would realistically read what I’m writing?’”

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