Charlotte Gusay started out as a bookseller at her own book shop and soon turned her love for books into a successful literary agency. In our interview with Gusay, she tells us why she says the iPad and Kindle might be the best outlets for books, why she’s always on the look out for books with film potential and her love for Greek.
What do you think makes you unique as an agent, Charlotte? I am an excellent literary agent because I know how to sell books — from the trenches, having been a successful bookstore owner, literary salon host, sought after and opinionated bookseller at my beloved bookshop – George Sand, Books â€“ here in Los Angeles for many years. I learned the publishing business inside and out during those twelve exciting years. When Steve Martin, Jackson Brown, Aaron Spelling and his wife, Brooke Shields, Jodie Foster, Barry Manilow, Robin Williams, Jerzy Kosinski, Leonard Cohen, Allen Ginsberg, Daryl Hannah, “Princess Leah,”(and many many many more people of note) as well as all my faithful book reading, intelligent, super interesting customers, all were frequent and repeat clients in my shop, I knew I was doing everything right. Often, such as these came in just to see â€“ and buy – my new fiction selections. When I became a literary agent, it was easy because I knew which publishers published which books and who bought them. And did I have a great Rolodex. (Do we have those anymore?) I must emphasize I am also an excellent literary agent because I am VERY selective and demand superb writing. No matter what.
Charlotte, what have you done to brace yourself for the economic changes to the industry? What can authors do to avoid eating Ramen noodles and counting pennies?
Well ,Jeff? I wish I could answer this with any degree of intelligence. Not a lot has actually changed. We’re all in this business because we believe in books, Literature (with a capital “L”), writing, writers and the intelligence of all of these. How will our great American (and world) culture be perpetuated without the guidance of books we can hold in our hands and go to bed with? What can authors do? The same, just keep writing. FYI: I like ramen and I’ve always counted penniesâ€¦.well now it’s more like dollars. This culture of excess offends my sense of the beauty of lean and spare in any aspect of my life. It seems we should all learn to practice “lean and spare.” It seems that writers might incorporate the beauty of “lean and spare” in their writing and write exquisitely (always) books that are cleanly edited, have a saleable hook, and set forth a well-outlined and clear platform and most of all, write books that are important. Easy for me to say, right?
What do you think about all these technological changes happening? How have they changed the marketplace, Charlotte?
Kindle, iPhones, eBooks? I think we best get used to these new outlets for our writing and books and movies. And so be it. I’m excited by them. One marvelous example: The Kindle for example now allows my wonderful mother-in-law â€“ who has a degenerative eye problem – to read her beloved books (if they are available of course in the format of her reader.) She is ecstatic. How great is that? These wonderful changes springing up are bringing about new literary perspectives, new writing venues, new publishing frontiers. I love for example the novels that are being written on cell phones. How inventive is that? Lean and spare, of course. Why not? Bring ‘em on. But the publishers better pay my clients well for the use of any of their writing, whether on the page, in a book, in an eBook, or on the wire. Right-O !
What’s hot now, what are editors looking for? And what type of manuscripts and proposals are you currently looking for that never seem to get?
What’s hot now? Your guess is as good as mine. Trends come and go. Editors want the next great thing. They want book proposals to be au courant! Smart! Relevant! Above all, they want writing that sweeps them away and is totally saleable. And they want the authors to prove to them how they are going to sell great numbers of their books with a well-outlines “platform.” But these trends are nothing new. These have always been what editors want. As for me? I want the same: I look for authentic, original, important work and themes. These don’t come along so often. And when they do, I must recognize them, define them, and SELL them. Hello. For example, I adore memoirs but really really good ones are few and far between. I have one I’m working on at the moment about an aristocratic childhood in England by a bright English writer who now lives in America. Beautifully written, it’s the flip side of The Glass Castle. Who would have thought that such a book as The Glass Castle would have become a “bestseller” and enamored to so many? So it’s my job to recognize something so moving and extraordinary, and get the attention of the publishers to understand its potential. Ay ! That’s the trick.
What’s the best way for writers to approach you? And what’s one of your pet peeves when writers query you?
Well there’s the usual way of approaching me: Send a stunning, intelligent, succinct (one-page) query letter with some succinct biographical info (firstname.lastname@example.org) and make it good. If we’re interested, we’ll send the writer instructions for submitting. Writers might be advised to have a look at the agency website â€“ www.gusay.com – to see what sorts of books I’ve been involved with previously. Sometimes I develop books on a subject I’m interested in or I think is important. For example: On my website, have a look at Forty-One Seconds to Freedom by Peruvian Vice President Luis Giampietri. I developed that book with his co-author and Ballantine published this amazing book based on an absolutely fabulous and thorough proposal written by Luis’ co-author Bill Salisbury. It took us about a year to develop that proposal. But without that proposal there is no way a publisher would have understood the excrutiatingly, complicated story. So the proposal is key. This was an important book, an astonishing story never told, and Bill Salisbury understood the importance of writing a super, thorough proposal–following exactly all of my guidance–and then he wrote the book with all excellence: it reads like a novel and is so exciting it’s poised to be made into a movie. Likewise, the excellent book about to come out in June entitled Wild West 2.0 was similarly developed. Have a look. But for a great amount of the time, I often find writers and projects via the query process. My pet peeve for queries? People who do not follow instructions. There’s a reason we ask writers to follow procedure. Grrr.
And finally, what is something about you that very few people know?
Here’s something not too many people know about me: There’s a book published in Greece called Greek in Twenty-Five Years. Well, I’ve been trying to learn Greek for twenty-five years, or about that long. Please don’t laugh. It’s really hard.