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Lit Agent John Talbot Has “Experience and Vision”

Literary Agent and Partner at The Talbot Fortune Agency, John Talbot is proud of what he can offer his clients. In this interview he tells us why being an agent is exciting work, why you should always treat each book like it’s your first book, and about the single best way to impress an editor.


What is your job title at your agency, and can you tell us why you might be the best agent in the universe?

Literary Agent and Partner, The Talbot Fortune Agency LLC.

Would never claim to be the best in the universe but can claim to be a great match, and yes, sometimes the absolute best representative, for the clients who choose to work with me and with the agency. Why? 20+ years in commercial book publishing, half that time as an editor and half as an agent, give me the experience and vision to help clients manage careers for the long haul. I also share my decision-making responsibilities with partner Gail Fortune and our sub rights representative Eileen Laverty, both of whom have similar publishing backgrounds. The needs of each client are different and I try to be responsive to each on an individual basis. Likewise I enjoy delivering to editors and sub rights contacts books they can fall in love with, written by clients who take pride in their professionalism. Sometimes what a client needs most to thrive is simply highlighted information, good advice, and a connection with the right editor. Sometimes they need more than that, and sometimes less; a good agent should know when to step in and when to back off. My job is to be an advisor and mediator, to be professional and yet personal with my service, to get the best writing out of my clients, and, most importantly, to convey my passion for their work to our friends on the other side of the desk — then get the best deals possible. I have plucked “ready made” bestsellers from the slush pile, and I have developed projects from scratch that have earned large advances and significant royalties for my clients. No day is ever the same in this business: experience, judgment, flexibility, contacts, and long-term relationships are crucial. Yet on any given day a sparkling new discovery can land in my in-box and turn everything deliciously upside down. That’s why I love this business.

Are you psyched about new digital tech like the Kindle and other ebook readers?

I love the new technologies. On any given day I’ll read from a hardcover, a paperback, my computer, my iPhone, my Kindle, and hard copy manuscripts. Multiple platforms expand the overall marketplace, they put words in more places and in front of more eyeballs. As an agent, you just want to make sure your clients are getting compensated properly for these platforms. Unfortunately also, piracy has become a problem that the entire industry must work to address.

What kinds of books are likely to get published? What do editors want to work on right now?

I think I know but I’m keeping it a secret… No, honestly, I only know what’s hot for me and what might be hot for the editors I’m working with and submitting to. For me lately I’ve done very will with big thrillers and with cozy mysteries. I’ve also got some neat literary nonfiction narratives I’m just sending out.

As an editor I published Tom Perrotta’s first three books and would love to find someone similar to work with as a client. I really, really enjoy sports books; also biographies, history, immersive journalism, and current events. Business books and high-concept self-improvement. I could always use more submissions in those categories.

How has your agency tried to prepare for the economic changes in the publishing industry? And what advice do you give your writers to keep them from subsisting only on Ramen noodles?

Focus intensely on growing my own business and that of my clients. This is still a multi-billion dollar industry; if you use good judgment, are perseverant, and a little bit lucky, you can still create wealth for your clients.

I don’t know too many writers who haven’t gone through a Ramen stage at some point or other, and I’m not against counting pennies even if you’ve got a comfortable life. But in terms of what a writer can control — the words on the page — I would say to hold nothing back. Look at the editorial suggestions you’ve been given, whether in a writing workshop, by your agent, or most especially by your editor, and push the ones that resonate with you right to the edge. Go over the top, make it bigger, bolder, more beautiful, and more emotionally felt. No one wants a tepid manuscript; at least I don’t. I do want to laugh, cry, and have the crap scared out of me. Don’t hold back. (That doesn’t mean you have to overwrite, either; Joan Didion is about as bracing a read as can be, yet look for a wasted word or an overstatement and you won’t find one; she pushes the envelope though, doesn’t she?)

Oh, and the single most appreciated trait by an editor? Meet your deadlines. Treat every book as if it’s your first book and your last, put your heart and soul into it, and nail the deadline… Not much to ask, I know.

And finally, if an editor throws a project or an idea your way, do give it your greatest consideration before deciding how to proceed. Sometimes that idea can develop into an author’s best book; sometimes it’ll just pay bills till the next big deal comes along. Either situation could be helpful for you in the long run.

What should writers to (or not do) when they try to get in touch with you?

Via email query as per the guidelines on our Web site.

When my response gets spam-blocked and bounced back to me because the author hasn’t cleared my email address with their mail server. Grrr.

Before we go, could you tell us an interesting fact about yourself?

I love romantic comedies. Also hockey. Not sure if these are mutually exclusive.

John Talbot is a literary agent and former book editor with 20+ years of publishing experience. His clients include several New York Times and USA Today bestsellers, National Book Award Finalist Clarence Major, National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee Bruce Bawer, New England Book Award winner Suzanne Strempek Shea, and Coffeehouse Mystery bestseller Cleo Coyle. He is a member of the AAR. Prior to becoming an agent John spent three years with Pocket Books and seven years with Putnam Berkley (now part of Penguin USA), where he rose to the rank of senior editor and worked with such major bestselling authors as Tom Clancy, W.E.B. Griffin, and Jack Higgins, as well as rising literary stars such as Tom Perrotta. He edited over a dozen national bestsellers and had five New York Times Notable Books for the Putnam, Berkley, and Riverhead imprints. He began his editorial career at Simon & Schuster/Prentice Hall Press. Before getting into publishing he spent a year working for TDK in their Mikumagawa plant in Hita City, Japan. John received his B.A. in English Composition from DePauw University and also spent semesters at Washington University in St. Louis and Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan.

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