Good morning, folks, and welcome to Special Guest Friday! Today we’re visited by literary agent Holly McClure. Holly’s the author of two novels, Lightning Creek and Secrets and Ghost Horses, and president of the Sullivan Maxx Literary Agency based out of St Simons Island, Georgia. Welcome, Holly!
What made you decide to become a literary agent?
A few years ago, I was approached by an agent who offered me the opportunity to join her agency and learn the ropes in order to take over some of her submissions. I was pretty good at recognizing good writing and helping other writers, had a background in sales, marketing and PR, and was familiar with contracts, so she felt it was a good fit. At the time, I was conference director of Southeastern Writers Association. I thought as an agent I could work with our Southern writers and help them get started in a writing career. After that, I decided to form my own agency in order to have more control over how it was run. [control freak maybe?] I believed that an agent should only make money when she sold a book, and I was committed to that concept. It’s often a very difficult job, but I thoroughly enjoy it. The name come from my middle name, Sullivan, and a family tradition of referring to the McClure clan as the Macs. Some of us shortened it to Max, and added a second x to make it plural. I have plans for a certain family member to join me as soon as she completes her degree in creative writing.
Are there advantages to being based somewhere other than New York City?
There are advantages and draw backs. It’s hard to be a part of the publishing community when you live at a distance. I can’t get in a cab and hand deliver a hot manuscript to an editor or call and invite someone to lunch, but I can invite them to visit me here on this lovely island. I also see editors at conventions etc. In recent years, technology has made it possible to work outside NY. Email, fax machines and cell phones make it possible to stay in touch wherever you are. Besides, there are some very good publishing houses that are not located in New York. It’s sometimes easier for a writer to break into publishing with a regional publisher. Most of all, I like living in the south. Northern winters can be brutal, and I’m happy being where I can stay warm. When we need to go to New York, we can always pay a visit to family living there.
What do you look for in a prospective client?
The most important thing in a writer is, they can write. Wanting to be a writer and knowing how to write, often don’t go hand in hand. Professionalism is very important. If a good writer has a manuscript that’s close but not quite ready, he/she is receptive to suggestions for how to make improvements. They will take advantages of every opportunity to improve their skills. I also look for someone with whom I enjoy working. A professional writer understands that it takes time for a book to sell once it’s submitted and doesn’t start calling a week later wanting to know if I’ve heard from anyone. One of the most rewarding things about being an agent is calling a writer and say, ‘we’ve got an offer on your book.’ If I’d heard anything, I’d be calling at the first possible moment. An agent is as anxious to sell a book as the writer. Remember, that’s the only time either of us gets paid.
You’re a writer as well as an agent. Is it hard to keep the two sides separate?
Being a writer gives me more empathy, which is a two edged sword. I know how it feels to be rejected and hate to do it to a fellow writer but I often have no choice. Some good manuscripts aren’t right for me, some aren’t ready, and some would take more work from me than I have time for. When work backs up and I take a long time responding to submissions, I can’t help feeling guilty. I have to keep the two jobs separate for sanity’s sake. I try to finish all the agency work before I sit down to write, but if a phone call comes, I have to stop writing and focus my attention on business. I also avoid reading manuscripts that are similar to what I write, which isn’t too difficult. My books tend to come from my family background which is so different from most, that my books reflect the difference. I have just completed a book called Promised Child, which was very time and energy consuming. I’m going to put writing aside for a few weeks and focus totally on the agency until the editors get back to me about rewrites. It’s good to take a breather from writing occasionally and put on another hat.
What five works of fiction would you recommend to an aspiring author as “must-reads”?
Of course Mad Kestrel would have to head the list. It’s an excellent pirate fantasy with a female protagonist. Another favorite of mine is A Confederacy of Dunces. I recommend it as an example of a strange and wonderful book that was so difficult to get published that the author gave up and killed himself. His mother kept submitting it until she succeeded. It won a Pulitzer and is still selling years later. I also love Handling Sin. It’s an example of Southern writing that’s done absolutely right. The characters are genuine without being caricatures or clichés. To Kill a Mockingbird is fabulous. Harper Lee was a genius when it came to creating sense of place and writing memorable characters, but I recommend it as a wonderful book to read and enjoy but don’t try to emulate. For that, we need to read books that are being bought now. Writing styles have changed and it’s important to keep up with what’s selling in today’s market. Some of the books we will always love would be hard to sell in today’s market. As a thriller, I like Melanie Rawn’s Spellbinder. The fact that her protagonist is my alter-ego, influenced me a bit. I also like Steve Berry’s The Amber Room, and for Science Fiction, anything by Jack McDevitt. Most of all, I recommend that writers read new books in the genre in which they write. Not that you want to try to write the same thing but it’s a way to keep current. If your work gets dated, you lose readers.
Any funny stories you’d like to share?
A recent submission as an email attachment was too weird to be funny. The query letter said, “ After careful research, I have chosen to allow you to represent my 600 page novel. You will find it attached along with a contract for you to sign, agreeing to obtain a publisher within the next six months. Please return three signed copies along with a detailed marketing plan.” There was more, but I was too busy deleting the whole thing to read anymore. A word of advice, this is probably not the best approach.