Friday, June 18, 2010
Interview with Christine Witthohn of Book Cents Literary Agency
Oh boy, are you in for a treat today. I talked my awesome agent, Christine Witthohn, into talking a few minutes out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions. Although I actually signed with Christine’s partner in November 2006, I met Christine at Dallas RWA in 2007 and we became fast friends as well as business partners after her partner left the agency that summer.
A little back story on this wonderful woman. Christine always wanted to be a doctor, but after watching her dad die of pancreatic cancer, she decided life was too short and she wanted to do something she really loved – reading books. Better still, she wanted to sell books that had found a place in her heart. After doing her homework for almost four and a half years, including taking extensive contract negotiations courses, she hung out her shingle. Today, she has a great list of authors and is proud of the working relationship she has with each of them.
BTW, some lucky commenter today will get an “on-the-spot” chance to pitch to Christine. Now on to the questions:
Me: Welcome, Christine. I know your time is short, so I’ll get right to the point. Who is your favorite client?
I would have to say the talented and incredible author, Liz Lipperman.
Okay, I can see nobody is buying that and my nose is growing, so I’ll move on to the actual real questions.
Christine: My Texan Fireball has an extra funny bone, but I’m going to answer her question anyway. I don’t have a favorite client – I love’em all. I am very close to the people on my list because they are my teammates/business partners. Truth be told, I’m only as good as my list. I try to treat everyone the same, no matter if they have a hundred books or if they’re a debut author. No two people are the same, but I do treat everyone the way I would like to be treated.
Me: Right out of the gate, everyone wants to know about your sales.
Christine: They are steady, thank goodness – but only because I have fantastic writers on my list. The genres are all over the place because I have such a diverse group. I sold 5 debut authors in a 5 month period, which is huge!
Me: I know you follow AAR guidelines, but are you a member?
Me: We all know from Book Cent’s website –
what you do and do not represent. What I want to know is what genre really excites you?
Christine: That is a tricky question. As you can see from my sales, my tastes vary. No matter the genre, when I read a story it all comes down to one question… can I fight for it? (In this market, that’s exactly what it takes.)
I have also been known to fall in love with someone’s voice
If I had to pick one genre that I tend to lean toward, I would have to say either mystery/suspense or thrillers.
Me: How involved are you in the author’s long-term career? Are you hands on?
Christine: I’m not interested in quick sales (if there is such a thing). I’m interested in long term relationships.
When I sign a client, we become a team. Both members of the team have to bring something to the table in order for the relationship to be successful (and I’m very protective of my teammates.) But, because we are a team… sometimes my role is one of a cheerleader, confidant, editor, mama pit bull, friend, whip master, publicist, or slave labor (at book signings.)
Me: I know you must request partials from the millions of queries you get. Everyone always wants to know what stands out for you. Not me. I want to know what turns you off?
Christine: People who don’t do their homework and waste everyone’s time!
When you get anywhere from 1,000-2,500 e-queries a day, you have to have a way to sort them. Here’s what we do at Book Cents…
When I (or my interns) go through queries, the first thing we pull out is: Dear Mr. Witthohn (last time I checked, I was female); Dear Agent; Dear [insert another agent’s name here]; or a mass query (queries which are sent to the masses and have 20+ agents names listed – none of which even rep the same thing!)
Next, we pull out everything I don’t rep (examples: screenplays, sci fi, erotica, westerns, poetry, novellas, and children’s picture books.)
Next, we pull out everything where the word count is off (examples: 600k thriller, 240k romance, 15k young adult, 1500 word middle grade, etc.)
Next, we pull out “junk drawer genres” (examples: an inspy adventure with erotica; a sci fi romance (with two aliens hooking up) mystery; middle grade where little girl lives on the street and must flee from a violent serial killer (blood and guts shown!)
It all sounds bizarre, I know, but I get things like this every day. There is even one gentleman who sends me the same query every single day. It’s not even something I rep, but I guess he hopes I’ll change my mind!
It takes an incredible amount of time to go through queries and if I don’t keep up with them on a daily basis (after business hours), the pile builds up and becomes an intimidating, agent-eating Query Monster! This is why agents close their submissions periodically :)
Me: What about your contract? Do you rep everything the author has or do you deal one book only?
Christine: I only rep what my teammate and I agree upon (which is most of what they write – unless it’s outside my comfort zone or areas of expertise.)
Me: When you get a new project from one of your authors, how do you choose which publishers to submit to? Do you do a blanket submission?
Christine: When an agent reads a story, they automatically think about the editors looking for that type of story and where they can submit the story.
A good agent never blanket submits. It’s unprofessional. My job is to keep up with an editor’s wants and needs. When I have a honking story I’m excited about, I specifically target the editors I submit to.
I do this by doing my own homework (i.e. – keeping up with what each editor buys; what they tell me they are hunting for; what’s already on their lists, etc..)
Me: Book Cents is a sponsor for the International Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera, Italy every year. Tell us about that and why you are so passionate about that one.
Christine: Yes, Book Cents is one of the main sponsors of the IWFF. I was so impressed after the first year I attended, I became a sponsor! This is my fourth year. The conference is in Matera, Italy (which is a UNESCO World Heritage site) and held in a beautifully restored 16th century convent – complete with arched and vaulted ceilings, private gardens, and a terrace which gives you breathtaking, panoramic views of the Sassi.
This is the only international writer’s conference in the world, and the only conference that puts you squarely in the international marketplace. It’s kind of like being at the UN, with an interpreter’s booth in the back – ready to translate workshops, panels, and various presentations into German, French, English, Spanish, and Italian.
Where else can you sit out on a terrace with breathtaking views, a glass of vino, and chat up a foreign editor about YOUR book? Splurge on a sinful hot chocolate (with a splash of liquor of course) or an espresso while overlooking the Sassi or piazza while discussing what you’re currently working on with a group of agents and editors? Enjoy a mouth watering pizza or sample all the local flavors before you’re off to the IWFF Gala (the Italian equivalent of the Academy Awards – for books!)?
You will never get this kind of one-on-one time with industry pros anywhere else!
For more information on Matera: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matera
For more information on the International Women’s Fiction Festival, Sept 23-26, 2010: http://www.womensfictionfestival.com
If you are a published author and want to increase your sales and get name recognition in the foreign market… this is the conference for you!
Me: Aside from the WFF above, is there a conference you’ve attended that stands out as one an author should think about?
Christine: I go to so many conferences, it just all depends on what you write. If your readers would like to comment and tell me what they write, I’d be happy to make some suggestions.
DISCLAIMER: I do not get a kick back of any kind or from anyone for providing my own opinion on what conferences are really good and/or well organized.
Me: You’ve sold five debut authors in five months. Any ideas about how a debut author can create a buzz for their books?
Christine: The internet! Know it. Use it. Own it.
Me: One final question – what one thing drives you crazy in your job?
Christine: Again… when folks don’t do their homework.
Here is an insider tip to those of you who want an edge: Do your homework!
Know the market (read books in the genre you write) and know your competition.
Me: Okay, that’s a wrap. Thanks for your honest answers.
Christine: Thanks for having me, Liz!
Christine has agreed to answer questions, so fire away, guys. And don’t forget. Some lucky commenter will win an online pitch to Christine today.