by C.J. Houghtaling
"I never quite fully give up on a work, although I have lost several clients because they were unwilling to continue working until that project sold. A writerís job is writing and the writer should continue to write, regardless whether what he/she has written is currently selling." George Nicholson, Sterling Lord Literistic
George Nicholson began in the 1960s as an editor for Golden Books at Western Publishing, then went to Dell and founded Delacorte Press. He also worked as an editor for Holt Rinehart (now Henry Holt) and ultimately came back to Bantam Doubleday Dell.
Eventually I became an agent to lead a life more in line with what I wanted to do, that is working with writers and artists on the artistic level without worrying about inventory and the various non-book problems involved with publishing. If I have a single philosophy it is to help guide and orchestrate the careers of writers.
"Sterling Lord Literistic consists of two firms that merged about 15 years ago. The Sterling Lord Agency had been in the business for 40 plus years and Peter Matson Literistic was also a well-established business. In fact, Peter is the only person I know that actually wanted to be an agent when he grew up.
"Currently the agency consists of 10 agents, including the Charlotte Sheedy Agency, which shares offices with Sterling Lord Literistic.
"The agency is like a co-op umbrella in that it provides services for 600-700 clients, many of whom are very distinguished literary figures. Each agent runs his/her own business in the most effective manner to serve those clients."
"The agency is very much open to new clients. Once in a while I have too many clients, so I must turn down someone that I would otherwise take on, but the number of clients changes periodically for one reason or another and when this happens I am able to take on more clients. Sometimes I find I have taken on a client whose expectations are not the same as mine and we part company. Other times a client's goals change and I can no longer serve him in the capacity he needs.
"We represent fiction and nonfiction for all ages, from the picture book through young adult and adult. We have no particular genre that we are more interested in over another. We have sold everything from science fiction to mystery. It is the general quality of the work that counts. We handle only first class material.
"I prefer to see the entire book. For me, one or two chapters isnít enough to tell whether the book is salable. Besides, the less busy work I can get involved in, the better. If I receive only a partial, and Iím interested enough to ask for the whole book, requesting the rest of the book means more work on my part. But itís different for every agent.
"When we take on a client, the work must basically be in order. We just donít have the time shape a beginning client. Sometimes we put a writer onto a professional editor, if the work warrants it, but we try not to do that often. One of the things that destroys creativity is too many chefs telling the writer what to do.
"Iíll submit a book as many as 10 to 15 times. By the time itís made all the rounds and Iíve read the thing perhaps twice, Iíll put it aside, with the authorís approval. If Iím able to sell something else of the writerís, publishers will be more willing to look at the first piece again with a fresh perspective."
"I have about 100 clients at present that I handle personally, with the help of one assistant. My response time depends. Sometimes it is fairly soon, other times it can take as long as several months. Right now I am somewhat overwhelmed. I have 80-90 full-fledged novels to consider."
"We do not charge reading fees, we donít believe in them. As for other agencies who charge a fee, if they are up front about it and that is their business, then fine.
"I charge 15% commission. We do charge for faxing/photocopying in a limited fashion. If we have a book that is about 100 pages long, and make one copy, then there is no charge. But if we have a book that is 400 pages, and multiple copies are required, then obviously we have to charge a fee. It is spelled out in the agent-writer agreement."
"In the last three weeks Iíve sold two series for middle grade readers. One of the series began as a project over a year ago, from creation to presentation stage. Iíve also sold the last month. All have been sold for fair and substantial amounts."
"Iím bothered by writers who donít do their homework and writers who donít really know what an agent can and cannot do for them. I have to do a lot of homework to know where to submit manuscripts for the writer. Knowing the reputation of the agent or agency, what they require in the way of submissions, is part of the homework a writer must do before even submitting to an agent. Too often the writer is careless about knowing who to submit to and very often sends material to the wrong people. The information they need to know... about who to submit what to... can easily be found by contacting the Authorís Guild."
FIRST NOVEL PROBLEMS
"Coming of Age novels are very common, so itís hard to get a fresh slant on the subject, to do something that hasnít been done before. The fresh or idiosyncratic approach to a subject is what will sell.
"I like to see storytelling that works. What I like is purely personal. If what I see strikes me as good storytelling, then I may well take it on. The first time I read a book, I try to look at it the same way an ordinary reader would. Most readers do not read a book more than once, so I donít tend to look at the technical side of the work until a second read. I like to be entertained and enlightened."
"I love writers conferences that are beautifully organized. At conferences, Iíve met some wonderful writers who eventually became my clients. Conferences that are at a distance can be exhausting, however. While I love to share my knowledge of the industry with writers, itís very intense to talk shop all weekend, making it difficult to go back to work Monday morning feeling rested. I do a lot of my reading on the plane, so that in itself is good.
"At one conference, a guy had an appointment to meet with me for 20 minutes. I read his submission, which was just awful. I asked him how long he had been writing for children, and he said since last night. I had to laugh, but it was hard for me to take this guy seriously. He had paid his money, so was entitled to his twenty minutes. It was very frustrating because instead of spending that twenty minutes talking to a serious writer, I spent that time guiding him to the books he should be reading.
"I think it is important to belong to a writersí group, but it is also important to be your own person. Too many novice writers are uncertain about their skills and pay too much attention to what others say. While it is important to listen to what others say, trust in your own instincts and judgment."
"I love William Trevor, the Irish short story writer. Iíve been reading a lot of Irish writers lately. They bring specific language to a specific vision."
"Have real confidence in yourself as a writer. Follow your own star. Be fierce about what you write and trust it will work.
"For the childrenís writer, The Horn Book is probably the most effective magazine on the market today. Itís full of indispensable material. I read a wide variety of magazines, from the Times Literary Supplement to The Nation and New Yorker. I recommend a writer do the same.
"I wish that more childrenís writers read adult books. The joys of good fiction exists in the works of adult writers. The glory is that most adult writers read as children. The tragedy is many childrenís book writers do not read work for adults. They should intertwine."
George Nicholson can be reached at the Sterling Lord Literistic, 65 Bleecker St., New York, N.Y., 10012, phone: (212) 780-6050.
PO Box 72300
Albuquerque, NM 87195
Toll Free: 1-800-248-2758
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