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HELEN BREITWIESER
Agent, Cornerstone Literary

November 2010

 

Helen Breitwieser WG:      Welcome, and thanks for stepping into my spotlight this month.

WG:      To start off, please tell us a bit about yourself.

HB:      My first job after graduating college was working as an in-house "temp" at the William Morris Agency in New York. You were called a "floater" and worked in the various departments covering a desk when an assistant was out sick. While I waited for a desk in the literary department to become available, I had the opportunity to work for some amazing agents who handled rock musicians, screenwriters, playwrights, actors and directors. I was also very lucky that I eventually was hired by Owen Laster, who was the Head of the Literary Department, be his assistant. He is a true gentleman and was an extraordinary mentor. I handled magazine and audio deals for his clients Ralph Ellison, Gore Vidal, Dominick Dunne, James Michener and was fortunate to meet all of these literary luminaries. It was the equivalent of going to graduate school. Then I was promoted to agent and developed my own list of authors. In 1998 I married a television producer who was based in Los Angeles so I left to start my own boutique agency on the West Coast.

WG:      Can you tell us why you decided to pursue a career as an agent and what steps you took to get you where you are today?

HB:      I was a double major at Barnard College, English and German. I was considering going to law school because I was enjoying the paralegal work I did during the summers at a law firm on Wall Street. But the lawyers kept telling me they were miserable; they loved the creative challenges of law school but felt like a cog in the wheel at a big firm. While writing my senior thesis on Wallace Thurman and some of the other writers of the Harlem Renaissance, I happened to read a profile of the incredible literary agent Lynn Nesbit in a now-defunct magazine, Manhattan, inc. I thought, if Lynn Nesbit had represented Wallace Thurman, he would have been a New York Times bestselling author! It was the first time I became aware that such a career existed and it involved things I loved to do - read, advocate great writing, negotiate and draft contracts.

WG:      What genres/lines do you currently represent?

HB:      Children's books (YA and middle grade fiction), graphic novels, historical fiction, mysteries, romance, thrillers and women's mainstream fiction.

WG:      Are you interested in expanding into other genres, and if so, which ones?

HB:      I'd like to see more literary fiction and YA speculative fiction.

WG:      Are there any genres you have absolutely no interest in representing at this time?

HB:      Poetry; self-help.

WG:      Do you represent any authors of non-fiction? If so, have you been successful in selling their projects? If not, is this a market that interests you?

HB:      I've represented some memoirs and pop-culture books that have done well and I'd like to find some more standouts in these areas.

WG:      What genre(s) do the majority of your recent sales fall into? Has this changed over time? How so?

HB:      YA and romance. When I was at William Morris, there was one agent who handled all of the children's books. So it was fun to start handling children's books once I started my own agency.

WG:      What publishing houses/lines have you sold to in the past 12 months?

HB:      Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; HarperCollins; Harlequin; Penguin; Random House; St. Martin's Press; Kensington.

WG:      Approximately how many clients do you currently represent and what is the ratio of published to unpublished?

HB:      Approximately 35 authors and just a few are not yet published.

WG:      Approximately how many works by first time authors have you sold in the past 12 months?

HB:      Three.

WG:      Are you actively seeking out new authors to represent, and if so, what would it take to catch your eye?

HB:      Yes; it's always thrilling to discover a new voice and bring a book into the world for others to experience. What catches my eye is more a case of what engages my inner ear. The way a writer uses language to create images and build a world is akin to how a composer uses notes to create music. The reader's mind becomes engaged as if listening to a symphony or a song never heard previously.

WG:      How would you describe your agenting style? What is your involvement with the author's creative process? With his/her career planning? Or is your relationship strictly the business side of contract negotiation and as author/editor interface?

HB:      I like to be involved with the creative process because so often that can ultimately influence what kind of support we can get from a publisher. A novel that has a "hook" or that can be described in a succinct sentence is often more successful in the marketplace than a book that is challenging for one reader to summarize to another potential reader. It's easier to create "buzz" and word of mouth endorsements for a book that can be recommended with one forceful sentence. So I like to serve as a sounding board to a client when she has more than one idea for a novel, or to ask her questions while she's shaping her novel, questions that will hopefully lead her to having a clearer vision for how her book will be recognized and garner attention. But of course I've also signed writers who have had finished manuscripts, polished and ready for submission. Sometimes it's the dreaded "sophomore" book that an author needs more feedback on; the book she has to write after she's sold the book that was her labor of love.

WG:      Do you enjoy one of these roles more than the others?

HB:      The greatest reward is in finding the ideal editor for a particular author, and it's not always the editor who is able to offer the largest advance. That's where career planning factors into my role as advisor to an author.

WG:      Given that you feel an individual author's manuscript is marketable, how important is it that you personally like the work in order for you to pursue acquiring it?

HB:      I have to love it. There's a tremendous amount of competition, not just on the shelves in bookstores, but just on the desks and floors of editors. I have to convey enough enthusiasm to get the editors excited to read the submission before the other manuscripts vying for their attention.

WG:      How often do you provide feedback to your clients on the status of their submissions?

HB:      Usually weekly and I forward any emails from editors that contain feedback and I'll share my notes about any specific comments from phone calls. I always tell a client which editors I've sent a manuscript to, and when. Though I have had clients who didn't want any to hear about any of the rejections.

WG:      What is your process for submitting work to editors? Is this different if the editor is one you've had no prior contact with as opposed to one you've already built a working relationship with?

HB:      I prefer to talk to an editor about a manuscript and then send an email with my "pitch letter". In a phone call I can convey my enthusiasm and find out whether they think they have anything too similar already on their list. I'll generally follow up with a phone call or email in a week or ten days to see where editors are with their reading, but ideally I'll have already received interest from editors and then I'll call the other editors and let them know they need to get back to me quickly. I pay a lot of attention to what each editor has acquired, which books on his/her list have been successful, what an editor does not yet have on his/her list.

WG:      How do you feel about sending a particular work to multiple houses simultaneously?

HB:      I think it's critical to submit to several editors simultaneously. I once had two editors tell me they loved a novel I'd sent to them. One offered $7500 for it and thought it should be a trade paperback. The other one offered $150,000 to publish it as a hardcover original.

WG:      Once a work has been sold, do you provide any input to the author and/or editor in the area of marketing and promotion for the book?

HB:      Sometimes, but I'm more inclined to talk to the marketing person and the publicist at the publishing house and try to keep them focused and excited about the book.

WG:      What do you see as the personal strengths you bring to the table in the agent/author relationship? In the agent/editor relationship?

HB:      I'm an objective reader for my clients and am there to motivate them and manage a lot of the details that would take time away their writing. I act diplomatically to resolve disagreements when the author and editor aren't seeing eye to eye. Editors will often tell me about a book that "got away" - one that was sold for various reasons to another editor at a competing publishing house. I'll try to find a manuscript that will appeal to the editor's palate in the same way.

WG:      Do you feel that writers' conferences provide significant value to you in the way of networking with authors? With editors?

HB:      My client Pam Rosenthal heard me speak at a writers' conference and then queried me a couple years later. Last year she won a Rita for Best Historical Romance. My client Beth Fantaskey told me she conceived of her plot for JESSICA'S GUIDE TO DATING ON THE DARK SIDE after she heard me tell an audience at a conference that a writer should consider what the movie poster for her book would look like. Editors tend to be more relaxed at some conferences than they are during a typical work day.

WG:      Have you ever been involved in the sale of movie rights? Foreign rights? If so, did you handle this yourself or did you work with someone more specialized in this field?

HB:      Yes, I sold my client Ahmet Zappa's first children's book, THE MONSTROUS MEMOIRS OF A MIGHTY McFEARLESS to Disney for $1.5 million. Not an option, but an outright purchase. I usually work with a co-agent for film and television deals and I work with foreign sub-agents for translation deals.

WG:      Realistically, what is the normal timeframe for your response to queries? Partials? Fulls?

HB:      I can't respond to all the queries I receive. But if I've requested the manuscript, I try to respond with two months.

WG:      Do you feel an agent based in New York has a significant advantage over one who is not? Why or why not?

HB:      Not anymore. When I first started agenting in New York, we used a messenger service to send out manuscripts. In one afternoon, you might have 10 manuscripts being delivered by messengers to the various publishing houses. Clearly that's changed. Just imagine the carbon footprint of a book before the advent of email! It's important to see editors in person but I'm in New York frequently and also see them at various conferences throughout the year.

WG:      What sort of misconceptions/ unrealistic expectations have you encountered from authors about what an agent's role is?

HB:      Some authors expect the agent to perform the tasks a publicist does, and I can't wear both hats. Arranging speaking engagements, writing to reviewers and booksellers and librarians are some of the important things a publicist does for a writer.

WG:      In your opinion, when is the right time in an author's career for him/her to start actively looking for an agent?

HB:      When the manuscript is finished and spell checked.

WG:      What piece of advice or 'pearl of wisdom' would you like to offer authors who are considering approaching you (or any agent) for representation?

HB:      Have a good sense of the agent's list and study some good query letters before you send yours out. There are plenty of resources online. It makes a big impression on me if the author has met me or listened to me speak at a conference, or read an interview I gave, and can tell me what resonated with him/her.

WG:      Do you think contest credits help authors further their career before and/or after making that first sale? Have you ever acquired a client that you discovered via a writing contest?

HB:      When I read in an author's query that she's been a finalist in contests I know this is someone who has worked at her/his craft and probably not sending me a first draft. I'm generally a lot more interested in a writer who has taken the time to enter contests. No, I haven't signed a client yet whose work I've judged in a contest.

WG:      Do you visit the websites and blogs of authors you work with or of authors you are considering working with? If so, is there something in particular you look for that potentially impacts your view of the author and their work?

HB:      Always. I want to see that the author has a site for fans who want to learn more about the books they've enjoyed reading.

WG:      How important do you think self-promotion is to a writer's career? Is there a particular area of promotion that you feel is most effective?

HB:      Self-promotion is essential. The author is competing with other writers as well as anything else that might entertain a potential reader - movies, tv, video games. The more often a writer can get into a reader's head space, the more likely she is to sell books. However, the self promotion shouldn't get to the point that it's taking away from the time the author needs to write a great book. My clients and I have a lot of discussions about achieving the optimal balance. I'm not a big fan of daily blogging because of the time it consumes, but I think online chats, newsletters and appearances at various writer's conferences are effective methods of self-promotion. All the publishers I talk with are big proponents of an active Facebook presence but I keep wondering if it will one day turn into a virtual ghost town like MySpace. Until it does, I think it can't hurt and it's an inexpensive way to foster a sense of community. Ditto Twitter. Beyond the self-promotion, it can be invaluable to authors to break out of their solitude and meet their fans.

WG:      I love to collect quotes, all kinds of quotes - inspirational, quirky, motivational, profound, etc. Do you have a personal favorite you'd like to share?

HB:      A recent favorite is "All seats provide equal viewing of the universe." It appears at the beginning of Lorrie Moore's A GATE AT THE STAIRS and she cites the museum guide for the Hayden Planetarium. It's a beautiful reminder that we each have our own journey.

WG:      When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

HB:      A librarian. I made a card catalog for all my books and wrote a synopsis of each one on index cards.

WG:      What do you do to relax and have fun?

HB:      I love to cook. I like the cooking classes at Jar, a local restaurant. On the weekends I enjoy going to the Huntington Gardens or local museums and galleries. Anytime I can people watch and eavesdrop I'm happy and content.

WG:      Other than your client's work, what do you enjoy reading?

HB:      Memoirs, mysteries and thrillers. I belong to the Crime and Discovery Clubs at the wonderful The Mystery Bookstore on Broxton Avenue here in Los Angeles. Every month the staff selects one book to feature in the clubs. I've never been disappointed.

WG:      What are your favorite movies and/or TV shows? Why?

HB:      I like intelligent screwball romantic comedies, a genre that seems to have gone the way of the dodo. "Ball of Fire" and "The Lady Eve". On TV, the BBC mysteries, Wallander and "The Good Wife".

WG:      Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your life? In what way?

HB:     I remember reading "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and "Little Women" with a flashlight in my bedroom late into the night. I read all the Nancy Drew books, Encyclopedia Brown, Agatha Christie books growing up. More recently, there have been two books I've read that were very different but with each, the voice so moved me that as soon as I reached the last sentence I was compelled to turn back to the very first page and read them again: Edwidge Danticat's BREATH, EYES, MEMORY and Rick Bragg's ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN'.

WG:      Before we close, is there anything else you'd like to mention about yourself or the agency?

HB:      I have very eclectic tastes. I haven't represented a horror novel yet, but I think someone is out there somewhere writing one that I'll be crazy about and sell for six figures.

WG:      Is there a website you can point us to where folks can go to learn more about you and/or your agency?

HB:      www.cornerstoneliterary.com

WG:      Thanks again for taking time out of your busy schedule to sit in this month's spotlight. It was delightful 'visiting' with you here.

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