An Interview with Literary Agent Noah Ballard
Noah Ballard is an agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd. He received his BA in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and began his career in publishing at the Emma Sweeney Agency. Noah specializes in literary debuts, upmarket thrillers and narrative nonfiction, and is always on the look out for honest and provocative new writers. Noah has appeared across the country at graduate programs and writing conferences speaking about query letters, building nonfiction platforms and submission etiquette. Noah will be one of our Featured Agents at the Writers’ League of Texas’ 2015 Agents and Editors Conference.
Scribe: How would you describe your personal approach to working with a writer/client?
Noah Ballard: I tend to be very close with my clients. The writers I represent are not only talented writers—that’s the prerequisite—but individuals obsessed with the craft, the collaborative process and having a rewarding experience working with me and their editor. Having been on both sides of the author-agent experience, I want all my clients to feel like they can ask me anything and trust that I’m constantly working to realize the potential of their careers.
Scribe: If a potential client could do one thing to make the experience of working together even better, what would it be?
NB: Having written a good book is only half the battle if a writer wants to get published by a major trade house. Once it goes from a Word doc on your laptop to an agent’s desk, a writer has to realize that it’s going to be a collaborative process. I’m a very hands-on agent, and I do a lot of editorial work before I even think about mentioning a project to an editor. And a writer needs to trust that I’m not only trying to make their book more marketable, but also a better overall piece of writing. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. So when I’m thinking about working with a new client, I typically have a long conversation with them about their expectations and their goals to assess whether they are feasible within my vision for the book and if the author truly understands what the process is going to look like—a process that will last at least three years or as long as their entire career—I need to know that we have the same vision and the writer can step back and let me and their editor do what they need to do to make the book a success.
Scribe: What is your biggest pet peeve when it comes to receiving submissions, reading work, etc.?
NB: My biggest pet peeve is people who don’t realize where they fit into the marketplace. If you think you’re ready to find an agent, you need to know at least three other writers your work is in conversation with—which should be easy if you’re reading. I’ve done hundreds of one-on-one meetings at conferences, and I’ve read thousands of query letters. Nothing grinds my gears more than writers who don’t read. That’s just basic publishing literacy. If you don’t read what’s being published now, you’re not a great writer. All writing is conversation. Book publishing is like a very slow version of Twitter: if you don’t let yourself be in conversation with what others are saying, no one is going to care what you have to say. And why should I go to the bookstore and buy your book if you’re not reading mine? There’s a community that exists in publishing that many criticize for being insular, but a lot of that comes from the unnecessary frustration of writers who don’t put in the time to be part of the conversation in a meaningful way.
Scribe: You often hear that it’s the first ten pages – or even the first page – that sells a story. Is there something particular that you look for in those first few pages?
NB: Honestly—and harshly—you need to hook me (and an editor) from the first sentence. I’m getting at least a hundred queries a week, and if your first sentence is, “I woke up in a cold sweat,” or “I was white-knuckling the steering wheel as I drove down the lonely highway,” or a sweeping panorama of a mountain range or rural area, I’m not going to keep reading. But in the first ten pages, you need to establish: A. who are we rooting for, B. why this story needs to take place in this setting and C. what’s at stake.
Scribe: If you could give writers one piece of advice, what would it be?
NB: Read, but don’t emulate; be part of a conversation. Let your vision drive your story, but listen to your agent and editor if they tell you to pull back or push harder. One book doesn’t make a career, and that’s what you have an agent for—to guide your journey. (I guess that’s three.)
Scribe: Tell us about a project you took on, even though it wasn’t like projects you usually take on, because there was something special or unique about it that you couldn’t say no to. Or, tell us about an exciting or proud moment in your career as an agent or editor.
NB: Great writing will always win me over. I was visiting my alma mater, The University of Nebraska, and my former professor, Jonis Agee, encouraged me to meet with this retired surgeon who had written a memoir. I get a lot of queries from former high-stakes professionals, and they’re often too close to what they’ve done to make them meaningful. But Bud Shaw, the author, had taken the time to really reflect on his tenure as a surgeon and the emotional weight on his life. I read maybe 3,000 words and knew I had to represent him. When I got back to New York, I sent just a couple of excerpts to an editor at Penguin, and he immediately saw what I saw. We wanted to give this incredibly talented writer an opportunity to say something about the cost of life. To make a long story short, the book, Last Night In The O.R. comes out in September.
That’s what I love about my job: connecting talented writers to editors who believe in what great writing can accomplish if treated with enthusiasm, respect and perseverance.