An Interview with agent Jim Hornfischer
Jim Hornfischer of Hornfischer Literary Management, has a strong track record handling a broad range of serious and commercial nonfiction. His clients include major award-winning nonfiction writers, memoirists, historians, scientists, professionals, journalists, and assorted other literary artists with portfolio.
In addition to agenting, Jim is a licensed attorney and a former New York trade book editor. He is also the author of three well-received nonfiction books of his own. This combination of experience makes him an effective advocate as well as a perceptive editorial adviser for his clients.
In sixteen years as an agent, Hornfischer has handled many New York Times bestsellers (including three #1’s) and several winners of and finalists for major book prizes. Jim will be one of our Featured Agents at the Writers’ League of Texas’ 2015 Agents and Editors Conference.
Jim Hornfischer: Editorially, I am very hands on. Working on a book proposal is intensive, and usually very rewarding too. The goal is to make it the best that it can be, because you get one shot in New York.
Scribe: If a potential client could do one thing to make the experience of working together even better, what would it be?
JH: Think big, drink from glasses that are half full, write with narrative energy and interest, keep an open ear for useful advice and run with it in brilliant and surprising ways, grasp the rudiments of the business (even if, as an artist, you’d prefer not to bother), temper your ambition with patience and a long view, and refine and improve your craft continuously. It’s all in the writing.
Scribe: What is your biggest pet peeve when it comes to receiving submissions, reading work, etc.
JH: I try not to nurture pet peeves, but I do wish more writers would learn to identify the unique space in the universe (or at least in the bookstore) where their book will fit. So much of what happens in publishing follows from that simple act.
Scribe: You often hear that it’s the first ten pages—even the first page—that sells a story. Is there something particular that you look for in those first few pages?
JH: A reason to keep reading. It either manifests itself in the first paragraph or it doesn’t. If I’m not drawn in after three paragraphs, reading three more is an act of charity that I’ll probably regret.
Scribe: If you could give writers one piece of advice, what would it be?
JH: Words are tools. Use them well.
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 editor or agent.
JH: When I met Susannah Charleson at a conference in 2007, I was struck by her self-possession, ease, energy and kindness. And I remember vividly the thin sheaf of pages she handed me over the desk during our pitch session. Reading just one paragraph into writing sample for a book titled Scent of the Missing, a personal account of her work as a canine search and rescue handler, I knew I wanted to work with her.
It was a long path to publication, but as she gained command of her story, she showed herself to be unsentimental about the need to revise. What was Chapter 5 in her original proposal is now part of Chapter 1 in the finished book. That and many other recastings have brought the book to its current form, earning enthusiastic reviews and a presence on The New York Times bestseller list. I had an instinct Susannah would be that kind of writer when she sat down with me at the conference.
Read “Confessions of a Literary Agent” by Jim here.