An Interview with Literary Agent Beth Miller
Beth Miller has worked with Robin Rue at Writers House since 2007, where she’s had the pleasure of working with many talented and bestselling authors in a variety of genres. As a Junior Agent, she is building her list, working primarily with authors of romance, women’s fiction, new adult, and young adult titles. She would also love to find a dark fantasy in the vein of Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series.
Beth will be one of our Featured Agents at the Writers’ League of Texas’ 2015 Agents and Editors Conference.
Beth Miller: I’m a very editorial agent, and will often go through several rounds of revision on a project before I send it out. The first round may even be before we formally agree to work together, because I might need to be certain that you can revise, and we both should be certain that we’re on the same page with where we think the manuscript should be. I respond as quickly as I can to emails, and always encourage my authors to be in touch whenever they need me—whether it’s for advice, asking me to follow-up on something, or just some good old-fashioned talking off the proverbial ledge. But a client of mine should always feel welcome to contact me—no question is stupid (well, most aren’t ) and I’m never too busy to respond, and if I am crazed, I will always reply ASAP and say that I’ll get back to them as soon as I can.
Scribe: If a potential client could do one thing to make the experience of working together even better, what would it be?
BM: Mainly, be realistic about the industry and your financial expectations, and communicate with me. If I haven’t responded to your email within a day, I probably didn’t get it and you should email again—or call!
Scribe: What is your biggest pet peeve when it comes to receiving submissions, reading work, etc.?
BM: I have a few. When I started at Writers House eight years ago, people still tended to send snail mail submissions more than email ones, and while I appreciate the decrease in paper that comes from the vast reduction in snail mail submissions, there was a certain degree of thought that went into those hard-copy submissions. You had to print pages, pay for postage, pay for return postage, etc., and I think it led authors to target their submissions more effectively. With email submissions, we often get queries that are blasted out into cyberspace with the email address of virtually every agent in publishing in the “To” field, or that are sent to “Undisclosed Recipients,” meaning every agent in the business is being BCC’d. Take the time to choose agents that you think would be a good fit, and target your emails to those people. We know you send out multiple submissions, but it takes so little time to at least put the agent’s name in the “to field” and direct your email to a specific human, rather than something like “here’s a link to my book, go read it and let me know if you’re interested” (with no greeting). I honestly delete those, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
A second pet peeve sort of spins off the first, and involves people who query the same project over and over and over again. It’s one thing if I requested pages and then passed, and then you took some time to revise because you got some good feedback and now you’re asking if I’ll take another look. I’m referring to folks who seem to have a monthly or quarterly reminder to query the same project. If I passed based on your query, then unfortunately I’m just not intrigued by the story, and I’m not going to change my mind just because you continue to query me. Keep track of your submissions and who passes on them so you don’t keep querying the same people with the same project over and over again.
The other huge pet peeve is when people send a nasty reply to a rejection. When we pass on a project, it’s not personal. We have to take on projects we’re passionate about, and if we aren’t enthusiastic about the project, we’re just not going to work with it. And it would be a disservice to you if we did. So for you to hit reply and then say something in anger that you can never take back and that will be in our email boxes (and memories) forever is a really bad idea. When you decide to send your material out into the world, you have to be prepared for rejection, and you have to be able to handle it like a professional.
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?
BM: What I want from those first few pages is to throw up my hands in dismay when I get to the end of the sample and then have to wait for more. It’s hard to quantify that—obviously the writing has to be good. The character has to be intriguing enough for me to want to know more. Sometimes it takes more than those first 5 or 10 pages to have a sense of things, but I need to be interested enough to want to read more.
Scribe: If you could give writers one piece of advice, what would it be?
BM: Can it be more than one? The first thing is to do your homework and research before querying. There’s so much info out there now, and you don’t want the agent to be turned off by your initial approach before they even read the pages. We see some really outrageous queries. I’m not sure if the authors of those outrageous queries are trying to grab our attention any way possible, even if it’s in a negative way, but you should remember than an agent has to want to work with you the person as well as you the writer, and if you come across like a lunatic right from the query stage, it could be a real turnoff, no matter how good the writing is.
The second thing is to be realistic. It’s unlikely that a debut author will get a 6-figure deal right off the bat. Does that happen? Yes, but it’s rare. It’s a tough and competitive and crowded market out there. Your first offer may not be for a lot of money, but it may get your foot in the door. It takes time to build a writing career, and that could mean years and years of writing before you start to see it pay off. And with the explosion of digital-only and digital-first publishing, you may start out with contracts that are only royalty-based, with no advance. It’s unlikely that you can be a full-time writer off your first few publishing contracts—and that may never happen. You may never be able to quit your day job and write full-time, and you need to really think about that. Try not to believe everything you read on the internet about how much money everyone else is making—some of it may be true, but it really has no bearing on what your situation will be.