Every year, the Writers’ League of Texas brings a faculty of close to thirty agents, editors, and other industry professionals to Austin for its Agents & Editors Conference. As we look ahead to the 23rd Annual A&E Conference in June, we’re happy to share Q&As with some of our faculty here.
An Interview with Agent Ethan Bassoff
Ethan Bassoff attended Emerson College and managed Brookline Booksmith, a prominent Boston bookstore where he also hosted reading events. He then joined InkWell Management, where for six years he worked with recipients of the National Book Award, the Man Booker Prize, and finalists for the Story Prize. In 2012 he joined Lippincott Massie McQuilkin where he continues to represent both emerging and established writers of literary and crime fiction and narrative nonfiction including history, science, humor, and sports writing. His clients include New York Times bestselling writers, winners of the Pulitzer Prize, the Whiting Award, PEN/USA Book Award for Creative Nonfiction, finalists for The National Book Critics Circle Award and the Edgar Awards, and many other honors. Ethan has moderated panels at the Association of Writers and Writing Program and regularly attends writers workshops including Bread Loaf. He keeps store browsers in mind when signing new authors and brings a strong editorial approach to all proposals and manuscripts, understanding that great ideas must also tell compelling stories.
Ethan Bassoff: Highly collaborative. I work closely with writers to identify their book’s goals. Then we discuss what in the book holds the story from reaching its goals, what can be enhanced, what can be added, what can be cut. It’s an ongoing — and oftentimes challenging — conversation from first draft to last. But in the end, the writer always has the final say. Then my role shifts from creative collaborator to business representative, as I shop their book to publishers, explain the process, and negotiate the best possible deal for them.
Scribe: What do you look for in a debut author?
EB: A unique voice. This frequently trumps a strong plot (many debut novels lack a plot). I want to see that the writer knows her story, knows her characters, knows her settings, knows the themes she explores. This is often evident on the very first page.
Scribe: Do you think social media presence is critical for a successful writing career?
EB: Not necessarily. Publishers encourage writers to build their social media platforms. Some contracts even require writers to have Twitter and Facebook accounts. The truth is that social media only helps if the writer already have a pre-existing social media presence. Even then success is not guaranteed. It really depends on the book and the author’s personality.
Scribe: If you could give writers one piece of advice, what would it be?
EB: Write for yourself. Don’t try to please anyone else, or any group of people. It’s not their book. It’s yours.
Scribe: Tell us about a project you took on because there was something special or unique about it, even though it wasn’t like projects you usually take on; or tell us about an exciting or proud moment in your career as an agent.
EB: In 2013 I read a manuscript by a poet. It was a memoir. It was about a horrific event — the author was kidnapped and raped by her ex-boyfriend, and she escaped from certain murder. None of the characters were ever named. And it was written in a circular, non-chronological style. It was difficult to read emotionally. But it asked for no pity. And the prose was compulsively readable. Even more, the writer had much deeper ideas to explore beyond her own experience. It was not what agents and publishers call “an easy sell.” But I believed in the writer’s voice. I believed in the book’s importance. I signed the writer and we worked on several revisions. Then we shopped it to publishers. The book published in 2014 as The Other Side, by Lacy Johnson, with Tin House Books (Lacy is a Houston-based writer). The Other Side was a success. It was called an “instant classic” by Kirkus, it was on several “best of the year” lists, and was a finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Award, an Edgar Award, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. I trusted the story and its importance, and I believed it would find its audience, despite how unconventionally it was written. I love writers who take risks. Lacy took major risks with this book, and it paid off.
— Thanks, Ethan!
Click here for more information on the 2016 Agents & Editors Conference, a weekend long event in Austin, TX (June 24-26) that focuses on the craft of writing, the business of publishing, and building a literary community.