New York City literary agent John Ware has been on my show a couple of times (and is coming on, again, on June 1.) I did a print interview with him for my feature in The ASJA Monthly (July/Aug. 2005). Here it is:
Voices on Writing
"Boutique Agent John Ware"
John Ware is the agent I would want if I didn’t already have one. In fact, we first met five or so years ago when I queried him about an earlier incarnation of Pen on Fire. He turned it down; he wouldn’t know how to sell a writing book, he said, but he did say yes when I asked him to come on my radio show.
Since then, he’s been on my show three times, on an ASJA panel I moderated, in a couple of articles (for Poets & Writers and Pages) and I quoted him in my book. He’s one of the most articulate speakers I know; I was not surprised to learn that he has a poetry background (a poem of his came close at the New Yorker). And he has a range of eclectic interests: He has sung in a choir, studied Italian, is a baseball fan, goes to museums and racetracks. He also has an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Cornell and attended graduate school in English literature at Northwestern.
He started the John A.Ware Literary Agency in New York City in 1978 after eight years as an editor at Doubleday, seven of which he taught the industry-wide editorial workshop at NYU. He also spent a year as an agent with James Brown Associates/Curtis Brown Ltd.
BDB: How did you become an agent? What attracted you to the profession?
JW: I had been an editor at Doubleday for eight years and got this offer from my friend, James Brown, and it appealed to me because agencies are smaller than publishers and because there’s more autonomy in the decision-making. I also liked the fact that there were just plain fewer meetings, as funny as that may sound, and I liked dealing with two communities: writers and editors. I don’t mean it disrespectfully to the art department and others, but I didn’t want to be the hub of the wheel to all the other departments as editors must be. As an agent, there’s also a greater opportunity for financial gain because you have a part of the books. This is all speaking from the editorial position I was in [when I became an agent], not from a standing start.
BDB: What do you like to handle?
JW: That’s an easy one. My colleagues, I think, would give the same answer: We bring our private tastes to our work. I don’t think anyone pretends to be full service. We are all boutique operators—even editors in big houses. I have an odd amalgam of tastes: I handle investigative journalism and current affairs, history, biography, and then, a whole realm of the offbeat, to include memoir that has some larger purchase because it touches larger issues. In my opinion, unless you are a big name, your memoir must sell to the broader market, that is, your life must be in touch with issues that speak to the larger society. I like offbeat books that have some broader grab—I guess you could say pop culture of a kind. I do a small elite health and medicine corner. And a small corner of fiction, which I do it for my soul.
BDB: What do you mean by, “We are boutique operators”?
JW: When I talk with editors, I encounter very few who say, “Send me anything.” Nobody can be interested, let alone knowledgeable, in every single kind of book that’s published. I’m frankly suspicious when an editor says that to me, and then I refine it and say, “But what do you love, what really gets you going?” It’s the same as with any private reader: No one reads everything.
BDB: Do you pay any attention to trends?
JW: Absolutely none. I rate it book by book. For instance, my client, Jon Krakauer set off the outdoors genre, so I have categorical awareness, but it’s not something I ever give extra points to or take points away from if something is or isn’t one of a kind. If it’s the 24th biography of Bernard Shaw, and it’s great, there’s room. If you have the genuine article, even if it can be nailed generically, it doesn’t matter. We all love the original fresh ideas; I’m just saying, you can’t have that in every book. If you come across something in a familiar area, that’s not a plus or minus for me. I really encourage writers not to pay attention to trends in choosing how to spend their time and work. For ex, I’m getting so many queries now in the direction of the Da Vinci code, and I think that is completely dangerous. Just do what you want to do. But don’t write conscious of trends. It’s really important for writers to not give themselves over to writing trends.
BDB: Then, just how much attention should you pay to the marketplace?
JW: I don’t think you can. You have to write what you have to write. You can’t write for that angle. Some books last longer than others. You can’t choose your genre by that which has the greatest shelf life. That’s like writing for trends.
BDB: What if you’re published in one area, with one or many books, and you want to change focus. How do you do that?
JW: I just sold a novel today by a woman who’s sold two nonfiction books. We took a pay cut, and she is using her name. You do get pigeonholed. Some writers use another name for another genre. It’s difficult. Branding does happen and it’s not something that publishers engineer. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault.
BDB: Do you seek out writers in journals and magazines?
JW: I don’t tend to. Frankly, I’ve gotten too busy—and my pleasure reading—the Atlantic, Harpers, the New Yorker—use writers who are taken anyway.
BDB: While query letters are usual the port of entry, when you’re seeking representation, they can be difficult for writer, in terms of capturing tone, the scope of the project. What’s your take on query letters?
JW: The goal of a query letter, first of all, is no selling, no hype, no advertising. Just a simple, succinct, one-page description. Those adjectives can be flavorful without being advertising. An enticing description of what the book is about. And a little bit about yourself, credits if any. Keep it to one page. The leaner, the more economical—while still being flavorful—the better. We can tell a lot about how a writer writes from a query letter. Novelists say that doesn’t apply to us, but you can tell with a fiction writer, too—style, flow of words—absolutely. I don’t like pages included. I will ask for anything else I want. I like the query to come in the mail with an SASE. And if a writer wants a reason why not to call, which is the worst thing to do, this is why: It’s not that the call is taking our time but that we work with the written word, not the spoken word. You can’t tell anything writerly from a phone call.
BDB: Is it important to take the long view, when you’re starting out as a new author? Do you talk about a new writer’s path when they’re starting out?
JW: I do. As much as they’re able to, writers should look at the long term.
BDB: How do you feel about someone who is thinking about switching from their current agent to you?
JW: I listen with incredible care to what they have to say to see if the complaints seem utterly fair or if I’m walking into work with someone who is difficult. More editors know agents than agents know agents. We don’t’ have large coteries within our own community. I do have some friends…Elaine Markson is one of my closest friends and if someone left Elaine, there’s no way I’d take him or her on. There are fair complaints about agents and there are unfair complaints.
BDB: Should they have ended their association with that agent first?
JW: It’s preferable. I will talk to them, if they are considering such a switch. But I won’t go much further than an introductory chat as a preamble. They have to make a decision first. I don’t want to be a factor in it. I don’t want a nice talk we might have to affect what they might do with that person. I’m an ethical person and I don’t’ want to be near a possibility of stealing a writer. I would never ever do that nor have I ever. I like a writer to have made up his or her mind that they’ve left so and so and now they want to talk.
BDB : How long should someone wait to hear from you after they’ve queried you?
JW: Two weeks.
BDB: Do you read everything?
JW: Everything. Every letter. That’s how important queries from the unknown are.
BDB: Where do your clients come from?
JW: A mixture of refererals and query letters. Writers’ conferences, some from acknowledgments in books. Some are old associations—I sold a book last year by a guy I went to high school with, a book for adults on the Pledge of Allegiance. We were on the student court together. I was chief justice and he was associate justice. I speak for every agent in this city: We read our mail, and the cream does rise to the top.
BDB: Speaking the cream rising to the top…..Does good work always make it to the bookshelves? Or are great books stuck in drawers and on shelves?
JW: We are such a small condensed community, the publishers’ heart being here in New York. The story about A Confederacy of Dunces is so rare; there is so much editorial talent in New York, it’s hard to believe that the literary community could miss a talent.
BDB: How important is chemistry when you’re deciding on an agent?
JW: It does add to your excitement. You still can hang in there with a project—and more than that, because you’re in love with a book and a book’s notion—but it sure helps if you like the writer and he or she likes you. It comes up in the long run; in that sense, it’s like a marriage. It’s not to say you can’t do excellent business on a number of books without a good feeling about each other, but it isn’t as good. And I do believe, somewhere down the road, after the first or 12th book, it will not last because of the lack of human chemistry. And it’s just not going to be as much fun. It just isn’t. And you can tell a lot on the telephone. People are far flung—they live all over the place. If you’re interviewing agents, you can tell a lot when you get off the phone and see how you feel. If someone wants to come to New York to meet me that’ fine, but most of the time they can tell from the phone if it clicks or it doesn’t.
BDB: Any last words?
JW: My injunction to writers to keep the faith. We are not a hostile, alien community. We are looking for them. Our lives are inextricably connected with their efforts. In the face of long odds and rejection letters, don’t give up. Readers around the country and world are counting on them and are waiting for them. Perfect your craft. Write what you want to write and do it as excellently as you can.
You can find more interviews like this one at www.asja.org. Click on The ASJA Monthly.