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How To Find And Pitch A Literary Agent With Barbara Poelle

Authors have more possibilities than ever when it comes to publishing their books, but if you want a traditional publishing deal, then it's worth considering how an agent can help sell your book. In today's interview, literary agent, Barbara Poelle, gives tips for story craft, query letters, how to find and pitch an agent, plus what to expect from the publishing industry.

In the intro, I discuss some of the findings of the Authors Guild report on The Profession of the Author in the 21st Century; Rebecca Giblin's paper on author rights in Australian publishing agreements; plus, Google Play Books has made publisher signup easier than ever and increased royalty rates and added affiliate links. Plus, I share my walk along the Kennet and Avon canal and my talk about self-publishing on the NaNoWriMo YouTube channel, as well as my writing update on Map of the Impossible.

Join me and Mark Dawson for a free webinar on How To Get Your First (Or Next) 10 Book Reviews on Thurs 5 March at 3 pm US Eastern / 8 pm UK. Click here to register for your free place or to get the replay.

Today's show is sponsored by my course, How to Write a Novel: From Idea to Finished Manuscript. Is it your dream to write a novel but you just don’t know where to start?
Have you started writing only to run out of ideas? Are you suffering from self-doubt about whether you’re good enough to write a novel? Do you feel overwhelmed by all the information and craft books out there? Do you want to strip everything back to basics and learn a step by step process to writing your novel? If yes, this course might be for you. Check out my courses at www.TheCreativePenn.com/learn

Barbara Poelle is a literary agent at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency in New York. She's also a magazine columnist at Writer's Digest and the author of Funny You Should Ask: Mostly Serious Answers to Mostly Serious Questions About the Book Publishing Industry.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • Why craft matters when pitching an agent
  • The importance of pacing in any book, especially thrillers
  • The hook, the book and the cook of a query letter
  • How the agent-author fit is like a relationship
  • Thoughts on pen names and whether agents are interested in self-published authors
  • The types of deals that are possible for a book
  • The reality of being successful in the book industry in the 21st century
  • Defining quantitative and qualitative goals for a book
  • The reality of what agents and publishers do around marketing a book

You can find Barbara Poelle at FunnyYouShouldAskBook.com and on Twitter @Bpoelle

Transcript of Interview with Barbara Poelle

Joanna: Barbara Poelle is a literary agent at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency in New York. She's also a magazine columnist at Writer's Digest and the author of Funny You Should Ask: Mostly Serious Answers to Mostly Serious Questions About the Book Publishing Industry. Welcome, Barbara.

Barbara: Thank you so much for having me.

Joanna: It's great to have you on the show.

Tell us a bit more about you and your journey into publishing, and what do you love about being an agent?

Barbara: Okay. That's a long story and then a quick answer.

I have a secret history as a film and television actress in Los Angeles, but when the buzz started wearing off about being on stage, I did a lot of comedy to sketch, improv, and stand up, I started looking around for what else I wanted to do. I was newly married at the time, and my husband was really insistent that I would make an amazing literary agent. And I said, ‘Why?' And he said, ‘Well, you love to read and you love your own opinions.' Which is fair enough.

So I did what I think everyone should be doing when thinking of a career change, is I tapped every avenue I had to set up informational interviews. I set up interviews with editors and agents in order to figure out what side I wanted to gravitate towards.

It became very apparent, very quickly that the agenting side was the right side for me. I love agenting, I love the industry.

On the agent side, you only eat what you kill.

So you are feast or famine, you depend on yourself and only yourself. So there's a lot of unknown in that and there's a lot of risk-taking and my personality fits very well with that.

On the editorial side, you're so deeply mired into the creative, which is wonderful and you have a paycheck you can depend on and you have a 401(k) and you have health coverage. It's just the idea of depending on myself for my income was much more appealing.

And the idea that I could take on anything I wanted, I can take on a picture book, I can take on a memoir, I can take anything, there is anything that I'm excited about I can take on. So that is both the journey of me being an agent. And the idea of what I like about working in publishing is being able to be a conduit to facilitate art no matter what genre it comes in.

Joanna: Fantastic, and it's interesting. You mentioned improv and comedy there. I think I was quite surprised because I've known about your reputation in the industry and this book is funny. So tell us a bit more about that.

Why go with this funny angle around a topic which many people think is very serious?

Barbara: I think it's interesting that you say you know of my reputation because yeah, I can be pretty ferocious but also I think one of the most important things in life and career and no matter what you're doing is you got to have a couple of laughs along the way.

I do have a history in standup and sketch and improv. And I find that even as an agent that helps if you have a couple of different situations you're in. Who doesn't gravitate towards the one that's going to be handled with professionalism and panache but a little bit of laughter along the way? We could all use a little more laughter.

For me, it was a natural evolution to start incorporating a lot of my comedy into my business just because why not? We're all so serious all the time and there's such high stakes involved in people's art and their dreams coming true. So it's fun to bring a little levity in this situation.

In the case of the book, with Funny You Should Ask, it was the same thing. There are so many questions out there and there are a lot of resource materials out there for those questions, but I wanted this to be enjoyable and also to demystify a bit of publishing in itself. So to do that and have a little laughter puts everyone at ease, right?

Joanna: Yes. And I think I enjoyed it more because of that. There are a lot of books about publishing but yours I was like, ‘Oh, hey, this is different.' So it was quite unexpected, I really enjoyed it.

You mentioned being deeply mired in the creative and the book starts with the craft. I think that's really important because a lot of people will come to some of the other aspects of publishing but the craft really is super important.

What are some of the things in opening pages or a pitch that will instantly make you reject an author from a craft perspective?

Barbara: That's a great question. I think one of the more obvious ones is, of course, a rudimentary understanding of basic construct. So if it's just sloppy writing, a lot of misspellings, not a lot of attention to detail, that can be a little off-putting.

But really, sometimes it can be more subtle. For example, I'm sure all the authors out there know this, but the idea of telling versus showing when you are allowing a character to explore themselves and the plot rather than just telling about the character.

If the book opens and it's a woman looking in the mirror and she's saying, ‘My name is Barbara Poelle. And I'm five foot four with blonde hair and blue eyes.' Telling, that's info-dumping that can oftentimes turn me off right away if you just get info-dumping and telling.

And also, the ratio of dialogue to narrative, while subtle can sometimes be really interruptive to pacing. So if you have too much dialogue and not enough narrative, we're really just grazing the surface like a stone skipping across the top of a lake to get to know these characters.

Where you are having a ratio of narrative to dialogue, where we can really sink into the atmosphere and get our five senses involved in the showing of what's happening in the story, it's a much stronger foot forward.

Joanna: That's really interesting. You talked there about that dialogue and narrative mix. I've really noticed that in books, especially in thrillers because I know thriller authors and I've read a lot of thrillers and I'm like, why is there so much dialogue in this? It feels almost like a screenplay. So fascinating that you mentioned that.

What about the things that make you think ‘yes, I want to read on, I want to read another page and another page?'

Barbara: You bring up a good point right there about thrillers because in all books, let's be honest, a general statement is pacing is important but in thrillers, pacing is king. So you might see some authors especially when they're on books 18, 19, 20 and they're tearing through, it is more dialogue-heavy and it is more dependent on short chapters in order to give the audience that feeling of breakneck pacing.

Pacing for me is important, but also, I don't want to read about plots, I want to read about characters doing things that make plots happen. So my favorite type of book is in every person, a man or woman in the moment before the ordinary becomes extraordinary and then the book takes off from there.

Joanna: That's super. Then what about in the pitch email? I've written a number of books now and I feel like a book is almost easier to write than a few paragraphs to someone or the back of the book and that type of thing.

What would be some tips for pitching agents?

Barbara: The verbal pitch is one thing, the query letter is another thing, the elevator pitch, the log lines. So let's kind of break it down.

First, we're going to start with my favorite cheat ever, which is the query letter being just the hook, the book, and the cook. So the hook would be the opening line of your query letter. You'd say the title of your book, the word count, a couple of comp titles and away we go.

The next part would be the book. And that's four or five lines of the premise, like old school overview, not plot, but the premise of what the book is.

And the third section is the cook and that, of course, is you. And in that section, I'm looking for you to answer why this book, why me, why now? It can literally be, I have my MFA, my Ph.D., all my letters ever. Or it can be I was at my daughter's softball game tournament over the weekend and an idea struck me and I started writing it longhand and by the time I finished six months later, I realized I had a book.

It can be anything about why this book, why me, why now? But that's a quick and easy dirty trick.

And I will tell you, this is just going to also just blow this out of the water, but sometimes I will read the first line of that hook and I'll skip the rest of the query and get right to the pages because I think, ‘Oh, this sounds interesting,' or, ‘Oh, this person knows how to talk about their book and know some good comp titles out there.' And I'll jump to the pages and then I'll go back to the query letter after reading those first 10 pages.

Joanna: What makes good comp titles?

Barbara: Great question. So comp titles cannot be phenoms. You cannot compare yourself to Stephen King or James Patterson or J.K. Rowling or people who are phenoms.

What we want to do is find books that are three years or less from today's date and books that have similar audiences and that your intent for your audience is similar to that. But also books that have done well enough that they make a mark that they're somebody that we say, ‘Okay, if this book is like that, then this audience might gravitate towards it.'

And don't worry, once you and I partner up, I have tons and tons of comp titles, but for you to come to me with them helps me to also understand, it's like a little tip of the hat to let me know that you know how to speak within the industry and that you're aware of what's out there right now and where your book fits on the shelf.

Joanna: I feel like a lot of people get comps wrong because it's either something really old or a dead author or like you say a phenom. You mean a phenomenon, like a really famous writer?

Barbara: Correct. And it's so easy to do, right? It's so easy to be like, well, this is like Dean Koontz, this is like JK, this is that, but it's not, it's just not because those are outliers.

I think what you can do, and this is what I tell everyone and it's good for just like the mentality of it, but go to the library or the bookstore and go to the shelf on which your book will be shelved. Go alphabetically, put your finger where your name would be and then the books to the left and the right of them, pull those out and read them, buy them or check them out or read them.

Because those people got published, made it to the same shelf and will give you a starting base from which to understand, especially you can look to the acknowledgments and find out who their agent was and who their publisher is, of course, and you can start making a list for submissions.

Joanna: That is a good tip, I like that one.

Barbara: Like I did it for a living!

Joanna: Yes. Well, I think the other thing there is who to send that to.

What makes a good fit for an agent?

Barbara: Oh wow. This is going to sound insane, but it's like a relationship, it's really hard to describe.

A good fit for an agent, first of all, is someone you have researched that does the genre that you work in, someone that is at a reputable agency even if they are a new agent but they're at a reputable agency, they're incredibly viable because then we're talking about the difference between a newer agent who has more bandwidth and an agent who's more experienced that may not have as much bandwidth but has an increase in contacts.

But when you have a newer agent at an established agency, they have both because they have the bandwidth and they also have the ability to use the context of their mentors. So you can't really go wrong.

Your list should include both agents that are recently acquiring and also some hardy staples within the industry. And I would say you're going to want to send out 20 to 30 queries to really paper the town and see what your response is.

Joanna: Right. There are people in over 200 countries listening to this…

Barbara: Hey, everybody, bonjour, ola.

Joanna: Everyone's heard of New York publishing, so should international authors, like I'm in the UK.

Is it better to focus within your home market or to focus on the American market where agents then license out?

Barbara: Whoa, that's a really great question. I'm not sure that I can speak directly to that. What I can say is I have Canadian authors, I have UK authors, Australian authors. I also have authors from the U.S. that I've only sold into the UK because of a specific moment in time where I was like, ‘Oh, this genre is working right now in the UK,' and sold only into there and then they have the licensing to come over here.

So it's a case by case basis. I don't see anything wrong with starting on the home turf you have, but it doesn't dissuade me at all when someone is from somewhere else to sign them.

Joanna: I love what you said earlier about liking the idea of depending on yourself and you mentioned eat what you kill, which I love because that's essentially the basis of the independent author and many listeners and myself included, what some people call self-publishing but that is kind of how we do it.

Many authors also want to be hybrid, they want to put some books into traditional publishing.

If you're getting pitched by an indie author; do you want to know or do you think it's better to not mention it?

Barbara: First things first, I just want to know what their book is and if I fall in love with it and we want to move forward together.

Yes, at some point, it would be nice to know what your publishing history is, what your previous experiences. But for me, it's always going to come down to the book itself. It's always going to come down to how passionate I feel about the current project.

At that point, it doesn't really dissuade me if you are a hybrid author or you want to continue maintaining your indie publishing, that's fine by me. The only value that that can sometimes bring is if you're like, ‘Well, I sold 200,000 copies over the last 2 years of my…' Then great, I definitely want to know that on the outset, but the rest of that, it's always going to come down to the passion I have for the project in hand.

Joanna: It's so interesting, isn't it? Because I've thought about this a lot as to whether one should pitch with another name to almost completely separate that.

What are your thoughts on using different pen names for different projects?

Barbara: I've had authors do that in the past. Again, I would say it's nuanced, it's a case by case basis, especially if you want to keep your genres very separate.

Let's say you write like erotica under one name, your audience is going to be very confused to see your cozy mystery series under that name. So we would want to make sure that your audience is aware that you write under this other pen name, but that it's an incredibly different genre.

As far as separating your indies from your mainstream publishing, sure, to me, all of that is secondary to the idea of how passionate I am about the project and where I see its specific publishing path, and then the rest of it can be colored in around it.

Joanna: The other thing a lot of authors get told is a standalone is not enough and people want ideas for series. Any thoughts on that?

Barbara: Whoever is putting vodka in their cornflakes in the morning needs to knock that off. The only thing I do care about is if you send me a novel and it's standalone and I call you and I say, ‘I love it, I love you, everything about you is fabulous,' I want to hear what you're writing next, that doesn't mean a series because writers write.

So you've written a novel, you're out there submitting it to agents, but in the meantime, you've opened your dreaded blank spreadsheet and have started working on what your new novel is.

I would just say what are you working on now? And I better hear an answer. It doesn't mean like I'll have it ready for you in six months, it just means this is what I'm working on now. And hopefully, especially for debut authors, hopefully it's within the same boundaries of the same genre.

What can be difficult when you're starting out is to write, let's say you wrote a thriller and then next you come to me and you say, ‘And I have a sci-fi YA that I'm working on next,' that's fine. That's a different conversation that we're going to have about writing in more than one genre.

The second book, especially on your debut launch, I would prefer if it's within the same commercial or literary field. It's just a little bit easier but that's not to say you can't write in two different genres simultaneously.

Joanna: Fantastic. The other thing with independent authors is we've seen some quite big names in the industry do things like print-only deals or foreign rights only, that type of thing, what do you think agents want?

Is it all or nothing these days or can there be subsidiary rights deals?

Barbara: I've been doing this for about 13 years and our contract, while incredibly easy to digest, it's maybe three paragraphs, the agency agreement, it covers everything.

Now, specifically, if someone is a screenwriter and writing screenplays, we can go ahead and exempt that because I don't represent screenplays, that kind of thing. But otherwise, we are a full-service agency, so we handle the foreign rights, we handle the film rights, we handle merchandise and we handle all kinds of rights that can be exploited under a publishing contract. It is whole-hog and it always has been.

The only exceptions, as I said, are fields like screenwriting or say you are a poet, do you have a poetry chapbook or something that we can have a conversation about excluding that from our contract. But now we're full service and we're going to push every door.

Joanna: And I guess that's the other question. There are lots of agencies out there and you mentioned full-service.

Is it important in these days of Netflix and Amazon Studios to go with an agency that does TV and film rights?

Barbara: What's important is to have an advocate that's ferocious for you. When the agent is calling to offer, you will have your notebook or your spreadsheet with all your questions. Because we're prepared, so you'll have all your questions.

One of your questions will be, how do you handle subsidiary rights? How do you handle foreign rights? How do you handle film rights?

Hopefully what they'll say is either we have an in-house team or they'll say we have sub-agents. And sub-agents will be outside agents that handle these rights and split the percentage with you. So that's a question that's important to ask.

Now if the agent is like, I work out of my living room and I don't do exploit these rights but I sell world rights and I sell film to the publisher, that's a conversation you are going to want to have with them to say, ‘What are the benefits of selling both film and foreign rights to a publisher?'

Talk it through with them. Because there are agencies that do that, they just sell the whole hog to the publisher. It's all about who's going to be the most ferocious and who's going to get you that publishing path.

Joanna: What are some of the misconceptions that authors have? I still remember when I wrote my first book, I thought I would sell that book and I'd make a million and I'd retire.

What is the reality of being a successful author in today's industry?

Barbara: I think successful is a really interesting word. I keep using the word nuanced but it's true. Success can be measured in a variety of ways depending on what the author's goals are and what their current living situation is.

[From Joanna: I totally agree! Here's my video on the definition of success.]

If I was a single lady and I owned my home and I sold my book for $60,000, does that mean that I can cover my bills and I'm successful and I can quit everything and just work on writing, that could be the case.

Whereas if you are supporting a family of four as a woman and you get a $60,000 book deal that means you're not really going to be able to quit your day job and move forward. All these extenuating circumstances can decide what success looks like in a measurement.

There are two types of what I say to my authors, there's quantitative and qualitative. I usually ask my authors to sit down and figure out what are your quantitative, what are your measurable goals with this book and what are your qualitative, what are the ones that you just hope to have?

Of course, under that would be ‘Sunday Times' and ‘New York Times' positioning. A quantitative goal would be I'd like to sell 50,000 copies in my first year or that kind of thing.

Identifying those quantitative and qualitative goals can also contribute to success in their own way, but understanding that some are pretty nebulous and nuanced and some can be concretely reached. Success is all about what you make of it.

I've done books for four figures that have then gone on to get five-figure royalty checks in perpetuity and I've done books that sold for $1 million that never earned out. So it's all dependent on what your view of success is.

Joanna: Many of us have heard of this death spiral with the people who get a very big advance, don't earn out next book, then it just goes down and down and down.

Is it actually better to start small and get bigger or is that even available to people now when publishers seem to want big debuts?

Barbara: I seem to have stories that cover the gambit on that. I have the one that was a massive deal that never earned out and I have several that were smaller that earned out, then I have the middle guys. It's so nuanced, right?

This comes back to a greater thing, too, I always say to my clients, keep your eyes on your own paper. Again, you're setting your goals, you're figuring your path out, looking to the right and left and saying, ‘Well, why did that person get this marketing or how come this person got this in their contract or why…' You didn't write their book and they didn't write yours, this is your publishing path.

So whether or not the initial advance demonstrates how successful the book is going to be is, if that was true, I will just have a crystal ball and we'd be having this phone call on my yacht, but it's not true. There is so much that goes on, especially the subjectivity and the zeitgeist of what's going on in the world around us.

What I can say is planning and understanding where your book fits on the shelf and how you best can get in there and drop the brick on the gas pedal for your own publicity and marketing, that's your focus, not necessarily what else is going on and what's deemed to be successful by who got paid what.

Joanna: It's just natural though, isn't it? That comparisonitis?

Barbara: That's why I might just like get an air horn and honk it at anyone, then they're like, ‘I heard so-and-so got this?' And I just want to be like, ‘Okay, listen really closely and just honk an air horn really hard into the phone because it just doesn't matter, that's not what we're doing.'

Joanna: You did mention marketing there, and I feel like this is a really big deal. A lot of indie authors are like, ‘Oh, I wish I could get a publisher and then they would do all the marketing.'

What is the reality of what agents and publishers want in terms of marketing?

Barbara: I think you heard my deep chuckle there for a second. Above all, and I think indie authors are really uniquely suited to understand this, this is a business and actually we work for you in a sense.

I work for you as an agent, the publisher is working for you to help package and promote your book. But this is going to come down to you, it really is. I've seen eight-page publicity and marketing plans and I've seen single-page publicity and marketing plans.

Again, you are going to be the determinant factor on how hard you are able to push on your avenues, the people that already know that you're out there, the people that will be interested in being the audience, in being your readers, it is a partnership.

We all work together, we're all wearing the same color jersey when we get on the field, but that is not a sit back and put your feet up and watch the publisher do the job for you. That has never been my experience and I can't imagine it ever will be.

Joanna: And you mentioned marketing plans. It does come back to the story first part. Do you appreciate an author who does bring a marketing plan to the table?

Barbara: Yes. If it makes sense. If it's something that's like I plan on approaching the ‘Sunday Times' and asking for a review, I'm like, ‘Wait, who, how do you know these people?' It can't be a wish list, it has to be concrete steps.

For example, ‘I attended this university and I was in this group and that happens to be a national group and they are willing to have me either Skype in or Zoom in and do a virtual tour and that will reach over 100,000 people in the next five months.'

That is a valuable marketing tool. Anything else that you can bring to the table and so far as relationships you have with periodicals or publications where you know that they would be happy to have a short interview with you, especially online and providing content online especially if there's a hook in your novel having to do with something that then can be branched out to other tangential avenues online. So yes, it's always helpful to come with ideas, but they can't be wackadoo, ‘I'm going to call Oprah until she answers' kind of stuff.

Joanna: You mentioned the zeitgeist there and I feel like a lot of people do take a while to write their book, and then even if one gets a deal, it might be a year or two, even two years before that book comes out.

How important is the zeitgeist when we are thinking about writing themes and genres?

Barbara: Everything that's happening right now is that's popular. If I sold your book today, it's not coming out for probably 12 to 18 months. So what we do is we, again, look at the quality of ours and come back to craft, but it's not that important.

And also, what I like to do is to be the tip of the arrowhead on whatever's coming next. Put my feelers out, try to see where the genre that you're writing in is going, to see where it's overly saturated, to see where there might be some shelf space and try to push that angle as well.

The zeitgeist is much more important when we get into nonfiction, of course, and sometimes books could be crashed in that arena in order to get them out quickly or if they're related to a specific holiday or they related to the Olympics or they write something like that can be a little bit more hinged on the zeitgeist.

But what we want is good stories, good books, good characters, and so staying true to whatever's happening right now is not in your best interest, staying true to your muse is in your best interest.

Joanna: And then you mentioned you've been in the business for 13 years, I think?

Barbara: Almost.

Joanna: What has changed in the 13 years that make now a very different time in the publishing industry?

Barbara: I think exactly what you said, it's a very exciting time for indie publishers. You guys are out there, you're making your own products, you're out there, you know what it's like to be a publisher, a marketer, a manager, a tour guide, all of these things like a publicist.

I think it's over my span that has been kind of the most exciting time is this expansion of different avenues where people can pursue their art and have their art reach their readership. I love it.

Joanna: At ThrillerFest one year, where I met you one time years ago, Lee Child said — and of course, Lee Child has just resigned and given the Jack Reacher series to his brother [The Guardian] — But he said, “No one can have the career I have had now because the bookstores are not the same, the publishing is not the same.”

I think that was a bit of a downer to most people in the room because everyone would love a Lee Child kind of career. What do you think about that statement?

Have things just changed so much now that an author has to have a very different kind of career?

Barbara: What's the opposite of change? Stagnation. Who wants to stay stagnant? Everything changes.

I think one of the most important things that has been introduced over the last 13 years is the idea that we're not competing against other books, we're competing against other media. So I'm riding the subway in the morning and I looked down and people are on their phone looking at their social media when 10 years ago I've lived on the subway and everyone had a book.

And so I think that's what we're more competing against, is the idea of there are so many platforms for art, there are people making five-minute webisodes, there are people that have 200,000 followers on their Instagram taking beautiful pictures of food.

There are so many other avenues where the attention of the audience has been fractured and branched out, that's fine. I can still point to roughly a billion success stories within the publishing industry. Again, on how you measure success.

So any career that started, however, he's been writing 25 years ago, any career that started 25 years ago in any industry is not going to look like a career that starts today, it's not possible. So for me, it's not something to be disappointed, it's not something to take the air out of the room, it's something to be excited about, we want newness.

The good news is every year billions of readers are made. Right now, so many babies are being born and they're going to read picture books and then they're going to read middle grade and then they're going to read YA. So we're not going to reach a shortage of audience.

What we need to make sure that we're understanding and recognizing is that so many media platforms are in competition with us and finding new ways to stand out and make sure the readers know that we're there.

Joanna: And actually, while you're on that other thing, the competition, because I now read pretty much all nonfiction, I read in audio, so I think I just read audio at 1.5x speed.

Barbara: That's how I do it when I do my working out. I love nonfiction on audio, oh my gosh. Although right now I'm listening to my author Samantha Downing with My Lovely Wife, which is nominated for an Edgar here. So now I am listening to all the books in her category and it's just so much fun, I love audiobooks, love them.

Joanna: Me too. And this is something I think is really important.

You mentioned you don't take screenplays, but do you take pitches for audio-first projects?

Barbara: I don't know. That is not my strongest avenue of pursuit and you'd be better suited to find an advocate that has that as one of their strongest avenues to pursuit.

Joanna: I guess it was meant to be a wider question of all agents, in general, looking for sort of this audio-first or is that more go to radio drama programs and stuff like that? Because Audible are open for direct pitches for audio-first products and then they're buying up rights for audio products. I wonder if that is something that you're excited about or that agents are now looking at as a different subsidiary right.

Barbara: I'm sure they are, I can't speak directly to it because it's not something that I excel at. So I'm sure that they are and I'm sure some googling will bring you a list of agents or at least some deals from agents that do the audio-first or audio-only. But to me, I can't really speak to it from a place of knowledge because it's not where I'm focusing.

Joanna: It is January 2020 as we speak, so the beginning of another decade. What are you excited about? I like that you sound excited about lots of things like I am.

What are you excited about in terms of where publishing might be going in the 2020s?

Barbara: I am really excited about we have so long to go on this, but I am excited about the diversity I'm starting to really see. I think there are so many stories to be told from so many lenses and we're starting to see more of those lenses. We have so far to go, but it is happening and I am so excited to be in this industry during this time because of that.

I also think there are always stories to tell and I know that my next client is out there and it's so exciting. Every query I open, every click, I hope this is the one, is this the one? And it's just a very exciting time to be a storyteller and I am just thrilled and honored to be someone who can facilitate stories.

Joanna: Brilliant. Where can people find you and the book online?

Barbara: Well, thanks. You can go to funnyyoushouldaskbook.com. And then you can find me, and I know you warned me against this, but hey, you guys are out there, right? You can find me with your query letter and your first 10 pages at barbara.queries [at] irenegoodman.com

Joanna: Since you did say that, are you're looking for any particular projects, so you don't get pitched everything?

Barbara: Good point. What I'm not looking for right now, and that's not to say not ever, but just right now I'm stepping back a bit from memoir and from nonfiction. I would say right now I'm 95% fiction. With that in mind, I love the big genres, I love mysteries, thrillers, suspense, crime. I'm definitely looking for more there.

But what I'm really looking for, my heart is set on, I want to find an upmarket rom-com without being a rom-com, like not a tongue in cheek, stereotypical rom-com. I'd like to find grounded fiction with comedic elements. And with my comedy background, it's hard to make me laugh so I need to be reading something that makes me laugh out loud. I want to find an atypical love story that makes me laugh out loud there.

Joanna: That is cool. Okay, so if you're out there, definitely email Barbara. Well, thank you so much for your time, that was great.

Barbara: This has been my privilege. Thank you.

Joanna Penn:

View Comments (10)

  • I've simply loved this interview, there's so much about the art, the business and the "ferocious" attitude we bashful authors should (at least pretend to) have. I also confess that now I'm deadly curious to have a list of Barbara's favourite romantic comedies, "not a tongue in cheek, stereotypical rom-com but grounded fiction with comedic elements."

  • Wow. This was very clarifying. Thanks so much for doing this interview. I like the hook, book and cook structure for a query letter. And the advice to find where your name is on the bookshelf and look at others around you for comparable titles.

  • Thank you so much for this transcript Joanna and to Barbara for being so clear about so much of the process and for your insights into the industry. It is enormously helpful for newbies like me to be able to relate to the real person behind a name in a website and to be able to understand how a query works. It gives me hope that someone will just click and feel the right kind of connection to what I am writing.

    • LOVED that interview. Barbara Poelle is so on the level, and your questions spot on. Thank you so much for that, Joanna. I'm actually going to query her!

      Also, in your newsy notes before the interview, you spoke about Amazon…. Thought you'd appreciate a two-hour documentary that aired last week on PBS on their program called 'Frontline.' The episode is 'American Empire: the Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos.' I found it informative and terrifying. Find it on "PBS.org."

      Thanks again for addressing the agent issue. Barbara Poelle brought me fresh perspective and inspiration.

      • Thanks, I'll check it out. As per Authors Guild report this week, I think there will be more of a move to break up big tech in the years to come. That will have a seismic shift on the publishing model.

  • Fantastic questions. One of the best interviews I've seen with an agent. I especially found the bit on comp titles really helpful. Thanks Joanna!

  • Since the transcription doesn't seem to have picked this up: the word Barbara used was "hola", not "ola". They're both Spanish and are homophones, but the former means "hello" and the latter "wave". :)

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