I’m thrilled to inaugurate my new site with an interview from literary agent Rubin Pfeffer of Rubin Pfeffer Content, LLC. I met Rubin in a one-on-one critique session at a writing conference in Boston last year and was sad when the time ended. As you’ll see from his responses, he knows the publishing industry inside and out and has much to offer writers and illustrators. Thank you, Rubin!
You’ve had a pretty amazing career in publishing, including art director at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, vice president and publisher at Simon and Schuster and an independent agent at East West Literary. Then you started your agency in 2014, Rubin Pfeffer Content. Did the transition to agent change the way you work with authors?
Yes, definitely. You become much more aware of the authors as individuals, of their sensitivities, vulnerabilities, and their livelihoods. You’re on the side of the author. That’s not to say you’re not when you’re inside a publishing corporation, but as an agent, you’re much more concerned about the author’s business and dreams. When I was a publisher, I wasn’t sensitive enough to what delays and silence mean to authors. I regret, actually, having taken too long to sign contracts now that I see what it’s like to wait for them.
Can you give me a peek into your agenting day? What are the steps you usually go through when reading a submission?
What everyone needs to understand is there’s no set answer to any question you’re going to ask me in this interview. My day is full of many different responsibilities: administrative, creative, and simply humane responsibilities such as checking in with clients on their well-being and the progress of tasks at hand. In any given day, I’d be on the phone or on email with a publisher to make sure a project or manuscript is underway or to get feedback on submissions that might be sitting a little too long. I usually do a quick check of email to see what has newly arrived, business that needs to be addressed or that needs to go into some type of prioritization. If an author or editor has a question that needs a quick or timely response in order to keep the wheels rolling, I’ll take care of that first. Submissions from clients are going to get looked at right away because I’m excited to see what they’ve come up with. Unsolicited submissions are going to wait. If a submission catches my eye and I find it irresistible, I might get lost in it for a few hours and totally upend my day. So be it. But a typical day is making sure everything administratively is being done on schedule: checking contracts and payments, responding to authors’ questions, reading reviews. There’s always plenty of work in progress. You try to be as mindful of timing as possible, as mindful of an author’s eagerness and feelings, mindful of getting to submissions in a timely manner, mindful of editors and their time frame. I realize there’s no such thing as a work day, it’s really day and night. The more creative, social, experimental things, research etc., will be done later on, probably late afternoon or in the quiet of evening. For editors too, most of the day is administrative or full of meetings. When it comes to reading and actual editing many editors will work at night or on weekends.
What are you looking for? What makes a story work for you?
In any genre or format, I look for characters who are vulnerable yet brave, wise, and/or clever. I love a good yarn. You’re going to hear this from everyone, of course. I love when I can really, really believe the voice. In fiction, I’m attracted to historical fiction if it’s relevant to our times. If it’s something today’s reader might find insightful about today’s world. I also like stories of unusual family relationships, or if something about the story gives me a lump in the throat. If it gives me chills, goosebumps or makes me turn pages, I’m kind of hooked.
With illustrations, I like narrative illustrations where I make eye contact with the character. I like the use of graphically designed illustrations—using the space from a design point of view effectively. And I enjoy simple, crisp illustrations. I represent illustrators who need very few words in stories because their illustrations have voice and are telling the story. Jeff Mack (Good News, Bad News, Ah Ha!) can tell a story using just one or two words, the whole narrative is conveyed through one or two words and the illustrations tell the rest of the story. Mike Austin is another illustrator who uses few words. Fire Engine No. 9. uses onomatopoeia, graphic designs and simple illustrations to tell the story. By graphic design, I mean how he uses the space for composition, image, and typography to be set up in unexpected ways, to set a mood and tell a visual experience.
Tell me about “voice.” How do you know an author has it?
To me, voice is when a story is told the way it must be told, the way no one else would or could tell it. It’s from the writer’s unique point of view. What the character is saying, doing, thinking, feeling, the authenticity of that character and how that character lives in the world the writer has created—that all needs to go together. A writer who never misses voice is Patricia MacLachlan (Sarah Plain and Tall).
How should a writer best use the time she has interacting with an agent/editor at a conference or one-on-one critique session?
When a writer is fortunate enough to receive a critique from a professional source, the writer should do whatever it takes to be very open to what the person is saying. Hold your questions until the end. The writer should introduce her/himself with some acknowledgment of the opportunity to meet. Then let the person critiquing really have the time to say what they want to say. You’ll have your chance for questions, but it’s best not to interrupt, or waste time defending or explaining yourself on smaller points. The reviewer will be talking big picture and big points. Take it in. You have a short time to hear the professional’s point of view. At the end, they’ll listen to your questions, but they should be your most important questions. Talk about what matters to you most, don’t get stuck in “can I get your editor’s cell phone or personal email, etc.” Don’t do anything silly. Be respectful and respect will come back. Really, just listen, listen, listen.
How does a writer know when a manuscript is submission ready?
You’ve got to be honest with yourself. You’re not putting the pencil down because you’re exhausted or don’t know where to go. You think it’s the best representation of you and your work. Hopefully, you’re in a writer’s group with people you trust to give you honest feedback, not just people who are saying what you want to hear. If you’re excited about your manuscript and feel you’re ready to send it out, you’re the judge, you want to give yourself the best shot. And don’t forget all the obvious things: have you spell-checked it, gone over the grammar, is your cover note respectful and clear? Will it quickly hook your reader or make them interested in taking a close look at your manuscript? Does your cover letter have a voice? No, not necessarily the voice of character or the manuscript, that would be a gimmick, which may work sometimes, but is it your own professional voice, your own brand if you will, a tone and presentation that is solid and worthy of you as a professional writer dedicated to your craft.
Are you the initial reader of all the queries? If not, how do you ask your assistant to judge each submission?
I have three different readers for different types of submissions. I have one person who goes through the manuscripts that come in by referral or following a speaking engagement such as SCBWI. She will go through these submissions and forward to me whatever she deems worthy of review. She knows my taste and interests, and generally what would be a good fit for the agency. She also keeps an eye out for another agent here, and watches for submissions that Melissa Nasson would like as well. She screens and clears away what requires only a polite acknowledgment for material clearly not right for us. When something is submitted with respect to itself, we respect it right back, and it’s reviewed and treated professionally. I have specialized readers in fantasy and strong, expressive YA. I have paid interns, graduates referred to me from writing programs, who help read manuscripts. I find it refreshing to get their points of view.
Is there anything the successful queries have in common? Ditto for unsuccessful queries?
In many ways we’ve been talking about these points all through this interview. Successful queries have presented the writer effectively. If it’s not submission ready, it goes to the recycle pile. In a cover letter, you get a sense of the writer’s style, have they hooked you with a very brief description that feels different or fresh? Have they hooked you with something they’ve said about themselves or their credentials? Has another writer referred them? What would hook me is someone with a qualified referral. They’ll have my attention for as long as the manuscript will hold me. Unsuccessful queries don’t give me a sense of professionalism, be it a cover note full of apologies or excuses, or something that tells me I’m being generically submitted to. Sometimes I’ll get a submission with about 50 other agents listed on the email because the writer didn’t use the blind copy properly. Those get deleted immediately.
What’s the longest you’ve subbed a project to publishers before it sold?
Six years. Why six years? Maybe it was ahead of its time, or maybe it was very good initially, and like a fine wine it got better over time, or current events may have made the story more relevant. It was a manuscript I believed in by an unpublished writer. It came close a number of times but didn’t make it for one reason or another. We put it away and then revisited it a few times before it finally sold. That’s an exception though. If I have manuscripts that don’t sell, I don’t often go back. If it had a good run and was seen by enough people –and the right people, it usually has had its day.
How do you handle submissions from current clients if something doesn’t resonate with you? Do you have other readers look at it to gauge things like marketability, subjective taste? Will you sell something you don’t personally love if you objectively think it’s a strong work?
It’s a very tough question. It’s something I struggle with and it’s going to vary manuscript by manuscript, client by client. If it’s something that doesn’t resonate with me, the first step is to talk it through with the client to see if my concerns resonate with them. That’s often a very healthy conversation that might give the author a reason to reconsider the manuscript. That’s not at all unusual, and it’s a necessary conversation. Sometimes it’s not difficult, sometimes it is. The agent is the first filter of many, and if it’s not working for some reason, then that needs to be addressed by the agent and author together. And if the author still feels it’s ready to submit, then I really do go through an introspective process. I’ll use different resources. I might ask one or two of my readers to tell me what I’m not seeing to get an objective read. Here’s the big point of this question: I never want to be an obstacle. I never want to be a gate between something that the author thinks deserves or needs to be published, because goodness knows, we already go through so many gates. I do want to be as diligent as possible in going through all of this and advising the author fairly and squarely. And for certain authors I will submit the story because I will remind myself, “I don’t know it all.” For certain authors I may say, “You are welcome to send it, but I won’t be part of it.” Nothing acrimonious, just a different kind of support and belief.
Is there a submission you’ve regretted passing up?
Some agents specify a time period after which a writer should assume “no response means no.” If a writer gets an offer from another agent, should the writer then notify a “no response is no” agent if the specified time has already passed?
We answer just about everything. If a writer gets an offer of representation that feels good to the writer, they should let the other agents who received the simultaneous submission know that they have an offer. And they should let them know the time frame in which they need an answer. But my general counsel on this is to be careful not to lose that original offer. You know, better the bird in the hand, so be up front with other agents on your deadline.
If you could give writers one piece of advice on how to interest an agent, what would it be? If the editors you work with could give writers one piece of advice on how to interest an editor, what would they say?
Showing professionalism, having a voice, hook, and making clear what the story is about and why it is unique—that sort of elevator/matchmaking pitch. Editors—same thing.
What story do you wish would fall into your lap? What types of stories are you absolutely not interested in?
I welcome authentic, diverse voices in any age and genre.
Are longer picture books dead? Will the 500 word count or less still take the day, or are things shifting?
The “less than 500-600 word count” still holds. But the longer picture was never really dead—they may even be coming back. For the right category higher word count may be necessary, and if the story needs to be long then, let it be, if that’s the best way of telling it. I think long picture books have their place, certainly in non-fiction, or narrative historical fiction.
You’re currently accepting submissions by referral only, but your associate agent, Melissa Nasson is open to submissions. Can you describe the type of stories she is looking for?
Melissa is looking for MG and YA fantasy, diverse, multi-ethnic and LGBTQ voices, realistic fiction, and edgy YA. She is also beginning to consider picture book manuscripts.
Anything you’d like to add?
Thank you, Johnell for contacting me about this interview. I hope your readers will find it helpful and encouraging.
To query Melissa Nasson with your picture book, middle-grade, or YA fiction or non-fiction manuscript, please send your query and the first 50 pages as a DOC or PDF file to firstname.lastname@example.org. See Rubin’s site for more information and current updates: http://www.rpcontent.com