Interview with Agent Gordon Warnock

California Agent Gordon Warnock
of Foreword Literary – August 18, 2014


Interview by Tania Urenda, agent coordinator
& co-author of Chronicles of Douglas County, CO (July 2014)

Self-promoting is essential in today’s writing market. Authors need a strong platform which usually involves speaking engagements, social media, networking and being an expert in your field or book. What are some of the most time efficient strategies your busiest authors have used to promote their books? Is it possible to fit family life, work and a budding writing career into a 24-hour period?

Gordon: Absolutely. The classic time complaint holds little water because thousands of new and established authors write, work, publish, promote, and live their lives every year. But as with most aspects of this business, there is no magic bullet that will instantly gain optimal results for everyone. It really varies depending upon the strengths of the author and which outlets the material naturally fits. We have a few clients who are absolutely killing it on Instagram right now. And then on the opposite end of the spectrum is the one without any form of social media whatsoever who maximizes her speaking events by tying in local and national traditional media. Regardless of the tools you use, you’ll start seeing the best returns if you approach your writing like a business. Stop thinking of yourself as an author, and start thinking of yourself as an authorpreneur.

Writers Conferences are an exciting and sometimes nerve-wrecking experience for any level of writer. It’s often said that writers are writers, not speakers, for a reason.  Pitch sessions with an agent or editor can fumble if authors come on too strong or are too nervous. What is the best way for an author to approach you when trying to sell themselves and their book? Do you have any horror stories from your earlier years of being an agent or writer that you could share?

Gordon: I have horror stories from a couple weeks ago, mostly of folks who just didn’t prepare. Make it a dialog. One person should not be speaking the entire time. Talk about your manuscript for maybe half of the session and then be prepared to answer questions. Know your manuscript inside and out, know the genre you’re writing into, know your qualifications as an author, and know what your plan is for the success of the book. And to save both you and the agent a lot of time, research the agent before you sign up to pitch. You don’t just want an agent. You want the right agent. I literally had a pitching writer get frustrated and say, “I thought you represent fiction.” I do, but not all of it. In fact, it’s a small portion of my list, and I say so right on my website. If I don’t rep your genre, there are a lot of other agents out there you’re better off contacting.

At the Castle Rock Writers Conference you’ll be presenting a workshop on how to hook an agent and doing some limited critiquing. What are the most common mistakes writers make within the first five pages of their manuscript or proposal? What’s your biggest pet peeve?

Gordon: There are so many mistakes that make an agent stop reading. You have to be compelling, and you have to present tension or at least some sort of imbalance that creates intrigue and must be righted through reading on. If you open with the info dump, large blocks of exposition, or back story, you’ll lose the reader right away. You also have to be on your A game as far as the prose is concerned. This is our first impression of what you can do as a writer, and I simply can’t stick around for 50 pages to see whether or not you have skills, especially if you spend those pages convincing me otherwise. Just as a browsing reader does in a bookstore, an agent must make decisions within a certain window. If I have a pet peeve here, that might be it–writers who don’t understand that or complain about the agent passing on a manuscript without reading the whole thing. Readers often don’t make it through a book before putting it down (or back on the shelf at B&N). That’s just the nature of things.

Fiction writers strive to make characters original and lifelike. In other interviews you’ve also expressed this important aspect of writing.  What are the best ways for doing this?

Gordon: Study humans. We’re an interesting breed. Give your character real human quirks, and don’t base them entirely off of one person or character you’ve read. For example, I get a lot of people pitching me “the next Holden Caulfield.” There already exists a Holden Caulfield. Give me someone new. Really stretch your creative muscle.

In non-fiction writing the author must be a known expert in his or her field and have legitimate credentials. Are there any subjects you feel are underrepresented in the publishing field, ones that are on your bucket list?

Gordon: Not really. They usually end up on my client list instead of my bucket list. For example, I think libraries aren’t given the attention or priority they deserve in society, and I now have an amazing project with the author of the viral photo essay, “This Is What a Librarian Looks Like.” I’m working on the book, Neil Gaiman is narrating the documentary, and we’re getting great support from libraries internationally. We’re making it happen. Also realize that publishing is a multi-faceted ecosystem. There’s a lot more going on than just the projects agents work with.

As a founding partner of Foreword Literary, your agency has been at the forefront of the evolution of traditional publishing into the digital age. Many thought this would herald the end of paper books, publishers and agents. Obviously the end of the world is not coming and bookstores are alive and well, so what new and exciting things do see in the future for your agency and the authors you represent?

Gordon: Mostly things I can’t talk about at the date of this interview. I have the luxury of working with some of the brightest minds in the industry, and we’re always cooking up new ideas and new ways for our authors to succeed in this ever-changing, highly competitive marketplace. As for things that can be talked about, we have an amazing list of fall releases. Here are a few Sept/Oct highlights:

DRAGON’S BREATH AND OTHER TRUE STORIES by MariNaomi is out Sept. 9th. If you’ve never had comics profoundly touch your heart, check her out. She’ll make you feel.

FALLING INTO PLACE, the debut by 18-year-old phenom Amy Zhang, is out the same day. This one has received crazy good press, and there’s plenty more we can’t mention.

THE BOOK OF KINDLY DEATHS by Eldritch Black is out Sept. 16th. Having grown up on Goosebumps, I’m a tremendous fan of this twisted storyteller. 

The first in the TALON series by NYT bestseller Julie Kagawa releases on Oct. 28th. Universal optioned it and Chris Morgan is writing the screenplay. 

MARTYR, the first in THE HUNTED series by A.R. Kahler, releases the same day. Keep an eye on this author. He’s a rising star. 

If you’ve done any research into the publishing field, you will have heard about the massive slush piles that loom in the darkest corners of every agency. How often do the slush piles see the light of day and how much better are the odds of being represented after a pitch session at a conference verses being found in a slush pile?

Gordon: Yeah, I’ve researched that a bit, and in my experience, you’re much more likely to get a request from a conference. But that means nothing if the work doesn’t deliver on the promise of the pitch. I’ve signed (and sold) way more from the slush than I have from conferences, though there are gems to be found in all methods of submission. Except from the one where you slide the manuscript under the restroom stall. You’ll never get a book deal that way.

Gordon will be participating on an Agent Panel on Friday, October 3rd, 2014 for our Pre-conference event, “Reading Through the Slush Pile, Agents Share their Thoughts.” He will also be accepting a limited number of verbal pitches and written critiques during the 2014 CRW Conference and presenting the workshop, “How to Hook an Agent.” Conference date is Saturday, October 4th, 2014. Look under the Conference page for more information.

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