When I heard that readers of this blog wanted me to interview literary agents, one of the first people to come to mind was Christopher Ferebee (@caferebee). Chris is an experienced agent with a strong reputation. I think you’ll enjoy hearing from him.
This interview kicks off what I’m calling the Living Legend series because each of the people I will interview is exactly that in my mind, a living legend. So without further ado let’s hear what Chris has to say.
Chris, could you orient us to the kinds of books you represent?
First and foremost, I don’t represent individual books. I seek to establish long-term relationships with creators of amazing content. It always starts with the content. I have represented fiction, non-fiction, young adult, and memoir, primarily from a Christian perspective. But the writing and the stories have to speak to me at a gut level or I won’t move forward. My job is to be a passionate advocate for my clients and if I don’t feel that when I engage with the story-telling, I won’t be able to do my job well.
You’ve seen a lot of changes in publishing since you launched your career as an agent. What do you think have been the most significant developments in this industry?
I believe there are two significant and related phenomenon happening right now; disintermediation and consolidation. Simply put, disintermediation is the removal of barriers in a supply chain of goods or services. With the rise of self-publishing options, the ongoing disappearance of bricks and mortar stores, and more and more savvy content providers, authors are connecting with their audiences directly and without going through the traditional channels of printing and distribution. While I do not believe this has been the primary challenge for publishers over the years, it is a growing one and the cumulative effect of various pressures is leading to the second phenomenon – consolidation. From the recent restructuring at Random House and Simon & Schuster, to acquisitions like HarperCollins’ purchase of Thomas Nelson and the impending merger of Random House and Penguin, significant consolidation among the publishers is taking place and will continue.
Would you describe how you view your role as a literary agent?
I believe most would be authors (and a lot of publishers) view the agent as a broker. “I have a book, you sell it to a publisher.” But I view my role as encompassing much more than that. The real value an agent can play is bringing their wide-ranging experience and knowledge of the industry as a whole, how different publishers operate, and your own experience with what has worked and what hasn’t to the publishing process for your authors. My goal is to make sure each project gets the amount of attention from the publisher it deserves. In the best case scenario, you have a strong advocate at the publisher that plays the role of shepherding a project through the process, but with the demands on everyone’s time, it isn’t always possible. The authors often don’t know what they can expect, and so the agent plays that role of championing the project through each stage on the way to publication.
What in your mind does an author need to do to be successful in the current marketplace?
In my 15 years, that answer hasn’t changed. The author needs a “platform.” What has changed is all the ways an author can develop that platform. You no longer have to have a successful television show or radio show, or lead a large organization. Anyone willing to do the hard work of developing compelling content, networking with other people in a given area of interest, seeking to add value to their audience, can grow a platform that will get publishers’ attention. But if the author isn’t bringing a built-in audience to the table, it’s tough to be successful in today’s publishing world.
Would you tell us about a client of yours who you think serves as a good example or role model for aspiring writers?
I would point to Margaret Feinberg, Jonathan Merritt and Shauna Niequist. All three have developed writing careers from the ground up. None of them lead an organization or had lightning strike with that huge bestseller out of nowhere making them a household name. They’ve just done the work of connecting with an audience day in and day out, writing consistently on their websites, hustling speaking engagements, taking freelance writing jobs for newspapers, magazines, other people’s websites. The old adage is true, it takes years of hard work to be an overnight success. I would encourage any author wondering how to break in to seek these three out. They’ve done the work.
If an author wanted to pursue your representation, what should s/he do?
I hate to say it, but this comes back to doing the hard work. Most agents receive hundreds and hundreds of unsolicited calls, proposals and submissions; the “slush” pile. Some agents religiously review these, but most do not because there just isn’t time. But I cannot tell you how seriously I take the recommendations of my friends, clients and colleagues in the industry. As you do the work of building a platform, connecting with others, developing your craft, you’ll start to meet people further down the path that will be willing to make introductions to their agent, editor, etc. This will get you in the door far faster than a hundred cold calls.
What do you think makes for the strongest author-publisher relationships?
Mutual respect. There are times that an author utterly fails to deliver. There are times when a publisher significantly drops the ball. And these times need to be called out. But 99% of the time everyone is doing the best that they can in their given circumstance. When you can believe the best about each other, believe that you’re pulling in the same direction, extend a little grace when necessary, things will go much smoother. We all have to prioritize projects, it’s no secret that the authors who treat their publishers with the proper amount of respect, and that receive the same, are going to work harder for each other than those that don’t.
What gets you excited in your work as an agent?
Working alongside really talented people who are passionate about what they do. You don’t get into publishing because you’re going to make a ton of money. Some do, most don’t. I believe those who stay in publishing, got into publishing because they’re passionate about story, about the ability to impact lives, about books. I grew up on books and still get a little giddy when a box of the newest release shows up on my desk. The big successes are fun and you celebrate them, but the excitement is in helping passionate people bring compelling stories to the marketplace.
If you had only one piece of advice for a writer who is just getting started, what would it be?
This has changed for me. I used to simply say, “Write about what you’re passionate about.” But Steven Pressfield and others have challenged this for me. Basically, the challenge of being a writer is to write whether you’re feeling it or not. I don’t know if this is original to Michael Hyatt or if he was quoting someone, but his tweet a few days back sums it up perfectly: “Amateurs write when they are inspired. Professionals get inspired when they write.” My advice these days? Write, and don’t stop writing.
Christopher Ferebee is an attorney and literary agent serving as counsel for content creators of all stripes, from individuals to large organizations. He combines years of literary agency representation with legal advice and career counseling, bringing a holistic approach to intellectual property licensing and distribution.
Writers! Listen in to the conversation editor @chadrallen has with literary agent @caferebee. Insightful! http://wp.me/p2FgGq-dT - [Tweet this!]
“Anyone willing to do the hard work…can get publishers’ attention.” –Lit agent @caferebee http://wp.me/p2FgGq-dT via @chadrallen [Tweet this!]
Literary agent Chris Ferebee @caferebee weighs in on how writers can be successful in the marketplace http://wp.me/p2FgGq-dT via @chadrallen [Tweet this!]