133 Lucinda Halpern
It's not uncommon for writers to dream about having their own agent help sell their manuscript to a big publishing house. What is the best way to find an agent for your book? On this episode of The Author Inside You podcast, we interview literary agent Lucinda Halpern who shares great advice on how to find a book agent and what you can expect them to do for you.
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-transcription-Announcer: [00:00:04] You're listening to the author Inside You podcast, a weekly podcast designed to motivate you to finish writing a book. Choose a publisher and build an audience. Keep listening if you're looking to get propelled into the next chapter of your life. And now it's the author Inside You podcast.
Matt Rafferty: [00:00:23] Hello, I'm Matt Rafferty.
Leah Rafferty: [00:00:24] And I'm Leah Rafferty.
Matt Rafferty: [00:00:25] A special thanks to you for listening to our podcast and helping us spread the word. It's working. And more and more people are listening to the author inside you.
Leah Rafferty: [00:00:34] And also, thank you to our listeners, Neil Heslin and David, who specifically asked if we could do a few interviews with people who work in the book publishing business, such as agents, bookstore owners and independent publishers.
Matt Rafferty: [00:00:49] Well, this episode begins our mini series Inside the Book Industry today. Our guest is Lucinda Halpern, president of Lucinda Literary, a consulting agency dedicated to representing and publicizing authors with specific expertise in new media. Welcome, Lucinda. Thanks for joining us today.
Lucinda Halpern: [00:01:09] Thank you. Happy to be here.
Leah Rafferty: [00:01:11] Well, Lucinda, I see that you worked for HarperCollins in Scholastic magazines. How did these experiences lead you to become an entrepreneur?
Lucinda Halpern: [00:01:20] So I'd always been interested in working with authors and working on books like so many people who enter publishing. I was an aspiring author and creative writer and I had to get my foot in the door somehow. Right. It's a it's a small world in inner circle. And so I took the job that was offered to me, which was a publicity assistant at HarperCollins, and I parlayed that when I left into a marketing role at Scholastic. And in those days, which was now about 15 years ago, online, was really just sort of burgeoning for authors. So online marketing newsletters, websites, the blogosphere, the Twitter sphere. And so I had to just jump in and learn very
Leah Rafferty: [00:02:10] Quickly an exciting time, I would think I
Lucinda Halpern: [00:02:12] Was. It was an exciting time. And then I thought, how can I marry these new skills with my deep passion of nurturing the careers of authors and being editorially involved from the ground floor up. So I thought there has to be a job that does this right. And there was it was it was becoming a literary agent. The problem was I had no list. I had no revenue to guarantee any New York literary agency. So I knocked on every door and I found the person who would take me on as sort of an unknown and give me a letterhead and give me a desk and let me make phone calls and use the agency name. And I am forever indebted to my boss who allowed me to do that. And through working at that agency, I worked with Gretchen Rubin of the Happiness Project and a number of other of their marquee authors. And I started I started my agency when I was twenty seven years old. Wow, that's really cool. Yeah, it's been a wonderful experience where, you know, we're now in our 11th year and we've been innovating all along the way, trying to service our authors and, you know, in the best way possible. So it's been it's been a really rewarding experience.
Leah Rafferty: [00:03:27] Well, congratulations. First, I just having a business and having it succeed for 11 years is wonderful. And then also as a woman, that's just wonderful. So thank you. Very good to hear.
Matt Rafferty: [00:03:41] Well, I think the big question that our fan base is probably wondering is how do I get connected to an agent?
Lucinda Halpern: [00:03:48] So, you know, as I said, it is it's a tightly knit world and it does often take an insider connection. So what I always recommend is find the person you know who is a published author. And it doesn't matter if you are writing fiction and the person you know has published a memoir, can you get any connection to a publishing insider or agent or editor and have that person give you something of a plan? So I'm more personally a fan of that networking than I am going to the Internet and sort of Googling how to get an agent and looking at all kinds of resources that exist often with confusing, conflicting wisdom. So, you know, that's that's always the first way to go. But if you don't have access to that network or great idea whether you're a fiction or non-fiction writer is to establish any kind of audience online. And that could be from a social media audience to writing an article that gets picked up and, you know, in Forbes or in Refinery or Huffington Post or, you know, like Pie in the Sky. New York Times. Because agents and publishers are looking at the media constantly and we're looking for new voices and we're looking for exciting stories and we're looking for a fresh point of view. And so if your story gets traction in the media, you've now elevated your chances of getting published. So, you know, those are a couple of ways. Of course, there used to be in person conferences to attend, and I think those will start up again soon. So there are a number of ways, but I'd say I'd almost try those three before going about blind queering agents that you find on query tracker, dot net, you know.
Matt Rafferty: [00:05:43] So I think those are three good things. Go out in and find somebody who's done it before and then try to get some traction online and go to in-person events. I think those are all great ideas.
Lucinda Halpern: [00:05:55] And I'll give a fourth resource, which is Publishers Marketplace is the industry database. So we all use that to find it offers direct contacts to emails that you might be interested in connecting with, to editors, to publishers, scouts. And, you know, it's a paid subscription, but it's a nominal fee. It gives you a free daily newsletter that you can you can see what is selling in the marketplace. You can write that agent that day and say, I saw you sold X, Y, Z, and I'm actually writing a novel that reminds me a lot of, you know, of something on your list that I've read. So you can you can make those more personal, tailored introductions that can go such a long way in.
Leah Rafferty: [00:06:36] The agents will respond back.
Lucinda Halpern: [00:06:38] Well, you know, you're talking to a different kind of agent, right? I literally we pride ourselves on being responsive and, you know, sort of guiding writers through this process. And we've developed a whole sort of coaching and course offering around that. So it isn't you know, it isn't every agent that's going to respond. But having a number of agent friends, I can tell you that when they get the letter that says, you know, dear David, I saw that you represent Peter Sellers, the dog stars. And this book changed my life. And so I'm reaching out to you because, you know, that agent will read will read the query letter. It will get to that person and it will be meaningful. And, you know, it just enhances your opportunities for response and success.
Matt Rafferty: [00:07:27] Well, speaking of query letters, like what what sort of mistakes do people do when they write a query letter?
Lucinda Halpern: [00:07:33] So I'm smiling because this is one of my favorite questions. And and again, because I think there is so much bad wisdom out there. And so, you know, so we we have a few sort of myth busting insights to give on this topic. And one is that we care who you are. We care who you are as an author. So don't start with, you know, dear so-and-so. My book is it's like I want to know who you are, sort of the inspiration for your writing this, which is usually about the audience that supports it, you know, fiction or non. So to use a fictional example, if you've written a popular story, whether it's a short story or whether it's won an award or whether it's for a major media platform, and you say that you've had a response and engagement around this. Now you've told me why I should get interested in what you're about to present. So the first thing for us is we want a sense of who you are. So the second is hiding information. So if you've self published before or if you are working with an agent currently or you've published, you know, traditionally before, these are facts that we want to know because the first thing that any agent or editor is going to do upon receiving a submission they're actually interested in is Google you.
Lucinda Halpern: [00:08:50] And so if you're hiding really pertinent information to your submission, like the fact that you've already published a book, then then it's kind of a red flag. Right? Or if you're working with an agent who's a close friend of mine and you didn't tell me that you have representation. So again, these are delicate topics. And I completely get where writers are coming from and not wanting to sort of you know, a lot of writers, they cower about writing an agent to say, I self publish this book, but my sales were really pitiful. So instead take a positive spin if self publish this book. But this new idea is poised to do very differently because here's sort of the marketing plan I have for it or the idea's really timely or I didn't have support for my first book. But I you know, I, I plan to find a traditional publisher for this. Whatever your reason is, don't exclude the information, find a way to offer it a positive spin.
Leah Rafferty: [00:09:50] So let's say I have my fiction book and I send it off to you. What happens after I send it into your agency?
Lucinda Halpern: [00:09:58] Sure. So every agency this is also confusing for writers, but every agency. He has particular and specific and different guidelines, so it's for our agency, we're not we're not looking at your entire book upon your submission, through our report. All right. We're looking at a synopsis. We're looking at a partial so, you know, just a few chapters or a book proposal. So once you've hooked us with your letter and we're that early material, then it's usually going through a series of gatekeepers before it's actually getting to an agent. So, you know, literally we have we have interns, we have assistants, and then we have agents who, you know, it has to pass through all of those different doors to get, you know, somewhat someone's attention. And you can imagine that the even bigger agencies, you have to get through even more people. You know, all the more reason why that letter is just so hugely important. And something I always guide writers to do is to express as much urgency as possible in that letter. And I get that that can be tough, right? Like, you don't want to write and write an agent and say, I expect you to call me tomorrow. But but there are ways to suggest that you've got a really hot, timely concept that people that is in demand. And, you know, some of the best ways to do that are to suggest that it's out with a small list of of agents that are eagerly reviewing the material. You've already had requests. A publisher has contacted you. There are ways to sort of hint at that urgency that would make someone want to pick up your submission before someone else's.
Leah Rafferty: [00:11:43] I notice on your website that you have clothes looking for an intern for this year. So I would think since the interns get to read see them letters before anyone else, what an exciting job for them.
Lucinda Halpern: [00:11:57] Yeah.
Leah Rafferty: [00:11:57] So you really have to be careful who you pick. Also, though, they have to kind of think like you.
Lucinda Halpern: [00:12:02] True. That's true. And we, you know, we try to mentor them to to think just as we do and to really study our lists and to understand how we communicate and take pride in our communications with writers. So so, yes, they do have to think like you. But I mean, it's another great hack. If I were if I understood on the writer's side that I was going to first be writing an intern, I might actually research that intern a little bit and make the note more personal and, you know, make it more exciting to the young person who's first reviewing the query. So, again, I think those personal touches and details tend to really matter when you're competing with so many other blind submissions.
Matt Rafferty: [00:12:44] That's interesting. Yeah, great advice. So let's just follow this through a little bit. An intern reads the letter and maybe the submission that came with it, right? Mm hmm. Either a synopsis or maybe a chapter, and then they're excited about it and then they pass it on to the next level. And that person, do they, like, read the entire chapter if there's a chapter?
Lucinda Halpern: [00:13:06] Ok, yeah, they're running it up the flagpole. So, you know, again, something that if we get something that seems right up our alley now in in the world of working from home and using all of these digital systems. Right. It wouldn't be uncommon for some of my office to slack me and say we just received a really exciting query from X, Y, Z. I'm going to email it to right now. Well, now you have my attention, right? So in ways things are moving, actually, I can't speak for other agencies or publishers. I don't actually have the sense that this is happening across the board. But at our agency, things are moving faster than ever now. So. So just to take you through the process, someone more junior might read it might recommend it than I'm looking at it usually nights and weekends, not during office hours. And then I'm getting in touch with the author to sort of call to discuss the material, to share my vision of how, you know, I see the book appealing commercially and maybe any editorial changes that I'd suggest and then see if I have chemistry with that author, because we very much view this as a lifelong marriage and we view a book as nothing short of having a baby. So I know what a precious relationship this is and I know how important, you know, books are. And, you know, you really you're getting into a deep and engaged relationship with someone. So the next step upon reading the material is really talking to the author and making sure that you share a vision.
Leah Rafferty: [00:14:38] I never thought about that. Yes, I guess you would. That like how you said a marriage in the baby. It is a deep relationship. You're right. Yeah, I can see that now. So thank you for explaining that.
Matt Rafferty: [00:14:49] Well, sure. You both have a vested interest in it succeeding, right?
Lucinda Halpern: [00:14:53] Exactly. Yes.
Matt Rafferty: [00:14:55] One of our listeners wrote in and asked a question. David asked what types of book deals are usually only negotiated by agent? And not authors,
Lucinda Halpern: [00:15:04] Definitely deals that are done with the big five houses, but as I'm sure you know and your listeners know, there are a number of really reputable and wonderful independents that also do also offer very sizable book deals. You want an agent? You know, I'm always going to be an advocate for the value that an agent lends to the equation, which I think goes so much more beyond the deal. And the commission. I think it's about the lifetime advocacy for not the not the product, but the author to make sure that that those interests are being served. So to get to get specific about your listeners question, there are publishers that will take a query unsolicited from an author. But if that author then enters into a publishing contract, I recommend that all three gets an attorney know if they're not going to engage in agent, they should absolutely engage a lawyer to review the contract. Sure.
Matt Rafferty: [00:16:07] That makes sense. Sure.
Lucinda Halpern: [00:16:08] Yeah. Yeah, but but any of the major publishers or independent houses are going to sort of require that an agent be involved or they're certainly going to prioritize looking at those submissions that come from agents they trust. So it just it's never a bad thing for an author to work with an agent. It's generally always going to elevate your potential advance as well as your career. Mm hmm.
Leah Rafferty: [00:16:33] Well, it's interesting because, yeah, it sounds like you just circled right back to it's a small world about how you said that they want to work with the agent they know or.
Lucinda Halpern: [00:16:43] Yes, yes, yes. It is so true. And I actually had a question asked the other day that I thought was an interesting one. How do you avoid the conflict of having this publisher relationships, but primarily working for the author? You know, how do you navigate that? And what it comes down to is, you know, ideally you're engaging in an agent who's fair minded and invested in the book. So you're really you are mediating between those different interests toward the same goal. But ultimately, even if there's conflict along the road of publishing, which there can be because it's a long, winding process, publishers are still going to be inclined to work with agents time and time again for their tastes. For first and foremost, if they trust that you're bringing them good material, they're going to keep working with you. Yeah, I mean, it takes it takes time to build these relationships. But once you have them, we care for them. We care for them deeply.
Matt Rafferty: [00:17:40] Right. You don't want to offer something that's not not worthy. Right. Because that doesn't help your reputation any. Exactly. You want a good product to be able to give and you want to help the author come up with more good products after that. Exactly right. All right.
Leah Rafferty: [00:17:53] Does the agent help with the cover, the book in the printing?
Lucinda Halpern: [00:17:57] An agent is there to really guide and strategize on all of those milestones and the process. So what we usually recommend, a publisher will send some cover options for the book. The author will sort of hold, as you know, the moment has arrived and, you know, and it really is something that they actually envisioned and that can be both good or bad. And that's when an agent gets involved and, you know, gets on the phone with the author and says, let's talk about this. You know, how did this depart from your vision? And and then coming back to the publisher in unison to say, here's what we think. You know, here are the tweaks, here's how we pivot. That's where an agent would be involved. So it's not that an agent is coming up with the cover art inspiration. It's more that an agent is a an important part of that title and packaging conversation.
Leah Rafferty: [00:18:52] Ok, kind of like a negotiator, if need be
Lucinda Halpern: [00:18:55] Exact all of all along the path. Yes.
Matt Rafferty: [00:18:58] Ok, so let's talk about time frame. How what kind of a time frame are we talking about from the time that you might receive the first query letter until this lucky author is able to hold their book in their hand?
Lucinda Halpern: [00:19:13] If a novel comes to us and it's really fairly baked and we're just adjusting minimal editorial revisions and then we're sending that to an editor and that editor has minimal revisions. It could be it could be a year or less that you see that out on shelves. So that's for the moment.
Leah Rafferty: [00:19:31] That's pretty quick. Yeah.
Lucinda Halpern: [00:19:33] I mean, I'm thinking of a book that we this is actually a wonderful success story. I love to talk about. A self published author wrote a book called Black Girls Must Be Exhausted, and just through her own efforts on Instagram, started meeting with Book Club. She did like fifty book club appearances during the pandemic. So by the time she approached me, she'd had a number of reviews. She'd had these appearances. You know, she could demonstrate that proof of concept and that sort of proof of hunger from her audience for this book series. So we went and sold it within two weeks to Harper. For for a book deal, you know, and there I'm so psyched for her because she was envisioning self publishing for the rest of her road, but then, you know, I always thought this had potential for a major house, another publisher in that book at the you know, this fall. So that really is a matter of nine months less that we are getting that out to market. But again, the key there being that the editorial product was pretty much there when we sold it. So if you think about non-fiction, you know, it could be up to two and a half years from the time you take a proposal to an agent and get it out on shelves. It could be longer if you don't get an agent, buy in right away. So, yeah, it's a long road, but I think authors are always surprised at how fast it actually feels when they're in the process.
Matt Rafferty: [00:20:54] And the final feeling of being able to hold your book and look at it and say that it's yours.
Lucinda Halpern: [00:20:58] I know. And there's nothing like that, you know.
Matt Rafferty: [00:21:01] So what's your biggest frustration about being an agent?
Lucinda Halpern: [00:21:04] I'll tell you. I'll tell you, it's it's authors who don't have a clear vision of what they want their book to be. I love working with authors who are open minded and collaborative. I think that goes a long way in this process. But if you just don't if you just sort of want to publish a book for the sake of it, we haven't really thought through who your reader is, why that person cares, why they would make that 20 dollar investment, then I can't I can't really help you with that, you know, but you have to have you have to have that undying, unwavering belief in your art and your craft in your vision. And I think that makes things easier along the way, because when you start working with a large team, as you will do the you know, the agent being your first team member, but then it becomes your editor, your art designer, your publicist and everyone else, they're going to be looking to you as the expert on your book and your audience. And so I just think you have to be very clear about your reasons for publishing. It's too tough of a business. Otherwise, sure,
Matt Rafferty: [00:22:11] You need to know your audience. Yeah.
Lucinda Halpern: [00:22:13] So so when you ask what's you know, what's the frustration, it's it's sometimes being in kind of a dance with a prospective writer or a client about, you know, we're still figuring out what this is. And and that's not where I like to be. I like to be working with someone who knows exactly what this is going to be.
Leah Rafferty: [00:22:34] Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah. What was it like working on the Happiness Project?
Lucinda Halpern: [00:22:38] I mean, it was it was really exciting. I always say that I'm indebted to Gretchen and to her agent and to her the team of people that I was on for all of the learning and the energy and the excitement that came. I mean, I'll never forget when that hit the New York Times bestseller list. And we all had champagne at the office at 11:00 at night. You know, it was exciting because what she was doing was so revolutionary at the time, using her blog as a mechanism to really understand her readers and engage with them. You know, it it just was so new at the time. And yeah. So so I just think all of it was exciting. And it was also I was very young in publishing. So to be part of that, I was also part of Freakonomics now on. So I started just I was basically just in the mailroom, mailing books, interview requests after interview requests. And I got to know the authors. I got to you know, I got to be a part of that of that success. And so, you know, it never gets old. It never gets old when a book reaches that kind of level of recognition and being a part of the team and the process.
Leah Rafferty: [00:23:50] Sure. And now those books are part of school. You know, school. Yeah. Curriculums. Yeah.
Lucinda Halpern: [00:23:56] Yeah. I'm indebted to those authors, you know, more than than they are to me. Definitely. I mean, they, they were the driving force behind their own success and I just got to learn and be part of it.
Leah Rafferty: [00:24:11] That's wonderful.
Matt Rafferty: [00:24:13] So we'd like to ask authors what their advice is for other people who are writing books about getting their book done or being able to complete it. So I thought it'd be interesting to ask you, what's your best advice for someone who's writing a book right now?
Lucinda Halpern: [00:24:25] I guess I'll give you my my general broad advice would be you keep on a schedule. My most successful authors are definitely have a rigorous kind of discipline to to their work. So if they are unable to have a daily writing practice, they're taking a time. You know, they're taking a month long writer's retreat or week long writer retreat or weekend, you know, whatever time they can allot to really focus and drill down on it. I also am just a huge believer in having a good team. So if you don't have an agent who can be your accountability partner, who can work with you on developing the idea, then can you join a workshop with other writers? Can you be part of a Facebook group or a community? Again, to have that accountability, to have deadlines, to have people supporting your progress? I think those are the best things you can do. And and, you know, I just read Adam grants. Think again the value of having a team of skeptics, of actually not having your mother be your first reader, but having your most skeptical, trusted friend give you the brutal feedback on, you know, on your letter, on your book proposal, on your first chapter, like what are the problems with this? Asking those tough questions is going to serve you because the book by an audience is a skeptical one.
Leah Rafferty: [00:25:43] You need people to tell you the truth. How else are you going to get better? And you can't take anything personal. If you want to succeed, you need to take criticism and learn from it and know that it's given to you to help you succeed. Definitely. Yeah, but some people do have problems with that, right?
Matt Rafferty: [00:26:00] Well, it's interesting. We started off with talking about who, you know, in your community, and then we kind of are wrapping up with who you know in your community and your community help you. So it's really about talking to people and getting to know people and asking for favors.
Lucinda Halpern: [00:26:14] Yes, it is. It is. It's an interesting balance of working in the proverbial ivory tower at your craft and getting out to a network of people you trust to give you tough love and brutal honesty.
Leah Rafferty: [00:26:29] Listen to what's the best way for our listeners to get in touch with you.
Lucinda Halpern: [00:26:33] So, I mean, you can find everything that was simple literary offers on our website, which is W-W Lucindale literary dot com. And yeah, I think you'll find I think your audience will find a number of resources. I can certainly query our agents there. As I said, we have courses, we have regular workshops, we have a speakers bureau. We have all kinds of things to check out. So I hope to see your listeners there.
Leah Rafferty: [00:26:58] When I was checking out your website, it does seem like you have many resources that are very valuable and that people can take advantage of.
Lucinda Halpern: [00:27:06] Thank you so
Leah Rafferty: [00:27:07] Much. Well, thank you for putting it out there. And once again, congratulations on being a successful business woman.
Lucinda Halpern: [00:27:13] Oh, thank you. It's wonderful to talk with you guys.
Matt Rafferty: [00:27:18] I think it was interesting to have Lucinda as an agent give us her perspective on the writing process, so keep those suggestions coming
Leah Rafferty: [00:27:25] And until next time.
Announcer: [00:27:27] Right on. Thank you for listening to the author Inside You podcast with your host, Leah and Matt Raverty.
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