Never Say Never – interview with Janet Kobobel Grant (12 September 2006)

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Introduction

The manner in which I ‘met’ Janet was interesting – I contacted her as I wished to interview one of her clients. That author declined to be interviewed and after a week or so, it occurred to me that I’d never approached a literary agent for an interview before. I thought, “Why not?” and asked her. I was mightily pleased when she agreed. I have learnt much from this interview with her and without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing to you Janet Kobobel Grant …


Aneeta: Janet, I thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Janet: My pleasure, Aneeta.

Aneeta: First, do tell me a little about you. Where were you brought up? Your interests and any other personal information you wish to share with my readers.

Janet: I was born and raised in Colorado, with the Rockies looming to the west over our city. It was a bit disconcerting, after college, to move to California and not to have the mountains as a ready reference for figuring out one’s direction when meandering through a new locale. But, on arriving in California, I found I’m more of a water person. I took an immediate liking to the ocean, which continues to breathe in and out, regardless of what happens in my personal life. It is my internal compass that brings sanity when things go wrong. I now live north of San Francisco in wine country and close to the ocean—the best of two worlds.

I’m an inveterate reader, cookbook collector, and kayaker. My Australian Shepherd, Murphy, takes me on long walks since his energy level is higher than any dog ought to have.

Aneeta: How did you get into the publishing industry? I imagine that you were not always a literary agent and started out doing something else. What did you do?

Janet: I majored in English in college and then worked as director of publications for a nonprofit organization that started a book-publishing venture. The first book I edited was on financial planning, and it wasn’t my cuppa tea. When I finished the edits ,I proclaimed, “I’ll never edit another book.” Which just gets to show that you shouldn’t ever say never. As I edited additional books (well, it was part of my job), I found I liked having to drop my bucket further into the editing well, and I eventually chose to concentrate on only editing books. I became an imprint editor at Zondervan and then managing editor of books at Focus on the Family. During that time I learned about all aspects of book publishing and developed a strong publishing network. It slowly dawned on me that what I enjoyed most about my job was discovering new authors and helping authors to move their careers up a level. Since being a literary agent was an avenue that allowed me to concentrate on those aspects of publishing, I hung out my agenting shingle. I’ve been agenting for ten years now. It’s a stimulating, fascinating job. And one of my favorite parts is that I get to choose whom I work with—not many jobs give you that luxury.

Aneeta: I understand that you’re also a published author in your own right. Please, do tell us a little about the books you’ve written.

Janet:

But Can She Type?: Overcoming Stereotypes in the Workplace was my first book and grew out of my master’s thesis on women in business leadership. Obviously it was published some time ago since everyone has some typing skills nowadays. But the title was a reflection of the way women often are categorized in a work setting.

Where Is God When I Need Him Most? explored a key issue of faith. When we see suffering or experience suffering, can God be found? I see God as being empathetic with us during those times, and that’s the perspective from which I wrote the book.

Growing in Prayer and Experiencing God’s Presence are two books that explore essential elements of Christianity by looking to the Bible for insight. Both of these books are designed for group discussion, and I had a lot of fun thinking of creative ways to engage a group in conversation.

Every Child Needs A Praying Mom was a collaboration with Fern Nichols, who founded Moms In Touch International, an organization with the goal of having groups of mothers in every country of the world pray for their local schools. It was a fascinating project, which showed me that moms everywhere want to pray for their children, regardless of what label is put on that mother’s faith. Fern has travelled extensively and had stories from women on every continent.

The Breast Cancer Care Book also was a collaboration, this time with Sally Knox, a physician who specializes in breast cancer surgery. I chose to do this project because the statistics tell us 1 in every 10 women will develop breast cancer at some point in her life. I realized that, by teaming with Sally, I would be providing women with help in dealing with a disease that attacks women’s view of themselves as their bodies often are mutilated to save their lives, they lose their hair, and their dignity is at risk. The publisher’s wife learned she had breast cancer while the book was being edited, and someone at the house gave her the manuscript to read. It meant so much to me that this, our first reader, found it comforting and insightful. Authors don’t always hear from readers; so it was reassuring to hear that her response was just what Sally and I had in mind.

Aneeta: For the benefit of my readers who have not yet had much experience in the publishing world, can you please explain the need for a writer to secure the services of a literary agent?

Janet: The publishing world is an ever-changing universe, with personnel changes and publishing houses buying other publishing houses. It’s almost dizzying to keep track of all the changes. A literary agent is like a still-point in a turning universe. Once you secure an agent, that person will hopefully guide you through your entire career, helping you to decide what you’ll write next, placing your work with the appropriate house, and dealing with the business side of publishing, which frees you up to concentrate on the creative side. And when things go wrong—as  they inevitably will—your agent is there to step in and to help resolve the problem.

Aneeta: I read this paragraph in an interview with you on the WritersMarket.com website:

I know most everything an agent can do for a writer. However, I’d like to know, is there anything a writer can do for an agent?
-George

Dear George,

Probably the most important thing a writer can do for an agent is to trust him or her. Nothing is more frustrating than to see a direction a manuscript needs to go, to communicate that to the writer, and then to have the writer ignore your advice. Or to suggest a book title that will capture a lot of interest, but to have the author hang onto a title that no one gets or that brings a negative response.

Sometimes an agent will come up with an idea that’s a natural for the writer and one the market is ready for, only to have the writer decide he or she wants to write for an entirely different audience. An agent is offering advice based on years of experience and knowledge of the market; yet, sometimes writers decide they know more than their agent. So what do you have an agent for?!

Another thing a writer can do for an agent is to be circumspect about how often you contact your agent. Especially with the advent of e-mails, it’s easy for a writer to dash off a question or two per day. Spending hours answering e-mails keeps the agent from having time to place your work. Save up your questions; often with the passage of a few more days, the answer you’ve been waiting for will come your way anyway. If not, you could send one e-mail every week or so with your questions.

Janet, this is very interesting information. Is there anything else you would like to add to this?

Janet: Sometimes authors will get an idea they think is the next barn-burnin’ fabulous seller. Rather than discuss the idea with his/her agent, the author dashes off a proposal with sample chapters and then sends it off to the agent—who, on seeing it, realizes a major author is about to release a book on that very topic, or that the topic isn’t as hot as the author thought, or that the author took the wrong approach. Authors need to communicate about future projects with their agents. It can save a lot of blood, sweat and, yes, tears.

Aneeta: In today’s market, what would an agent be looking for in the work of an aspiring author?

Janet: More than anything an agent looks for stellar writing. Most agents are suckers for great writing. It’ll make us take a chance on a new writer and decide we’ll put our reputations on the line by telling editors we’ve found a manuscript that’s worthy of special attention. Obviously, we can only do that every once in awhile, when the manuscript is light years better than anything we’ve seen in a long time. Keep in mind when I say that, that I see about 100 queries every week; so I’m sifting through a lot of material. The good news is that, when I something stands out, it  has to be pretty wonderful.

In addition, an agent is going to look for projects that are marketable. If a writer is creating in a genre that’s not performing well in the market, the agent won’t be able to even get an editor’s attention. I remember a few years ago that historicals weren’t doing well. I’d start to tell an editor about a great historical novel I was representing, and the editor would interrupt me (to save my breath) and say, “I’m not looking for historicals right now.” Regardless how great your novel, if the genre is under-performing, it’s unlikely an agent can place your work.

Aneeta: What should a writer avoid doing, at all costs, when submitting a manuscript to you?

Janet: Overselling. Don’t promise me in your query letter that your novel is the next John Grisham or Nora Roberts. I won’t believe it. Or that your book will be enjoyed by readers from ages 8 to 88. Nah. I won’t believe that either. Children’s book authors tend to present their work as something that adults will love as much as children. When I read that, I know the person didn’t write the book to delight children but to sell to adults, and I’m pretty sure, just from reading the query letter, that the book will not delight children.

Aneeta: How can a writer submit their work to you and what kind of work are you looking for right now, if any?

Janet: I accept email queries without attachments (at Representation@booksandsuch.biz) and also queries via the postal system, with SASEs. Please mention that you read this interview in your query; it will give you a leg up on all those other queries I receive.

Because I was an English major, I’m always on the lookout for great novels. I’m not personally drawn to action stories or paranormal novels. And I’ve done little with fantasy or science fiction.

Aneeta: As you know, my website caters for storytellers. What advice would you give these people?

Janet: Stories are the most powerful way to explore life and its dumbfounding aspects. But sometimes writers forget how important it is to tell a story that’s easy to describe in one sentence. In our fast-paced world, everyone is looking for a quick way to tell others what a story is about. For example, The Time-Traveler’s Wife could be described as a story about an involuntary time traveler and his complex relationship with his wife, whom he travels back in time to meet at various stages of her youth. This description could fit no other book and presents the major plotline. Being able to talk about a novel with a simple, unique description helps to create buzz about a book.

Aneeta: Janet, this is all I have to ask you. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Janet: Just that getting published and generating some momentum for your writing is a matter of practicing the art of patience. Sure, there are overnight successes, but for the most part, success comes after years of hard work. I had dinner with best-selling author Debbie Macomber the other night, and she reminded me that she wrote for five years before her first novel was published and that it took 20 published novels before her career really took off. While that can be sobering to hear, it does give one the idea that writing is a long-haul commitment with very few short cuts along the way.

Aneeta: Janet, thank you, once again.

Janet: You’re welcome, Aneeta.


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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