If you haven’t heard her name before, come out from under your rock. Literary agent Joanna Stampfel-Volpe has quickly made a name for herself since starting with Nancy Coffey Literary Agency last fall.
Not only has she signed a boat load of fabulous new books and authors, she has also generously donated her time to writers throughout the blogosphere. In fact, study the picture to the right very closely. It could be the key to YOU receiving some of Joanna’s generosity!
But first, the interview…
I know you started off working for a small publishing company. What made you decide to work on the agenting side of the industry?
To be honest, I was just keeping my options open. I really wanted to get into editorial because that’s what I was doing with the wonderful Francine Poppo Rich, but I also knew that realistically there are few editorial jobs open in publishing at any given time. I never really thought about agenting and I might not have liked it if I started somewhere else. Both FinePrint and Nancy Coffey are editorially inclined. Nancy was an editor for over 20 years! So we get to do that with our clients. A lot in fact. Working with Nancy has shown me that you can really be involved in the creative side of the process prior to submission, which is what I love. It’s not all just about selling, selling, selling–although there’s that too :).
You’ve had quite a few sales in your short time as an agent. How many of these are first time authors?
50%–I got asked that same question at a conference last weekend and after I figured it out, I realized that exactly half of my sales have been debut authors. How cool is that? And I have some more first timers on my client list, so I’m hoping to up that percentage.
Fifty percent? That’s incredible! And good news for those of us who aren’t published yet. Do you sign most authors from queries or from meeting them at conferences?
Mostly from queries. I’ve only signed two clients from conferences–so far–although I’m considering two more right now (from separate conferences). Shhh!
My lips are sealed 😉
That’s really good to know because a lot of people can’t afford to go to conferences. But that means you have to write a really good query…
Assuming a writer has done their research and sent a query that falls within one of your genres, what are some of the reasons they fail to hook you?
The voice of the character. I really have to connect with the protagonist, no matter what the story is about. And also, at the query stage, the “bread” queries. Queries that sound almost exactly like every other vampire story or every other coming-of-age. I need to see what makes your story different.
Guide to Literary Agents posted one of my clients queries (with permission of course) and I wrote about how it grabbed me, if you’d like to check it out here:
You do a lot to help authors, like judging more than 600 entries in the One Line pitch contest at Query Tracker and volunteering to read and critique queries at Lisa and Laura’s blog. What motivates you to be so generous with your time?
Well, I only give the time when I have it. My clients come first, always. But I like to do stuff when I can because I’ve been in your shoes before. I used to write, I was in critique groups, attended conferences, pitched to agents, received rejections (oooh, so many rejections) and I remember thinking all the time “If they could just tell me WHAT to fix, I’ll do it!” Well…now that I’m on the other side of the desk, I understand the time constraints of agents and editors a lot more. Most of them would help you out if they had the time to do it. And they do give the time when they can. In my case, I hope that helping out will reach a writer just like I used to be, and really give them that “Aha!” moment, ya know?
Has it helped you uncover any new talent?
I’ve definitely requested things from the contests I’ve run. And I’ve seen some stuff go on to get signed or sold, which is really cool.
You’ve been to a lot of conferences this year. Are there any you plan to attend in 2010?
I’m only signed up for two in 2010 right now–both in April. The Missouri Writer’s Guild conference (4/16-18) and Chicago North RWA’s Spring Fling (4/23-24). I’m looking forward to those!
I just got back from Missouri! (Checking for flights in April…)
I love the guest post you did on The Swivet back in January, about “reader’s block.” But I also know a lot of writers who don’t read while they’re working on a novel. What do you think is the benefit of taking time to read?
Oh my gosh. Taking time to read is EVERYTHING! Why do you write? Why do editors edit? Why did I get into this business? Because I love books! And I think it’s safe to assume you do too. Books inspire, not just ideas but feelings. They remind me what it was like to be huddled under my blanket with a flashlight. Of butterflies in my stomach when the boy and girl kiss for the first time. They remind me of the swell of adventure and goodness when the hero finally strikes down his enemy and completes his journey. Of crying when an adored character sacrifices himself for the good of the quest and his friends. Of laughing when the teacher catches the snotty girl in class red-handed. And of being afraid to walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night because of the monsters under my bed (I sometimes still jump far off my bed to go). I never want to lose that. Not while writing. Not while editing. Not while reading submissions. Never.
You’ve mentioned several times that you’re an editorial agent. How much time do you generally spend helping a client polish their manuscript?
It depends entirely on the manuscript and how quickly and thoroughly the author can revise. I’ve taken on a couple of projects that need literally five or six rounds of heavy editing before going out–although I don’t take these on lightly. I have to really, really love the voice and the concept. And in those cases the editing alone could take up to a year. And I’ve taken on projects where they just need a polish edit before submission, which can take anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks. Because of how time consuming editing can be, I don’t take on many that need a ton of work, but sometimes I will ask a writer to revise before I consider signing them. It gives me a good idea of how well they can interpret direction and revise accordingly. In those cases if they come back with a vastly improved manuscript just based on my notes, I would definitely consider signing them up, even if it still needed further work.
People go back and forth all the time about whether plot is more important than character. Would you sign a client just because you fell in love with the voice? Even if you had to help them rework the plot?
Yup! But there would need to be some potential in the plot to actually work with. If the plot is just not right at all but I love the voice, I’ll ask the writer to send me what else they’ve got–I’ve done this many times.
Have you found your Catcher in the Rye meets Stand by Me novel yet?
(sniff, sniff) No. Not yet.
Well, here’s hoping some lucky writer is working on the very thing right now! BTW, in that picture of you at the top, have you read all the books in the stack?
I’ve read all but 2 in that stack–can you guess which ones?? Hey! In fact, if you’d like to run a contest…guess which 2 I haven’t read…people can respond in their comments on the blog. The first person to guess right will win a free 10 page critique? Sound good?
Sounds really good! That is awesome of you to offer! Are you up for it readers? I know the titles are hard to see so here’s the list of books in the stack:
Scandalous Deception by Rosemary Rogers
The Tory Widow by Christine Blevins
Evermore by Alyson Noel
A Taste for Red by Lewis Harris
Callisto by Torsten Krol
Napalm and Silly Putty by George Carlin
Seabiscuit by by Laura Hillenbrand
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated by by F. Garcia Martinez and W. G. E. Watson
The Spirit’s Self Help Book by by Glenn Poveromo
Sarah and Caleb by Debra Markowitz
Naked in the Rain by Debra Markowitz
The Giant Book of Bad Guys by Ian Schott, Colin Wilson, Damon Wilson, and Rowan Wilson
(the backwards book does not count)
When Trumpets Call by Patricia O’Toole
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me, Joanna. It was great getting to know you better!
Thank you! This was fun!
If you’d like to read more about Joanna Stampfel-Volpe, her recent sales and how to query her, check out her page at Publishers Marketplace.
Now start guessing, people. And good luck!