Revise, Research . . . Query

The literary agent talks about the appeal of the first person, dealing with rejection, and which steps you should always take before you start querying agents.

Rachel Ekstrom handled publicity campaigns for debut and bestselling authors at St. Martin’s Press and Penguin for more than a decade before becoming a literary agent with the Irene Goodman Agency. She represents a varied list of clients who write fiction and nonfiction, including former Operation Ivy frontman Jesse Michaels, Sandra Block, Jeff Garvin, Nancy Redd, and local Pittsburgh authors Rebecca Drake, Kathleen George, and Aubrey Hirsch. Find out more at and follow her on twitter at @ekstromrachel.

At the upcoming 2015 Creative Nonfiction Writers' Conference, Rachel will discuss how to approach (and how to definitely not approach) an agent, how and when to build a platform, publicity campaigns, and more. She'll also be offering conference attendees one-on-one consultations to discuss their proposals, query letters, and book logistics. In anticipation of the conference, Creative Nonfiction's Kristina Marusic sat down with Rachel to talk about the appeal of the first person, dealing with rejection, and which steps you should always take before you start querying agents.

CNF: Why do you think readers are so interested in first person stories?

EKSTROM: First person narratives are one of the more accessible ways to inhabit another person’s experience, no matter how different the writer’s life might be from your own. I love the immediacy of first person, especially when I’m learning something or being transported to another time or place. But even the very familiar world of Pittsburgh’s East End feels new to me every time I read An American Childhood by Annie Dillard (a book I fell in love with in high school and re-read every year).

For something more escapist and sumptuous, I recently read The Perfume Lover by Denyse Beaulieu. Through her writing, I learned so much about the history and business of perfume while traveling—vicariously—to Paris and Seville. On a grittier note, a colleague of mine recently sold a book called Cook Up by D. Watkins, which comes out next year—and I highly recommend D’s Salon article “Too Poor for Pop Culture” for a glimpse into his life in East Baltimore. I’m currently working with writer Ainsley McWha, who is excellent at drawing readers in with her honesty and detail, revealing the truth behind what appears to be the glamorous world of high fashion modeling.

CNF: What qualities are you looking for most when seeking out first person narratives?

EKSTROM: I’m looking for slightly different things as a reader and as an agent. As a reader, I can allow myself to be carried away by the writing or the subject matter and just enjoy. As an agent, I’m reading with a much more critical eye. I need to feel confident in the writer’s ability to inform  … and still entertain enough to grab and keep a reader’s attention. I’m constantly thinking about the potential audience for the subject matter, and whether or not this particular writer has the credentials and expertise in this topic, and if he or she would be a promotional asset.

CNF: What advice would you give to a writer seeking an agent?

EKSTROM: This may sound obvious, but I suggest doing research before you query. It’s much easier now that most agents are online and posting their interests on agency websites, blogs, and Twitter. Writer’s Digest and Publishers Marketplace are also excellent resources.

Also, to paraphrase Chumbawumba, who just came on the radio: if you get knocked down, get up again. It’s a tough and subjective business, so keep trying. If you feel like you aren’t getting anywhere, it may mean you need to tweak your project or your approach, or go out with a new project. There are some really inspiring stories by writers who faced a lot of rejection before they succeeded, including Stephen King—if you’re currently writing or shopping a project and haven’t read On Writing, run to your nearest bookstore and get it!

CNF: What's the biggest/most common mistake made by emerging writers who reach out to you?

EKSTROM: A common mistake is querying before your manuscript or proposal is ready. Some important things to do before you query: revise, have another set of eyes on your work, have an idea of what your project is, and research typical word counts for your genre. There’s so much information easily available online that can help guide writers, and while I don’t expect new writers to know everything about the publishing business, it does help your chances if you put your best foot forward in terms of the work itself and how it’s presented.

In other words, do yourself a favor and don’t send a query to dozens of agents the second you’ve typed “The End.”

CNF: If you could go back to the start of your career, what advice would you give yourself?

EKSTROM: I forget who said it first, but: trends come and go, but great writing never goes out of style.

CNF: How do you handle rejection?

EKSTROM: I thought I’d have no problem with rejection as a literary agent, as it’s something all publicists deal with daily. But as an agent, I’m pitching only projects I personally choose, love, and believe in. I work hard to get these projects ready for submission, and also hand-pick the editors I’m pitching, editors who I think are a great fit for the style & subject matter. To be totally honest, sometimes a pass, even when full of praise for the project, can feel like a punch in the chest. My enthusiasm and passion for each project keeps me going, though—and it helps to know how much time and effort goes into a book after it's sold to a publisher. This makes it easier to contextualize rejections: an editor really has to love a book as much as I do in order to invest in it, even if they recognize that it has literary merit or commercial potential.

CNF: What role does social media play in your job?

EKSTROM: As an agent, social media is something that nearly every client asks me about and wants guidance on. I pay attention to see what seems to be effective and what’s not in terms of raising an author’s profile and getting the word out about a book (this is constantly changing). And I do tweet, mainly as a way of sharing good news and media hits for my clients. I also follow my publishing colleagues for the latest industry buzz, which comprises most of my feed. Certain writers or concepts catch my eye on social media, but the projects I end up taking on are more often referrals, conference pitches, or slush pile queries.

CNF:  How important is it that writers working with you have an online/social media presence? Do you expect writers to already have a "platform" in place when they’re submitting a query or a book proposal, or is that something you coach writers in?

EKSTROM: My husband worked in marketing at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Picador and now does book marketing for authors and publishers as a freelancer, and this is a big topic of discussion for us. Online and social media presence is one of the first things authors ask him about, whether they’re just starting out or have published multiple books. In both of our experiences: writers fear they will do it “wrong” or simply don’t have the time or inclination to participate. And if the writer is active online, there’s now an uneasy sense that social media is less effective than previously thought.

Short answer: online presence is important—particularly for nonfiction—but it’s just one piece of the pie. I think of “platform” as everything authors bring to the table, including professional credentials, media contacts, any previous publications or media hits, access to a potential audience via newsletters/email lists, speaking engagements, conference appearances, connections in their communities, businesses, schools, charitable organizations, and—yes—social media. Though social platforms can be helpful in amplifying the message about a book, publishers are realizing that a large number of Twitter followers doesn't always translate into book sales.

If you’re a writer just starting out and don’t have a huge online following yet, social media can still help you in more serendipitous ways. I’ve seen articles or blog posts get noticed by a larger media outlet who then cover the book… or a connection will be made between authors, bloggers, or other “book people” online that end up spreading the word in unexpected and beneficial ways.

If a great project comes my way, but the platform needs to be stronger in order to sell, I do one of two things: I’ll give a potential client some “big picture” suggestions on how to grow their platform and have them come back to me after working on building it; or, I’ll sign them and then give them guidance on raising their profile to varying degrees as we develop the proposal or manuscript further.

CNF: What should people expect when working with you?

EKSTROM: Writers should expect a professional working relationship with a focus on selling the project at hand and building a long-term, successful writing career. I use my industry experience and personal enthusiasm to be the strongest possible advocate for my clients and their work.

About the Author

Kristina Marusic

Kristina Marusic works as a writer for MTV News’s social justice vertical, “Issues,” covering topics including the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ issues, and feminist pop culture. She is a full-time reporter for Environmental Health News.

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