Saturday, October 23, 2010

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Robert Astle

Robert Astle worked for 25 years in professional theater in Canada, and toured his acclaimed one-man-shows around the globe. He taught for nine years in the playwrights' unit at the National Theatre School of Canada, (Canada's Julliard) and was an adjunct professor in the Theatre Department of Concordia University.

He has written and published extensively and is author of three plays, and a work of non-fiction. He has edited over 20 plays, written adaptations for radio, for which he was nominated the prestigious Prix Italia. Robert's interest in publishing began when successfully negotiated subsidiary rights with Grove Press in 1988. He worked briefly at an established New York literary agency before opening his own agency. Robert is widely read, traveled extensively, and can be called eclectic in terms of interest in fiction and non-fiction.

His agency is actively seeking writers who have a fascinating voice, fully formed characters that are believable, have an arc, and write stories that are timely, engaging, informed, and speak to the times we are living in.

You are in luck today, Esteemed Reader, because we’ve got a slightly longer interview than usual. As you probably know, every week I try and find a literary agent who’s willing to face the same 7 Questions. Usually, this is done by email. But Mr. Astle preferred to be interviewed by phone, so although we stuck to the usual 7 Questions, I was also able to ask follow-up questions. What follows is more or less a transcript of our conversation. My contributions are outlined in red.

And now Robert Astle faces the 7 Questions (and some other questions as well):

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

I would call them life-altering books: Most certainly a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov called: Heart of a Dog. I adapted it into a one-man–play and toured the world. It was one of those books where after reading the first four paragraphs, my hair on the back of my neck was literally standing on end.

I would also sat that another masterpiece by Bulgakov called: The Master and Margarita. I had a real affection for that kind of magical - realism writing and certainly that time period in anti-Stalinist satire in Soviet Literature.

I’m also attracted to a brilliant Italian writer whose name is Italo Calvino. And he wrote a book called The Baron in the Trees, which is a beautiful story about a little boy who decides to go into the trees and never to come down again- It had such a powerful narrative.

MGN: Do you have some favorite children's or middle grade books as well?

I was a Hardy Boys reader. I really loved Alice in Wonderland when I was a kid. And also I loved The Hobbit and those sorts of Fantasy stories. I read a lot of classics, Tom Sawyer and the like.

Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?

I remember Roshomon, It was an incredible film, I loved the way the elliptical narrative allowed my imagination to work. I was also really attracted to sort of big Hollywood kind of stories. I liked Orson Welles movies and Alfred Hitchcock. One of my all time favorites was The Great Escape with Steve McQueen

MGN: And what sort of TV shows do you like to watch?

I’m a bit of a news junkie. I watch Keith Olbermann and Jon Stewart for a good laugh for an For escape I’ll watch police procedurals shows like SVU, Law and Order and the like.

Question Five: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

This is my ideal client: I gave her some notes on a project and she took those notes made the novel really sing. So, I guess it’s that kind of a writer that actively listens and then is able to contemplate their work and step away from the writing. They are also able, at same time, to make really very interesting choices and decisions about what is missing in the writing--then their next version will really jump off the page.

And also a client who has a game plan. The ideal client thinks: “Hey, my first novel may not hit but hopefully it does, but if it doesn’t, I’ve got another one in development and as a matter of fact, I’ve got a third one that I’m constructing at the same time.”

Publishing is very slow and arduous process. It’s an odd situation, we live in the electronic age of instant access and demand and can be frustrating for many writers. It is a strange juxtaposition with that with the fact that publishing is a much slower and denser business. Having a long-term game plan—helps the client realize that overnight success is not the norm.

MGN: If you’re ideal client is always working, how many books would you expect to see from her in a year? Is one enough, or does he/she need more?

If they’ve got one ready to go, and there's one or two in the hopper--that is always good for me. As an agent you’re hoping that it’s not only a one- project deal. I want to build relationships with publishers. In fact, publishers also want to build an audience with another book and another book and another. I want, an author coming to the table with a game plan: with an irresistable and page -turning energy in the writing, a narrative with real traction, and above all, a voice that is unmistakable. That is a lot to ask, but that is the reality in professional publishing.

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?
I’d like to get some fantasy—and not super hardcore fantasy/science fiction. For instance, I’m working with an author, and she’s written a creative adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. I was talking to editors and they’re seeing a lot of that right now. That’s a trend that’s starting to build: taking a classic story and finding a new twist to it. Writing something that still appeals to an audience, that once appealed to a nineteenth century audience like Alice in Wonderland, and now appeals to an audience in the twenty first century.

MGN: As one of many fantasy writers, that makes me happy to hear.

It’s an interesting trend, the vampire thing—is it cooling off? I have no idea. But I have heard from editors that creative adaptations is something very new and interesting and they’ve actively looking for it at.

MGN: Do you get dystopian books as well as the vampire stuff?

Yeah. I’ve got a client in California and he’s written a dystopian— future war story for boys—and that’s very interesting to me. I like those kinds of stories as well.

And I’d like to find more stories for boys, because publishers always are asking for them. It seems that young boys are a really tough reading demographic, after they’ve read the Harry Potter cycle, publishers are trying to find stories that boys are going to connect to and I’m actively looking in this YA genre.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite thing is working with my authors. I love working one- on -one through a project. Agents are not only selling rights, they are constantly asking clients for revisions, in hope that the final project will really take off and the author can kick the game plan into action and find a big audience. I’m an editor and deep reader, and I really love that hands-on working on a project.

I love selling a project and giving an author, a debut author, a crack at an audience. That’s really, really thrilling.

And the worst part of it is chasing down publishers so my clients get paid for their books. That’s the hassle of dealing with publishers who are obviously slow in paying authors. There’s a lot of of nagging and cajoling.

MGN: To get the money that you’ve already signed a contract to get?

Yes, it used to be: “half on signing and half on delivery” now it’s, “a third on signing, a third on delivery of the manuscript, and a third on publication.” It’s more calls and that requires persistence by the agent.

 MGN: So we have just two questions left. And in case I forget, if I don’t remember to do it at the end: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this and for giving up some of your time for my readers and me.

It’s fun to do this by phone. I mean, I can type, but it sounds generic.

Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

I think the most important thing for writers is to understand that part of this whole process for getting the project published and finding an agent, is that writing a novel requires an enormous amount of creative time and energy. It’s also coming up with a reality- based game plan… an author should honestly say to him/herself, “What do I really need for my writing career plans? ”

I get many, many emails stating “ I’ve just finished my novel.” Well, I imagine that the writer has finished it off and then hit the send key. That’s not a game plan for publishing success, that’s sending spam.

I ask my authors, before they send anything to me, to find five friends they like and think are good people to respond, then ask them NOT to read the novel, but ask them to find five OTHER friends to read and respond. It works because the second set of readers will have that critical degree of separation—it’s important for writers to know “this plot doesn’t have any traction,” or “this character doesn’t work for me,” or “the ending sucks,” or whatever. Those kind of things are really good, because to go through that process is like a writers’ boot camp. The notes should be honest, accurate and the tougher the better in my opinion.

The prospective writer should set themselves up for acceptance, but also to deal with rejection. It’s part of the “hard truth” in publishing.

Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

I’d really like to have lunch with, Jonathan Franzen. I think he is really one of the few American writers who is really able to put his finger on the culture and to write something profound, moving and hilarious all within one paragraph. Whether you agree or don’t agree with his voice, or politics, he is that rare author who can speak through his characters that connect to many layers of Americans of his generation. Franzen writes books that alter perceptions and that make us more alert and that say something very deep about what it is being human in a rapidly changing culture. There’s something really interesting about that. So he would be the guy.

I’d also like to have lunch with my client, Leonce Gaiter -- he has some of that Franzen-esque depth to his writing.

MGN: Cool. That’s it. That’s all the questions.

Mr. Astle and I chatted about some off the record stuff. Wouldn’t you like to know what was said? Well, you can’t. It was off the record. But eventually we got onto the topic of self publishing and I think some of that conversation might interest you, Esteemed Reader:

The major problem is distribution. I had a client who tried it (self publishing--MGN). They went through it, they had a book and they thought it they would sell a ton of books… but without real distribution lines they had boxes of books sitting at home.

MGN: Well self publishing does accomplish that initial thrill of having your name on a book, I guess. So you get that, at least.

Sure. That’s part of our karaoke culture. But it’s a cold hard slap in the face to have fifteen hundred books lying around the house. It’s the distribution lines. The local bookstore might take a few, but how many other people or stores are going to? I don’t recommend it.

I often read about the few self-published books that really take off, but in reality there’s not that many. That may be changing over time as people rely more on the internet than bookstores for purchases. The reality is that it’s a very noisy marketplace. Three hundred thousand books get published every year, a self -published author has to be pretty savvy to try and snatch even a little bit of the marketplace.

MGN: When you get to that point, when you get the book out there through publishers, how much time should writers spend promoting it and how much difference can they make in the sales after the initial act of writing and revising is done?

Fifty percent of the job is writing the book. The other fifty percent is promoting. It’s a lot of legwork —I just like to use the image: it’s like the little stone in the water. You start with your local cable TV company, and then you go regional, newspaper, media and build interest form there. Of course, an author should work with a publicist. I always recommend to my authors that they hire their own publicist. In this day and age that is part of your the game plan, because it really there is so much competition for getting people’s voices heard.

MGN: Should writers be counting on a book advance to give them some of the money to start up a promotion program or to hire a publicist, or should they be saving and setting aside a separate fund of their own money for book promotion?

Yes. There will be some promotion money coming already from the publisher. But I think using your own money good investment back into the project. It takes an expert to help you can find your audience. That’s really important. It’s more than just admitting: “Hey, I’ve got a great book. Come on everybody, let’s head to the bookstore.” Today, there are so many more options available online.

Books are found in many, many places, not just the bookstores, and that’s where the true secret of expanding the distribution lies. And having a publicist helps enormously, they point to places and say: “this is the actual audience and here is a concrete plan on how we will find them, so that they will buy your book.”

MG: This is fantastic. I really appreciate your having a conversation with me so I can share it with all my readers. And hopefully you’ll get some good queries coming your way from my readers, but not crazies.

Thanks, Robert. It was a pleasure.


  1. Fantastic interview, as always, and this time with extra bonus material! As another aspiring fantasy author, definitely heartening!

  2. Nice one. I liked your "conversation". Perhaps you should think of doing more of these by phone? (I suppose it would be more time-consuming, though.)

  3. What a wonderful interview. Robert Astle seems to be quite savvy!


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