f there is a directory of recurring writers' dreams, this one tops the list: Having the undivided attention of a leading agent, and having that agent reveal the secrets of success.
Get a cup of your favorite beverage and pull your chair up close. You have before you the opportunity to realize much, if not all, of that dream by joining WOW! in conversation with Sandy, ‘the Sandra’ of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, located in Del Mar, California.
Sandy, you know writers have a real learning curve when they set out to be published. We’d like to hit on points that you know will benefit our readers. But, first let’s start with you and your agency:
WOW: Establishing and guiding the illustrious careers of many bestselling authors in several genres are just a couple of reasons Newsweek proclaimed you "the best agent in the West." What distinguishes your agency from your well-known colleagues?
SANDY: We are a full-service agency, working on the front- and back-end of each project we sell, i.e. both on the editorial part, helping the author to find and shine the gold in proposals and manuscripts we take on, and pre-pub, setting the book up to get maximum attention, (and in both cases, where possible)!
Internationally, we have a strong presence, both at Frankfurt, and all year long, being repped by excellent agents abroad, with whom we keep in constant contact. None of the above would be possible without the terrific team we have assembled at SDLA, each of whom brings her special brilliance and expertise to the forefront on behalf of our authors, who deserve the best, and, we hope, get it from us.
We represent authors who have a special voice and brilliance in each of their realms.
From our offices, I can
see the Pacific, where the
new century is dawning...
WOW: Obviously, you're a good judge of a writer's potential. In addition, you have contributed a great deal to establishing the West Coast position in the literary world. You did this, despite the warning that your New York friends gave you, "You'll never be able to do it from out there, you'll have to move to New York." What are some of the advantages of being "out there" that your New York friends do not have?
SANDY: From our offices, I can see the Pacific, where the new century is dawning, and it's much easier at this distance from New York to remember that it is the authors for whom I work, not the publishers.
WOW: That's great! Not only is it good for the author, but it has to be a significant contributing factor in achieving your level of success.
You're known for your ability to discover new talent, what makes that bell go off? Is it simply reading the book, if so, then how many pages does it usually take to make your excitement level rise?
SANDY: One usually knows from the first sentence, in fiction, that one is in the presence of a talent, of a person with a voice and a unique perspective on the world as well as his or her own special way to articulating that vision. On the nonfiction side, authority of voice and expertise in the field as well as the magic of good writing dictate our choices, always based on the project's filling a hole in the market, be that history, narrative non-fiction, or self-help.
WOW: You have two manuscripts to choose from, one is a well-written solid story, the other is not so well written-but the story cries out 'next best seller' ..., which gets picked up by you?
SANDY: Probably the first. The writing is always primary for me, and yet, if the author doesn't know how to create a world and people it with characters about whom we care, and has no story to tell, the writing alone will not cut it. But then for me at least, the story alone, poorly told, won't cut it either, which means I may miss out on some bestsellers.
WOW: How many copies would an author have to sell for you to consider representing a self-published novelist? Or, has an author shot herself in the foot by self-publishing?
SANDY: Our decision would be based upon our assessment of the book's potential outreach, as well as the number of copies sold, along with the strength of the author's platform. There is no magic number, however.
WOW: We've read you have a keen editorial eye honed during a decade of university teaching. Does that make your job of reading queries and manuscripts easier...or harder?
SANDY: Probably both. What the university background gives me is a wider and deeper understanding, hopefully, of a project's importance, and also, its possible longevity in the market. We are very proud that our first books, Sherley Anne Williams' classic novel, Dessa Rose, and Lillian Faderman's classic story, Surpassing the Love of Man, are BOTH in print, after over 20 years, for example.
WOW: What can a new author do, when she doesn't have a remarkable bio to make you sit up and take notice? How does she get past that and get her manuscript read?
SANDY: Have one of our authors or friends of the Agency recommend him or her. Write a damn good article, story, query, or writing sample and we'll chase him or her.
WOW: What is the impact on your decision if an author has submitted a terrific book, maintains a 'nice' blog-following, but shows little interest in doing much beyond web promotional work?
SANDY: The author's primary job is to write an unforgettable novel, one which makes us see the world anew, if fiction is the chosen genre , and if nonfiction, to pen a book that counts, that makes the world or the reader or both better.
WOW: With that in mind, what are your views regarding e-publishing?
SANDY: I'm very old-fashioned, and favor print and paper...
WOW: How impressed are you with on-line publishing credits?
SANDY: Not that impressed, but the younger agents at SDLA may differ here. Some independently follow various blogs, online literary magazines, etc. I don't follow authors online much.
The author's primary job is to write an unforgettable novel.
WOW: Do you attend many writers' conferences?
SANDY: Few, but SDLA colleagues do.
WOW: Does age, or other factors indicating the author may not have thirty more books in her, become a significant issue for you-when you're considering taking her on as a client?
SANDY: It can influence our decision, especially if the project needs lots of work, but on the whole, if we're taken with the project, we take the author on, regardless.
WOW: The internet provides authors with a new access to publishing, accompanied by the risk of being defrauded. What red flags should alert a writer when she queries a publisher or agent?
SANDY: I shall let Elise Capron, my assistant, answer this question: If you are referring specifically to online publishers and agents, I would advise any writer to go the extra distance and do the research. Double-check small publishers/agencies against information found in reliable publishing resources such as Literary Market Place (available in any library). It is wise to be especially cautious about publishers/agencies that request upfront fees or that work without a contract in place. Some agencies do require a reading fee, but this is unusual and any fees beyond a reading fee/submission fee may be cause for concern.
WOW: Since this is can be of serious concern, c ould you add anything regarding monthly fees for agents (long distance calls, manuscript-copying fees, mailing expenses and/or internet research fees)? Are these expenses beyond what's included in the normal agent commission? Is there ever good reason for paying a monthly fee to an agent?
SANDY: Ridiculous and unconscionable. We've never charged anyone, except for mailing and copying and ordering galley expenses.
WOW: Thank you, let's get back to you. In Jeff Herman's Guide to Literary Agents you'd said, "I became an agent to publish books that make a difference and help writers to realize their dreams." Can you tell us which books have made a difference in your life?
SANDY: Now, you'll really get me in trouble! Many, I'm blessed to say, starting with Maxine Hong Kingston's Fifth Book of Peace, Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club, and moving to Chitra Divakaruni's Mistress of Spices, and to Anchee Min's Red Azalea, and to Diane Mott Davidson's Goldie series as well as Kate White's Bailey Weggins' series, and to so many more. Lest I forget our current bestselling Lisa See and her unforgettable Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. AND, of course, Janell Cannon's Stellalluna. And we don't just represent women! I should also include Luis Urrea's Devil's Highway and Hummingbird's Daughter, and there so many others!
WOW: Wow! That is impressive. You have to feel really good about your work. Your specialties are women's fiction and literary fiction. What's the current trend in those genres?
SANDY: Fiction that speaks to the heart and the mind, that is emotionally resonant AND that is historically based, telling us about a figure and an epoch we do not yet fully know.
We also have a very strong history list, including such luminaries as Eric Phoner, David Landes, Gary Nash, Ira Berlin, and more, as well as an important list in the area of politics and current events, featuring star reporters at the LATimes, the Wall Street Journal and such.
WOW: Many of your clients have a strong narrative voice. Can you explain the importance of voice? And what kinds of literary voices are you drawn to?
SANDY: Strong evocative voices that resonate emotionally, and ring true.
WOW: Sandy, with your education and experience, it's obvious you know that voice, when you read it. And, as an agency, you are known for representing multi-cultural fiction authors. What draws you to "multi-culti" work?
SANDY: I am drawn to story and to story-telling that takes us into a new world, or makes us see the world anew. We don't look for "multi-culti". Rather, it often seems that new immigrants, or first-generation Americans are closer to story, in my view, because they are often closer to family and less media-tized . And, they want to recuperate that lost culture, which adds a dimension of richness.
WOW: Here's a question running through many authors minds. How much do blurbs from recognizable people help an author when submitting a manuscript?
SANDY: Very much, possibly too much, especially in convincing the publisher and reviewers that a project is worthy.
WOW: What do you fervently wish more authors knew before contacting you?
SANDY: This would require a long answer, but the short answer is, that they have a reasonable sense of their own worth and of ours.
WOW: You and Elise have been just great. We thank you so much for your time and insight. But, before you go, we have a fun question for you, interpret at will: Since this issue is called, "Walking in an Agent's Shoes," we would all like to know, what is your favorite pair of shoes? And, what is it like to walk in them?
SANDY: Birkenstocks, which allow freedom and a good bounce!
WOW: (laughs) Sandy, this has been such a great time for us, and our readers, and it means even more knowing that you made a place for us in a tight schedule. You've given us a list of books to add to our library, books that we can not only enjoy but learn from. And, without a doubt, our readers know they can read your words more than once and keep learning. Thanks again from all of us.
Contact information for submissions:
Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency
PMB 515, 1155 Camino del Mar
Del Mar, CA 92014