Lisa Leshne has been in the publishing business for over twenty years. She currently has her own literary agency, The Leshne Agency, with clients, such as Jill Smokler (Confessions of a Scary Mommy) and Cynthia Brown (Brave Hearts: Extraordinary Stories of Pride, Pain, and Courage). Before starting her own agency in 2011, she was a lit agent at LJK Literary.
Originally from Champaign, IL, she lived in Prague during the 1990s before moving to Manhattan, where she currently lives with her husband and two children. In her spare time, she loves to read and trains for marathons and triathlons.
1.You have accomplished a lot in your career. What attracted you to becoming a literary agent, and how did your career in publishing start?
The simple answer is that I have always loved books. (smiles) Growing up in the Midwest, they were my escape from the cornfields of Southern Illinois! I should mention that my mother was a reading teacher for over thirty years, and she definitely instilled in me an early love of reading; so I owe her a big thanks for that. I’ve always felt strongly that whatever I do in life, it needs to be something I’m passionate about—and I’ve always been passionate about championing books I loved. While I enjoyed working in the newspaper industry, I realized after becoming a mother of two young children that I wanted a career that offered me a better work/life balance. Book publishing was one of the fields I explored, and the opportunity to represent great writers appealed to me.
2.Founding The Prague Post, the largest English-language newspaper in Central Europe, in the early 1990s—that is still publishing today—illustrates your fantastic (and rather daring) entrepreneurial spirit. You then went on to work for larger, established companies. Was it a difficult transition from working for WSJ.com and Larry Kirshbaum’s LJK Literary to becoming the head of your own company again?
Not at all. It was actually a very natural transition because I started my career as an entrepreneur, and it was fun to have the opportunity to do it again at a different stage in my life.
3.You were an agent at a firm for many years. What made you decide to open your own agency in 2011?
I can’t take much credit for that—what actually happened was that Larry Kirshbaum was offered the job of leading Amazon’s New York imprint; and as a result, he needed to wind down LJK Literary. In retrospect, the timing couldn’t have been better for me!
4.Your list of clients is eclectic—the Czech literary legend Ivan Klíma, American Police Beat publisher Cynthia Brown, former Wall Street trader Turney Duff—do your clients possess any common thread for you to champion their work?
Great question—yes! It all goes back to passion. They are all people I admire and have great stories to tell. At the end of the day, if I don’t feel passionately about authors and their projects, I can’t sell them to publishers.
5.Foreign releases are one item that seems prominent to your clients’ works—for example, the Slovak and Estonian editions of Scary Mommy recently hit bookstores. Are foreign editions of books an important consideration for authors?
It really depends on the project. Some books have a very American topic, while others are universally appealing, and sales of foreign rights can be meaningful. In Ivan Klíma’s case, his books have been translated into more than thirty-five languages, making him the most translated Czech author around the world. Blogger Jill Smokler’s Confessions of a Scary Mommy has been sold in seven countries so far, and it’s very exciting to see the foreign editions coming in!
“I can’t stress enough to authors the importance of branding and social media to build a connection with readers.”
6.Many of your clients have blogs and have made media appearances. Is it important for an author to have a platform before writing a book? Or when is the best time to start building an author’s platform?
Yes, yes, and yes! Or as I say to my authors: “Platform, platform, platform!” It’s never too early to start building an author’s platform, and it’s absolutely crucial to selling nonfiction. I can’t stress enough to authors the importance of branding and social media to build a connection with readers. One of the main reasons Jill Smokler was able to get a book deal was because of the popularity of her blog, ScaryMommy.com. When we originally pitched the book proposal to publishers, her website had 750,000 unique visitors, and she had a Twitter following of over 160,000. By the time the book was published (nine months later), those figures had basically doubled. The point is—she already had a terrific platform, which helped her get a book deal; and then she kept building on it,
which helped her sell the book and propel it onto the New York Times Best Sellers list.
7.What’s a statement you find yourself repeating to a new author or new client?
Platform is everything. You will have to work hard to promote and sell your book. It’s a full-time job!
8.What do you suggest a writer do to transition to becoming an author? Classes? Workshops? Conferences? A writer’s group? A good editor?
That’s a tough one because I think everyone develops these skills in a different way, but I imagine that all of the things you mention could be helpful.
9.How do you find the majority of your clients?
Many of them are referrals from someone I trust, or they are people that I approach because I think there is a real opportunity to help shape their story into a book.
10.And then, what is it that finally gets you to agree to represent a client?
I have to have passion for the project, genuinely like the author (after all, we’re going to be spending a lot of time working together), and believe that there is great commercial potential. It’s hard because sometimes the first two apply; but if I don’t believe I’m going to be able to sell the book idea to publishers, then I have to turn it down.
11.Many envision an agent’s office to be filled floor to ceiling with piles of unread manuscripts. But your submissions are handled electronically. What is your agency’s procedure for handling submissions?
You can read my submission policy here: https://www.leshneagency.com/submissions/
12.Your website details that you like narrative and prescriptive nonfiction. Can you give us an example of what you are looking for in this kind of nonfiction?
One of the upcoming books I’m representing is The Buy Side (Crown, June 2013), a memoir written by Turney Duff, a former trader at The Galleon Group (the hedge fund at the center of history’s largest insider trading scandal). Aside from being one of the best natural writers I have ever come across, Turney has a great story to tell about how the money really gets made on Wall Street. It’s that mix of incredible writing and compelling story that every agent and publisher is hoping for.
A great example of prescriptive nonfiction I represent is Mina Samuels’ Run Like a Girl: How Strong Women Make Happy Lives (Seal Press, 2011). It’s about how sports (whether it’s running, rock climbing, or yoga) can help women overcome life’s obstacles and achieve the happiness and success they’ve been running toward. I love this book because it spoke to me personally, and I believed right away in its power to transform the lives of women in profound ways.
13.On the fiction side, you like literary and commercial fiction. What are some examples of the types of fiction you are looking out for?
I have mostly represented nonfiction, but I would love to find the next Ann Patchett or Junot Diaz!
14.You also represent young adult and middle-grade books. What do you look for in YA and MG books?
By the same token, I am always hoping to find the next J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins!
“With few exceptions, self-published books are not going to get onto bookstore shelves.”
15.On your website’s submissions page, you mention that if an author’s project doesn’t suit the needs of The Leshne Agency, an author should explore self-publishing. Is that a shift in the publishing industry—embracing self-publishing?
Absolutely. To put it in perspective, Bowker, the company that handles ISBNs (book identifier codes) for books published in the United States says that the number of print and e-books self-published annually is up by 287 percent since 2006 and now totals over 235,000 titles. That’s an enormous number, and a good indicator that the industry has shifted.
16.So, you see self-publishing as a legitimate way for an author to get work in a reader’s hands. Do you read self-published works to find authors to represent?
The fact remains that most self-published titles only sell fewer than one hundred or one hundred fifty copies. The NY Times published a great article about this. With few exceptions, self-published books are not going to get onto bookstore shelves. And with more self-published titles flooding the market, we can assume it’s just going to get more difficult for a specific title to get discovered. So I still believe in the value of the traditional publishing process and what they have to offer in terms of curation, editing, design, distribution, promotion, etc.
I don’t have time to actively look for self-published works to represent; but if something great is brought to my attention and it has sold well as a self-published title, I could be interested.
17.Speaking of submissions, what do you look for in a submission?
A great story, a terrific hook, exceptional writing, and an author I can get behind and believe in.
“My biggest pet peeve is bad grammar.”
18.I’ve heard some agents speak about specific requirements for submissions and that they will reject a submission if the writer doesn’t follow their procedures to the letter. What are some of your submission pet peeves that might stop you from reading an entire query letter?
I’m so glad you asked. I can usually tell right away if I’m receiving a form letter that someone has sent to a hundred other agents. A dead giveaway is if the letter starts, “Dear Agent.” That’s enough to make me stop reading. Above all, I’d recommend that writers take the time to learn a little bit about the agent they are pitching and then personalize their pitch to them. My biggest pet peeve is bad grammar. If a prospective author can’t take the time to proofread her letter, I’m guessing I’m not going to like her proposal!
19.What do you think is the most challenging aspect of the job of an agent? What is the most important lesson you've learned from being an agent?
Rejection is difficult in all forms. I hate rejecting people, especially when I know that this is their dream, and they have poured so much of themselves into their work. And I hate getting rejected by editors! It happens all the time, and it’s taught me to have a thicker skin. I recognize that we all have a job to do, and I can’t take it personally; but I still get emotionally attached to people and projects!
20.Finally, what do you enjoy most about being a literary agent?
I like to joke that I get to read for a living, and it’s partly true. The best parts of my job are reading, meeting interesting people, and working in an industry where the people I work with also possess a true love of books. It’s a nice common ground to have, and it’s fun to help bring great projects to life.
Elizabeth King Humphrey is a writer, editor, coach and reviewer. She earned her MFA at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and has a certificate in editing from the University of Chicago Graham School. Follow her on Twitter @Eliz_Humphrey.
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