LITERARY AGENT DAVID FUGATE: I WAS BLOWN AWAY BY THE MARTIAN
The literary agents are one of the most wanted professionals on our planet. Their job is to secure the best possible contracts for authors. They are working hard to secure exposure for the next bestsellers on the book market.
David Fugate is the founder of LaunchBook Literary Agency. He sold to publishers more than 1000 books and earned for his clients over $20 millions in sold rights.
David is representing authors like Chris Guillebeau, Mark McClusky, Chris Steiner, Jonathan Watts, Kevin Poulsen, Alexis Madrigal, Kevin Mitnick, Brian Chen, Parmy Olson, Jon Jeter, Peter Clines, Mark Russinovich, D.J. Molles.
Land of Books made a contact with him, because of Andy Weir’s amazing story of publishing The Martian. Let’s welcome our next guest – Mr. David Fugate.
– David, you worked as a Manager of Submissions at literary agency 20 years ago. When and why you decided to open your own company and to become a literary agent?
– I actually started as an intern at a literary agency while still in college and then went to work there full time when I graduated. Manager of Literary Submissions was just a fancy way of saying, “the person who reads query letters and answers the phone” but what I really came to enjoy was project development. I’d find an author with an idea that had promise and then work closely with them to develop the proposal. Then I’d hand it off to the senior agent there for her to sell.
After several of those I started to feel like I was giving away my children. I had invested so much time, thought, and energy into working with the authors on those ideas and soon realized that I really wanted to be the one out pitching those projects to editors. However, at the time that didn’t seem to be an option at that agency and so I moved to another agency that focused on much smaller deals, mostly in the tech space. The material wasn’t as exciting, but it meant I could actually become an agent and start learning how to sell books, how to represent authors effectively, and develop a deeper understanding of publishing.
Nearly twelve years and over a thousand deals later, I was ready for a change. I had represented a huge number of technical books and worked with authors who I cared deeply about, but the material itself wasn’t what I wanted to do. Along the way I had managed to work on some books where I just really enjoyed the content, such as Kevin Mitnick’s The Art of Deception, or Fire in the Valley, by Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine, and I decided that was the direction I wanted to move in. However, I knew that would mean a radical change in the kinds of projects I was representing, going from 95% computer & technology titles to 95% trade nonfiction projects, and I realized that if I were going to commit to that kind of change, it would make more sense to leave and start my own company, since I’d essentially be starting from the ground up anyway.
That was over eight years ago now and my only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner, as I’ve had the opportunity now to work with some truly amazing authors on books that I absolutely love.
– What was the story of your first signing with author and what was the result of your cooperation with him?
– The very first book I actually represented was called Thyme in a Bottle, by Ingrid Croce, the widow of singer Jim Croce. Ingrid had (and still has) a very successful restaurant here in San Diego and the book was a combination of recipes, lyrics, and some anecdotes from Ingrid’s life with Jim. Collins San Francisco published it and it did reasonably well, but after a few years we got the rights back for Ingrid and she has been successfully self-publishing and selling it out of her restaurant for years.
– How the author of The Martian Andy Weir impressed you?
– I was blown away by The Martian immediately. I suppose I’m a bit of a geek myself and the combination of the terrific survival story, science, and sense of humor, along with the endlessly creative ways that Andy managed to get his lead character Mark Watney in and out of trouble sucked me in right away. I also loved that there were no villains in the book. No one has any ulterior or selfish motives, and in every case we see the best come out of the characters. It’s really just an amazing book.
– Was it tough to convince him to publish the book on paper and was it easy to sell the publishing rights to Crown?
– Initially when I contacted Andy he told me he didn’t need an agent. Luckily, he was willing to hop on the phone just to chat and we really hit it off. My initial thought was that if he didn’t want to sell the rights to a U.S. publisher, perhaps I could represent the translation rights for him. However, he gave me the go ahead to pitch it to Random House, with the understanding that he had no obligation to accept any offer if he wasn’t excited about it. I sent the book to Julian Pavia at Crown, he came back with a terrific offer, and Andy was thrilled to accept it. Given how things have gone since then, I don’t think Andy could be any happier with how it has turned out.
Julian is an incredible editor and Crown has been an ideal partner on the book, which spent more than 8 weeks each on both the New York Times hardcover and trade paperback lists when each edition published. The book is also now being published in more than 35 languages and we sold the film rights to 20th Century Fox. In fact, the film just finished shooting in Budapest not long ago, with Matt Damon playing the lead and Ridley Scott directing.
– What is the recipe of successful relation between agent and author?
– I think it’s the same as any relationship, really. I see my job as being to help the author, protect them, advise them, and ultimately act as their advocate to help them get the most out of their writing career. Luckily for me it also ends up being very fulfilling on a personal level, given how much I respect and appreciate the authors I work with.
– How many submissions per month did you receive and what part of them is worth to sign with the author?
– I receive anywhere from 10-15 pitches a day, or on the order of 3,000 – 4,000 per year, and all told I end up passing on more than 99% of what I see. That’s not a statement about how saleable they are, though, or whether it’d be worth it for me to take them on. When I went out on my own to form LaunchBooks, I made a conscious, deliberate decision to take on only projects that I found personally interesting. That sometimes means passing on books that I know can be sold, but that aren’t quite a fit for me.
– Many authors didn’t have an idea how difficult are the negotiations between an agent and publishers. Would you unveil what exactly you are doing to represent by the best possible way the author?
– These days it’s often about trying to create competitive interest among publishers. Otherwise, every dollar in the author’s pocket is a dollar out of the publisher’s, so if you only have one publisher bidding, in most cases they’re not going to bid particularly high unless they’re doing it in an effort to cut off competitive interest that they believe is coming. So it often becomes a matter of pitching the book to as many appropriate editors as possible, managing that interest to create an auction, and then structuring the auction such that you get the most for the book. Of course, not every book goes to auction, but it’s a matter of trying to get the best deal possible for every book and author.
– How the authors’ interests could be damaged if he negotiates a deal with publisher without an agent?
– Working with an agent isn’t always necessary. The challenge in book publishing is that it can feel like an impenetrable business from the outside because it’s often counterintuitive. That is, things seem like they should work a particular way, but in practice they work a completely different way. Once you’ve been in publishing long enough to understand why things work they way they do, it’s fine, but for authors who don’t have that knowledge, the danger is really in not even knowing what you don’t know. And that’s not just in the pitching and negotiating process. That also comes up in negotiating the agreement itself and runs all the way through publication and beyond.
– Why you work with so many non-fiction authors? Fiction books seem to be far more popular in the last couple of years.
– I actually represent a pretty even mix of fiction and nonfiction, and I love both for different reasons. And of course, nonfiction books can also be huge sellers. For me it’s really about a compelling idea and great writing, and neither fiction nor nonfiction has a monopoly on those.
– What is different in your book The Unconventional Guide to Publishing from all others publishing manuals that are on the market?
– My goal with the book was to give aspiring writers enough information so that they’d know more about how publishing works than 99% of humanity. So it starts with the basics (how does publishing work? how do royalties work? how do foreign rights work? what’s a book proposal and how do you write a good one? what do publishers look for?) and then moves on to talk about how to find an agent, how the pitch process works, what you should look out for in a publishing agreement, and then all the way through to how to be published well.
– The daily schedule of a literary agent like you is probably very busy. Do you have a strict daily program and how many days every month you are resting?
– I work a normal business day, starting around 8:30 in the morning and then finishing up between 5 & 6 at night. Of course, I also end up doing quite a bit of reading after hours and on the weekends, as there’s usually very little time during the day to just sit and read. And when I’m at lunch you’ll almost always see me reading a book proposal or manuscript. I love what I do, though, and when you work for yourself, it feels very differently than it does working for someone else, so even though I work more now than I ever did when I worked for someone else, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
– Literature is your profession and the words “book” and “novel” are probably the most used ones. Do you feel sometimes a desire to stay away from publishing for a couple of days?
– No, not at all. Usually what I’m looking for is enough free time for pleasure reading. I always have a stack of books that I’ve been dying to read for months, but just haven’t been able to because I’m reading queries, submissions, proposals, manuscripts for authors I’m working with, etc. It’s a real treat for me when I get to sit down with a book and just read for fun (that is, without having to evaluate it and think about how I can help the author make it better).
– Charlie Runkle from Californication is the most famous literary agent on the planet. How close is such a fiction character to the real pro?
– I can’t help you there, unfortunately, as I don’t watch the show. Ask me about Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Wire, or The Walking Dead, though, and I’ll talk your ear off.
Check out more about David Fugate at his Web page