Inside the Publishing Industry: A Conversation with Literary Agent Paula Munier

In her fabulous day job as Senior Literary Agent and Content Strategist for Talcott Notch Literary, Paula Munier represents many great writers. Her specialties include crime fiction, women’s fiction, upmarket fiction, MG and crossover YA, high-concept SFF, and nonfiction.

Paula is the author of the bestselling Plot Perfect, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings, Writing with Quiet Hands, and the acclaimed memoir Fixing Freddie. The first novel in her mystery series, A BORROWING OF BONES (Minotaur, 2018) was inspired by the hero working dogs she met through Mission K9 Rescue, her own Newfoundland-retriever-mix rescue Bear, and her lifelong passion for crime fiction. She lives in New England with her family, two rescue dogs Bear and Bliss, and a rescue torbie tabby named Ursula.

GJ: Can you start by introducing yourself?

PM: I began as a journalist, and over the years I’ve penned countless new stories, articles, essays, collateral, and blogs, as well as authored/co-authored more than a dozen books. Happier Every Day is coming in March 2019. Along the way, I’ve added editor, acquisitions specialist, digital content manager, and publishing executive to my repertoire. From Gannett, Greenspun, and Prima Games to Disney, Quayside, and F+W Media, I’ve fought the good fight for good writing and good writers. And I’ve loved every minute of it.

As an agent, I have the opportunity to support talented writers in the most direct manner possible, helping my clients do good work, land great publishing deals, and build successful writing careers.

GJ: Can you tell me the proudest moment of your career?

PM: Oh, wow. I like to say that my mission is telling–and selling–good stories. As an agent, I am thrilled whenever I help writers realize their dream of seeing their work in print. As a writer, I was thrilled when Lee Child called A Borrowing of Bones “a compelling mix of hard edges and easy charm,” words I’m tempted to have engraved on my tombstone. All told, my proudest moment so far was probably at ThrillerFest 2018, where our agency founder Gina Panettieri hosted a party that featured marquee-sized posters of all of our swell clients’ book covers, including mine.

But here’s hoping that my uber-proudest moment comes in 2019!

GJ: To have Lee Child say anything about your work must have been amazing! What would you say are the key qualities an effective agent should have?

PM: Lee Child is a god among men. And a bodhisattva among authors. 

The most important qualities you should look for in an agent are: 1) an undying enthusiasm for your work; 2) an understanding of the publishing landscape; 3) the ability to navigate that landscape successfully.

GJ: As someone who has seen the publishing industry from many angles, do believe the US novel publishing market / industry has changed in the last ten years and if so how would you describe those changes?

PM: The book business has changed more in the past 15 years than it has since Gutenberg. The rise (and fall) of the big chains, the fall (and rise) of the indies, amazon, ebooks, self-publishing, online shopping, book bloggers, goodreads, yadda yadda yadda. The sands continue to shift beneath our feet.

GJ: Which of these aspects would you consider to be the most beneficial for the author / writing community? As a self-publisher I know what my answer would be!

PM: This has never been an easy business. The good news for authors is that they have the means to publish and promote their books themselves if they so choose. And if they do choose to publish traditionally, they still have more opportunity to promote their work on their own than they used to. That is, they no longer have to rely solely on their publisher for PR and marketing. 

The bad news is, it’s harder than ever no matter how you publish to break out as an author in a world where there is so much competition for entertainment, not just TV and film but gaming, binge watching, social media, etc.

GJ: Can you explain the typical role of a literary agent?

PM: The agent’s job is to sell the writer’s work–from preparing sales materials and shopping the work to negotiating contracts and helping the author maintain good working relationships with the staff at the publishing house. Agents who come from editorial, as I did, may assist with development of the material as well. 

Ultimately, the aim is to help clients achieve their goals every step along the way of their desired career paths.

GJ: It’s less common than I would have expected for a literary agent to be an author, like yourself, certainly in the UK. Can you describe your journey from finishing your first novel through to publication?

PM: I know several agents who are authors, and even more editors who are authors. Like many publishing people, I started off as a reporter, writing for newspapers and magazines, working my way up on the production side as a managing editor. Eventually I ended up at an organization that published books as well. I found I loved the book business, and from then on worked mostly for publishing houses. I happily transitioned into acquisitions, and there I spent fifteen years acquiring and developing nonfiction and fiction. I continued to write through most of this period–everything from jacket copy to articles and essays, creative nonfiction, and several nonfiction book-length works, including FIXING FREDDIE, a memoir. 

When I was writing THE WRITER’S GUIDE TO BEGINNINGS for Writers Digest Books, I needed an opening chapter that I could use as a sample for a number of exercises running throughout the book. So I wrote one, inspired by the sniffer dogs I’d met at a fundraiser for Mission K9 Rescue, a non-profit that rescues and finds forever homes for military working dogs who end up abandoned in shelters and kennels. My agent said, “Hey, that’s good, you should finish that.” That sample chapter became A BORROWING OF BONES. It only took thirty years. But who’s counting?

GJ: When you say you worked acquisitions, did that involve reading through the dredded slush pile?

PM: I’ve been going through slush piles for 20 years, both as an editor and as an agent. You never know what you might find….

GJ: Do you find it hard work trudging through the pile or do you read each first sentence with a hope that it could be the next best thing?

PM: It’s like panning for gold. There’s gold in them thar hills. You just have to find it. I’ve found some great projects in the slush pile–and a lot of slush. But I also find great projects at workshops and conferences and through referrals and introductions. That said, if you’re sending out unsolicited queries, you should know that we get tens of thousands of them every year. While I scroll through my in-box looking for items of interest, in reality that means I’m looking at the sender’s name and the subject line. If I don’t know you or the subject line doesn’t intrigue me, I leave it to the interns to go through first. (If this seems unfair, know that I got 1000 unsolicited queries my first week as an agent, and it’s been a growing deluge ever since.  At this very moment I have 13,186 unread unsolicited queries in my inbox, down from nearly 20,000. My job is not to read queries from writers I don’t know, it’s to sell my clients’ work.)

So be sure to make that subject line work for you; it should serve as a headline that sets your query apart from all the others we get. For example, don’t just say “Query,” which means nothing, say “Police Procedural from Career Cop” or “Referred by XYZ” or “Query from XYZ Contest Winner” or “Requested Material from XYZ Conference” or “Modern Retelling of XYZ” or whatever….

GJ: That’s excellent advice. Thank you. I’m attending the London Book Fair for the first time (the first time at any book fair) in March with an aim of collecting knowledge and experience for my indie career. Would this be something you would recommend to an author who is trying to get representation and publishing in the trad pub world?

PM: The more you know about the publishing business, the better. Book fairs, literary festivals, fan conferences, writers conferences, workshops, retreats, boot camps–all can be beneficial. I’ve been going to all of the above for decades–and I’ve benefited every time, as a writer and an editor and as an agent. You can network with publishing professionals like agents and editors, meet fellow writers, bone up on book marketing and promotion, learn how to take your work to the next level, etc.

If there are no such outlets where you are, there are lots of online events you can attend without even leaving your house. 

I still attend dozens of these events every year–both online and everywhere from New York to Los Angeles and abroad. I hope to see you there!

GJ: What can we expect from yourself and your authors in 2019?

PM: 2019 is off to a great start. I’m in the middle of negotiating several deals for clients as we speak, and many have books coming out this year. I’ve got a number of new clients whose projects I’m getting ready to shop now that the holidays are behind us. 

I’ll be traveling, too, to the San Diego State University Writers Conference later this month, the St. Augustine Author-Mentor Novel Workshop, and the First Ten Pages Online Boot Camp for Writers Digest next month, even before the conference season begins in earnest in April. My book HAPPIER EVERY DAY: Simple Ways to Bring More Peace, Contentment, and Joy into Your Life is being published by Media Lab Books in March, and the second in my Mercy and Elvis mystery series, BLIND SEARCH, comes out from Minotaur in the fall. 

Thank you Paula for taking the time to talk with me. I wish you luck in both your careers. Paula’s work is available to buy now from Amazon.

If you enjoyed this interview then why not subscribe to my mailing list to be notified of every article I post. I regularly interview authors and those in the publishing industry, along with providing an insight into my own experiences of publishing my debut novel, In The End, an apocalyptic thriller that will leave you breathless.


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