Over the past month or so, I’ve posted interviews with authors, but let’s get a perspective behind the scenes this week with Mike Kabongo, whose OnyxHawke agency represents authors like Dave Freer and James Enge. His web page is http://www.onyxhawke.com/index.php
MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Michael, unlike most agents, you prefer to read the work before the query letter. Why is that?
MICHAEL KABONGO: Cover/query letters are interesting, but they are not the same type of writing as a novel. Some people will tell you that if you can write X you can write Y; I think the best thing that can be said for that point of view is that it is more aggressively optimistic than is wont in anyone old enough to cross the street by themselves. That said, they do serve a purpose, and they tell their reader far more about the writer than their fiction may.
I think that on the whole the best effect a cover letter can have is a null effect. I doubt any novel has sold purely on the basis of a cover letter, I suspect that many make it no further based on them. No agent, no editor wants to work with someone who is going to take an inordinate amount of their time and energy. That said, I don’t always skip the cover letter, it’s something done almost at random. I tend to read a bit of the novel, and if I make it through a couple chapters and haven’t read the letter I’ll go back to it.
A writer who is an energy sink could be one in several ways, among them: A) higher than average need of editing; B) constant need for attention of some sort; C) inability to stay on task; D) inability to write something marketable; E) emotional maintenance.
VENTRELLA: Can you usually tell within a page or so whether you might be interested in representing a particular author? Anything that makes you immediately toss a manuscript in the “rejected” file?
KABONGO: I can usually tell if I’m not interested well before I can tell if I might be interested. I have had a few books that I thought “Hey, this person can actually write and not just string words together, but I think they started in the wrong place.” I’ll usually keep reading these even if the first chapter is subpar. I’ve signed one or two clients with books that started that way. I don’t think I’ll give any direct examples, but when the science is worse than BRAVE NEW WORLD or I can hear the author’s voice over the character’s, or they have done something completely counter to a character’s established character, yes I’ll toss it quickly.
VENTRELLA: At the Ravencon science fiction convention, you humorously summarized your advice to aspiring authors as simply “Don’t be an asshole.” This is, of course, good advice for anyone, but for authors, how is that rule usually broken?
KABONGO: Well, it’s broken in a number of ways. One of the most disgusting acts I’ve seen lately was an author who publicly told their fans (or if one is being less charitable, “sycophants”) to attack someone who had given them a bad review. Another is being (needlessly) rude to people who they encounter in public places. Towards the people in the inside of the industry, the other writers, editors, and us invisible agents it is often worse. The infighting that goes on publicly in the SF/F community is startling to me. I can’t possibly imagine the heads of new products at ATT Wireless and T-Mobile or Samsung and LG engaging in the sniping that goes on as a matter of course in our commuinty.
VENTRELLA: Do you feel you can adequately represent an author whose work doesn’t really interest you yet in whom you can see the business potential? Or do you have to love the work in order to sell it?
KABONGO: I would really, really like to love the work I pick up, or at least the writing potential of the writer, and I can’t see myself picking up any work I don’t see strong marketability in. I’ve never accepted anything I hate for sale, but I suppose if someone who’s been on the best sellers list for twenty five years came to me and said they need a new agent I’d probably say yes. This is a business after all.
VENTRELLA: Now that vampire books are on the way out, I have of course started work on mine. How much do you follow and to predict trends in the market when deciding which books to push?
KABONGO: I pay attention to what the editors are saying about stuff they reject and what they are buying. I think that is a better set of indices than what is in the bookstores now.
VENTRELLA: What’s the biggest misconception new authors have about what agents do?
KABONGO: That an agent can sell something the market won’t support.
VENTRELLA: What piece of advice do you think is imperative that never seems to get mentioned in any of the standard “How to attract an agent” articles that populate the web?
KABONGO: First: Write well. Second: Be patient.