MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am happy to be interviewing Alia Hanna Habib, a literary agent at McCormick & Williams. She represents narrative non-fiction, memoir, and cookbooks, as well as the occasional novel that strikes her fancy. Before joining McCormick & Williams, she was a publicist at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She is a graduate of Barnard College and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
How did you get involved in the publishing business and end up where you are?
ALIA HANNA HABIB: I’d always loved reading, and I knew I’d end up doing something with books. My first job out of college was at Houghton, in the publicity department. I did a bunch of different things between then and now, including non publishing related stuff, but eventually I returned to publishing and realized I really wanted to develop my own projects. Being an agent seemed the best way to do so.
VENTRELLA: Who have you represented in the past? What has been your biggest success?
HABIB: I moved over to being an agent from being a publicist just over a year ago, so none of the books I’ve sold have hit the shelves yet! But I’m very proud to have sold a narrative history of autism by Nightline correspondent John Donvan and television journalist Caren Zucker, a book I think will make a big difference in the life of parents and kids of all stripes. I also have a longtime interest in education — I was the publicist for Paul Tough’s wonderful book on Geoffrey Canada, WHATEVER IT TAKES — so I was thrilled to get to sell Elizabeth Green’s expansion of her wonderful New York Times Magazine cover story on “Building a Better Teacher” to Norton last summer. I think it will really change the way we talk about teachers and education reform.
VENTRELLA: What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
HABIB: It really runs the gamut. I love what I call spooky literary fiction: Sarah Waters, Lionel Shriver, Jennifer Egan, work that is a little uncanny yet very well-plotted. I represent cookbooks, and they’re my bedtime reading. And as I’m always looking for book ideas, I read a ton of magazines and blogs.
VENTRELLA: New writers trying to get an agent make a ton of mistakes. This blog’s purpose is to try to minimize these mistakes. So let’s discuss a few. First, there is the query letter. What do you look for in a query letter?
HABIB: I like an original idea, and a healthy mix of confidence and humility. I also like to see some sort of publication track record or media platform, particularly for non-fiction.
VENTRELLA: What are some examples of bad query letters you’ve received?
HABIB: I did my graduate degree in nineteenth-century literature, which is easy to figure out with a quick Google search. Someone wrote to me saying I’d like his book because it had all the verve of Dickens and wasn’t prissy and bloodless like Austen. I don’t think anything could have alienated more quickly than insulting Jane Austen. She’s why I went to grad school in the first place! The takeaway from this is your query letter should be about selling you, not denigrating others. That just makes you sound bitter and arrogant, plus you could very well be addressing a fan of the writer you’re taking down.
VENTRELLA: Some agents hardly pay attention to the query letter, stating that writing a good query letter doesn’t mean you’ve written a good book, and vice versa. What’s your view?
HABIB: It’s helpful to see how someone talks about their book, so I’d say a good query is very useful.
VENTRELLA: When you do ask to see a manuscript, what mistakes are most common?
HABIB: You know, once I’ve asked for the manuscript, I really just want to see if the person can write or not and if they can grab the reader from the first page. Don’t bury your story forty pages in.
VENTRELLA: Have you ever had an unimpressive first page yet you continued reading and found it worthy?
HABIB: If I really like the concept, yes, or if it’s a client referral and I know and trust the client’s taste. It’s a lot like picking up a book at the book store. Sometimes you’ll see it through to the end, if you feel invested in the bigger idea, and sometimes you won’t.
VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about the publishing industry. Do you think the rise of e-books will encourage more experimentation and risk-taking among the big publishers?
HABIB: I hope so. I think it’s also shaking up how we think about formats and categories.
VENTRELLA: Is the small press getting more respect due to e-book sales?
HABIB: Yes, and small presses have also been putting out things of really high quality.
VENTRELLA: If a writer had self-published his or her first book, how does that factor into your decision making?
HABIB: If they self-published well, and have a sales track to prove it, I’m always interested.
VENTRELLA: Assuming you are impressed by the manuscript, how important is the writer’s personality to deciding whether to represent him or her? Have you refused to represent someone because of that?
HABIB: The agent/writer relationship is pretty close. I haven’t refused anyone because of personality reservations– and all my clients are really great, so I really haven’t had to– but you do want to keep your relationship with your agent (and eventually your editor and your publicist) as collegial as possible. You want them to want to talk to you.
VENTRELLA: Is there any final piece of advice you’d like to give that I haven’t asked about here?
HABIB: Be nice to everyone you meet along the way!