Hey, folks, thanks so much for visiting
HOW TO PUBLISH A BOOK. I am thrilled to bring you an interview for the New Year with literary agent Stacia Decker. A former
editor at Harcourt and Otto Penzler Books, Stacia began her career at Farrar, Straus & Giroux after earning an MFA in
nonfiction writing at Columbia University. She represents mystery, suspense, noir, and crime fiction and is looking for a
strong voice, dark humor, fast-paced plotting, and unpredictable violence. Stacia joined the Donald Maass Literary Agency in 2009.
Welcome, Stacia. Thanks so much for speaking with us at the HOW
TO PUBLISH A BOOK. And thank you, everyone else, for joining us today! Enjoy the interview.
Photo by Kirk Decker
HOW TO PUBLISH A BOOK: How did you first get started in publishing?
When did you know you wanted to be a literary agent?
I started as an unpaid intern at Farrar, Straus & Giroux while I was working on my MFA thesis. When, as an editor, I was laid off in the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt merger, I started considering agenting as an opportunity to work with the authors I really believed in.
HOW TO PUBLISH A BOOK: When you look back at your time at Harcourt and
Otto Penzler Books, what did you learn about the business?
I learned a lot about the bookmaking and selling process from direct interaction with the sales, marketing, publicity, and
production teams, and I learned a lot about book packaging from working with paperback and reprint titles. Of course I also
learned about the acquisition process, which is helpful knowledge to have as an agent.
Seeing a relatively small editorial team in action, I came to some of my own conclusions about the importance of
a clear editorial mandate and the thoughtful presentation of a cohesive list. As an agent, I think of my client list in some
of the same ways I would an imprint—while there’s breadth, my list is governed by my tastes and, as such, has
a distinct character.
Working with Otto Penzler on his imprint, I also
learned how welcoming and supportive the mystery community is. That’s one of the reasons I now concentrate on mystery
and crime fiction and have tried to build a client list in which my authors feel as supported by their fellow clients as by
me and the Maass agency.
HOW TO PUBLISH A BOOK: You represent
some outstanding crime fiction writers like Allan Guthrie, Seth Harwood, Declan Burke, Jeff Shelby, and Scott Wolven. What
is it about the harder aspects of life that appeals to you?
DECKER: Some of this is basic escapism. Crime fiction takes readers behind the scenes into illicit trades or worlds
that most of us don’t experience in daily life and allows us to play out our fantasies and fears. The world, as it’s
represented to us in the news and elsewhere, is a threatening, chaotic place, and our lives can be filled with mundane anxiety.
Crime fiction provides a more visceral, exciting—and yet remote—scenario to worry about and convinces us we could,
at the least, survive. It lets us live vicariously through a worldview that is often tougher, savvier, or more comfortable
Mystery fiction has traditionally been a moral genre, one
that reassures us by reinforcing social norms and restoring order in the end. That said, I’m more interested in stories
that blur distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad, and make the reader complicit in some bad actions and questionable
decision making. These characters force us into a more nuanced contemplation of morality. They exercise our empathy and call
into question our own moral judgment. And they are—to me, I suppose—a more realistic form of wish-fulfillment,
one in which we get to break the rules while still struggling against fundamental constraints.
I’m not particularly interested in characters that are extraordinarily smart, attractive, accomplished, fit,
and talented in the kitchen, or in scenarios in which our hero has access to all the latest secret agent hardware or the ability
to fly off into a new life at a moment’s notice. I’m more interested in a flawed, recognizably human protagonist
dealing with the limits of his place within society, within his family, and so on. The working-class tragedy gives us a window
onto how an awful lot of us live, and allows us to ask how we would—given the constraints of our real lives—react
ourselves. I’m also interested in the vulnerability and complications of the male identity, and that’s
a subject that plays out in so many ways in crime fiction.
TO PUBLISH A BOOK: Describe how the job at Donald Maass Literary Agency came about.
STACIA DECKER: My first position as an agent was with Firebrand Literary. When Firebrand closed
shop a few months after I joined the agency, I had to go out on my own or find a new home. I had quite a few clients I wanted
to protect, and I was only interested in joining an agency with a great reputation, established foreign subagents, and a real
love of genre. I’d worked with the Maass agency through Otto Penzler Books, and I called Don to ask his advice and we
started talking. Needless to say, my authors were thrilled when I announced we had a new home with Don. I
cannot say enough about Don’s editorial insight, ethical judgment, and professionalism and how much I enjoy working
HOW TO PUBLISH A BOOK: You’ve done some
damn fine writing yourself. How do you compare advocating for someone else’s work in contrast to your own?
STACIA DECKER: Just as it’s easier to edit someone else’s
work, advocating for someone else’s work is much easier. I can unabashedly believe that my client is a genius and tell
anyone who’ll listen. A good writer doesn’t believe he’s a genius and, if he does, he shouldn’t say
Authors also aren’t necessarily in the position to understand
how best to present or pitch or package their book. Maybe they’re not objective about how their prose will be cast (literary
vs. faux literary, for example), or which comparison titles will sell the book to bookstore category buyers, or why it’s
better to appeal to a distinct genre audience than to cross categories. They’re most likely not aware of what specific
information or presentation or argument a certain editor or imprint or bookstore needs to put a book on their list and sell
to their markets. For this type of advocacy, authors need agents.
TO PUBLISH A BOOK: How would you characterize the purchasing atmosphere for crime fiction at the start of 2010?
STACIA DECKER: There are good crime editors and good mystery imprints
out there, but acquisitions are hard. We’re in a blockbuster era in which editors have a harder time finding money and
slots to grow authors, which is how many of today’s bestsellers got their starts.
HOW TO PUBLISH A BOOK: What kinds of things lead to a breakout bestselling author? What separates
the midlist author from the NYT bestselling author? And is there any pattern or behavioral traits that you’ve noticed
that drive an author from being okay selling to being great selling?
DECKER: If only we knew. There are many more books bought with the hopes—or expectations—that they become
bestsellers than actual bestsellers.
One theory is that books sell when
they reach a certain cultural saturation point—through name recognition or media coverage, for instance—at which
consumers feel they have to buy them. That’s hard to arrange. And while some current bestsellers slowly built series
success and name recognition to the point that they’re now a must-buy, that’s become less of an option for authors
as houses become more reluctant to keep publishing a series through those building years.
Another theory—at least for why books don’t break through—is that they don’t provide a certain
comfort zone for readers. For instance, an author who gives her discouraged, overworked protagonist a (perhaps realistically)
disrupted, dysfunctional home life might see her work deemed too dark. Readers have not been reassured by her worldview that
there is ultimately order and satisfaction in life for good people.
retrospect, we can look at a breakout series and see a great—culturally relevant—premise and a reader-friendly
approach or prose that seems to cinch it. But that a premise will be culturally relevant at a certain point? That’s
much easier to see in retrospect than in advance.
HOW TO PUBLISH
A BOOK: How important is perseverance in our business?
DECKER: Some part of you has to just not know how to do anything else—at least that’s the reason everyone
I know gives for sticking with this business even as they bemoan their fate. The publishing industry doesn’t make it
easy for anyone, and there’s not necessarily a conventional payoff to sticking with it. You have to just not be able
to help yourself.
HOW TO PUBLISH A BOOK: If you had to
make an educated guess about what will be hot in 2010, what do you suspect might be big that we haven’t already seen?
STACIA DECKER: Ferrets? Really, who knows. I’m not
much of a trend-chaser; I just work with what I love. In the crime fiction world, I’m seeing a resurgence of country
noir, with meth labs and dog fighting being popular themes—I’d be happy if that hit big.
HOW TO PUBLISH A BOOK: What do you love most about being a literary agent?
STACIA DECKER: The ability to work, both on an editorial level and in a career-building capacity,
with the authors I believe in.
HOW TO PUBLISH A BOOK:
What drives you up the wall?
STACIA DECKER: Run of the
mill unprofessionalism pushes my buttons. But in general I think people are trying their best.
HOW TO PUBLISH A BOOK: How do you sign on new authors? Does the entire agency have to support it?
STACIA DECKER: I conduct the due diligence I feel necessary—a phone
conversation, maybe some revision—and Don takes the advise and consent role.
It’s a collaborative environment, and in discussing projects with colleagues I often get valuable feedback
and great suggestions about pitching and positioning clients’ work, but we operate with a baseline respect for one another’s
HOW TO PUBLISH A BOOK: When selling a debut author’s
book, how do you weigh building a career for him/her with the desire to get a very large advance?
STACIA DECKER: I’m in it for the author’s career and, while I wouldn’t advise
an author to reject a large advance without other options, I might advise an author to take a lower advance from a house I
thought would better publish the author. Some books are better suited to a particular format or would be a better fit on a
certain list; likewise, houses are known for different strengths and varying levels of stability. And, as we’ve seen,
an author is often better off earning out a smaller advance and being thought of as a good investment than failing to earn
out a large advance and being termed a disappointment. I’m going to consider seriously any house that offers a small
advance but offsets it with genuine, on-going enthusiasm and a savvy publishing model.
HOW TO PUBLISH A BOOK: How important is the follow-up book, and how do you work with your authors
in building their careers? What kinds of things can an agent do to ensure that it grows?
STACIA DECKER: An agent is first helping a client think about what his career goals are. Then the
agent considers what the right first book is given these goals. For instance, an unpublished client can only be a debut author—with
a clean sales track and his headshot in the publishing house’s debut author pamphlet—once. So an author who doesn’t
want to sneak onto the publishing scene may agree to put aside a completed short story collection, which will find less enthusiasm
in the marketplace, in favor of offering a novel as his debut property.
order to set up the follow-up book’s success, the agent is first trying to find the right house for the author in placing
the first book. Ideally, that means a publisher that believes in the author’s career, publishes the first book well,
and maybe even commits to the second book from the start.
are increasingly less likely to make those kinds of commitments. Often this means, when it comes time for the follow-up book,
the agent is both pushing for that commitment from the house and advising the author on his options given the realities of
his situation and his goals. Those options are not always ideal.
book needs to sell better than the first one. And that’s hard if the first one didn’t meet expectations. Increasingly,
publishers and booksellers have already made up their minds at that point, and smaller marketing budgets or orders for the
follow-up don’t typically help its sales.
Thus, an agent can’t
always ensure that sales grow or that a client’s career grows in the manner he’d first envisioned. But the agent
can help the author make his strongest case for the publisher’s, booksellers’, and readers’ continued support.
An author wants each book to be better than the last, and this means not only taking lessons in craft from the writing of
the first book but also looking at plotting and themes to find ways to expand the scope—to make the book bigger. A good
agent pushes the author to think about these issues and look for these opportunities in his writing. It’s an unpredictable
business, but the agent is the author’s partner in making each book as good as it could be and better than the last.
HOW TO PUBLISH A BOOK: What are you looking for in a piece of writing?
STACIA DECKER: I like a strong, distinct voice, tight prose, fast
pacing, and dark humor. I’m looking for a big hook at the start and a plot that develops quickly with a minimum of exposition.
I want to hear that narrative voice talking to me from line one, putting me in someone else’s head. Deft characterization
that captures the nuances of social interaction and dialogue usually charms me. I’m partial to realistic but subtle
specificity about occupations and other areas of expertise.
TO PUBLISH A BOOK: How long does it take to know?
DECKER: Not long. As with anything, the best and the worst are easiest to tell. Sloppy, clichéd, or mundane
prose is pretty clear from the start, just as is a sharp, funny voice or a surprising opening premise.
A work that leaves me on the fence at the start will make up my mind for me by twenty to thirty pages in. That might
not sound fair, but I’m going to end up living and breathing any novel I take on, so I have to really love it. It doesn’t
take long to know whether I feel passionately about a character or would want to reread a story over and over before it even
goes on submission.
A work that starts strong but develops flaws will keep
me reading with revision in mind. And a work that absolutely hooks me will have me praying it holds up but thinking “that
can be fixed!” when I come across a stumble.
HOW TO PUBLISH
A BOOK: Are there any specific elements of craft that beginning writers tend to neglect?
STACIA DECKER: I see way too much exposition. A writer has to figure out how to tell a story without
telling me the story. Even a first-person narrator should not be conducting a lecture. Descriptions, backstory, and other
details should be revealed organically, if they’re even necessary. Good writing is all about what isn’t said,
what the reader infers and fills in.
I also see too much unwitting pastiche.
Of course genres have conventions, and now even twists on the conventions have become conventions. But overly familiar characters,
clichéd language, and same old story plotting reveal a writer who’s not really thinking about his characters
or who’s playing it safe in an attempt to appeal to everyone that appeals to no one. Too often I feel a writer is rewriting
a story he’s already read.
HOW TO PUBLISH A BOOK:
Do you have any pet peeves that you see beginning writers doing over and over?
DECKER: Well, see above. And even though these have become pet peeve clichés, I still see a lot of characters
waking up, characters sweating, characters waking up sweating, and characters with model good looks.
HOW TO PUBLISH A BOOK: If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
STACIA DECKER: I’m way too pessimistic to believe that any change
I made wouldn’t have catastrophic unforeseen consequences.
TO PUBLISH A BOOK: If an aspiring writer wanted to win you over with free Yankees tickets or paid-for vacations to
Maui (airfare and hotel accommodations included), would that help his/her chances of gaining representation?
STACIA DECKER: This sort of bribe offer would be an insult to my professionalism
and would result in instant rejection. Even if the offer were somehow well-intentioned, it would signal to me a lack of awareness
of industry norms and unrealistic (or maybe venally realistic?) expectations of buying success—neither of which I would
want in a client. The writing really has to stand on its own.
TO PUBLISH A BOOK: At the end of the day, what is the most satisfying aspect of working in publishing?
STACIA DECKER: The authors, both working with them and having the
chance to contribute to their work in some way.