Interview with Literary Agent Barbara Poelle
By Julie Eshbaugh
Hello PubCrawlers! I am so excited to have as my guest today veteran literary agent (and Irene Goodman Literary Agency vice president) Barbara Poelle. Barbara is the author of FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK: SERIOUS QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BOOK PUBLISHING INDUSTRY, which comes out today from Writer’s Digest Books! FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK is based on Barbara’s popular Writer’s Digest advice column of the same name, and features responses to more than 100 questions by aspiring and emerging writers (including many not covered in her column and expanded answers to topics that didn’t get the full treatment in a column), as well as writing exercises, submission checklists and a publishing BINGO scorecard for every milestone accomplished! Plus it's all delivered with a generous helping of humor and humanity. If you're unfamiliar with the column you can find an excerpt below, but first, here is a brief Q&A with Barbara, to help introduce you to the woman behind the book.
Julie: Thanks for being my guest today, Barbara! Can you start by sharing how you became a literary agent?
Barbara: Quite frankly, my husband announced one day in 2007 that it would be the perfect career for me, as my "two favorite things are reading and telling people what to do". I mean, he wasn't WRONG.
That being said, I then took the invaluable step of tapping every relationship I had in order to set up informational interviews with both editors and agents in order to feel out what side I would gravitate towards. It became very apparent very quickly that my education and skill set fit ideally into the agenting side. I then decided to pursue female owned literary agencies which represented genres I was personally interested in. When Irene Goodman reached out to me for a job interview, that was the crack in the door that I shoved my entire weight against...and I exploded through that door nearly 13 years ago and the rest is history.
Julie: FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK is based on a column you've been writing for Writers Digest magazine for many years. How has the publishing industry changed over the course of time you've been writing the column?
Barbara: Ah! This is a great question, there are so many things that have changed for ALL of us over the last 7 years, amirite?!? However a key fulcrum from which I enjoyed watching the industry pivot was when the door opened wide on e books and self publishing. It has been such an exciting time to see all of the different ways artists are getting to reach their audiences and I continue to see growth and enthusiasm in these areas all the time. The questions I received at the magazine reflected this influx clearly and it was fabulous watching how the industry flexed and expanded against that backdrop.
Julie: What inspired you to translate your column into book form?
Barbara: Honestly, it was casual- a conversation over a couple of beers with my previous editor, the extraordinarily talented Tyler Moss. I have been so lucky to work with a slew of editors over the years like Jessica Strawser (now my client!) and Tyler and now Ericka McIntyre and Cassandra Lipp, so I had a solid foundation of work to build from. With the deft hand of book editor Amy Jones, the work started to take a clear shape and form- which was wonderful as I ended up delivering the book in October of 2019...for a publication date in January 2020! All of the things I used to yell at my clients about time management came right back around to nibble my hindquarters, but we got it done. My hope is that FYSA becomes another tool in the writer's shed for folks to help demystify the publishing experience, and to continue to encourage authors to step into their storytelling with confidence and find that publishing path.
Julie: Thank you Barbara! I personally feel confident FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK will become one of those must-own books for aspiring and emerging writers!
PubCrawlers, If you'd like a peek at the what's inside the book, here's an excerpt:
Someone in my writers’ group is at the same publisher as I am. We write in similar genres, we are about to have our third books published. Lately she is passive aggressively making comparisons about our careers, her advance, what the publisher is doing for me versus what they are doing for her, and it is causing tension in the group. And also, secretly, why I am writing to you? It is working. I am starting to feel like she is getting the best of everything. What do I do?
She’s Under My Skin
[Opens bottom desk drawer.] [Bends down out of sight.] [Straightens up.] [Expressionless, presses air horn in an ear-shattering bray.] [Bends down.] [Straightens up.] [Places megaphone in front of mouth.] [Slight feedback.]
“KEEP. YOUR. EYES. ON. YOUR. OWN. PAPER.”
Every story is different, right? And careers themselves are stories. So why would any career be the same? Every single one of my authors has these days. Every. Single. One. Where someone is getting more of something, whether it is an advance or a marketing placement or publicity angle. Sometimes I get angry emails. Sometimes I get weepy phone calls. Sometimes both.
The world teaches us at a young age that there is only one first place in whatever we are competing in. However, that is just not the case in publishing. Someone can get an advance of $40K, earn it out in the first six months, and get five figure royalty checks for the next four years, while someone else got a six-figure advance and then … that was it.
Who is first place there?
Someone could hit the Times list first week of publication with twenty-three hundred copies sold and then drop off to 250 a week for a few months and then seventy-five copies a week the rest of the year, then vanish, while someone else could never hit the list, but sell fifty-two thousand copies in their first year.
Who is first place there?
Someone could get on the Today show and sell fifteen hundred books that day, someone else could speak at their sorority alumni event, sell four hundred copies, and then get asked to tour college campuses and speak at their house events and sell 250 copies per visit over fifteen visits.
Who is first place there?
Someone could have Barnes and Noble request four thousand copies of a special signed edition of their novel, and the publisher ends up shipping ten thousand total to all vendors, while someone else gets an initial order of two thousand copies from B&N, two book clubs of fourteen hundred each, three subscription boxes of 900 each, and an indie order of six thousand.
Who is first place there?
You are not going to get everything you want, not in life and certainly not in publishing. And I can 100 percent guarantee you she isn’t either. And—color yourself shocked—she might be exaggerating what she is getting. But even if she isn’t—you keep your eyes on your own paper. Tell your agent you feel needy and scared. Ask specific questions about things you’d like to see/have. Be prepared to hear, “You’re not there yet.” Or “The Publisher didn’t budget for that.” But at least you’ll get them out there.
And let’s be honest, anyone who is pass-agging at you is terrified of you for some reason. Next time she says something, what if you went totally bananas on her and just told your truth? “Gosh, it sounds like you are crushing it. It’s fun to have you ahead of the rest of us to pave the way. I still feel nervous sometimes. Can I ask you a few questions? Like, what is the one thing you still wish our publisher was doing for you? What is your one dream ‘get’?” Turn the conversation away from what she has and into a learning experience of what is still out there to get. That way you all can all scribble madly on your papers, too excited about what’s still out there to peep at anyone else’s.
From FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK by Barbara Poelle, published by Writer’s Digest Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Barbara Poelle
Barbara Poelle is Vice President at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, representing a variety of genres but focusing on suspense, thriller, upmarket and young adult fiction. Her book Funny You Should Ask: Mostly Serious Answers to Mostly Serious Questions about the Book Publishing Industry based on her Writer’s Digest column of the same name, arrives in bookstores Jan 14, 2020. You can visit her at funnyyoushouldaskbook.com or irenegoodman.com/barbara-poelle