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IR Chats with Lit Agent Jane Dystel

Jane Dystel, president of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, has been an agent since 1986. Her publishing career began at Bantam Books. She then moved to Grosset & Dunlap, where she was a managing editor and later an acquisitions editor. From there, she went on to become Publisher of World Almanac Publications, where she created her own imprint.

When she joined the agency that would soon become Acton and Dystel, Inc., she quickly developed a reputation for honesty, forthrightness, hard work, and real commitment to her authors and their writing careers. In 1994, with a growing roster of clients, she founded Jane Dystel Literary Management, which became Dystel & Goderich Literary Management in 2003.

Born in Chicago, Jane grew up in Rye, New York. She is the daughter of publishing legend, Oscar Dystel, who passed away last year and is widely credited with pioneering the success of paperback books.  Jane received her BA from New York University and attended Georgetown law school for one year before leaving for her first job in publishing. She has an abiding interest in legal subjects. She is married to Steven Schwinder and has a daughter, Jessica, and a son, Zachary. She lives in New York City with her family and two dachshunds and is a tenacious golfer.

Jane and D&G, whose client list includes indie and former indie authors, including Tracey Garvis Graves, Colleen Hoover, Abbi Glines and Samantha Young, formed an alliance with IndieReader two years ago, agreeing to review the top winners of the IRDAs with an eye towards signing them for representation.

Loren Kleinman (LK): What’s been the most challenging aspect of choosing a title?

Jane Dystel (JD): I think the most challenging is finding something that is fresh.  The more I read, the more stories sound the same.  I am looking for “different” as are other agents and publishers.

LK: Do you ever have moments when your personal interests outweigh the market interests?

JD: That does happen of course and sadly when it does, many times the book goes unsold.

LK: How can authors improve their chances of engaging with a readership?

JD: The key here is, of course, the book.  Their story has to be well told and well written and fresh, as I said previously.  Second,  they need to spend lots of time on social media to build their fan base/potential readership.  That is the key to sales these days—whether one is self-publishing or being published be a traditional publisher. Having a unique voice and working within a built-in community of authors and readers is a great way to stand out and cross-promote on social media. Authors should find what platform works best for them or that they’re most comfortable with (whether that’s Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.) and focus energy there. Better to excel in one place than to be mediocre in several.

LK: How important is an author platform for the author, publisher and agency?

JD: The author platform is extremely important and will definitely make a difference in whether we can sell an indie author’s book to a traditional publisher. Social media is a big part of an author’s platform these days, and we find it works best when authors focus on the kinds they enjoy so that they can be consistent and genuine.

LK: What can indie authors do to make their books more appealing in terms of covers, editing, etc.? What do you think is the most important aspect?

JD: The cover is very important in the indie world.  It needs to stand out in a very crowded market.  And, a manuscript that reads well—with proper editing and copy-editing—is always going to do better than one that doesn’t. Covers need to look professional. Invest in quality design or stock photos—something anyone could slap together on Microsoft Paint isn’t going to attract a reader, especially since they are only looking at a little thumbnail photograph of the cover and not holding a physical book in their hands. So, to that end, nothing too intricate either—what will stand out on a little screen is going to be what works.

LK: Can you talk about a time when a title’s success shocked you the most?

JD: Yes, I represent a woman whose first novel was originally published by a traditional publisher and did only modestly well.  She bought back her rights and we sold the book to a publisher who publishes primarily in the digital space and it has been a huge seller.  In fact, its sales are currently approaching 1,000,000 copies (its traditional sales were at the 7,500 copy level).  Both the author and I are, needless to say, absolutely delighted with this well- deserved success.

LK: Do indie authors have more of a chance at traditional publishing later in their careers than those directly seeking publication or representation?

JD: It is very important, as I said, for the indie author to have a solid fan following in order to find a traditional publisher.  That takes time.  Also, unit sales of their self-published books is a factor in their ability to interest legacy publishers. Naturally, quality of writing is also very important—since traditional publishers aren’t as keen as they once were to purchase rights to books that have already been self-published, an indie author needs to be able to produce new work that is a) in line with the type of book they’ve been successful with and b) well-written and unique.

LK: Is it vital that titles get represented in order for them to be successful?

JD: No, I don’t think so although having an agent does facilitate sub rights sales including British, translation, audio and film.  Indie authors rarely do these things well themselves and they shouldn’t have to.

LK: What subjects/genres do you anticipate taking off in the next five years?

JD: I’m not sure about “taking off” but I do think the time travel is coming back and I am told that some paranormal might be as well.  I’m personally watching the thriller category closely as that also seems to be gaining ground again after a brief lull.

LK: What kind of authors are traditional publishers looking for these days? Is there a particular profile they consider?

JD: First, traditional publishers are no longer all that interested in picking up previously self-published books.  They want authors who are willing to work with them to grow their writing careers.  There is still so much to learn on both sides, and I think legacy publishers want to invest in those authors who are patient in terms of their growth as authors.

LK: Talk about the slush pile. If authors are interested in traditional publishing, how can they not end up there? And have you ever been wrong about a title that landed in the slush pile?

JD: I pick up many clients from slush.  I take it very seriously.  And of course I have turned down properties that eventually became very successful—we all have, publishers included.

LK: Is it important to have tenacity as an independent author? Is it even more important than talent? Why?

JD: It is very important to be tenacious.  Giving up achieves nothing.  It is as important to have the ability to write an original story well.  Ours is a highly subjective business and rejection is an integral part of the process.  Sticking with it is what separates the men from the boys, as it were.

LK: What excites you most about the indie community?

JD: I love that all of these writers are new and are open to learning about traditional publishing.  As important, though, is the fact that they are teaching me so much about how to market and sell.  It is a mutual sharing of information that I find so very exciting.

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