Sunday, February 5, 2012

Interview with Literary Agent Marie Lamba

By Tori Bond

Marie Lamba is an assistant agent with the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. She is currently looking for young adult and middle grade fiction, along with general and women’s fiction and some memoir. In addition to being an agent, she is the author of the young adult novels What I Meant… (Random House), Over My Head and Drawn. Tori Bond caught up with Marie and asked her to share her insights from the other-side-of-the-fence as an author turned agent. Find Marie’s full bio here.

Tori Bond: What made you to decide to become an agent?

Marie Lamba: I always wondered what it would be like to be on the other side…to see queries and proposed manuscripts as they came in from writers. When my own agent Jennifer DeChiara approached me, asking if I wanted to agent for her firm, I knew it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I’m so glad I jumped at the chance. This has been an enriching experience for me, and every time I open up my inbox, I feel like I’m on a treasure hunt.

T: As an author turned agent, what do you know now about the publishing industry that you didn’t know prior to becoming an agent? What secrets can you bestow on writers about the agent/writer relationship now that you’ve experienced both sided of this fence?

M: One thing I’ve realized is that agents don’t sit here eager to reject, they open each query eager to accept. One of my greatest joys is offering representation to a talented writer. I remember how thrilled I was when Jennifer first called me with her offer to rep me, and now I get to be the one making the call.

As a writer, I know just how much weight we give our agent in our minds. But you should really think of your agent as your partner, not your boss. So don’t be afraid to communicate with him or her about questions or concerns.

No huge secrets, but a bit of advice… From the zillions of queries I’ve now read, I can tell you that writers often shoot themselves in the foot long before I even have a chance to look at their actual piece. In the query, if you don’t include my name, if you address the query To Whom It May Concern, or you misspell my name, things start off on a bad foot right away. If your letter is riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors, I’m going to be really turned off (if you can’t pull off one page, how are you going to write an entire book?). And if you show off a bad attitude in your query, saying things like “I know you agents don’t really care and I’m pretty sick of trying to get your attention,” or “If you know what’s good for you, then you’d better write back to me right away,” then there is no way I’m going to want to work with you.

T: Many writers get very nervous about pitching to agents. What advice do you have for writers to help calm their nerves while pitching their projects at the conference? What is the biggest mistake writers should avoid when pitching their projects?

M: My best advice? Remember that an agent is just a person, and relax. Don’t tell yourself that pitching to this person is your one “big break.” A writer’s life is full of breaks, and this is just one pitch with one person. Truly. What is the worst that could happen if the pitch doesn’t go perfectly? The agent doesn’t ask to see your work? That’s not the end of the world, and this is not the only agent in existence. Simply learn from your pitch and the reaction that it got, and retool it for the future.

When you meet an agent or editor, think of her as someone who shares your interest in books. And when you pitch, get to the heart of your story. Think of what the back of your book jacket would say and phrase it that way. Back jacket copy is designed to entice, and that’s exactly what you want.

What should you avoid? Saying things like, “This is going to be a bestseller,” “This is the best novel you’ll ever see,” or “I’ve read this to my children’s friends and they all loved it.” Let the agent draw her own conclusions about the value of your work. Also, don’t put yourself down by saying things like, “I’ve never written before, so what do I know?” or, “You probably have heard this idea a hundred times before.” Be confident, smile and breathe! 

I won’t bite, I promise. And I’m pretty sure none of the other agents at the conference will, either.

T: Your bio states that you are interested in representing women’s fiction. This is such a broad category, is there something more specific that you are looking for? What is it about a novel that makes it hard for you to put down?

M: I don’t represent category romance, but I do like novels with romance in them. Women’s fiction is a broad term (ha ha) that encompasses chick lit as well as fiction with strong female characters in either a literary or commercial form. I’m open to them all.

What keeps me reading? Brilliant writing, an unforgettable character, a problem that makes me worry and wonder, a fresh voice that I can’t get enough of…

T: Are there any new trends to look for in YA and middle grade books? What type of story are you jonesing to represent but has not yet come across your desk?

M: I can tell you what I’m getting too much of… Too many middle grade novels about orphans in the 1920s. Too many YA novels about reapers, for some reason. Too many unremarkable memoirs about people with fairly normal life experiences.

And I can tell you about what attracted me to some of my clients… Carmella Van Vleet authored a mid-grade novel about a girl with ADHD who must prove to others (and herself) that she is no quitter. The book is smart and funny, and you just can’t help but fall in love with her heroine. Jon Price’s midgrade novel is simply hysterical. He writes in the tradition of Roald Dahl, skewering adults and highlighting the ridiculous. His book about Kevin, the fabulous fibber who mistakenly gets shipped off to a school for monsters, is fresh and has a strong commercial appeal. Stephanie Winkelhake’s voice grabbed me from the moment I began reading her gripping YA novel. It’s about a girl who is diagnosed with a fatal tumor who begins seeing her dead boyfriend… It’s inventive and fresh, with an engrossing romantic plot.

T: You also say in your bio that you love anything hilarious. What are some examples of what makes you laugh, particularly in the genres you represent?

M: Humor is definitely one of the toughest things to pull off. Too many people think that just by giving everyone goofy names or using crude words, that they’ve earned a laugh. Ho hum.

Understated wit, the improbable, ridiculous situations that work somehow…now these are funny.

Some laugh out loud books on my shelf include One for the Money by Janet Evanovich, Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green, The Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella and Matilda by Roald Dahl.

T: I find it fascinating that you are a literary agent, and an author who is both traditionally published and self-published. As an agent, how do you view self publishing?

M: Self-publishing offers writers even more opportunities to reach readers, and that’s all good. Writers, however, bear the responsibility of making sure that whatever they put out there is their very best. You want to be proud of what you produce, so be sure that it is strong and edited to perfection and that the book’s design is as good as anything you’ll find in bookstores.

I love that we writers now have options for our manuscripts. Things like short story collections, or short novellas, or poetry collections, or books for niche markets are a good fit for independent publishing. And many writers can now bring their out-of-print books back into print at a nominal cost, meaning that a work can live on forever. Also, it’s beyond wonderful to know that no matter what happens in the world of publishing, your book can be produced and read.

One word of warning though: I don’t recommend you self-publish a book if you plan to sell that same book to publishers through an agent. Choose your path with knowledge.


  1. Excellent interview, guys. Marie, I think you leveled the playing field for debut authors who sweat bullets at conferences as they wait to make their pitch. You humanize the agent, and in so doing both writer and agent (and potential readers) can all come out winners. One of these days I might try my hand at speed-agenting at some conferences. Yes, one of these days...

    1. Thanks, Chris!

      Why one of these days? I say bring it on NOW. :)


  2. Wonderful interview into the mind of an author turned agent and one who has seen both sides of the pub industry - traditional and self pub. And it reinforces that we need to work extra hard on our queries to get that shot in the door! Its our first line of defense to break through, as authors.

    1. Thanks, Donna. It's all hard work. Fortunately it's also a labor of love.


  3. Thanks, Marie and Tori, for painting this sensitive and realistic portrait of agenting. For those who still think agents are evil, try volunteering at The Write Stuff and getting to know a few!

    1. Hi Kathryn!

      Thanks. And volunteering for a conference is a great way to feel on more equal footing with an editor or an agent. I remember as a writer picking up editors from a train station and driving them to a conference. Talk about a captive audience! Actually I spent the time getting to know them a little, instead of pitching, of course. I didn't want them to drop out of the car like Steve Carrell in Crazy Stupid Love!


  4. Excellent stuff, Marie. I know I'm late to the party, but hey -- I was writing! :-)

  5. I linked to this entry on my blog here: Thanks for the interview.