An Interview with Agent Shira Hoffman of McIntosh & Otis

As part of our 3 Year Celebration we are thrilled to have agent Shira Hoffman of McIntosh & Otis joining us! Tomorrow, Thursday, February 4th, Shira is going to be taking pitches right here on the Sub It Club blog! Today Shira is stopping by to tell us more about herself and what she’s looking for. She shares a treasure trove of information and tips for all of you out there looking to connect with an agent. So let’s go right to our interview:

ShiraWhat are your looking for right now? Is there anything on your wish list?

Right now I’m particularly interested in building my list in women’s fiction and romance.  That said,  I’m of course open to any of the genres mentioned in my bio. I would absolutely love to have some literary mystery/thriller.  Top of my list would be any kind of a mystery that falls into up-market women’s fiction, but literary mystery of any kind with fast pacing and a strong original concept would definitely catch my attention.  For romance I’m definitely looking more for contemporary with a lot of chemistry (any heat level is ok as long as there is a strong romantic spark).  Keep in mind that romance it is all about the characters and the internal conflict, so strong character motivation and development is an absolute must.  I’d love to have a sports romance and I think a geeky romance could also be fun (think How I Met Your Mother or The Big Bang Theory).  I’m also pretty well known for being a total pushover when it comes to animals, especially horses.  I’ve yet to find the perfect animal book to add to my list.  I also think a romantic suspense or even a murder mystery series set in the horse show world could be really fun and successful. 

What does a manuscript need to hook you?

The most important thing that a manuscript needs to hook me is a compelling voice.  If I’m invested in the voice then I’ll be invested in the story you are telling.  To pull me in a manuscript needs to have a really clear and compelling concept.  If I’m unclear what the manuscript is “about” that is enough to make me pass, even if the voice is great.  If you get both of those things right and have awesome pacing as well I’m almost certain to want to request the full.  Bonus points if you can make me laugh or cry in your pitch or opening pages. 

What do you think makes a submission package? Any pet peeves?

Of course you have to have all your ducks in a row, your pitch, your author bio (1 paragraph at the end of your pitch), synopsis (1-2 pages) and your sample chapters presented in a professional manner.  Beyond that it’s a matter of my personal preference, so it might vary from agent to agent.  I like to see the genre and word count right up front in the pitch as those often tell me right away if the submission is something I would be interested in.  I like it when Authors tell me very briefly why they chose to submit to me, since that lets me know that an author has done their homework and also tells me why I might connect to their work.  I also like to see authors including comp titles in their pitch as that lets me know that they understand where they fit in the publishing world.  The importance of knowing your genre and your audience can’t be underestimated when you are approaching agents since this helps us see what houses and editors might be the best fit for your book. 

I think every agent has submission pet peeves, I’ll give you my two biggest right now.  The first is authors who submit books in categories or genres that I don’t represent.  The information is all in my bio, so it shows me that the author hasn’t done the proper research.  It wastes my time, but it also wastes the author’s time so sadly it’s a lose-lose.  There might even be another agent at M&O who is a better fit so make sure to check those bios before submitting!  My other big pet peeve is authors who give me comp titles that are too popular.  By comparing their book to GONE GIRL or HARRY POTTER authors are actually hurting their chances of finding an agent.  We’d all love our books to be the next big hit, but these cases are the exception not the rule! There is no such thing as a guaranteed best seller. So including these kinds of comps shows me that not only is the author unsure of where their book fits, they also might have really unreasonable expectations of what signing with an agent means.  Writers have one of the hardest jobs out there, so it’s key to make sure a potential client understands how much work, re-working, and waiting is involved with being a professional writer.     

What are some of the most common reasons you pass on manuscripts?

One of the most common reasons I pass on an submission is if it starts in a very common way.  For example if the pages start with a description of someone driving or a description of a character waking up in the morning. To stand out in today’s tough market I need to see that the book is different, original, and grabs a reader’s attention from page one.  Another common reason I will pass is if it seems clear to me that the writer isn’t sure what genre their book fits into.  It’s one thing to intentionally mix genres, but another to try to mix them all together in one book.  I tend to see a lot of these kinds of submissions and for me they are an immediate pass.  A third reason is if I’m receiving submissions that are not in genres where I’m currently taking on projects.  For example, I don’t represent Family Saga, Historical Romance, or Political Thrillers, yet I get a ton of these submissions.  So do your research and make sure what you are sending is going to the right person. 

How much work are you willing to do with an author on a manuscript you love?

M&O is a very editorially focused agency.  If I love a project and feel it’s far enough along I will absolutely put in as much work as is necessary to see the project through.  We are very hands on with our clients at M&O and often do between two and four rounds of editing before submitting. If there is a manuscript we really love, but feel needs work, we will always let a potential client know that and make sure we are on the same page about the editorial vision and the amount of work we think needs to be done before signing. That said, I don’t like to over edit so I absolutely take each manuscript on a case by case basis. It all depends on what is right for the project and the author.    

How important is author platform to you when it comes to clients?

Platform is essential, but just how essential it is to my decision when considering a client all depends on the type of project in question.  Platform is more important for non-fiction authors and there it is absolutely crucial. I absolutely would not take on a non-fiction project if I didn’t think the author had a strong enough platform to get the book off the ground.  That said, I don’t represent much non-fiction since I’m more focused on stories that have a clear narrative and fast pacing.  I’m definitely open to any kind of non-fiction that reads like fiction, especially memoir.  But for these kinds of books, the platform isn’t as crucial as it is for other forms of non-fiction.  So for the most part I can afford to be a little bit more flexible and work with an author on developing their platform. For fiction or even memoir, it’s definitely something I consider an asset, but it is something authors can build over time.  We’ve had great success at M&O with fiction authors who really know how to use their platforms to promote their fiction, especially in the self publishing sphere.  So the effect of a good platform can’t be underestimated, but for me it’s really all about telling a good story.

What do you look for in a client ideally?

I work with all sort of clients from all walks of life, so my idea of an ideal client is definitely rooted in personality.  The main things I look for are strong communication skills, an understanding that publishing is a business, and a common editorial vision for the work.  Basically, this all amounts to feeling like the author and I are on the same page! I can’t stress enough how important that is when selecting an agent.  I’m looking for savvy clients who understand that succeeding in publishing is not just about the quality of the work they put out, but also about the relationships they form, the potential audiences they are trying to reach, and the process that is involved in getting their book from an awesome idea to a polished finished product. 

Publishing is a tough business! So, I need to know they’ve got more than just the writing skills. Writers need to have drive, the ability to see the big picture, and the understanding to know when to push and when to compromise.  It’s really important that authors be self aware and able to consider everything that goes into making a book a success.  Authors who aren’t open to feedback or making editorial changes just won’t have what it takes to make it in traditional publishing today.  This is one of the reasons that having the same editorial vision is hugely important.  It means we spend less time on back and forth and debating what changes need to be made.  If we share a common editorial vision this means we can work seamlessly towards the same goal of making the book the best it can be.  If we don’t have the same vision for the book it’s better for the author to keep looking and find someone they feel understands their work and what they want from their career. If all of these things line up then we are on the road to having a great relationship!   

What is your advice on how to formulate a pitch? What elements do you think are important?

Pitching is one of the things that writers struggle with the most.  And with good reason!  It’s not easy to think of your book as a product that you are selling, but that is exactly what you need to do to write a successful pitch.  In our culture we tend to associate a book being a “product” with “selling out”, but to me that is honestly a little silly.  The whole point of looking for an agent is so that the agent can sell your book to a publisher and the publisher can sell the book to an audience. So looking at the book as a product is ultimately a good thing because it can help authors to see where their writing fits in the larger scale of publishing. The role of the writer is an absolutely essential one.  Without the writer, there is no book, and no product!

If writers can get outside the details of the story it can actually be really fun and interesting to pitch a book. I often tell writers to practice on their favorite book, movie, or TV show and come up with a short phrase that tells me what elements are at the heart of the story.  How would you explain it to someone if you could only send it to them in a tweet, or a text?  This is a great place to start to come up with your hook.  Once you’ve identified what elements make up your hook, you can build your pitch around those elements.

Essential elements to include in the pitch are the genre, the main concept, the main conflict, and the main characters.  Other than that, it really depends on the genre.  Romance pitches spend more time on internal conflict where sci-fi/fantasy pitches tend to focus more on external conflict. This is where knowing your market and your audience becomes so essential.  If you can identify the things that make a successful romance, sci-fi/fantasy, etc. then you know what elements to focus on in your own pitch.  So practice pitching existing books in your genre, once you’ve identified the crucial elements in pitching those projects you can apply what you’ve discovered to your own book.  Then you will be on the right track to successfully pitching an agent your project.  There are more helpful information on this topic on the M&O blog, specifically my breakdown of the differences between a synopsis and a query might be helpful for writers who want more guidance on this topic http://mcintoshandotis.com/2015/04/what-is-the-difference-between-a-query-letter-and-a-synopsis/

Writers can also follow me on twitter @ShiraSHoffman for occasional tricks, tips, and additional blog posts from myself and the other agents at M&O.

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A huge THANK YOU to Shira for taking the time to share all of these insights with us. You can learn more about Shira on the McIntosh & Otis agents page.

Be here tomorrow, February 4th to pitch Shira directly! I will be putting up a new post on Thursday morning just for pitches. Shira will be pursing your pitches between 10am and 6pm EST making requests on those that pique her interest and may offer feedback if time permits. Here are the rules:

  • Only pitch work in the genres that Shira represents: For adults that is commercial fiction, literary fiction, up-market women’s fiction, romance (Adult), sci-fi/fantasy, mystery, narrative nonfiction, memoir, YA (contemporary, sci-fi/fantasy, mystery, Romance), or upper middle grade (scary, sci-fi/fantasy, mystery).
  • Pitch completed work only.
  • Post your pitch in the comments of the pitch day post which will be up tomorrow, February 4th at 9:30am EST.

Pitches are to consist of:

  • Title:
  • Word count:
  • Genre:
  • Pitch: 100-words maximum. (Remember a pitch needs to show the conflict, what is at stake for the main character, and hook Shira into wanting to read more!)
  • Excerpt: The first 100-words of your novel. (If the 100th word is in the middle of the sentence don’t worry, just finish it out.)

So, get those pitches ready Sub It Clubbers!

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