Feb
19

Agenting From North of the Border

An Interview with Canadian Agent Lydia Moëd

A few weeks back, I expanded my search criteria in querytracker.net to include agents outside of New York. "Location" was a filter that I'd applied when I first discovered this great agent-finding tool, and I'd just left it in place since then... but it finally occurred to me that I was likely doing myself a disservice by arbitrarily dismissing all the great agents in other cities.  I mean, with the ease of working electronically nowadays, did I really think that pounding the pavement was still a cornerstone of literary representation?

Two agents that caught my eye in my newly expanded search results were Eric Smith (of PS Literary Agency and located in Richmond, VA) and Lydia Moëd (of The Rights Factory in Toronto, Canada).  Both appeared to be young, passionate, and personable agents so I asked to interview them on their approaches to agenting and whether or not they thought their locations were a detriment to their ability to do their work. I tailored some of the questions to each agent in particular, but I kept the latter questions the same for both interviews in order to be able to compare their answers. Eric's interview was posted last week and this week I had the joy of preparing Lydia's post.

Lydia Moed, Literary Agent

Lydia Moëd came to Canada from the UK, where she worked for several years as a foreign rights executive in children’s publishing. She has also worked as a freelance literary translator and editor, and as a bookseller at Foyles in London. In addition to handling foreign rights for The Rights Factory’s children’s and YA list, she is also building her own list of clients for representation, with a focus on science fiction and fantasy by authors from marginalized or underrepresented groups.

While many other agents are also focussing on outreach to marginalized or underrepresented voices, Lydia was the first agent I'd seen that uses the Bechdel's test as a hard rule for any books she's considering representing.

ALR: Before I'd ever heard of the Bechdel test (which, admittedly, was only last year), I assumed that the inclusion of one particularly badass female character in a movie or a book was a fairly decent measure of equality.  But once I was exposed to Bechdel's criteria, I realized just how nonsensical it really is when writers miss the mark—to the point where I now find I can’t watch a movie or read a book without keeping a silent checklist in the back of my mind.  I’ve seen a lot of agents reaching for more diversity in the works they're considering, but you’re the first agent I’ve seen that is only accepting submissions that pass Bechdel. Has this approach had an effect on the volume/quality of submissions you now receive? 

To be honest, the Bechdel test became part of my submissions criteria very early on, so I don’t really have a lot of data about the kind of submissions I was receiving before then. I like to read books with a variety of female characters in them, so when I first started receiving queries it was surprising to me to see so many that featured only one named female character (sometimes none at all). I decided pretty quickly that I wasn’t interested in representing that kind of book, and introducing the test seemed like the most efficient way of filtering them out.

I got quite a bit of pushback from authors at first (‘my book is set in [gender-segregated male-only situation], are you saying I shouldn’t be allowed to write a book in that setting?’ ‘My book passes the Mako Mori test and I think I should get points for that’ etc), but people seem to have gotten used to it now. And, for the record, yes of course authors can write books set in monasteries, or boys’ boarding schools, or any male-only environment they choose. I might even read and enjoy a book like that. I’m just not interested in representing any. I only have a certain amount of room on my list and I want to represent books about women.

At least 2 women who talk to each other about something OTHER than a man

ALR: My initial gut feel was that Sci-Fi and Fantasy would likely be some of the worst genres in terms of their average Bechdel results, whereas Romance might fair better by default.  But, on second thought, that requirement of (1) two or more women (2) talking to each other (3) about something other than a man would likely lead to the demise of a good chunk of YA and Romance novels out there. Is there a genre/subgenre or age category of books that has surprised you in terms of either being particularly good (or bad) when held up to the Bechdel test? 

I don’t think I have a good answer to this one, because I tend to mostly read SFF and litfic of various kinds, and I never struggle to find books with female characters in either of those genres. I do find it interesting how often authors will have major female characters but forget to include any minor ones – when you look closely you notice that the guards and the shopkeepers and all the anonymous background characters the protagonists interact with are male. It’s the kind of thing you never notice until you find an author who doesn’t do that – and then you notice it every time.

ALR: With Twitter events like #DVPit and a greater number of agents expressing interest in receiving submissions from marginalized voices, awareness around the need for diversity in literature seems to be on the upswing.  You’ve indicated on your blog that you’re currently only accepting submissions from marginalized and underrepresented groups.  What spurred you to make this choice and has this approach helped you to find some new voices that might have otherwise been lost in the slush pile?

Lydia Moed's MSWL

Sarah Hannah Gómez challenged literary agents who cared about diversity to try it and see what happened (here's the Storify link). I tried it for three months in the summer of 2016 and found that I got high-quality queries from people who had taken the time to read about me and send me work they thought would be a good fit, I had more time to reach out to unagented authors I admire, and I felt like I was making some positive steps towards helping the publishing world become a better place. I wrote a bit more about my experience here. One of the things I learned was that three months is definitely not long enough to make a difference with a submissions policy like that, so I decided to go back to that submissions policy for the foreseeable future.

Honestly, so far the main impact I’ve had is to help people believe that their voices are important. A couple of authors have told me that my reaching out to them gave them the courage to finally start querying agents with their amazing work, which then got multiple offers of representation including mine (because of course it did, it’s amazing) and in the end they chose to sign with a more established agent than me. But I think that’s a risk you take when you’re a newish agent doing this kind of work, and I still think it’s worth it because it means their voices are getting out there, and I know you’re going to love them when their books come out.

ALR: If you were an up and coming author in today’s market, what type of book would you be most likely to write and how would you choose to publish it (traditional publishing vs self-publishing)?  Conversely, what would you avoid like the plague and why?

I should start this by saying that, while I know a lot of people in the publishing industry are also writers, I am not one of them – this is all completely theoretical for me. But I think if I were a writer, I’d be drawn to traditional publishing for the same reason a lot of people are: I would want to see my books in bookshops. For me there’s nothing quite like seeing a book I’ve worked on sitting on a bookshop shelf, and that feeling must be multiplied a hundredfold if it’s a book you’ve actually written.

If I weren’t going down the traditional publishing route, I’d probably choose to post my writing on Wattpad or a similar writing platform – something low-pressure where the emphasis is on community and on getting to know other authors, rather than on selling your work. I love selling other people’s work (talking about my brilliant friends all day to brilliant people in the publishing industry? Yes please), but the idea of selling my own makes me cringe.

Oh, and what would I write? Fantasy, probably. Something with airships. Or something set decades after the apocalypse, when the disaster is long over and people are starting to build a new society. I think we need more stories about rebuilding, now.

I think we need more stories about rebuilding, now.

ALR: At what point do you generally know that you’re interested in representing a manuscript? Does it hit you in an “aha” moment where you suddenly know it's a good fit for you?  Is it all about your emotional response to the writing or do you find that you’re more clinical in your assessment as you go through a given submission?

I usually think I know within a few pages, and then it’s a frantic rush to read the full MS to make sure it’s really that good all the way through! For me, it’s a very particular feeling when I know that I’ve found something I really want to represent – like being lit up inside, like light running through your veins. By the time I reach the end of the MS I’ll be approaching it in more of a grounded way – I’ve probably made some notes on plot or characterisation to discuss with the author, I’ve come up with a few good comp titles and maybe I even have the names of a few editors I want to submit to. But initially for me it’s all about that emotional response. I figure if a writer can evoke that kind of response in me, they can evoke it in an editor as well.

Initially for me it's all about that emotional responseALR: Assuming you like what you read in a submission, do you head over to Google to assess whether or not the author has an existing web presence or social media platform? How critical is this in your decision to represent someone and what do you look for (if anything)?

It’s not critical to my decision to represent someone, but nonetheless it’s something I always check for. It’s usually something I do when I get a query I can’t stop thinking about – while I wait for the author to get back to me with a partial or full MS, I’ll look up their author website or Twitter profile. I like to see that an author’s active on the internet in some form or another, because it means that they have the foundations of an online platform that they can build on in future – but honestly the main reason I do it is to learn a bit about what kind of person they are. I look to represent a client for their entire writing career, not just for one or two books, so actually getting on with each client as a person is really important.

ALR: Before the age of the internet, agents in New York City were perceived to have a major advantage over those in other locations.  The expectation was that agents in the Big Apple could schmooze with editors from the big publishing houses and push your book over coffee.  Does reality bear any resemblance to this idea or has the digital era essentially leveled the playing field?  How critical is "face to face" time in 2017 and what does a typical day in the life of an agent actually look like?

The digital era has done a lot to level the playing field. Wherever you are in the world, you’re likely to be doing most of your business by email and phone now – especially as nobody’s ever based in the same city as all the editors they want to meet (people over here think New York publishing is the be-all and end-all, but a third of my clients are British and the London publishing scene is far more important to them). However, face-to-face time is still an important part of the publishing business, and I think it always will be. My agency makes regular visits to New York to meet up with editors, we have one New York-based agent (Natalie Kimber) on our team, and of course we also meet with editors from around the world at international book fairs.

I think the only time when not being based in New York or London has harmed me is actually to do with a potential client rather than an editor – a London-based author (one I mentioned in Question 3, actually) opted for a London-based agent over me because she wanted an agent she could meet up with in person on a regular basis. Then again, I have clients based in Toronto who chose me over other agents for exactly the same reason, and I have clients based in other places who never expected to be able to meet their agent in person because there aren’t any agents where they live, so I suppose it all balances out.

Face-to-face time is still an important part of the publishing business.

ALR: Either based on rough-guess or actual stats, how many queries do you receive throughout the course of a year?  What percentage result in a partial or full request from you vs an offer of representation?

Argh, I don’t know! It feels like thousands, but that might just be because I’m always behind with replying to them. I do know that over the past couple of years I’ve become a lot more selective about the partial and full manuscripts I request. When I had more time and fewer clients I used to be very free with my MS requests, but as I’ve signed more clients I’ve also come to recognise that certain ‘YES, I must read this’ feeling that I got when I first received their queries. I’ve learned that if I find myself thinking ‘hmm, maybe’ when reading a query, that’s inevitably going to turn into a ‘not for me’ when I read the partial, so these days I only request things that make me think ‘YES’. And even after all that, I might still only sign one or two clients in a year.

ALR: New writers can spend so much time and effort trying to connect with the right agent that when that joyous day actually arrives, it can be hard to stay grounded and remember that there’s still a long road ahead.  How hard is it to find a home for the books you choose to represent?  How long does that process generally take?  What percentage of represented books never find a traditional publishing home and what generally happens in that scenario?

Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy by Gareth Wronski

This is a great point – it can be really, really hard to find the right home for a book and I know that can be very discouraging for authors (and sometimes for agents!). Every time I do a submission I do it in full confidence that the manuscript is amazing and it will sell in no time at all. Sometimes I’m right about that, and sometimes I’m not – some books just take a really long time to find the right editor, and of course it’s also possible to have an editor who loves the book but can’t get the rest of their team on board.

I’m not sure I believe in ‘never’ in this scenario, though – at least not yet. Publishing is always changing, both in terms of the latest trends and in terms of the people involved in it, and as long as the author and I still love their book I’m never going to give up on it. A manuscript with subject matter that’s too edgy this year might be a hot trend next year, or the year after next. An editor might not be able to see the market for a book, but when she moves on to another company her successor might know exactly how to pitch it. An editorial assistant might reject a manuscript on his editor’s behalf, but reach out to enquire about it again when he’s promoted to editor himself. Last year my boss Sam Hiyate sold a manuscript that he first pitched seven years ago – the market just wasn’t ready for that particular book, until one day it was.

When I put a manuscript out on submission, I always advise authors to start work on their next book, if they haven’t already. However long the submission process turns out to be, it’s good to have a distraction – and it’s not unheard of to sell an author’s second book before their first book.

A Manuscript with subject matter that's too edgy this year might be a hot trend next year.

ALR: Do you have any particular "agenting" goals set for yourself this year? 

I have a few, but I’m not sure if any of them will be particularly interesting to people who aren’t me. Get on top of my slush pile again, organise a book launch, sell foreign rights to some titles and domestic rights (and subsequently foreign rights, hopefully!) to others, help to get a particular MS in good enough shape to send out to editors, find and sign some more brilliant authors, etc etc. One thing I’d very much like to do is to go to more literary events in my area. I’m particularly looking forward to The Fold in May.

ALR: Thanks so much for your input, Lydia!

For anyone interested in learning more about Lydia or her clients, please check out the links below:

https://lydiamoed.wordpress.com/
http://therightsfactory.com/agents/lydia-moed/
https://twitter.com/LydiaMoed
http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/mswl-post/lydia-moed/

Lydia Moëd, Literary Agent from The Rights Factory, Toronto, Canada

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