An Interview With Literary Agent Noah Ballard
Noah Ballard is an agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd. Noah focuses on literary fiction, short story collections and narrative non-fiction, including memoir, journalism and pop culture.
Writer Lucas McMillan called him up to discuss querying, self-promotion in the 21st century, and how writers can avoid common pitfalls in their first few pages.
How many queries do you receive per week?
Somewhere between 50-300.
What are some of the most common mistakes you see in a writer’s opening pages?
A lot of writers clear their throats for a couple paragraphs, sometimes a couple pages. They’ll start with, ‘here’s my character, and I’m going to tell you a story.’ But you don’t need to do that. I know this is a book, and that you’re telling me a story through the voice of a character.
Also, I’m personally averse to books in which the first thing we have is a character waking up, or in the middle of an action, or books that start with a line of dialogue. It’s like starting a movie with a black screen and you hear voices but you can’t orient yourself because you don’t know what’s going on.
An author’s voice is critical to hook readers at the beginning of a manuscript — what do some of the voices have in common that have hooked you?
What stands out is that they don’t have that much in common with what I’ve read before. I’m looking at thousands of manuscripts a year, so if you can stand out in those first couple pages, paragraphs, sentences, even, doing something confidently, that’s going to get my attention. It’s all about confidence.
What do writers get wrong most often when they query?
The two things you’re trying to accomplish with the query letter are showing me that you’re a savvy professional who knows how to talk about your work, and that you’re also not at the other end of the spectrum. I see a lot of people using the voice that they should save in their fiction and putting it into the query letter, or on the other side of it people saying this book will be as best-selling as the Bible, or the next The Sun Also Rises, or some book that would not be a useful comparison for me to give to an editor.
What I’m looking for is very brief introduction. Why did you reach out to me? Who are you? What are you trying to sell? Be a professional, and get me to read the pages. Ultimately, I’m not signing a client based on their query letter. The work is going to speak for itself.
You’ve mentioned in past interviews that writers should know their work is part of a conversation — what do you mean by that?
A certain amount of writing is done in solitude, and away from the world. But when it comes to making the decision to want to become a published author, you have to realize that your book will have to sit somewhere on the shelf and it’s going to be sitting next to other books that people will have read.
I want to know, what other writers are your reading? Who are you inspired by? Who are you talking to when you write this sentence? What are you trying to do formally on the page? It must’ve come from somewhere. You don’t just learn how to be a writer by existing in a vacuum. Part of what my job when I’m talking to editors is to contextualize the work.
What advice would you give a writer pitching you face-to-face at a conference?
Be conversational, be approachable, take notes. Don’t rehearse a pitch or a monologue about your book. Just sit down and have a conversation with me. Ultimately, our relationship is not going to be rehearsed, so we might as well just pretend we’re on a first date or something. This is not an audition. I don’t care how polished a person is when they’re talking about their work. They’re not going to be talking about their work, I’m going to be the one talking about their work.
People get very nervous, and think of me as some sort of omnipotent gatekeeper, when really I’m just a human being trying to make a living selling books to book publishers. I’m just trying to assess, are you defensive and rigid, or are you eager to be a collaborator with me to make this difficult proposition work?
How do you prefer to work with clients in the editing process?
If it’s fiction, I tend to be pretty hands-on. I’ll typically read the thing, then give a set of macro suggestions in the form of a letter or long phone conversation, or both. Then the writer goes off into the world and comes back to me some weeks or months later with a new draft. Then I’ll print it out, use a pen to mark it up depending on how much work I think it needs. It depends. I’ve had authors that I’ve worked with for years before we’ve submitted the book, and I’ve had authors that really just needed one kick in the butt and then they were ready to submit. For nonfiction, it’s a shorter process. What we’re putting together is not a manuscript but a business proposal.
In your opinion, what separates writers who “make it” from those who don’t?
When you want to get your book published in the 21st century, you have to be shameless about it. Part of the promotion of a book comes down to you reaching out to everyone you’ve ever met and ever talked to and ever worked with and saying, ‘Hey, buy my book.’ Because what you’re doing with every little connection you make is you’re buying a little lottery ticket that this person will tell another ten people to read your book. And then this starts a groundswell of people coming to this book. That’s the challenge of book publishing. It’s a word of mouth industry. You can put a review in The New York Times, or a feature in The New Yorker, or have you on Good Morning America, but ultimately that’s just an opportunity to tell someone to buy this book. What sells them the book is that person going to their book club or dinner with their friends or on Facebook or Goodreads or Twitter and saying, ‘Oh my God, I love this book. You have to read it.’ A lot of authors think there’s some mystery publicity machine that they turn on when your book comes out, but there isn’t. The mystery machine is you.
What are a few things you wish you saw more of in the manuscripts you receive?
A lot of what I see is people trying to replicate the success of something that they admired, instead of being in conversation with something, like we touched on earlier. They’re just trying to emulate. That’s antithetical to what book publishing is. It’s good to show that you’re similar to something, but if you’re the same, people see right through that. They want things to be fresh. 50 percent of the books I see involve hardened, alcoholic cops on the verge of retirement who have to deal with whatever the hip terrorist group is that month, who, ten years ago, killed his wife/daughter/mother. Now he has to stop them from blowing up New York City. You’d be amazed how many people are working on that book.
The premise can be exciting like that, and the premise can be in a trope-y, crime, procedural space, but give me a protagonist that’s somebody different. Give me a younger person, or a person of color, or a queer character. That’s what’s great about the book Motherless Brooklyn [by Jonathan Lethem]. You have a character with Tourette’s Syndrome trying to figure out a crime. It’s still the same proposition, but it takes a new angle on it. A lot of queries I get I want to write back in all caps: please come at this from a fresh perspective.
What’s the best thing you’ve read recently and why’d you like it?
Bad Blood. It’s a fabulous look at how you can do nonfiction like a novel. it’s a ridiculous feat of journalism, and the amount of time he must have put into it is insane. He’s not just summarizing what happened. He’s breaking down scenes of these characters in rooms having conversations with each other. I think that’s why it’s such a huge bestseller, and spawning all these other incidental works. It’s such a compelling story. There’s a way to do journalism, and there’s a way to do something bigger than that. It’s narrative nonfiction that creates dynamic characters going through extraordinary circumstances. It’s a masterclass.
I also recently read Kristen Roupenian’s collection of short stories, You Know You Want This. Short story collections are difficult, but I thought she was pretty inventive formally. I’m not sure anybody would’ve talked about it had it not been affiliated with one of the biggest New Yorker pieces ever. But, at the same time, it’s nice that people are talking about a short story collection as weird and violent and unapologetically feminist as this.
Noah Ballard will appear at the following conferences in 2019:
- Midwest Writers Conference, Indianapolis, IN, 5/10-5/12
- Writefest Houston, Houston, TX, 5/31-6/2
- Lighthouse Literary, Denver, CO, 6/8-6/12
- Slice, Brooklyn, NY, 9/7-9/8
- PNWA, Seattle, WA, 9/12-9/15
EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER
Lucas McMillan is a fiction writer living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His work has appeared in The Oklahoma Review, the Glasgow Review of Books and more.