Dawn Davis is the editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit, where she is the 3rd person of color to head one of Conde Nast’s American publications. Prior to that, she was the Vice President at Simon & Schuster, where she was the founder and publisher of 37 Ink, an imprint for historically marginalized voices. Her career in book publication also includes many years at both HarperCollins and Random House. Jen Marshall is a senior literary agent at Aevitas Creative Management. Before transitioning to the role of agent, she was Publicist-at-Large for 21 years at Random House. Together Davis and Marshall share valuable information on how to get from idea in your head to a published work.
What are some of the routes to getting a book idea noticed?
Dawn Davis: There are so many paths to getting a book published. It could be having an exciting Instagram feed, an interesting podcast, a following. One that stems from a body of knowledge you want to share, that you’ve been encouraged to share, or you have a life story that others have said you should think about publishing in a book.
The bottom line is that you need a finished novel that hopefully is workshopped with others, whether that’s a writing partner or a writing group, before you send it out to an agent. But even before you send your fiction out to an agent, make sure it’s as polished as it can be. They get hundreds of submissions every month. They read to eliminate, so it has to catch their eye for them to keep going. I would encourage you to have it as polished as possible before sending it out in the world.
What's the true role of an agent in the process?
Jen Marshall: I’m an industry veteran with over two decades of experience at major publishers. Before I became an agent, I was a book publicist. So one of the things that I bring to my role as an agent is a deep understanding of how to help authors find their audience. Every agent has a unique skill set. Everyone’s got their own thing that they’re great at. When you’re looking for an agent, I encourage you to think about what each person brings to the table.
What we really want to talk about is how do you get a book published? How does an idea become a book? What’s the agent’s role? What’s the role of the editor? Who should you be talking to first? An agent’s role is enormous. There’s a lot to do. But the thing that’s most important for aspiring authors to know is that an agent is your coach, your cheerleader, the person that works with you to get your idea, your manuscript, your proposal into the best possible shape before we present it to a curated list of editors. We sell it, and then after that, your agent is your advisor and cheerleader along the way.
How does one go about finding an agent?
Jen Marshall: I would say it’s great to know that agents are reading major publications every day. That’s how I start every morning - even before I have my coffee. I open up the Times. I’m looking for something that’s going to make me think this should be a book. The bigger the media, the better. The other way that we find our books is when an author comes to the agent with a pitch.
Is your idea good? That may not be something you can answer for yourself. Everyone loves their own ideas. It’s a great idea to talk to knowledgeable friends, as ideas are subjective. - Jen Marshall
Dawn Davis: The pitch doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to catch an agent’s interest. And part of what an agent does is help you refine the pitch that will ultimately go to editors across town. So you don’t have to have every T closed and every I dotted, but you do have to have a really interesting idea. And your pitches have to explain why you’re perfect for this particular message.
What would compel an agent to take you on?
Jen Marshall: I think these five things are really important when you are sitting with your book idea and thinking about reaching out to an agent. And these are points that I think most relate to nonfiction.
Your idea. Is your idea good? That may not be something you can answer for yourself. Everyone loves their own ideas. It’s a great idea to talk to knowledgeable friends as ideas are subjective.
Expertise on a topic. Are you the person to write this book? Are you passionate about the subject and have the facts to back it up?
Writing ability. Are you able to execute quality writing with a top-notch structure to clearly explain your idea? It’s like your elevator pitch.
Platform. Are you able to prove to editors that people want to hear what you have to say? If you have a large platform, the proposal can be on the shorter side and truly beautiful writing is less of a concern. If you have a small platform, your idea and your execution have to be fantastic.
Fit. Does this project fit with the agent’s list? I primarily represent smart, badass women. I have a ton of journalists. It’s rare that I do a book with a religious read to it. I don’t do sports books but I get those pitches every day and I had to delete them because those people have not taken the time to look at what I do. And you can find that information pretty easily. For example, on publishers’ marketplace where you can search agents by topic.
Once you're signed to an agent, what happens next?
Dawn Davis: Once you've picked your agent because you’ve done your research and they represent the kind of book you want to write, you can send preliminaries to someone like Jen. It should have an overview of what it is you’re trying to say. It should have a bio, who are you to say it, what gives you the expertise to say it, and it should have kind of a chapter by chapter outline of how you intend to break down what it is you’re going to say. Don’t bury the lead.
This industry can be incredibly over-romanticized. It’s glamorous to have a book, but it’s a lot of hard work. And I think you have to evaluate for yourself if the time will be worth the return. If you feel compelled, you should seek out the agents who will help you. Agents often shift your idea. They are going to change the angle and help you refine your idea. That is worth pursuing if you have this burning passion to do it. But it will not be easy.
Agents also negotiate on your behalf to help get you the best deal. And sometimes often, that’s the most money, but it also can be the best fit. And so the proposal helps on both of those. The better the proposal, the more money you get.
This industry can be incredibly over-romanticized. It’s glamorous to have a book, but it’s a lot of hard work. And I think you have to evaluate for yourself if the time will be worth the return. - Dawn Davis
Jen Marshall: I often say to my clients, ‘if we’ve gone through so many revisions that you’re starting to hate me, that’s great.’ You want an agent that wants to work collaboratively with you and remind you that it’s your job to write a great book- that’s first and foremost. But it’s also your job to collaborate with your publisher because no one is more invested in your career trajectory than you are. It’s so important for authors today to realize that they’ve got to lean into their own network.
Lean into that for your book publication. Require that people sell your book at an event or you’re not coming. And that’s just kind of what has to happen now. Your platform is what sells books. The good news about that is that platform will always belong to you.
What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
Jen Marshall: That’s an ever-evolving topic. I have never worked in self-publishing. One of the things that I would say about it is your genre can help you answer that question. Many romance writers have found over the last five to 10 years, they’ve been making more money self-publishing than with the big publishers. And so, if you are going to be writing romance, self-publishing is something to think about. But you also need to remember that you’re going to be your everything. Publishing is a job. It’s a full-time job.
Dawn Davis: Publishing houses are good at distributing the book. If we think the book will be successful, we can get it into more accounts like Target and Costco.
For example, the book “10 day green smoothie cleanse” sold a lot on its own, but we were able to get her into all of the big box stores. She could get into Barnes and Noble and Amazon on her own, but we could get it distributed to more places to have an international sales effect. So there are some advantages and disadvantages. To Jen's point, you will do all the work, the copy editing, the designing, the distribution, and the selling. And it’s really, really hard.
Typically, in my business, we take 10 to 15% of the hardcover price. I might give you $100,000 towards a stream of income. And every book we sell, we chip away 10 to 15% of that. So yes you can make more money with self-publishing. Some people think of it as less prestigious but it really depends on what your goal is.
Where should people go to research who the right publishers and agents are?
Jen Marshall: Publishers marketplace is an enormous resource for everyone in the publishing industry. I use it every day. It’s a resource for people on our side, but it’s also a resource for writers because agents list all their deals there. So that’s where you can go and see who’s selling what. We list our deals, and we list the editors that buy them. But as aspiring writers, you don’t need to research your editors. Your agent knows all that stuff and will walk you through it.
Dawn Davis: I would also say every book has an acknowledgments page. And on the acknowledgments page, they often say, I’d like to thank my agent for this book. If it’s the kind of book that you’re writing, I would look up that agent. That’s a great place. Other times writers recommend agents. I often hear from agents that a new client came via an existing client.
Do you feel that because publishers only accept agented submissions, it might be creating a barrier that excludes certain writers?
Dawn Davis: I do think there should be more agents of color out there. I believe that is an issue. I don’t know that it is physically possible for the editors themselves to do an agent’s job. When I was at Simon & Schuster, I did the line editing and the third draft, which took a lot of work. And then the internal cheerleading that I had to do, and then the production work, I don’t know that it’s possible. It’s two separate full-time jobs.
What I would say is that the agenting community needs to be more open to submissions from all kinds of writers and, speaking for myself, I absolutely read every single thing that came into my submission inbox. I couldn’t respond to them all because it was an avalanche of stuff, which was awesome. I did read it all though because I sought to publish a diverse list.
Have you found that the push to accept amplified published voices of color is tied to trends?
Dawn Davis: I was in publishing for more than 20 years and I’ve always tried to prioritize publishing people of color. My job was to publish the best quality and the most interesting work.
My goal was to get voices amplified. If it was fantastic, interesting and thought-provoking, I was coming to you. There are different ways to pay your dues, get yourself known and get your ideas out there.