Monday, April 12, 2010

Agent Interview: Josh Getzler of Russell & Volkening

I thought my readers might like to learn a little bit more about my agent, Josh Getzler. He was kind enough to accept the invitation, and he didn't laugh too hard when I sent him a list of questions a mile long.

split this interview into three parts: 1) Getting to Know Josh Getzler; 2) Nuts and Bolts (query information); and 3) Mr. Getzler's Quick Picks, just for fun.

As a quick intro, Josh Getzler worked on the editorial side of the book world until 1993, when he left Harcourt to earn an MBA. Then he spent eleven years owning and operating a minor league baseball team. He rejoined the book world in 2006, this time on the agent side. He worked at Writers House until November 2009 and is now with Russell & Volkening. He can be reached at


You recently moved to Russell & Volkening, Inc., where you work as both an agent and as the Director of TV/Film Rights. Tell us a bit about the agency and your work there.

Russell & Volkening is one of the oldest independent literary agencies in America. It was established in 1940 by Diarmuid Russell and Henry Volkening, and bought by Tim Seldes 38 years ago. In addition to Tim, who is still active in running the company, and me, there are two other agents: Carrie Hannigan, who represents mainly children’s book authors; and Jesseca Salky, who does our foreign and subsidiary rights and represents some adult authors. Joy Amitizia, who assists Tim, also takes on a variety of authors.

I’m responsible both for growing the frontlist stable of authors and for working on film, television, and electronic rights for the full list. I’m responsible for a lot of frontlist because many of the authors—Bernard Malamud, Eudora Welty, George Plimpton…are dead and we represent their estates—while others, like Nadine Gordimer and Annie Dillard, write less frequently. Anne Tyler and Ntozake Shange are very strong current authors, and we are in the process of incorporating my list of authors into the firm.

I represent a wide variety of authors. I have literary novelists like Joshua Gaylord (HUMMINGBIRDS), mystery writers like Gerald Elias (DEVIL’S TRILL), Young adult writers like Tania Roxborogh (BANQUO’S SON), and middle grade authors like…you [Elissa Cruz]! I also work with nonfiction authors—I’m really across the board with the exception of romance, Christian, and hardcore science fiction.

What are some misconceptions about your job that you wish writers, particularly those who query you, knew?

I think most writers currently querying have a sense that most agents are overworked, so I don’t think that’s really a misconception. But it could be useful to know how busy we really are. First of all, I currently have 28 clients. They come first. If I get a draft of a new novel from one of my clients, or a contract comes in, or I am submitting a project to editors, that gets priority over reading queries. Once or twice a week I bring home a stack of queries and read it early in the morning (typically 5-7 am, while my kids and wife are asleep and the house is quiet). It’s not possible for me to read them as they come in, since that by itself would be a full-time job! Then what we do is for the queries that seem interesting (1 in around 8 or 9) I ask for 50 pages. Then every so often (1 in around 20) I ask for a full manuscript. The 50’s and manuscripts are the real bottlenecks. I can go several months before I read even a partial—and that’s something I really WANT to read!!!! So I guess the biggest misconception potential clients have is that no news is bad news. In fact, no news is exactly that…no news. It’s just as possible that I will ask for a full, and then offer representation, after 4 months. I would LOVE to be more efficient, and work like crazy to get better, but the fact is that in order to grow my list I need to evaluate an awful lot of queries, and it simply takes forever. Oh, but by the way—you should NOT send an agent a manuscript exclusively for longer than a couple of months. You can tell them you’re going to do so, but I don’t expect you to wait for me to get to your ms before you try to get representation elsewhere. My overextension/inefficiency is not your fault!

You spent a few years as the owner of the Staten Island Yankees, a minor league baseball team. How was that world different from the publishing world you work in now?

Oh my god, it’s totally different, with the exception that in both cases I was working to sell a product—a baseball game or a book—that I hoped would be popular to the masses. But there I was working both direct-to-consumer (selling tickets to the public) and business-to-business (selling advertising to sponsors). I controlled what the event was, but not the quality of the product on the field (I could make sure that fans had a good time, with attractive merchandise and good food, but I couldn’t guarantee a win!). Here, I am working directly with authors (which I love, as you know), trying to make their books the best—and most salable—that they can be. Then I go to the editors and try to make a match. One of the big differences is that in publishing more than baseball, connections and time are really what makes me valuable. I have to match authors with the RIGHT editors, and that takes lots of conversations.

I realize that went far afield from the real question, but hopefully it was at least interesting. :)

Does your previous work with the minor leagues mean you have a soft spot for baseball stories?

Actually I’m MUCH pickier, because I have 13 years of background and really know how the people—players, managers, fans, owners-think. You can slip inaccuracies about police procedure or zombies by me, but not much in baseball. The best pure baseball novel EVER was Bull Durham, because Ron Shelton got it completely right.

You've mentioned that you (and probably only ten other people) love cozy mysteries. Are you seeing an upward trend in this type of mystery? If not, what are the current industry trends for mysteries, both for the adult and children/YA market?

Ah, you may have misunderstood. There are millions of readers of cozy mysteries—it’s a huge and ever-popular market. There are very few editors who concentrate on them, however, and there are so many little mysteries floating about that it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s good and what isn’t. It’s actually why the online world is pretty great for mysteries (as well as other genres like it—romance, science fiction, fantasy, etc). My frustration is that there are a limited number of houses—St. Martin’s, some imprints at Penguin and HC, Kensington, some smaller places (though that’s NOT exhaustive), where they really, you know, LOVE those kinds of books. As a result, I sometimes get backlogged with clients’ manuscripts, because I don’t want to send an editor two manuscripts simultaneously.

In terms of trends, I’ve seen the two extremes become popular—very soft-boiled (knitting, cupcakes, kittens) and also very extreme (Palahniuk, my own client Angela S. Choi’s Hello Kitty Must Die). The Key West comedic mystery is a little less popular. Editor after editor tells me they’re looking for strong female cops/lawyers/doctors like Patricia Cornwell or Linda Fairstein’s heroines.

What other types of books, mysteries or otherwise, do you love?

I’m very partial to historical novels—I’m finishing Wolf Hall right now, and next on my list is Robert Harris’s latest Ancient Rome thriller. But my favorite author is Faulkner, and I’ve been reading lots of really creepy gothic novels, sometimes with zombies, sometimes not…

Is there a bestselling/award winning author you wished you represented? What do you like about his/her book(s)?

JK Rowling. :) OK, OK, not to go too far astray, I would love to have “found” Donna Leon, whose Venice mysteries I adore, or Umberto Eco, who I find to be both brilliant and at times hilarious. I’m a huge fan of TC Boyle. I briefly had a chance to work with Steve Berry when I was at Writers House, when my boss started to work with him, and he’s a gentleman and a terrific writer, and very generous. But the author I would have loved to work with was Ellen Raskin, who wrote The Westing Game and (and in my mind even better) The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues. Her books helped make me a reader and a mystery lover when I was a kid, and I think her books influence my current taste—knowing, smart mysteries—more than any others. The other author I would have loved to work with was E.B. White.

Social networking is getting a lot of attention as the best way for writers to market themselves. Do you encourage your clients to network this way, and if so, how much time should they invest?

Absolutely. The world has changed and the expectation by publishers is that their authors will come with built-in platforms (a word I never even heard in Business School in the early 90’s!). It’s a way to get word out about the kind of books you write to the specific people you think would be most interested in it. My main advice about it, however, is this: if you are going to blog or have an active Facebook page, then you need to commit to it. You don’t necessarily need a huge essay every day, but if you want your site/blog/Facebook page to get traffic, you need to keep it refreshed. Four of my favorites (not my authors’) are the following:

1) Pub Rants by the agent Kristen Nelson—she gives great information and does so regularly

2) Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind by Sarah Weinman

3) by Charlie Huston

4) The Elegant Variation by Mark Sarvas

Obviously there are many, many more, but these are among the best.

Lately there is a lot of talk about e-books and their impact on the publishing industry. What is your opinion on this subject? Where do you see the industry heading in the next few years?

Do you have several days? I think we are in an unbelievably exciting watershed moment in the world of publishing, and the landscape of the industry is about to change dramatically. The short answer is that in my opinion electronic publishing has the potential to be the most radical fundamental change in the publishing world since the printing press allowed us to mass-produce pamphlets. Whether it’s on Kindle, iPad, cell phone (as they do in Japan) or another, not-yet-developed device, more and more people are going to be reading on electronic devices in the coming year. More still as children, who have grown up with computers, begin to grow up with these devices as normal (as my kids, who received first generation Kindles when my wife and I upgraded, can attest). As with the social media comments above, electronic publishing ought to allow books to find their market. Of course, this is not perfect—browsing the pages in Amazon—no matter how good the algorithms—won’t replicate the thrill of trolling the aisles in a bookstore. And children’s books (particularly picture books) ought to take a long time to catch up electronically, since it’s pretty cold to read Guess How Much I Love You on an iPad to a one year old. And the payout for electronic editions to authors hasn’t hit equilibrium (that’s another whole entry!). But it’ll be hard to imagine a world without electronic books in a much shorter time than we could have imagined. And that—HONESTLY!—isn’t a bad thing.


What are you currently looking for?

1) The female cop/lawyer/doctor a la Patricia Cornwell or Linda Fairstein, both American and set abroad.

2) Historical mysteries and thrillers, both adult and YA

3) Well-written women’s fiction, preferably with some suspense

4) Asian literary fiction.

What is your current turn-around time?

Longer than I’d like (see above). For first response, I’m trying to be within 2 weeks (frequently shorter); for 50’s and manuscripts, I’m often at 2 months or more. I really wish it were less, but it isn’t.

You say you don’t take on any picture book authors. Should a writer who writes both MG/YA and PBs not query you? What happens if one of your MG/YA clients decides to write a PB?

They should definitely query me. I would refer picture books to Carrie, but if I represent you, then you get the whole firm behind you—I might sell the MG novel, Carrie could sell the PB, and Jesseca could sell audio and foreign rights.

Do you mainly work with writers who don't need much editorial input, or do you like to dive in and get your hands dirty?

I think you know the answer to this! While I will gladly take a clean novel in a heartbeat, I typically am a VERY hands-on editor before submitting. I’ve worked on projects for YEARS before submitting them, and I’ve sent a couple out with very few tweaks.

How do you like to communicate with your clients?

I typically communicate more than 75% of the time via email—I am a Blackberry junkie so I try to respond to clients quickly. But I will always set up phone calls at the client’s pleasure. What I—and most agents—try to avoid is unscheduled calls. My day is always packed, so if I want to talk to a client—or vice-versa—I typically set it up via email first, to ensure that I will have the time set aside that the client deserves, rather than having to cut off an unanticipated phone call before it’s run its course.

Anything else you'd like those that query you to know?

The single most important word in publishing is not talent or luck, but patience. Most of the time it takes FOREVER to write a book, then twice-forever to get a representative, and then it’s just the start! As you know, Elissa, editors can take their time to evaluate even a short manuscript. If you look at my comments about workload and magnify them, you get the load of an editor (and he or she is only getting full manuscripts, and all have been picked over by agents!). But while the system is slow and inefficient and, most of the time, unfair, it’s the one we’ve got, and we have to work within it.


Outfield or infield?


Kermit or Fozzie?


Movie Premiere or DVD New Release?


iPad or Kindle?

I’ll get back to you!


  1. I love that interview. That's fascinating to hear an agent's perspective. I've been around books for a while, so I love to learn something new.

  2. Great interview, Elissa! Thank Josh for us! :)

  3. Great interview!!! Thanks for asking helpful questions, Elissa. Thanks for giving generous answers, Josh.

    I hope to hear more good news for both of you soon. :)


    Molly B.

  4. What a great interview. Thanks Elissa for asking such insightful questions and to Josh for really taking the time to give meaningful answers. I love hearing about your experience as a baseball team owner. And I selfishly think it's great you're interested in Asian literature because I love reading it.

  5. Interesting interview. Thanks for sharing. It's fun to find out more about your agent.

  6. Kaylie--Thank you! I'm glad you found it interesting. (I did, too!)

    Larissa--I will pass your thanks on. I'm glad you enjoyed the interview.

    Molly--Hi! It's been awhile, so I'm glad to hear from you. And you are welcome! I hope someone finds the information useful.

    Christina--I secretly wanted to know more about his years as a baseball team owner than I did about his agenting, but I thought the rest of you might not agree. Hmm...maybe I'll have to ask for another baseball-related interview one of these days. I'm glad you like the interview!

    Alice--Thanks. I'm waiting for your turn (so get those queries out there already)!

    THANK YOU, everyone, for commenting!

  7. Excellent interview, Elissa. Thank you to both of you. And congratulations on your success too, Elissa. :P