Authorlink! talked with Ms. Bernstein at the recent Houston Writers Conference, sponsored by the Houston Writers League and Houston Council of Writers. The Meredith Bernstein Literary Agency, Inc. is now sixteen years old. Bernstein worked for five years previous to opening her own agency for Henry Morrison, Inc.
Talking With New York Agent Meredith Bernstein
By Susan Malone
Writers need agents for many reasons, Meredith Bernstein begins, and foremost among them is that the "agent hand-picks the right person to read your work."
And though good agents now come from all across the country, many advantages exist to having one from NY. An agent's face-to-face contact with editors is very important. Establishing long-term relationships with them allows an agent to know what these editors have bought lately; what they're looking for; and what they wanted recently but didn't get, Bernstein says.
But agents do much more. They offer editorial expertise–as to both the quality and the marketability of the manuscript.
Professional presentation of the material–how the agent makes the writer appear in the eyes of the editor–is vital. So is negotiating the deal, and negotiating the contract, i.e., protecting the author's rights.
The pre-publication follow-up covers the size of the initial printing, cover art, galleys, and the serial and foreign rights. After publication, the agent then monitors royalties, and the positioning of the author's work for future deals.
With the volumes of submissions these days, the market grows ever tighter. And though a fair amount of sub-par work has been published, Bernstein sees this changing. "This is basically an individual call," she says. "What someone else thinks is up to standard, I may not." But she emphasizes that all houses are becoming more selective in both the quality of work that they publish, as well as the commercial aspects.
Take the Romance genre, with its proliferation of sub-categories. "That market is becoming tighter and tighter," she explains. "The whole market is shrinking, and the romance authors are more prolific. New romance writers are going to have a tough time."
The literary novel, she maintains, is not dead, contrary to conventional wisdom. "There are plenty of good literary novels out there. They're harder to get published–the market isn't as easy. But word of mouth keeps these books alive."
Trends in fiction, however, are harder to predict. "I'll know the next one when I see it," she adds with a laugh.
Even as swamped as agents now are, Bernstein says that writers can still effectively market their work. "The persistent writers don't fall through the cracks," she says. "If you market your work, take yourself seriously, you'll get there. The same kind of persistence that's required to finish a novel, is required to market your work."
First, research who the agents are that sell your sort of material. Find them through the Literary Market Place (LMP), Jeff Herman's Insider's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents, and attend conferences. "Target your material to that agent," she advises.
That writers can no longer get to agents is a misperception, she says, "at least [they can get] to me." Bernstein reads all queries, adding, "I'm always looking for new clients."
She's very interested in new fiction. In all fiction, she's looking for a good story teller, and "it's always the voice. I'm looking for a beautiful voice." She also seeks quirky characters and unusual settings, as well as original plots and compelling love stories. Terrific thrillers and wonderful mysteries catch her attention as well. "I'm looking for things that stand out, that can be distinguished from what's out there." The work needs to be slightly special, and have commercial viability.
In non-fiction, Bernstein seeks authors with authority, those who are leaders in their fields, and works that have strong commercial ties.
She's interested in women's issues and humor as well. Also, self-published books that have a track record.
"I want people to understand that I'm always looking for new voices. I welcome hearing from people via queries."
However, she accepts no e-mail queries, and no faxed ones.
"I take my work very seriously, and I look to the author/agent relationship as an ongoing partnership that stimulates both growth and creativity. We should both love what we're doing, and make each other keep getting better at it."
Copyright, Authorlink!, 1997