Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Q&A With Nelson Literary Agency's Anita Mumm

I'm extra delighted to welcome Anita Mumm to the blog today. I first met Anita when she joined Nelson Literary Agency several years ago. We got to chat over weekly emails, and she always had something funny or interesting to share (and kept me updated on Denver trivia as well as my business things). Now she's the Submissions & Asian Territory Rights Manager, with quite a few success stories under her belt. She recently launched a blog about writing and publishing at Word Cafe, but she's been offering helpful advice for years as part of the NLA monthly newsletter. She's here to answer some questions about her job and the query/submission process.

Anita joined Nelson Literary Agency in early 2010. As NLA’s talent scout, she screens all incoming submissions and presents and takes pitches at conferences across the country. Anita has picked a number of exciting new authors for the company, including Stefan Bachmann, whose debut novel The Peculiar (September 2012) sold in a major auction to Greenwillow/HarperCollins; Jennifer Shaw Wolf, author of the edgy young adult novels Breaking Beautiful (Walker, April 2012) and Shards of Glass (Walker, 2013); and Monica Trasandes, author of the debut literary novel Broken Like This (Thomas Dunne, November 2012). In addition to her role as submissions manager, Anita is NLA’s foreign rights manager for the Asian territories. She taught English and creative writing to international students in the U.S., China, and France before joining the publishing industry, and she is thrilled to bring her love of language, books, and cultures to her work at NLA.

Now on to Anita's Q&A...

1. Does an assistant read slush for whole office? How can we tell so we don't send queries for other agents if one person reads all?

Even though most agencies have more than one agent accepting queries, it’s best to address your query to one target agent (the one whose client list or interests led you to that agency in the first place). If they have a reader, like me, that person will field the query (if it’s a strong one!) to the appropriate agent. Often, when I know a project won’t appeal to Kristin Nelson I’ll share it with Sara Megibow instead (and vice versa), especially when it has to do with genre. For example, Kristin handles women’s fiction and Sara doesn’t, so women’s fic submissions almost always get funneled to Kristin. In general, agents pass along queries if they think a colleague in their agency is a better fit. So you do have a little wiggle room.

2. How do agents/assistants keep "fresh" when reading through so many queries in a sitting? Don't they all start to blur together?

Good question! It’s really hard to do. Our slush pile gets about 500 queries a week (and remember, I read partials and full manuscripts, too). After a while, everything starts to sound familiar. When I feel my eyes going glassy, I take a break and work on another task, then come back to queries when my mind feels clearer. Don’t get me wrong—reading submissions is one of my favorite parts of my job. What keeps it fun—and fresh—are the surprises: the queries that prove I haven’t seen it all, the ones with a voice that makes me want to read a whole novel by this author. The ones that slap me in the face with their cleverness or originality.

3. How much of your day is spent reading queries?

Probably less than you are imagining! I read queries two or three days a week, usually in the mornings (not doing them every day is another “staying fresh” strategy). My job is to support our agents and clients in a lot of different ways (office management, foreign rights, promotion), so as romantic as it sounds, I don’t get to spend all my time reading. Unfortunately, no agent or reader can afford to read every word of every query—and you wouldn’t want us to, because that would mean neglecting our authors. Speed reading and scanning are the key skills. That’s why it’s so important to keep queries concise, with a powerful hook—if you haven’t grabbed us in the first few sentences, you’ve lost us. It’s also why you should place important information like previous publications or referrals from authors/industry professionals at the beginning of your query, not at the end.

4. Writers hear horror stories of one little mistake on a query dooming them forever. What's the real skinny on typos?

Good mechanics and careful proofreading are of course quite important, but I think it would be quite rare for an agent to reject a query over a typo or an isolated grammar mistake. Trust me—agents aren’t scary ogres just looking for an excuse to reject writers! If that were the case, we’d all go out of business. When I open a query, I want nothing more than to find The Next Big Thing. All of the agents I know hate sending rejections. So make your query as clean and perfect as you can (get a friend or two to proof it before you hit “send”), but concentrate most of your energy on conveying the heart of your story.

5. If you could only give one piece of advice on querying, what would it be?

Be professional. Please, no more one-sentence queries “sent from my iphone.” Treat your query like a cover letter for a job—after all, it’s your one shot at getting a particular agent’s attention. And you’ve got more competition than American Idol! This doesn’t mean you have to be stilted. Let your writing voice shine through, but keep the focus on your characters, not on your writing philosophy, life experience, etc. And keep in mind that too much “personality” can work against you. Pretty please, no more queries to Chutney, our office dog. *smile*

6. What does your new job as a Territory Rights Manager entail?

I shop translation rights to our clients' books to co-agents and publishers in Asia (China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam), so people there can buy and read them in their native languages. Then when a publisher offers for the book, I negotiate the contract and arrange for payment. Although all of this is done electronically, it's also important to meet regularly with co-agents and publishers in person. Last year Kristin and I attended the International Children's Book Fair in Bologna, and this fall Frankfurt Book Fair is the plan. Definitely the most fun part of the job!


  1. Great interview Janice and Anita. It's interesting to read about reading the queries and speed reading. Anita is right. It makes it so important to grab the agent's attention.

    I read Anita's column in the newsletter and really enjoy it. And I just started her blog for that reason. Thanks for sharing all the advice.

  2. Just from the few posts she has up already, I think it's going to be a very useful blog.

  3. I visited Anita's blog when you first mentioned it, and it looks great! Thanks for the Q&A.

  4. It's amazing how you manage to make the query process sound friendly and business-like in the same breath. Thank you for that.

  5. Hi Anita,
    Thanks for the candid answers.
    Your sense of humor shines through.
    Glad to hear agents aren't ogres. :-)
    This has helped me as I'm in the process of querying agents for my parenting/early-reader book.
    Janice, you always offer such fresh posts.

  6. Ref: Please, no more one-sentence queries “sent from my iphone.”

    Wow, didn't realize people even did that.

    This was a very informative interview. Thanks Anita and Janice for the Q&A.

  7. Thank you for posting this interview with Anita, I had no idea that your agency received 500 queries a week. It is comforting to know that a typo here and there won't hurt our chances. I'm going to find Anita's blog and subscribe.

    Have a blessed day.

  8. Thank you for having me, Janice! And thanks to all for your kind comments. I'm glad I was able to de-mystify the query process a bit.

  9. Thanks for posting this. I enjoyed getting a glimpse of what goes on at the slush pile. :)