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So You Wanna Be A Writer? 02:30
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Literary agent Irene Goodman, left, answered questions about the publishing industry at a recent "Ask the Agent" event for Boston-area writers. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Literary agent Irene Goodman, left, answered questions about the publishing industry at a recent "Ask the Agent" event for Boston-area writers. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Plenty of people read best-selling books in the summer, and some dream of writing the next "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” or "Eat, Pray, Love." But the fact is, even if you manage to write something great, getting it published is another story. That’s where a savvy literary agent comes in. But it's no cake-walk to get a valuable agent's attention.

The Grub Street writing center recently removed the usual barriers and hosted something rare — a one-time event dubbed “Ask the Agent.” One evening a group of aspiring Boston-area writers was given a brutally honest, insider’s view into the publishing industry, straight from a New York publishing veteran: literary agent Irene Goodman.

Before the Q&A session got rolling, she explained what motivates agents like herself. "We're always looking for a good story, that will never change. Never," Goodman said. "Ever since people sat around campfires and lived in caves, they've been telling good stories. "

Goodman’s been finding stories — and selling them to publishing houses — for 30 years. The dozen or so writers gathered at Grub Street are hungry to know what it really takes to get an agent, and to get published, in today’s marketplace.

But there’s a possible subplot to Goodman’s visit. "I think she realizes she might find talented writers here," said Eve Bridberg, Grub Street’s founder and executive director.

Jason Walcutt is writing his first novel — a thriller involving a Boston sports mascot. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Jason Walcutt is writing his first novel — a thriller involving a Boston sports mascot. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Sitting around tables in a conference room, the writers described their stories. A medieval saga. An upbeat memoir. A crime novel. A modern-day version of Jane Austen’s “Emma.” Then Jason Walcutt chimed in.

"Thank you, Irene, for coming, I’m sure we all really appreciate it," he said. "I’m working on a commercial fiction thriller set in the near future. The main character comes upon a murder, so it’s 'wrong place, wrong time.' And it’s about him getting out of the situation."

The book also involves a mascot that Walcutt says may — or may not — belong to a famed baseball team in Boston. It’s the 27-year-old financial writer’s first effort at fiction. He also reads tarot cards on the side. While he’s a realist, Walcutt admitted to harboring a seductive fantasy for this night's get-together.

"Every writer coming in would love to meet the agent, they immediately love your book without even reading the first page, and sign me up a fat check." But, he added, "I doubt that’s going to happen."

His instincts were right-on because Goodman immediately launched into something of a shock fest, starting with the number of queries her office receives each year. A query, by the way, is the standard way agents and clients hook up.

"We get in about 5,000 or 6,000 various submissions, unsolicited queries and submissions a year," Goodman said, "which is about 25 a day."

That figure was met with a few gasps and even a whistle. Then Goodman repeated and answered the next question:

“This is a business, this is a reality. You’re asking somebody to spend many thousands of dollars on a gamble."

Agent Irene Goodman

"How long do we tend to look at a query? On average I would say about 20 seconds."

Again, jaws dropped.

If you think Goodman’s a tough gatekeeper, she said she’s nothing compared to the editors and sales managers at the publishing houses she works with. She said they might just say something like this about Mark Twain, depending on industry trends:

"Mark Twain? 'Na, we couldn’t sell him last year, forget it.' What do you mean you can’t sell Mark Twain? 'Well no, he’s out this year. No.' "

Goodman went on to give some sound advice. If you call a book “Chick Lit” these days, it’s the kiss of death. Something called Urban Fantasy is in, she said, also Young Adult, or “YA.” But nothing is sacred in this industry, Goodman reminded the group.

"The one I just sold was a YA paranormal in which the girl turns — at first she was going to turn into an owl — and they came back and said, 'No, we can’t sell an owl, it’s not sexy enough!' So she changed it to a falcon."

One writer in the room needed confirmation, asking, "So they’re going to say things like that?"

"Absolutely," Goodman said. "This is a business, this is a reality. You’re asking somebody to spend many thousands of dollars on a gamble, on something hoping that many people will want to buy it."

Then Goodman asked a question of her own.

"Does that sound cynical and crass?"

Well, yes, it kind-of does. But once in a while this cynic finds a real winner where she isn't expecting it — like a few years ago at Thriller Fest in New York.

"I met a guy there who was just a newcomer, never sold anything," Goodman said. "And I said, 'What are you working on?' And he said an action thriller about finding Noah’s Ark. And I said, 'Send me that, that I want to see.' So he did and it was fabulous."

Goodman says Simon & Schuster just published that book. It’s been sold to 18 foreign markets. So, who knows, maybe that futuristic thriller involving a Boston sports team mascot has a chance.

This program aired on July 7, 2010.

Andrea Shea Twitter Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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