Interview: Donald Maass – Agent

Donald Maass Literary Agency, founded in 1980, represents 100 authors and sells over 150 novels per year to leading publishers both here in the United States and internationally.  The agency is a known for its fiction writers. According to Publishers Marketplace, all agents of the Donald Maass Literary Agency are members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). In addition to being members of the AAR, the agency also holds memberships in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Mystery Writers of America, and the Romance Writers of America.

Donald Maass, Agent & President of DMLA

Donald Maass is president of Donald Maass Literary Agency and an author of both fiction and popular craft books for writers as well. He is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc, and quite respected in the field of publishing. He also enjoys helping writers achieve their goals, and teaches workshops on the art of writing and getting published.

Interview with Donald Maass

Tell us something about how you got started in becoming an agent and then, opening up your own literary agency.

Ahem, that was a while back!   I was previously a junior editor at a publishing house.  What appealed about “agenting” was spending more time working with authors, less time in meetings.  It’s now kind of hard to imagine doing anything else.

You are a writer yourself (both fiction, and non-fiction on writing). Has this given you an insight into what you would look for in a storyteller, and in what way?

One thing I learned is that fiction writing isn’t something you do alone.  Critique friends are essential.  It’s also a lifelong education.  The best writers keep learning.

    Walk us through the process of what happens when a query letter/email comes into your agency, right up to the point where you accept them as a client.

It’s a bit less dramatic than you might suppose.  When one of my agents is excited about a project, that’s it.  We may pass it around, read and discuss out of interest, but the decision to sign up an author doesn’t need the boss’s approval.  What you’re passionate about is what you should represent.  There’s far more discussion after we’ve taken someone on; about the pitch, marketing and such.

We once talked about the death of the small, independent bookstores, and now we are seeing the closing of a major bookstore like Borders. Obviously, the current economy has a hand in that, but do you think the increasing popularity of e-books is also a part of the issue?

The popularity of e-books is due to the success of the Kindle reader, the development of which was somewhat coincidental.  I mean, the Kindle didn’t bring about the demise of Borders.  (Borders did that to itself.)  There’s no question that e-book sales have cut into physical book sales.  Where that will top out remains to be seen.

    With the move into digital forms of books (audio, epub), how do you feel this will change the role of an agent in the publishing world?

Agents help authors get published.  Maybe that’s morphing nowadays but it’s still the same basic service.  And publishing is still publishing.  If you’re one of the Big Six, same job.  If you’re an e-publisher, same job.  If you’re an individual author going the e-book route, same job.  (Except that you’re probably not as good at it.)  Writers still write.  Publishers still publish.  Agents are still the author’s friend and advisor, early editor, deal cutter, subsidiary rights department…really, everything they did before.  The medium is mixing and changing, to be sure.  The process is still essentially the same.

   What advice would you give a new novelist in developing their career and expanding their readership base?

90% of your success is your stories.  Work on those most.  The last 10% matters, but only by 10% and only if the first 90% is already terrific.

    What kind of advances are first novels getting these days, and do you think there is any future for the mid-list authors?

Advances are down (four figures for first novels isn’t rare) and mid-list is not a place you want to be.  Why not aim to soar out of category?  (See comment above!)

    You seem to be invested in teaching writing and getting published (with your books and workshops on the subject). What do you get out of it? 

There are some aspects of fiction writing that are poorly understood and rarely taught; for instance, what I term “micro-tension”, the line-by-line tension that keeps readers glued to everything on the page.  I feel it’s important to get those ideas out there.  There’s too much magical thinking about writing fiction.  Even inspiration and originality are qualities one can cultivate.  I’d even argue that they’re learnable techniques.  Just because some authors do certain things instinctively doesn’t mean other authors can get good at them too.

  What do you think of the trend toward self-publishing? Does this have any effect on an agents’ business?

Self publishing is still self publishing.  Digital only makes it cheaper.  Selling books to the public isn’t any easier.  Social media–?  Helpful but not a panacea.

What books are you reading now (for your own personal enjoyment)?

A history of coffee!

    Please give us an eight-word description of your life. 

Agent, boss, teacher, writer, husband, dad, reader, traveler.


Follow Don on Twitter: @DonMaass

Donald Maass – Appearances/Workshops

Books on Writing