Q & A With Agent Steve Ross

Starting this week, we’re ramping up for the 2011 Agents Conference by bringing you TWO Q & As each week, featuring the agents and editors of this year’s conference. For those of you who are already registered, you can learn more about the agents you’ll be meeting and who might be the best fit for your projects. Today we feature Steve Ross of Abrams Artists Agency.

If you haven’t registered for the conference yet, it’s easy and you can do it right here!

How did you get started in publishing?

I fell in love with books when I was eleven and from that point on my compass was set working with authors on creating great books.  There seemed—and still seems–no higher calling.  I moved to New York (via Mexico City, where I went to graduate school) to work in publishing and got my first sorta-semi-kinda publishing-related job in 1983.  I worked at a publishing recruitment agency (a headhunter) to get the lay of the book publishing land, and eventually took a job in textbooks, determined incrementally to make my way into trade books. It worked.

What’s the average number of submissions you receive in a month?

Maybe 150

If you could give writers one small piece of advice about the world of publishing, what would it be?

Write every day.  It’s easy to write when you’re in the groove and have a project chugging along smoothly, but the challenge is to find a way to write, to summon the discipline, make the time, and create the space in your life, to sit down every single day and write.  Even if you don’t know what to write, just start letting words flow and let them lead you—usually they’ll take you to some very surprising and rewarding places.

Who was your first client?

A successful businessman in DC named Tom Blair who had written a manuscript from Benjamin Franklin’s perspective on a variety of contemporary political, cultural and social issues. It was New York Times Bestseller for one week.

What was the first project you sold?

A fitness book that had been published by a small press in New Orleans who found they could not keep up with the demand.  I did a two-book deal for them in the mid six-figures at an auction involving most of the major publishing houses.  It was not only the first but involved the least amount of work of any project I have sold.

What do you love most about your job?

Working with my clients to help them shape their vision into concrete narratives, to help take an idea and make it clear and palpable on the page. And help them think about the long-term trajectory of their career and how the current project might (or might not) help them achieve their goals.

What is something that you often see beginning writers doing wrong?

Not understanding that publishing is a business and that the gatekeepers are responsible for making decisions with sometimes significant financial ramifications.  I advise them to think of themselves as entrepreneurs with a business idea they feel confident about, and to think of the proposal as a business plan that they will present to bankers or venture capitalists to convince them to invest in their business idea—despite the fact that the (imaginary) VCs see dozens upon dozens of such plans every week.

What is a little known fact about yourself?

I can wiggle my ears.  Not only that, but I can I wiggle each of them separately or both of them together. I play tennis every single morning (90 minutes of singles before I go to work). I can juggle—in fact, when I was 16 I hitch-hiked across the country and juggled in white-face for money at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco and earned my bus fare back.

What book are you reading right now?

Having recently consumed Unbroken in a voracious paroxysm of reading pleasure, I’m currently toggling back and forth between Just Kids, by Patty Smith, and The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross (no relation).

If you could have a beer or coffee with a literary luminary living or dead, who would it be and why?

Mark Twain, because he seems to me to be the funniest, wisest, earthiest, most accessible and multi-dimensional writer this country has been blessed with.  I picture it involving no “work” on my part, that I need only ask him one or two questions and then sit back and enjoy.

Beer or coffee?

Coffee, at least at first, because I’ll want to remember every moment. And I suspect that a beer with Mark Twain would probably lead to several more.

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