First Draft (Sisters In Crime Guppies Newsletter)

Agent Insight: Dawn Dowdle by Carol Newhouse

“I am very big on communication. During the querying process, I let my authors know which publishers will be queried before they are sent. I email them when a manu-script is requested. I send an email when a rejection is received with more than just pass, and I send a monthly report detailing these vari-ous items on one page.” —Dawn Dowdle

I have often pictured agents as hydras, those many-headed serpents of Greek mythology. Guarding the pathways to publishing houses, they are power brokers to be brought onside by aspiring authors.

Books and classes claim to provide students with the magic elixir that will transform the foreboding gatekeeper into an ally. Writers are advised to dazzle agents with catchy query letters and sample pages that boast a sparking hook, a twist on the usual plot premises, fresh characters, and a heck of a voice.

It seems to me these formulas ignore the human element. Can agents understand the grinding process writers endure, or are they hardened naysayers with an insatiable need to be impressed?

I decided to get up close and personal with Dawn Dowdle, founder of the Blue Ridge Literary Agency, in an effort to get an answer to my question. Her story surprised me. And what really stood out was her emphasis on the agent as being a partner with the author.

Have you always been interested in books?

Yes. When we moved to Lynchburg about 10 years ago, I started a local writers’ group. I had also reviewed cozy mysteries for years and attended many Malice Domestic conventions. I ran Mystery Lovers Corner, a website where authors could promote their mysteries, long before Facebook and the other places available now. And I did some freelance editing.

You mention starting a writers’ group. Were or are you an aspiring author?

No. I tried writing once. What I found was I liked the editing process so much I never added many new words to the story. Plus, I kept finding plot holes and starting over.

So trying your hand at writing sharpened your focus on editing?

I would say so.

By running a website to promote authors and reviewing mysteries, you created your own writing community. But, obviously, this wasn’t enough. When did you decide to become an agent?

I had edited one of my local writers’ manuscripts. This was back when some agents were still taking submissions in the mail. She printed her manuscript and made sure everything was perfect, then sent it off. When she got a rejection, she received a half sheet of paper, with the typing at a slant on the page, and they quoted her manuscript title incorrectly.

Is it fair to say the agent’s lack of professionalism lit a spark?

Yes. I thought I could do better and began my research. One thing I found was a book on Amazon, How to be a Literary Agent. I purchased and read this book. By attending conventions and running the website I had gotten to know a lot of authors and had discussed publishing with them.

How difficult was it to establish your own agency?

It was a long, slow road getting started. I was able to connect with a New York agent who became a mentor I could contact to ask questions. I also went to the Book Expo America in New York and met with many editors to find out more about what they were looking for. [Book Expo America is a marketplace for anyone connected to or interested in the publishing industry.]

The first few years were quite lean, but then I began getting some contracts with smaller publishers. Slowly, we began getting contracts from the Big 5. At the time of this interview, we have had contracts with four of the Big 5 and also with Kensington and other middle and smaller publishers.

When you talk about the beginning of your agency you refer to yourself as “I,” but when you refer to your agency in the present, you use the term “we.” Who is “we”?

I am the only one working at my agency. However, I think of this as a partnership with each author so I tend to say ‘we’ because we are in this together.

Do you think the Big 5 look for different things than Kensington and other middle and smaller publishers?

Most are looking for the same types of manuscripts. Some houses are fuller than others, so sometimes you can get in with a smaller publisher when the larger ones aren’t accepting as many from newer authors.

I understand you now focus on cozy mysteries and romances.

That’s correct. I was having my best successes with those genres and I love reading cozy mysteries. That is one of the reasons it is my favorite genre. I also really enjoy Amish romances and would like to represent more of those. I like being a boutique agency.

Can you pinpoint what characteristics of Amish romances attract you?

I like the diversity and I like learning about the culture. Plus, I enjoy the romance because it’s a sweet romance.

What does your typical day or week look like?

I spend a lot of my week editing my authors’ manuscripts, especially the first book in a series or a stand-alone book before it is queried. I try to edit a book a week.

How much time do you spend trying to sell a book(s) to publishing houses? What does that process look like?

Each manuscript is different and it also depends on the time of the year and the genre being queried. Recently, I was able to sell cozies within about two to three months. That is slowing down some. Romances, right now, are very hard to sell. The genre is flooded.

What do you love about being an agent?

I love working with authors. I especially love calling an author with a publishing offer. Often, they tell me I have made their dreams come true. I like seeing a book go from manuscript to becoming available for readers. Covers help make that story come alive to me as well.

What are your pet peeves?

The worst one is editors who don’t reply to emails. When I started my business, I not only planned to be an agent willing to work with authors, I also swore to be different by being very responsive to my authors. They usually receive a reply to an email within an hour, and definitely within a day.

Authors who have previously been represented before coming to my agency will often say they were lucky to hear back from their agent within a few weeks. To me, that is unacceptable. I look at this as a partnership with each author.

I am very big on communication. During the querying process, I let my authors know which publishers will be queried before they are sent. I email them when a manuscript is requested. I send an email when a rejection is received with more than just pass, and I send a monthly report detailing these various items on one page.

Wow. I love the idea of a report. I think it would be reassuring to know my work hasn’t fallen between the cracks. Do publishing houses or editors ever give you suggestions or plot outlines that you can then pass on to authors?

Sometimes. Unfortunately, most give vague reasons for rejecting. And once they reject, they rarely want to see a revision.

Do you ever give up on a manuscript or an author?

There are many factors that I consider first. What genre is the writing? What else is the author writing? What are the author’s sales to date? Yes, I have had to terminate representing a manuscript or an author at times. It is not something I decide on easily.

I’ve asked about pet peeves. What about successes?

This year my agency has two books nominated for Agathas and one book nominated for a Rita [the highest award of distinction in the omance publishing industry, according to the Romance Writ-ers of America].

No wonder you’re proud. I hope they all win. So what’s next?

Well, in addition to Amish romances, many subgenres of romance, excluding erotica and paranormal, are also on my wish list. I am opening up my genres a little wider right now since the romance genre is fairly full. I am going to be considering psychological suspense, historical mysteries, historical romance, and women’s fiction. I am looking for top-notch manuscripts to begin moving into these genres.

Final words?

I continue to attend conferences. I hope everyone who sees me at any conference or event stops by to say hi!

Carol Newhouse is a member of several writing organizations, including Sisters in Crime Toronto and the Toronto Romance Writers. She is hard at work on her first book in the Zookeeper Mystery series. When not working as a legal assistant or dreaming of dead bodies, she is walking her dogs, chilling in yoga classes, or hanging out at the Toronto Zoo.