Write It Sideways

April Eberhardt: Literary Agent for Change

Today’s post is written by regular contributor Susan Bearman.

I first met April Eberhardt in October 2011 when she came to speak to my writers’ workshop, and was immediately struck by her genuine enthusiasm for writing, literature, publishing, and writers … especially writers. I asked her if she would talk to me for a piece on Write It Sideways and she agreed with that signature enthusiasm.

April spent the first 25 years of her career as a corporate strategist. Along the way, her belief that the whole world is moving toward direct-to-consumer marketing lead her to create a semi-custom women’s boutique clothing company. And her love of literature took her to Zoetrope: All-Story, a quarterly literary publication founded by Francis Ford Coppola, where she became head reader.

Five years ago, she became a literary agent. I asked her what led such a savvy businesswoman to take a leap of faith onto the foundering ship of publishing. “I’m an risk-taker,” she said. “I was a corporate strategist for 25 years, so I’m looking at this business as a strategist. I had a vision. I’ve had my eyes fixed on high-quality self-publishing from the outset. I jumped in knowing that it was coming and that I could help lead the way.”

Wait. What? Did she say self-publishing?

“Too many good authors are not being published,” she said. “It’s not the story, it’s the industry that’s broken. You can spend years shopping your manuscript to traditional publishers only to find yourself not published. I want to link the author to the reader. It’s a mindset, not just technology.”

Just before we spoke, Eberhardt decided to join forces with several other major literary agencies as part of the Argo Navis Author Services program of The Perseus Books Group. This represents the agent-curated model of self-publishing that she had envisioned when she started five years ago. “I had to wait for the timing to catch up to the vision.”

According to Eberhardt, some tiny fraction of writers are published by traditional publishers, and even then, it doesn’t always live up to a writer’s expectations. “Among my authors who have been published by big houses, it can be a huge disappointment,” said Eberhardt. “It’s heartbreaking—to see the promises made and then broken is crushing.”

Eberhardt gets 10,000 submissions a year. Ten thousand. “Of those, I find 15 to 20 that I think are exceptional,” she said. “I work hard for my authors. I’m in service to my authors, but it’s tough.” She currently represents about 20 writers, mostly first-time authors of women’s literary and book club fiction.

A New Paradigm

So why is an agent interested in self-publishing? How does that work?

“Most self-publishing is not of high quality,” April admits. “There has been a disregard of publishing standards and that needs to change. I’m looking at a new way of doing things, a model of agent-led self-publishing where authors get guidance to bring their self-published work to a professional level.”

“Self-publishing can, in some cases, increase your chances of being published by a traditional publisher,” said Eberhardt, “but I’m not sure why anyone would want to do that. If we raise the bar in self-publishing, if we do it right, the author has the most to win. Traditional publishers take too much of the pie. They have a food chain to feed and authors get the crumbs.”

So literary agent April Eberhardt is soliciting manuscripts for this new model—a model of agent-assisted self-publishing, where authors would pay for publishing, but keep a much, much larger percentage of the profits. “I will continue to solicit submissions, but far fewer for traditional publishing,” she said. “We need some success stories in self-publishing to show it can be done right. If you do it wrong, don’t even bother, but if you do it right, you will help raise the bar.”

What Can Writers Do to Do It Right?

According to Eberhardt, the work you must do as a writer for the self-publishing market is the same as always, only more:

1. “Share your manuscript with others—not friends and family, who will of course love your work. Find an utter stranger, someone with no vested interest, to give you feedback. Evaluation from an unbiased viewpoint is essential.”
2. “Find an editor. You would be amazed at what I see. Never send out an unedited manuscript. I get glaring errors from writers who don’t bother to let anyone else kick the tires. You need someone to edit for content and to do line edits.”
3. “Hook into self-publishing at the highest possible level. Learn the business.”
4. “Read. Know what’s being published.”
5. “Think of different ways to promote your book and unearth unusual points of purchase.”

Part of raising the bar is making sure that your self-published book looks professional, and unless you are a designer as well as a writer, you will probably have to find other professionals to create a great cover design and professional page layouts. If you want your book to compete with those published by the big publishing houses, you need it to look the part.

Eberhardt also believes that every writer needs an online presence. Where you do it depends in large part on the demographics of your readers, but how you do it is what counts. “The whole issue is one of authenticity,” she said. “If you aren’t authentic, it really shows. We’ve all become very sensitive to people trying to push stuff on us all the time. Constantly selling is a total turnoff. You have to be interesting and interested.”

That means participating in an online dialogue. “Speak intelligently on the web about your book, but about other books, too,” said Eberhardt. “Every writer needs to be a reader.” Here are some of her suggestions for creating an effective online presence:

Even Agents Have Dreams

“My dream is to have the go-to website aimed at book club readers—intelligent readers who want good fiction and to have a dialogue about the books they’ve read and loved,” said April. “There is a risk to putting out new authors, but I want a place where they can cast their shadows for the first time. I want to act in service to authors and readers.”

Her passion for this dream comes from the stories. “It’s the discovery of the unusual story that keeps me going,” said Eberhardt, “the hope of finding a thrilling new voice.”

But it’s the authors themselves who may be her biggest obstacle in realizing those dreams. “Old dreams die hard, and most writers want the dream of being picked up by a traditional publisher,” she said. “I understand it. But that’s Plan A, and it isn’t working for most writers. Let’s try Plan B.”

I asked if she had any final words of wisdom, and she decided to end our interview with a call to action:

“Consider self-publishing. Do it right. Open your mind. Let go of the idea that only traditionally-published books are real books. And finally, I would love to have every reader go out today and buy a self-published book.”

Thank you to April Eberhardt for her time and generosity. We’ll be watching as she forges a path in the new world of publishing.