L.A. Jacob (00:00:26): Welcome to Small Publishing in a Big Universe. I am your host, L.A. Jacob. Today’s interview will be a discussion with Vanessa MacLaren-Wray, and Prentis Literary co-founder and agent Leslie Varney.
Coming soon from our sponsors, this month from Unruly Voices, The Butterfly Cage by Rachel Zemach. From Water Dragon Publishing, the Dragon Gems (Spring 2023) anthology. From Paper Angel Press, we have Margery by Jeffrey Penn May.
L.A. Jacob (00:01:18): The Butterfly Cage by Rachel Zemach. You’ll be a fly on the wall in a Deaf classroom in a public school, watching a Deaf teacher struggle with staff, administration, and aids who sabotage the teachers at every turn. You’ll also see the children struggle with a principal who removes their textbooks, a vindictive, power-hungry speech therapist and a system that leaves them defenseless against it. You’ll also meet a language-hungry boy who will capture your heart and run away with it after his life takes a shocking turn. Learn from these true stories of individual students and their quirky, fallible teacher. The Butterfly Cage, available this month from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, and other online booksellers. Or support your local independent bookstores by ordering it through bookshop.org or indiebound.org. For more information, visit their website at UnrulyVoices.com.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:02:41): Hello and welcome to Small Publishing in a Big Universe. Today we’re talking with Leslie Varney, co-founder of Prentis Literary. Tell us a little bit about you and how you came to start this agency.
Leslie Varney (00:02:58): It’s a little bit humiliating to admit, but I came to it by way of family. My family on both sides — my father and my mother were highly, highly, highly well-read and into words and the way that words work and how to make them play. And on my mother’s side, we actually go back to the earliest publishing families in America. My mother, she started Lynn Prentis Literary Agents several years ago. She had come to it in her own way, built her own stable of people and at the time that this all took place, she employed Trodayne Northern who is, who was her junior agent, and she employed Terry Johnson, who is our money manager. It came to my attention in 2015 that my mother had severe dementia. I hadn’t been in contact with her for several years, at that point. Things had to be done and had to take place.
Leslie Varney (00:04:00): Terry said to me, “Okay, there are three ways we can do it. We can sell the back list and just close it out, or we can keep a business, just kind of have residuals come in and as they decrease, just keep that until that time, or we can just give the rights back to the authors. There are a couple of different ways we can go, or if you want, you can just keep it as a business.” And I thought about it and there was a good chunk in there and I said, this doesn’t belong to me, it’s not mine. So, I approached them, and I said, look, let’s use that money. Start an agency and see where it leads. If it doesn’t work out, that’s fine. You have a couple more years of getting paid and you have a little bit more time to find a space to be. But if it does work out, how cool would that be?
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:04:53): Step aside a little bit and start a new venture while you bridge off the old venture. It’s an innovative approach. That way you have your own thing and the old can fade into history (laugh):.
Leslie Varney (00:05:06): So my mother was very … cheap in my opinion. So, she had employed these people for what I felt was really an inappropriate amount. That was kind of my giving back. It was like, “Hey guys, I’ll set you up for a little bit and see where it goes.”
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:05:23): That’s wonderful to hear, to compensate people and then also create a new avenue for growth. So, at this point, you’ve been in business with the New Prentis for a few years. Let’s fast forward to 2023. So, what’s a typical day like now, for you, agent and founder of Prentis Literary, how many things are you juggling in a day and how are you coping with that?
Leslie Varney (00:05:49): So I can tell you today, because today is a working day for me. I usually try to work, I work every day. Everybody who owns their own business does. But there are a couple of days that I try to set aside. Um, but today I will tape a podcast. I’ll put together a folder of work for our intern. We have an author who just gave us the final edit of his book. Gone through four edits, three with me. So, this is the final one. I’m gonna go through that, just make sure everything’s tidy. I’m gonna reply to two authors that I just requested material from. I’m gonna try and put all of my social media together into one situation so that I can handle it. But that’s a goal. I have to call an author this afternoon to ask him about some background on his novel. We have a book coming out this spring. I want to, I’m sending an email out to the editor to find out who is the person handling merchandise tie-ins for the book.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:06:49): That’s not much! (laugh):
Leslie Varney (00:06:51): (laugh): No, no. I mean, yeah. And if it doesn’t all get done today, then some will get done tomorrow. That’s the other part that’s kind of nice about having your own business, but it’s not necessarily like, oh, you have this incredible timeline.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:07:05): Yeah. You get to design and build your own incredible timeline. And then make a list of things that you’re going to do and tell it to somebody and that somebody is sitting on the other side of the screen going, “That would take about a week for me.”
Leslie Varney (00:07:18): Oh no. ‘Cause a lot of it is just, oh, this is a quick email. It really is. And I try so hard not to get caught up in, oh, let me take a look at what this is about then, or …
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:07:29): We’ll cover this at the end, but this is a good moment. Which social media are you on and what’s your favorite?
Leslie Varney (00:07:34): So I’m on Twitter and up until recently that has definitely been my favorite. We all know the situation there. I’ve gone over to Mastodon, I haven’t really figured it out yet. So, um, that’s gonna be one of the definite work in progress. And Facebook, I haven’t actually done a lot with Facebook, but I am kind of stepping it up because again, I think this is like a space where we’ve been a little lax and we need to firm up some of our stuff.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:08:01): So you’re actively working with multiple clients. What’s your client load like? How many people are you trying to support?
Leslie Varney (00:08:06): We’re definitely a boutique agency. We’re only trying to support at any one time and really actively do something with maybe five or six at this point.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:08:17): Yeah. Well, that seems pretty reasonable. I’m sure you’re getting queries from prospective clients. So, if you meet a writer at a conference, where do I go? How do I find out what agent would be right for me and how do I figure out if, if some person I met at a coffee shop who claimed to be an agent is really an agent, how do I vet somebody out? Where do you send people to research and to find the right person for their book?
Leslie Varney (00:08:42): I send them usually to authors. See if you can find an author who you can reach out to who you really like and say, “Hey, can you recommend any agencies to me?” Do your research, go on Google, research, research. If somebody says they’re an agent, they should have a website. If they say they’re an agent, they should have some sort of credentials that they can show, like a business license or something along that line. And then you look and see have they gotten any authors published? What kind of people do they work with? Are they looking to work with specific genres only? Read their website. Read, read, read their website.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:09:24): You mentioned one of your clients has a book coming out this year. So, do you wanna talk about that deal?
Leslie Varney (00:09:31): It comes out May 9th. So, we’re already in the pre-order phase and it’s called To Shape a Dragon’s Breath and it is by Moniquill Blackgoose. And she’s a writer who comes from a First Inhabitant of America family. She’s actually part of the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe. She’s written a gas lamp, alternate history fantasy with dragons obviously, To Shape a Dragon’s Breath. And it’s part of a three-book series that’s already definitely contracted for with Delray. And yeah, we’re really excited about it. As I say, May 9th, go pre-order. It’s awesome. A lot of people when they want to read a dragon book, they want this very high energy adventure book, and this is much less that and it’s much more social. So, it’s an alternate history, but there’s colonists in it and so it’s telling the colonist story from the colonized point of view. And showing that intense struggle between staying yourself and staying yourself as a community. And the very real possibility that if you don’t, you could easily be wiped out. It’s also interesting because when we took this to editors, we couldn’t sell it for about a year, and I couldn’t figure out why. And then I rewrote the submission letter to the editor and immediately I got three people back. It was really good.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:11:00): Wow, that’s really nice. And it helped that, I guess, that there was some pressure from potentially competitive offers.
Leslie Varney (00:11:06): Yeah, there was.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:11:07): That’s a good lesson for people who are querying.
Leslie Varney (00:11:10): Yes.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:11:11): If the query isn’t working, maybe it isn’t the book, it’s the query.
Leslie Varney (00:11:15): Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. Because we had, as I say, at least a year, a year and a half, and we had sent it a lot of places. So, it was just taking that fresh look and saying, what would I wanna see in a query? If somebody was sending this query to me and I know I only have two minutes to look at this, what would I wanna see?
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:11:34): Well, let’s jump to that. When you are looking at a query, what kinds of things do you want to see? What would you put at the top of your list that you most need to see in that two minutes of scanning a query?
Leslie Varney (00:11:45): First of all, we don’t even look at the queries until after they’ve been sifted through by somebody else. So, what for us, and again, I say, go to the website and look and see what they say and do it exactly. Because, for us, we still have people who are querying Lynn Prentis, they get automatically sent a rejection. We never even open their query. Definitely be careful and follow it directly. We weed out a lot that way. And the second thing that I would say is really, really important, is have a really good research background on what that agency is looking for. Not just what they’re looking for, but who they are. Because if I see a generated pitch or if I see something that says, “dear agent,” it’s again, it’s gone. Why should I put any of myself out there for somebody who hasn’t put any of their self into finding out who I am? So those are the two things I think would be the most is definitely personalize it and read their website and make sure that you follow it to the T. Now for myself on our website, we ask for synopsis, a query letter, and first 10 pages. I personally don’t read a synopsis, so it’s just my personal thing, I just don’t do it. So, but, other people in Prentis do use that. So I mean there is a reason we’ve asked for it for sure, but I don’t.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:13:17): So does that mean that you tend to pass around a query packet? So, if somebody queries you and you glance at it and say, eh, you do pass it off to your partner?
Leslie Varney (00:13:28): No, we decide on everything together. We’re very, very close-knit in that even if I am going to take somebody and Trodayne hasn’t read it, we’ve discussed it thoroughly beforehand and said these are the things I like about it, this is how long I think it’s gonna take for me to shape it up. Here are a couple of editors who might be looking for this.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:13:49): Oh, it sounds like you’re actually a quite collaborative agent.
Leslie Varney (00:13:52): Very much so. And we always make sure that we have a phone conversation prior to talk with the author, with both of us and to let them know what our mission is and what our goals are. That’s very important to us as well.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:14:04): One thing that querying authors are anxious about is the positive thing when an agent emails them back and says, “Oh, can I call you? We need to talk.” So what’s it like on your end when you are making the call, which in a very real sense is kind of the job interview for the agent when you’re calling an author to say, “I’d like to represent you,” but what’s it like for you when you’re calling an author that you really want and you want to be their agent? And how do you approach that?
Leslie Varney (00:14:32): It’s super, super exciting because you know that if they’re taking your call, they’re still looking for an agent and you have a really good idea for them. You have a good plan in place, and you’d like to tell them about it. It’s so exciting. By that point, unless you’re a total jerk, which we have seen, you’re kind of in, I don’t know how other agencies handle it, but we did have a conversation fairly recently with somebody who we were quite excited about and he was so bizarre and weird that we were like, mm, no.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:15:05): That’s one reason you need that call. So, you can make that personal connection outside of emails which really have no voice and can be very crafted and you can’t get that spontaneous response.
Leslie Varney (00:15:19): So we wanna know things about you, too. We’re very author focused. So, what we’re trying to do is set up your ideal situation. So we wanna know what that looks like. Are you hoping to work independently or are you looking for somebody to co-write with? Do you have more books that you’re interested in writing? Do you have any more that you’ve written? Um, how do we curate your career for you?
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:15:41): So that sounds like that that’s kind of part of your pitch. If you feel like you are competing to represent somebody, then that’s a thing you can tell them is that boutique agency. So you’re more about building the career than selling that one book.
Leslie Varney (00:15:56): Absolutely.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:15:56): Is that a fair statement?
Leslie Varney (00:15:57): Absolutely. You know, there’s no right way to agent. Absolutely. There’s no right way. But there’s kind of a gamut that we run from somebody who’s gonna take your book and he’s gonna submit it to every single person he can think of in the hopes of getting a hit. And that works. Definitely that works. So don’t ever let anybody tell you, oh no, that’s not the right way. But we don’t do it that way. We very much look to what do we know that an editor has liked in the past? What do we know that an editor has said that they want? What is the publishing company? Do they have a spot for this? Is this something they’re missing? We’re more tailored.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:16:37): And it sounds like you’re relying a fair amount on Trodayne’s experience too.
Leslie Varney (00:16:41): Up until recently. Yes, I really did. That’s not so true anymore. I’ve really come into my own. I know what I’m doing. I know how stories work and I know when they’re wrong. Usually I know how to fix them and that’s where my strength was. And so I was doing that part much more so. But anybody can hang it out and say, yeah, I’m an agent. There’s my shingle. It took me a while and it actually, it took Trodayne having a very serious health crisis and at that point I realized that if I’m not gonna do this, nobody is. So, I gotta step up. I gotta figure this out.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:17:17): That’s another level of partnership, isn’t it?
Leslie Varney (00:17:19): Yeah, it is. When you find out where everybody needs to be strengthened and how you can do that. It is.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:17:25): So as you’re looking to expand your list, you have something of a wishlist on your website. You have a chance right now, what you’re looking for right now?
Leslie Varney (00:17:33): We’ve always focused traditionally on speculative and literary fiction. That is our number one go-to. We’re also kind of interested in memoirs, particularly if they’re kind of counterculture memoirs. We’re interested in exploring erotica. We’re not in there yet, but I’m very intrigued to see some good erotica. I want some middle grade. Oh my God, please give me some good middle grade. Those children need to read. Science fiction and fantasy are our number one. But we love thrillers, we love mysteries, we love it all. We love things that mash up genres. We’re highly interested in that. And of course we’re always looking for people who’ve coming from groups that have been traditionally marginalized in publishing. Um, we also want to create a non-profit to extend traditionally marginalized people.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:18:29): To help move people into publishing itself.
Leslie Varney (00:18:31): Right. At this point in time, you look at all of our top publishers and many of our not top publishers, they’re run by white men. So it, it doesn’t matter how many authors you have who are in these categories, if you can’t get them through that final stage, then it’s not doing any good.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:18:49): And you’re working largely with traditional publishing. Since we are a small publishing podcast would do you work with smaller publishers sometimes or authors who come from the small publishing universe?
Leslie Varney (00:19:02): When we have an author that we think is really good, we think that they’re good enough to go to one of the top five obviously, because we really believe in you. And so, we’ll put together a list of kind of the top and mid-tier publishers and then we’ll look also at the smaller independent ones that perhaps can’t offer things like as high of a royalty or … we want to get you the best deal though. So of course we’re gonna go high as we possibly can to start with. But we have absolutely no disdain for small and independent publishers. We have people who have both come from them and also self-publishing. And we have people who we have placed in a smaller independent publishing company, but there are cautionary tales with that as well. So, everything is gonna be a balance. Everything is a balance of how safe and how much can we get. We talk about small publishing, and we talk about self-publishing. We no longer really talk about mid-size publishers ‘cause they’ve kind of disappeared.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:20:05): One thing that small press does to big press is apply pressure.
Leslie Varney (00:20:09): Absolutely. Yep.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:20:12): It’s out there. And we can always independently publish.
Leslie Varney (00:20:15): If you look at Amazon’s page of, oh, the top books in this category, you’ll see a lot of them were independently published.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:20:23): Well, we all want to be Andy Weir.
Leslie Varney (00:20:25): Exactly. And then also there are all these new ways to get it out there. Putting so much power into author’s hands and that’s always a good thing.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:20:36): What can authors do to help, ongoing, once they’re published and to move forward as they’re working their way into the industry? People are always talking about developing your platform, developing your style, developing your brand. How important do you feel that is at the stage that if you’re taking on a new writer, do you care? Do you wanna see in the query letter, I have 50,000 followers on TikTok? Or do you just not care?
Leslie Varney (00:20:59): Personally? That’s not something I’m interested in at all because I’m only interested in if I like your work. Even if it’s not something that I particularly like. I have to like your writing, so I don’t care how many followers you have unless I happen to be one of ’em. So, uh, for me it’s not a big deal. We’ve also taken the stance of our authors can say whatever they want on their social media. We do not limit them in any way. We don’t ask them to be prescribed in any way. And the same with us. And if you do have good social media, that’s awesome. Send us your links and everything. Well first of all, it’s gonna be put on our website, but I wanna keep updated and see what you are doing. I wanna know what are you thinking about?
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:21:41): Okay, well let’s make sure we get this in here. Where do we go to find out more about Prentis Literary, about what your needs are, um, what you’re looking for currently so that people can bookmark your page.
Leslie Varney (00:21:54): PrentisLiterary.com. Be careful with Prentis because it’s P-R-E-N-T-I-S.
Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (00:22:04): Thank you so much, Leslie, for a wonderful chat. Go to the Prentis Literary website to find out more and be sure to check out their author’s book that’s coming out in May. Dragons! I Can’t Wait.
L.A. Jacob (00:22:22): Once in a generation, the matriarchs of Jeska choose a new king to manage the government and command the Guard — protecting Jeskans from crime, invaders, and insurgency. Corren’s been training for that job since he was six, but this is an unsettled time: rumors of strange incursions, grumbling discontent, and increasing brigandry.
Corren’s own problems are multiplying. His father, a skeptical shaman, has gone missing, His polyamorous foster-brother keeps interfering with his personal and professional business. And the king needs him to track down the conspirators behind a simmering insurrection.
When a strange woman turns up wearing a shaman’s cape, speaking a weird language, and hiding knowledge that doesn’t belong in this world, all his plans will have to change.
Shadows of Insurrection, Book One of “The Unremembered King” by Vanessa MacLaren-Wray is available from Water Dragon Publishing from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, and other online booksellers. Or support your local independent bookstores by ordering it through bookshop.org or indiebound.org. For more information, visit their website at WaterDragonPublishing.com.
L.A. Jacob (00:24:03): Thanks again to our guests. We plan on publishing new episodes every second Wednesday of the month. Watch for new episodes around that time.
Theme music is provided by Melody Loops. Other music is from assorted free music websites found on the internet. If you want to know more about Small Publishing in a Big Universe, visit our website at SPBU-Podcast.com. Tweet us at SPBU-podcast and like us on Facebook at SPBU-podcast.
This podcast was recorded and edited by L.A. Jacob. Executive producer is Steven Radecki. This month’s episode was sponsored by Paper Angel Press and its imprints, Water Dragon Publishing and Unruly Voices. You can hear our podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Amazon Music, and most of your favorite podcast services. Visit our marketplace for more information about books that are mentioned on this podcast. Thanks very much for listening and talk to you soon.
Transcription by Remy of Sleepy Fox Studio