THE AGENT: An Interview

I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting literary agent Paul Feldstein (’77) at Purchase College, though had I gone there to study straight from high school, I am certain that our paths would have crossed in lit classes.  Too bad — I have a notion I would have enjoyed his take on matters of literature and beyond.

Paul Feldstein close upAt present, along with his partner, Susan Dalzell Feldstein, Paul runs his own company, The Feldstein Agency, alone of its kind to be based in Northern Ireland.  Learn more here.

I first “met” Paul via the Purchase College Alumni magazine in 2008, with The Feldstein Agency newly founded in 2007.  He’d sent a shout-out to alums who may be seeking representation, and I swiftly took him up on it, querying him on my first novel, OTHER PEOPLE’S HOUSES.

Since that time, we’ve stayed in touch.  I’ve found him to be honest, funny, and a hell of a nice guy.  Full disclosure — he passed on both my first and second novels.  No hard feelings, Paul!

When you were a lit student, was becoming a literary agent an aspiration then?

No, not at all.  I wanted to be a writer.  When I first got into publishing I wanted to be an acquisitions editor, discovering great talented writers.

What was your career trajectory from reading literature to selling it?

I went from being a bookseller for Marboro Books in NYC to working for an art book publisher, where I did sales, marketing and finance, to working for a company based in Vermont that distributed British publishers in the US and also published illustrated books, to moving to Northern Ireland and becoming an agent and consultant, where I am finally discovering great talented writers.

Can you describe the nuts and bolts of repping writers?

Quill pen Feldstein Agency ltrheadReview submissions, sign up writers, assist them in their work(s), including structure, editing and proofreading, pitch their works to publishers, negotiate contracts, and monitor royalties etc.

What do you look for in a query letter?

Well written and proofread, something unique, of interest to me, and in a subject area or genre we know well enough to properly evaluate.

And your criteria for the work itself?

Depends, but what we do is read the first three chapters of fiction and if we are drawn in we read the rest.  It’s got to grab you from the start and keep you moving along, and since we read so many manuscripts, when we find one that does this we know.

Is it difficult to say no to a writer?

Not really.

Have you ever encountered a writer who couldn’t or wouldn’t take “no” for an answer?

Oh, yes, some people can become very belligerent.

How do you scout new work, writers?  It must be a bit like detective work.

It’s difficult, to be honest, to find the time to “scout,” but a lot of our business comes from referrals and some from unsolicited submissions.

You rep both fiction and non-fiction.  Do you prefer one over the other?

I prefer fiction, Susan non-fiction.

The Feldstein Agency client list includes a range of genres, from mystery to literary fiction, to history.  Do you have a personal favorite?  If so, what and why?

Feldstein books compassCrime fiction is my personal favorite, as it is what I read for pleasure.  I honestly think some of the best writers working today are writing crime fiction.

What sells best for you?

Non-fiction is much easier to place in general.

Is there such a thing as an easy sell?

Paul Feldstein speakingThere are some projects that when we take them on we are sure we will find a publisher — again, always non-fiction.

What is the most satisfying aspect of representing writers?

Working with them to make their work the best it can be, and getting an offer for them.

The most challenging?

Being patient — publishers are not the fastest at responding, and some don’t respond at all.

What changes have you seen over the years in publishing, and what does the future hold for the industry?

Massive changes of consolidation and then the e-book revolution, but I do think the industry will continue to thrive, and I do think we still need agents and publishers to filter out the best writing and bring it to market.  Presently I am consulting for Barnes & Noble/NOOK on their UK business, which was launched in October, so I am getting an inside view of the e-book world.

What advice would you offer aspiring writers in today’s difficult market?

Do it because you love it, not because you want to make money!

How did you end up expatriating to Ireland?  How does being located there differ from a New York base?

Ireland bookcover FeldsteinI was running the company in Vermont, then married Susan who is from Ireland, and the company in Vermont was sold, so we decided to base ourselves here and start the agency.  There is no practical difference being based here or NY or Vermont, although because we are based here we do more business with UK publishers than US publishers.

You and your wife, Susan Dalzell, are partners in life as well as business.  That’s an experience you and I share.  How do you find partnering with a spouse?  The good, the bad, and the ugly?

Susan and I work very well together, and we do mostly very different things at the agency, so it is fairly smooth and easy, and it is great having the support.  We do have an office outside of our home, so we do try to not bring our work home with us, although with the NOOK work my hours often include evening work.

What do you read for enjoyment?  Is enjoyment even possible when you do it for a living?

Crime fiction as above, and yes, it is possible, although I tend to be rather particular about who I read, and I don’t have the patience for mediocre writing, and there is a lot out there.

Ireland is a magical country; the light, the landscape, the literary history.  How has that touched your work as an agent and running a business?  Also, are you still writing?  If so, has living in that mystical place affected the work?

IrelandIt’s a bit the other way round…I became a literature major because of (the late Professor of Literature, Purchase College) Michael O’Loughlin introducing me to W.B. Yeats, and visited Ireland often in the 80’s and 90’s, so living here is like coming home in a way.  There is surely much literary talent here as there has always been, and I do think the history, the landscape, the climate, the green and the sea all contribute to making it a magical and inspiring place — it first inspired me through the words of its writers, and continues to do so…

The short answer is no, I’m not still writing, although there is a novel waiting to be finished (a long way to go!)…

Many thanks to Paul for an inside glimpse at an integral part of the publishing industry!

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