Five Questions for Literary Agent Howard Yoon

Allow me to introduce Howard Yoon, literary agent at Ross Yoon Agency. In addition to being an all-around lovely guy, Howard is an agent with a wide range of experience. He’s been in the publishing world since 1992, working as an editorial director, ghostwriter, foreign rights manager, book consultant, and editor, and in those twenty-two years he’s learned a thing or two about how to take a book from rough draft to bestseller. He’s also seen the publishing world drastically evolve during that time. Here’s what he had to say about working with an agent. How do you decide if you want to work with an author?

We choose our clients carefully; well, sometimes they choose us and sometimes we choose them. Because I believe that books have a special place in the content universe, when I’m looking at a manuscript I’m asking myself:

Would I choose this book over TV or Netflix?

Does this book have significant subject matter and commercial appeal?

Is it worthy?

Will it stand out in book form (versus online or in a magazine or on TV) because it delves deep into a subject and it can contribute to what’s already out there?

Does it have timeliness, universality, timelessness?

Also, when making the decision to work with an author, I’m looking not only at her work but also at who she is and how she operates. I want to work with an author who is professional and mature, someone who treats the project as an important endeavor or a major part of her professional career. I’ll be able to tell if the author has done her homework—if she knows what’s happening in the publishing world and within her specific sector of it. Also, I can usually tell if the author is on the lazy side—once I had an author who addressed me by the wrong name in his cover letter. Ross Yoon will respond to unsolicited submissions if they are presented in a personal and professional way; however, we generally don’t respond to submissions that feel like a mass e-mail.

Rule of thumb: act professionally and treat your agent how you’d like to be treated. Demonstrate the qualities you want in your agent: be courteous, engaged, and quick to the point.

What’s the most important thing for an author to do to stay vital in the business?

There are two parts to this answer.

1. Authors need to stay relevant and in touch with their core group of readers. Authors should know who will buy and read their work and what their core readers’ tastes, thoughts, and feelings are. Write for those people.

At the same time, authors must follow their muse. Stay tuned in to the market and write what you know and what you’re passionate about. Don’t trust just one side—the sensible or the creative—to guide you.

2. Authors need to study the publishing industry to stay on top of what’s happening. Know who’s on the New York Times bestseller list, how the business is performing as a whole, and how your specific genre or category is doing. Nowadays, the author has a responsibility to participate in the business side of publishing his or her book, so being up-to-date is crucial. 

How are you involved with an author’s career as it develops?

I do a lot of different things. I help with the development of a project all the way through to publicity. Often people who are experts in their fields—but who aren’t experienced writers yet—come to me for counseling about the process of writing books. I’ll tell them what to write first, what to write second, and so on. I use what I know about the market and industry to figure out what will do the most for an author’s career.

Then, as clients write their manuscripts, I give feedback as they go. About 90 percent of clients employ outside editorial help. So I help a client decide if they need a personal trainer (someone to whip that manuscript into shape) or a Sherpa (someone to carry most of the load). Most clients want to think that they don’t need much editing, but the really sharp ones know when they need help (and when to let go of their egos) to make their books as good as possible.

How is your role as a literary agent changing now that self-publishing is a viable option for authors?

When I started in the business, there was taboo around self-publishing. Nowadays that taboo is long gone, and often self-publishing is the preferred route for authors.

Since I work with mostly nonfiction writers, it’s a little different. These authors generally need advances, so self-publishing is not an option. They need the infrastructure and distribution capabilities of a publisher.

If I don’t think an author will be able to sell to a publisher, I’ll suggest that they self-publish. Romance and erotica are especially good for self-publishing. Other genres don’t typically make the same numbers that they’d get through a publisher. Selling four thousand copies of a book is good for an author doing self-publishing, but publishers often want to sell thirty to fifty thousand books in the first year. When an author has started in self-publishing, sometimes selling those four thousand books will have exhausted his or her audience.

I would recommend seeking an agent first. The agent is there to help you make the book more sellable. Use self-publishing as plan B.

What advice do you most frequently give authors about the changing publishing landscape?

I’m an optimist. I think that publishing will be going through a lot of disruption in the next few years. It may look bad from the outside, but from the inside it’s actually okay. Publishing is just another branch of the entertainment sector, and now it’s going in the same direction as music and movies: fewer titles are capturing the majority of revenue and publishers are going after big returns. Editors have to constantly feed the publishing machine and they’re always looking for the next big name. Since there’s more money at stake, making a contract is more of a gamble. But the upside is, if you win, you win big. The downside is the same as before—if you lose, you lose.

There’s a lot more opportunity to break through if you have the drive and the ambition and you’re willing to work hard. Plus, now there’s a place for everybody in publishing. Any aspiring author can make a beautiful book and distribute it to his or her core audience, whether it’s through a publisher or through self-publishing.

My advice: follow your muse, know what’s popular, and don’t quit your day job.