As part of the process of writing The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, I interviewed a few key players in the SF/fantasy community. Their wisdom and generosity is liberally sprinkled throughout the book, but I couldn’t use every word—and wanted to do some follow-ups. What follows is an expanded interview with Ethan Ellenberg, a successful literary agent who, since 1984 has headed the eponymous Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency in New York. Ethan represents authors across many fiction genres, as well as non-fiction and children’s book authors. His SF/fantasy clients include John Scalzi and Karen Miller.
Philip Athans: Please define “fantasy” in 25 words or less.
Ethan Ellenberg: Fantasy is a genre or story telling convention that creates imaginary worlds in the course of its narratives.
Athans: Please define “science fiction” in 25 words or less.
Ellenberg: Science fiction is a genre or story telling convention that speculates about man by using “hard science” as its primary component.
Athans: When you’re reading a manuscript from a new author, is it a positive or negative if the novel is cast as first in a trilogy or ongoing series?
Ellenberg: It’s neutral with the following caveat. The first book must be a completely satisfying stand alone novel. Too often I’ll read a first in a trilogy book that will be “saving” a lot of the plot for the future books and it mars the first book. As its understood that any successful fantasy novel will have sequels it’s unnecessary to specify that. If you create great characters and a great world, your readership will want to visit again soon.
Athans: Do you read reviews of novels you’ve represented? Have you found any review to be particularly helpful or destructive? Do you encourage the authors you work with to read reviews?
Ellenberg: I do read reviews because they are important as credibility builders in the marketplace and they cross my desk regardless. Some reviews are insightful and helpful, some just misguided or even wrong. I think authors should read reviews, it’s important to know how your work is hitting people. Writers can be hurt by a stinging review but that’s part of the job, football linemen can be hurt by stinging tackles too.
Athans: What is the most common mistake that aspiring fantasy authors make in their writing?
Ellenberg: Great writing has a certain magical energy that elevates it above the mundane. It’s very hard to be good if you don’t have that. After that it’s all the basic stuff—neglecting your main character, letting the story peter out, pacing.
Athans: What is the most common mistake that inexperienced authors make in their professional lives?
Ellenberg: A real talent that you must have is the talent to accept criticism, evaluate criticism and let criticism make you a better writer. How do you get better, isn’t that the #1 goal? Authors aren’t ruined by disenchanted editors or bumbling agents, they’re ruined when they don’t progress as writers.
Athans: Give me some general words of encouragement for the aspiring fantasy author.
Ellenberg: The story remains essential to human beings. It’s a better organizer of life than philosophy or ethics or nearly any other human endeavor I can think of and I see the storyteller as a personally religious person. So the world is open to you, but you’ve got to bring something special.
Athans: The so-called Great Recession has been particularly hard on the publishing industry and the retail book business. How much harder is it for a new author to “break in” today than it was, say, five years ago?
Ellenberg: I don’t believe it’s that much harder now. There are two factors here, the number of “slots” that each publisher has to publish a new writer and the quality of your book.
The “slots” at the major houses have not shrunk that much and there are some new faces and new opportunities outside the core group of publishers.
They still need talent—because every novelist that excites the public creates his/her own market, the opportunities are in a sense, constant.
Athans: And following up from there, what do you think of the current state of the publishing business? Is it getting better, getting worse? And what are your predictions for the trade fiction publishing business in the short term, say the next two or three years?
Ellenberg: It’s very much a mixed picture. The large publishers have gone through a trying period of no growth or slow growth. They have a bevy of constant problems that will not go away, the biggest one of which is the health of the retail market for physical books.
That said, they are holding their own. The promise of ebooks will help them ultimately but they are balancing that against the potential threat ebooks have on the retail distribution network and cover price—the per unit price any consumer will pay to own any book in a format.
We live in a knowledge driven society with great amounts of leisure time, and I believe the book business will be fine, but it is going through a trying period of adjusting to a large amount of revolutionary changes.
Athans: In my interview here with veteran author Mike Resnick, he told me that selling your fourth book is always harder than selling your first one. Do you agree with that? Is it harder to launch a career as a genre author or maintain one?
Ellenberg: I would agree with Mike’s insight. If you have not begun to build an audience by your third book, many publishers will feel its time for a new face. Maintaining a career is much harder that landing a first contract.
And an experienced, talented, and creative agent helps enormously, as Ethan Ellenberg’s clients can attest. Thanks, Ethan!