Verna Dreisbach, Literary Agent—Passion Comes First
Interview by C. Hope Clark
Verna Dreisbach is the principal agent with Dreisbach Literary Management in the Sierra Foothills above the Sacramento Valley in California. Verna is also an author, educator, and former police officer. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Sacramento State University with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English. She has taught publishing and writing courses through the University of California Davis Extension program and is currently teaching college level English courses in Sacramento, CA. Verna founded Capitol City Young Writers, a non-profit organization dedicated to the education and mentoring of aspiring young writers in junior high and high school. She lives with her husband of 20 years and their three children.
WOW: I’m so happy you were able to fit this interview into your hectic schedule. So, let’s start off with an easy question. What genres or types of authors does Dreisbach Literary Management represent?
Verna: I represent a wide variety of non-fiction projects, especially those that have a social, political or economic perspective. I enjoy working with experts in a field and helping them build their career.
WOW: You tend to represent nonfiction authors, but you have this little note on your site about your thirteen-year history in law enforcement that entices you to leave the door open for mysteries and crime fiction. How did you transcend from policewoman to literary agent? Does that experience aid your current profession?
Verna: The move from police officer to literary agent was purely an accident. I went back to school to finish my education and an English professor suggested I enter my essay in a literary contest. Surprisingly, I won. That piece was later published in EQUUS Magazine and led to the Seal Press anthology deal, Why We Ride: Women Writers on the Horses in Their Lives. After the award, I delved into learning more about the publishing world, and interned with a literary agency, fell in love with the work, and have been an agent ever since. It is an amazing feeling to help a writer get their first book deal, and to hear them thank me for helping their dreams comes true. The police officer background did give me an interest in the genres of mystery and thriller, but recently I decided to step back from representing fiction to have more time to work on my own writing and editing projects. I am, however, interested in true crime and representing stories that show that justice will always prevail.
WOW: It's wonderful to hear that you started as a writer. Do you feel that agents serve authors better if they are well-schooled writers themselves?
Verna: I don’t believe it is imperative to be a writer to be an agent, but I do understand some of the struggles and obstacles that writers face when it comes to writing. I also understand the variety of ways that writers process information, revise, and write. I’m flexible when it comes to giving feedback and constructive criticism, and empathetic when they struggle.
WOW: What captures your eye in a query letter? What are obvious mistakes we can avoid as fledgling, unpublished writers?
Verna: I could go on for pages on this topic, but to summarize I’d say the best advice is to treat the query letter as a business letter. Also, act like a professional and treat agents and editors with respect, even when you receive a rejection. I’ve had authors query me with one project that I declined, but in the following year they’d query me with either the same project (revised or platform expanded) or a different project, and I’ve signed them on. It would NOT have happened if they were rude and discourteous, which unfortunately, happens quite often. A lack of knowledge of the industry, of the role of the agent, or the role of the author is very apparent in query letters. Obvious examples are not knowing the genre, recognizing the audience, not having the fiction manuscript complete, not having a completed book proposal for a non-fiction project, offering a word count far outside normal range, or expecting agents to edit their project to make it a bestseller. Really, this list could go on forever. Study the industry, attend conferences, join writers' groups, and basically, educate yourself so that others recognize that you know what you are doing.
WOW: Speaking of writers’ groups, you belong to several organizations such as San Francisco Chapter of the Women's National Book Association, Left Coast Crime, and CSUS Writers Conference in Sacramento, CA. How much weight do you place on a writer’s participation in such groups?
Verna: Platform building and networking has become such an important part of publishing, so I believe it is important to be involved in the writing community and stay informed, but not to overdo it. Make sure that your whole life isn’t about platform building. Make sure you are still doing what you love and spending your time with people you want to be with.
WOW: You are involved not only in attending conferences, but assisting in their presentation. How important are conferences for new, mid-list, and seasoned writers? With online opportunities abounding, do conferences make a difference?
Verna: I prefer to meet writers at conferences, and because of the tremendous volume of queries and aspiring authors, I’ve closed my submission list to only writers that I meet at conferences, or through a personal referral. Even before I implemented this change, I signed on the majority of my clients in this fashion. Authors who make the time to attend conferences obviously take their writing seriously and seek to understand the industry. Undoubtedly, the most common take-away that first-time conference attendees gain is the knowledge that they were far from ready to submit their work. They attend the conference hoping to sign with an agent, and leave knowing they have a lot more work to do before approaching an agent.
WOW: That’s interesting you’ve chosen to close your submission list to writers you meet at conferences. So who is your ideal client?
Verna: Someone who is passionate about their writing, their work, and their purpose. I prefer career writers and experts in a field who consider the book just a small part of their platform, not the end goal.
WOW: Describe your ideal query or proposal.
Verna: One that is professional, passionate, and focused. I want to know what the book is about and why I would be interested in looking at it—without knowing the writer’s life story. There’s a particular fiction query that I use as an example in my workshops because the first sentence of each paragraph illustrates my point.
Dear Ms. Dreisbach: (professional and it’s actually addressed to me!)
1st PARA = In researching agents, I found that you . . . (show you know who I am and what I like).
2nd PARA = Insert great paragraph synopsis (intriguing).
3rd PARA = My pertinent background includes . . . (include only the facts)
4th PARA = A mannerly thanks.
Short, sweet, to the point.
WOW: Good advice. So, what makes for a good agent/author relationship?
Verna: Open communication is a key element—in any relationship. Also, being open to change is important. Authors have to be willing to change their writing or their project in order to get published. I’ve had projects pitched as memoir that didn’t sell, but then we changed it to a different style and format of nonfiction and it did sell. The author had to be willing to envision his book differently in order to achieve the desired result. He was still able to distribute the information to the world, but in a different form from what he originally expected. I have another client that we exhausted the list pitching her projects and instead of giving up, we brainstormed yet another idea and that’s the one that sold! It is certainly a team effort.
WOW: With self-publishing thriving, how would you handle one of your clients who was considering dabbling in self-publishing a book?
Verna: I have a couple of clients who are either considering or have already entered the world of self-publishing. I work with them and we determine which projects I feel I would have the best success in the traditionally published market. Typically, I’m not opposed to their ventures in self-publishing if managed well.
WOW: Do agents ever part ways with clients, and vice versa? What are the typical reasons? Are there good reasons for such a partnership to end?
Verna: Both scenarios happen, but it is typically a process where we may have come to the end of pitching a project and we’ve exhausted our opportunities, or have come to the conclusion that the project is not saleable at that particular time. Not everything that an agent takes on typically sells, but we keep those where we have faith in the project and in the writer. It’s never easy parting ways, regardless of the scenario, but sometimes often necessary.
WOW: Thank you so much, Verna, for taking the time to chat with us today. Any last words for writers?
Verna: It is important that writers write because they love it—that they are compelled to do so and would feel that a part of their life missing if they weren’t creating on a daily basis. Whether their work is published should be a secondary thought, not a determining factor as to whether their work is validated. Too often rejection curtails someone’s pursuit of writing and that’s sad, or else they are writing for the wrong reasons. Make sure your priorities are in line, that you write because you love it!
C. Hope Clark is author of The Carolina Slade Mystery Series. The debut release of Lowcountry Bribe, was released from Bell Bridge Books in February 2012, the contract acquired by Ms. Verna Dreisbach of Dreisbach Literary Management. Hope is also founder of FundsforWriters.com, a website and newsletter service that reaches 44,000 writers each week. Writer’s Digest recognized FundsforWriters in its 101 Best Websites for Writers for the past twelve years.