In addition to writing workshops and craft talks, Miami Writers Institute offers writers the chance to discuss their projects with Melissa Danaczko, a Miami-based literary agent. We spoke to Melissa over the phone about what to expect from a manuscript consultation, as well as what she looks for in a query letter, what she’s been reading lately, and her outlook on the publishing industry.
MBF: You’re doing manuscript consultations for the Miami Writer’s Institute. What does a manuscript consultation look like? What do you talk about with the writers?
MD: Usually it’s based on a query letter, synopsis, or some sample pages. The author provides some material that I can look at beforehand and I’ll take notes and we’ll have a conversation about it. I really want to point out what the author is doing well in their query letters and their writing, and what could potentially be reworked to make it more appealing to an agent, who is going through hundreds and hundreds of queries every month.
What the agents want to know is what the book is about, plain and simple. I’ll often find elaborate notes saying, “Readers have found my novel to be well-paced and the themes are dramatic and haunting.” I’m glad they have people reading and giving notes and that demonstrates they’re taking this seriously, but it doesn’t really tell me anything about the book itself or whether I’m the right person to even consider it.
If in any way the author in the query letter comes across as nasty, that for me is a red flag because it may not be indicative of what’s on the page in their manuscript, but it is indicative of how they’re going to work with me going forward. If you give me bad comp titles I can work with you to find better comp titles. If you are a little bit evasive about what the book is about I can try to extrapolate that from the sample pages. What I’m not going to spend a lot of time doing is working with someone who already seems to have a big chip on their shoulder.
MBF: is there any way to find an agent or publisher without having to send out hundreds of query letters, or do you have to just go through the process?
MD: Some people have been able to find their agent very, very quickly. It’s sort of a matchmaking. First, you want to find somebody who loves your work and knows what to do with your work. But you also want to find somebody who has a compatible style of communication and someone you trust. It can take a while. Unfortunately, that can mean sending out a hundred queries. It could also be that you go to one of these writers’ conferences, you sit down with somebody, and you just click. They love your material and want to see more, and it make it look effortless. I think those are the exceptions to the rule. There are many authors who don’t find a publisher or an agent with their first book. It might be manuscript number three. The early disappointment does not necessarily mean it’s never going to happen for you.
MBF: Other than query letters, how do you find new work?
MD: I do access work digitally with some frequency now. Knowing what’s out there in terms of essays and short stories that are being published is important for anyone in publishing, most especially agents. Looking at the current landscape of where literature is and where it’s going is important. I tend to read several pieces by any one writer before I reach out even if I’m totally blown away. I like to give writers the time to develop their craft, decide what they’re going to be doing as a bigger project. But sometimes I’ll reach out based on a story or essay a writer has done and say, “When you’re ready, please come to me because I’d love to see more work from you.”
MBF: How did you get into publishing and how did you then transition to working as a literary agent?
MD: My first stop in publishing was within a publishing house on the editorial track. I was lucky enough to be going to college in [New York] where most of publishing is based so I was able to do publishing internships throughout the year. It allowed me very quickly to get a job in publishing once I graduated. I started off as an editorial assistant at Doubleday and then worked my way up to senior editor and then I switched over to agenting about a year and half ago and have not looked back since. The decision to switch to agenting was primarily driven by my geographical change. It would have been impossible to continue to work for a New-York based publisher as an editor when living in Miami. As an agent, you get to work a bit more closely with the authors at their earliest stages of development, and then continue to work with them and guide the trajectory of their career.
MBF: What books are you reading now, for fun?
MD: The novel I’m reading now is called Wench by Dolen Perkins Valdez. I’ve also read so many short story collections lately. I just had a baby, so when I was on maternity leave I probably read like twelve story collections, and that was a joy. It really shows you there are some wonderful writers working in that medium.
MBF: Would you ever guide a writer toward short stories first and then try their hand at a novel?
MD: I say writers should write what they want to write. So much of the time it’s about the execution. Very rarely do we work in absolutes in publishing, like, “This is absolutely going to sell. This is absolutely not going to sell.” So, a lot of people talk about short story collections as being difficult to sell, and the larger statistics say that’s true but there are short story collections that break through every year, and maybe if the author had been guided to write a novel or a memoir instead, they wouldn’t have seen that level of success.
MBF: What do you think of the current literary landscape? Do you feel optimistic about literature and its prospects?
MD: The people who read more than ten books a year for the last century has always been relatively small. It hasn’t changed too dramatically. There are a lot of other forms of entertainment vying for our attention. Also, the amount of news people have to process on a daily basis—just the time it takes to consume—is a big factor. it’s been hard to get attention for novels because of the political climate. It feels like there’s so much information coming at you, and all of it’s bad. It’s been harder to get attention for novels and memoirs especially if they’re not dealing with current affairs. But overall, I am optimistic. You kind of have to be. It would be hard to work in this field otherwise. Even though fiction has been hit the hardest in the last few years, there are still so many incredible books that break out and reach their readers. There’s always that potential.