Today, we have literary agent Maria Ribas of Howard Morhaim Literary Agency on the blog. Not only did Maria give us a very insightful interview; she’s also agreed to answer any questions you might have for her! So please feel free to leave your questions in the comments section. Maria will be popping in later to answer them! Please note that Maria only represents non-fiction. Thank you, Maria, for being here with us!
AN: How did you become an agent?
Maria: I started out as an editor, actually, and that was because I decided against trying the academic track. I always knew that books were it for me, and despite the threat of certain poverty and unemployment, I never considered majoring in anything but English. My last summer before I graduated college, I decided it was time to decide if I would be an English professor, an editor at a publishing house, or a waitress (obviously the only possible career paths for an English major). I spent half of the summer interning at Atria at Simon & Schuster and the other half writing my honors thesis on Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (which I was lucky enough to get paid to do, after I won a Research Fellowship). The internship was unpaid and involved commuting about three hours a day into New York City, but I still loved it. I figured that if I loved the business of books more than the academic analysis of books, then I just had to get into publishing. Plus, free books!
After college, I started as an editorial assistant at Harlequin Nonfiction, worked my way up to assistant editor, then moved to Adams Media as an associate editor. There I worked on a lot of in-house generated projects where I was coming up with nonfiction book ideas and scouting qualified authors, so it just felt natural to do the same work as a literary agent. And now I realize that maybe I should have been an agent all along—it’s such a creative, independent job, and it’s deeply rewarding to work only on the books I’m most passionate about.
AN: Many of my readers are aspiring authors and are actively looking for their first agent. Can you tell them a little bit about what the author/agent relationship is like? What can they expect after they sign with an agent?
Maria: An agent is a lot of things to an author: coach, cheerleader, advocate, mediator, strategist. I personally like to be very hands-on with my authors, and I love the creative energy of crafting a vision for a brand together and then putting the pieces in place to execute that vision. Nonfiction is very platform-driven, so I focus heavily on providing guidance for authors so that they can build, grow, and refine their platforms. Plus, I’m a big geek for digital media and marketing, so I love getting deep into brand building.
AN: What are you looking for right now in nonfiction submissions and not getting? Are there any subjects that are near and dear to your heart? And on the flip side, what are you getting too much of?
Maria: I did quite a few home design books as an editor, and I’d love to do more as an agent. I also have a soft spot for self-help and inspirational books in the vein of Daring Greatly and Stitches. I love practical nonfiction because I really believe it helps people live better lives, and so any book that is geared toward self-improvement—whether it’s improving your health, your cooking skills, your home, or your spiritual life—is appealing to me.
As for what I’d like to see less of: I still seem to get fiction queries, although I don’t represent any fiction whatsoever. I’m really not the best person for your novel, I promise!
AN: What is one thing about you that a writer would be surprised to learn?
Maria: I’m a first generation American—my parents moved to the U.S. from Brazil when they were in their 20s, and my grandparents moved to Brazil from Spain when they were in their 20s. So I grew up speaking a jumble of Spanish, Portuguese, and English. And then I studied Italian in high school and college and lived in Italy for a few months, just to further confuse things. It’s a bit of a wonder that I can string together a sentence in English at all. I think I have my good ol’ childhood friends, Nancy Drew and those Hardy brothers, to thank for that.
AN: Best piece(s) of advice you can give a writer we haven’t talked about yet?
Maria: I think self-motivation (really, hustle) is the most important component of success. It’s up to you to be hungry enough for your dream, to lay out the path, and to take a few more steps toward it every day, no matter what. Especially when it comes to trying to establish yourself as an expert and build your brand—no one can do that but you.
AN: Are you open to submissions? If so, how should a writer go about submitting?
Maria: I am, and I’d love to see practical nonfiction proposals. Please send a query letter and proposal to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read more about exactly what I’m looking for on my website, www.cooksplusbooks.com, or follow me on Twitter (@maria_ribas) for publishing miscellany!
You can find Maria’s website here.
You can follow her on Twitter here.