Preparing Your Manuscript For Pitching Agents With Renee Fountain

How can you make sure your manuscript is ready for submission to an agent — or for publication if you go indie? What are the benefits and challenges of traditional publishing? Will they really do all the marketing for you? Renee Fountain talks about these things and more in today’s interview.

In the intro, Referencing and citations [Self Publishing Advice]; on the WSJ talking about AI, music and media; Behind the scenes of Pilgrimage [BookBrunch]; how a chapel visit in Zambia led to a published short story [X @mwanabibi]

This episode is sponsored by Publisher Rocket, which will help you get your book in front of more Amazon readers so you can spend less time marketing and more time writing. I use Publisher Rocket for researching book titles, categories, and keywords — for new books and for updating my backlist. Check it out at

This show is also supported by my Patrons. Join my Community at 

Renee Fountain has more than three decades in the publishing industry, including being a literary agent, a developmental editor, and story analyst. She is the president of Gandolfo Helin & Fountain Literary Management and founder of Gryphon Quill Editing.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below. 

Show Notes

  • Main issues seen with manuscript submissions
  • Is your manuscript overwritten?
  • Tips on pacing
  • What is developmental editing?
  • Key elements of a pitch package and query letter
  • Will traditional publishers do all the marketing for you?
  • Using an agent to get a TV or film deal vs. going indie
  • Dealing with rejection
  • Cash flow management in traditional publishing

You can find Renee at or

Transcript of Interview with Renee Fountain

Joanna: Renee Fountain has more than three decades in the publishing industry, including being a literary agent, a developmental editor, and story analyst. She is the president of Gandolfo Helin & Fountain Literary Management and founder of Gryphon Quill Editing. So welcome to the show, Renee.

Renee: Thank you very much. Great to be here.

Joanna: Yes, indeed. So first up—

Tell us a bit more about you, how you got into the publishing industry, and what you do now.

Renee: Well, I’ve loved books since I was a little kid. I was that kid getting yelled at for reading under the covers with a flashlight when I was supposed to be sleeping.

So after a bunch of boring jobs, I wanted to do something I love. So I was living in San Diego at the time, and Harcourt Brace was the only publisher there. So I thought, I’m going to do that. I started in the very boring division of accounting guides before landing a coveted spot in children’s books. I eventually moved back to New York City, just in time for 9/11. So that kind of dashed my hopes of growing my publishing empire.

Now I’m wearing a few hats. I’m a literary agent—when I did come back to New York, I did go with Simon and Schuster eventually. So now I’m wearing a few hats.

I’m a literary agent. I’m a developmental editor, working with writers in my private business. I’m also on the faculty of Manuscript Academy, working with writers there. I’m also writing reviews for Kirkus Indie because it’s one of the few ways I get to keep my own writing skills sharp while dipping my toe in the indie pool.

Joanna: A portfolio career, as they call it.

Renee: Sure, why not?

Joanna: I say I’m a multi-passionate creative, so don’t put me in a one-genre box! Now, when you pitched me, it was really interesting. You said,

“I get a lot of manuscript submissions that are just not query ready.”

I was like, oh, my goodness, that is a super juicy topic. So let’s get into that. What are the main issues you see with those manuscript submissions?

Renee: Mostly it’s the writing, whether at a line level or the overall story structure. It could be the writing isn’t strong enough yet or the word count may be too high for the genre they’re writing. It’s mostly due to loose writing, bad pacing, excessive description, or the scene goes on way too long.

Or what I call “story for story sake.” Just telling the reader a lot of stuff that doesn’t really matter in the big picture, no matter how interesting it is. You’ll know if you have that if you take out that section and it still makes sense. So it’s just a lot of things just aren’t quite gelling yet.

I’ve talked to so many people that are just like, “Well, I want to work on a new project, so I just need to get it out there.” Like it’s a time limit, and you’ve got to shove it out the door. You really don’t. You really need to take your time.

Joanna: There’s a few things to come back on there. I want to address the word count first because this is really interesting, and people don’t really understand why word count is an issue.

Could you talk a bit more about word count for some of the most common genres and why it’s a problem if it goes on too long?

Renee: I hear a lot of talk about they say that for my first book, I shouldn’t exceed X amount of words. Well, if your story holds it, then it’s fine. The problem is when you say, “Oh, Renee, I’ve written this 150,000-word romance.” It’s like, mmm, probably not.

I mean, I know you wrote it, but you probably have a lot of stuff in there that doesn’t need to be there. So genre in general has a word count that you should kind of be shooting for.

A thriller can be done between 70 and 90, depending on the story. Fantasy is one of the few things that are going to go above 100. That’s really what we’re looking for. You know, you talk about red flags when you see a query, it’s like if I see 150,000-word romance, I know there’s a problem.

Joanna: So back in the day, I understood it to be that word count was very much about spine size. So you mentioned there thrillers, 70,000 to 90,000. I write thrillers, but I write shorter thrillers than that. I mean, 70 would be the highest.

When most books are sold online, how big a deal is spine size?

Or is it more about, for example, editorial budget for 150,000 words is much more than a 60,000-word book?

Renee: Well, I mean, with George R.R. Martin still getting published with his microscopic font in his giant 1000-plus page books, like I say, he’s still sticking in genre, but I don’t know how much times have changed now.

Editing in the Big Five, they really want you to do all that heavy lifting before it gets to them. Things have evolved, it’s changed.

I never really thought of it in terms of spine size so much as what the story tends to hold. So if you’ve ever seen 150,000-page romance, that’s quite the book. You have to imagine it’s overwritten.

Now, opposed to going the other direction of having something where the word count is too small. Like if you said, “Renee, I wrote this 52,000-word romance,” or whatever it is, the problem becomes pricing at that point. They really like the sweet spot of around 70. They really don’t like it under that because of the pricing issue.

Joanna: Yes, this is so funny. I feel like we’ve been so boxed in with pricing because of Amazon’s $9.99 cap as well. I read a lot of nonfiction too, and nonfiction can be shorter and readers will pay more. It really is only a fiction issue with pricing, I think.

Renee: Yes, you expect nonfiction to be a slightly lower count. Somewhere in the 60s and higher, depending on the topic. I think where nonfiction comes in is that you can be more direct in whatever it is, the issue that you’re talking about.

It can also go higher. If it’s a narrative nonfiction, you’re going to another 320-page, 350-page book. So it all varies within there too, but yes, they can hold a lower count.

Joanna: Well, let’s come back to the word ‘overwritten.’ You know what that means, but it’s very hard to know what it means when you’re the author.

What are some ways that an author could analyze their own manuscript to find whether or not they have overwritten?

Or you mentioned story for story sake. How do people know that they have these problems without working with an editor first?

Renee: Well, I think with a lot of stuff with authors, it’s tough. You can be a great writer, but you’ve been working on it so long, you can’t see the forest for the trees anymore, and your brain fills in all the gaps.

So sometimes it’s hard to see it for yourself, and that’s where you get a fresh pair of eyes. Whether that’s a professional editor, or whether that’s another author that you admire, that their books are good.

Anybody who understands pacing because that’s where it’s all going to come into, the fact that you have the story for story sake. You’re writing this long scene, and you’re describing everything on the person’s desk and everything on the walls, trying to “set the scene,” but none of it is really that important.

You’re giving the reader a lot to remember and think about. Whereas if on that desk was a secret relic, that magical thing, yes, you’re going to say, “among the pens and the other stuff, you’ve got this relic.” That’s the part we’re going to remember.

The idea is if you take some of this extraneous stuff out and the story keeps moving forward, like you’ve not missed it. If it’s like you had to know about this part, you of course, don’t take that stuff out.

It’s when you take the stuff out and nothing is missed and the story is still whole, that’s when you know you’re just giving a lot of information.

I’ve read books where the information was fun, I enjoyed reading it, but in the real big picture, it didn’t have anything to do with it. It was just taking up a lot of real estate for no productive reason.

Joanna: You also mentioned before, that feeling of ‘just get it out there.’ I totally understand that. I mean, sometimes we’re just sick of our own books.

Interestingly, as self-published authors, obviously we can just upload, publish, and it can be selling the same day. So there is a sort of positive sense of getting it out there more quickly.

What tips can you give us around patience or coming back to something with fresh eyes after waiting?

How can we do that? Is it just a matter of leaving it aside for a time?

Renee: Yes, and actually, I wrote an article on that on my Substack of how patience pays off. In the sense that with you guys, and especially you, Joanna, that have had a lot of books out there, you know what to do here, and you know when your stuff is finished.

These first-time authors a lot of the times are like, I just have to hurry up and get this published. They don’t realize that you’re just detracting from the possibility because you don’t get a second bite at the apple.

Usually, when you’re tired of that project, or it’s not quite right, or you haven’t sent it to an editor, or as I said, other person that can give you actual feedback, put it in the drawer for a little while.

I mean, this is why painters turn around their paintings so they don’t look at it for a couple of days, and when they turn it back around, they can see where the improvement needs to be made.

So there is no deadline to rush it out the door as a traditional publishing person because no one will pick it up because it’s not ready. You knew that when you did it, but you were just hoping that someone would love it enough to fix it. That rarely, rarely happens.

Joanna: You also mentioned pacing a couple of times.

What are some tips around pacing?

Renee: Well, that’s hand in hand with the overwriting and bringing scenes that last way too long. You’re getting mired down in all these details that really aren’t moving the story forward or enhancing your story in any way. So that will drag down the pacing.

So if I’m slogging through three or four pages of what’s on a person’s desk, only to have someone walk in say, “Hey, would you like that glass of water now?” and they leave the room, what was that for?

I’m not saying that everything has to happen in a split second. I can appreciate the slow burn, but there’s that fine line between just having the words there just to have them, rather than having them be productive and add to the story.

If you’re spending a lot of time writing about things, introducing a character, “Oh, he was bullied as a child. Now he’s got these dark thoughts,” and on and on. Then all of a sudden, he’s gone. You never see him again. He just got off the school bus, and you decided to tell me all about this person who got off the school bus, but he doesn’t show up again.

If you take that out, it doesn’t affect the story. You leaving it in, I’m reading this, and that’s kind of slogging the pacing a little bit.

Joanna: I feel like the biggest shift of this, certainly for me as a writer who’s been doing this a while now, is changing my head from my author head to a reader head. Obviously, as an editor, you’re acting as a reader as well.

So how can we do that? I mean, I guess we’ve talked about getting some distance. For example, I’ll tell you how I do my own self edits. I will print out my draft two pages to a page, so it looks more like a book. So you can fold it up, and it would be like a book.

Then I hand edit with a pen on paper, and I scribble all over it. The font I use is different, so it’s not on the screen. So this kind of helps me disconnect.

Some of my hand edits

Have you got any tips for other people to change your head around?

Renee: I think that’s a great tip. It’s a matter of stepping away, getting some fresh eyes, and then doing something like that, or reading it out loud. If you’re reading it out loud, especially with your dialogue, that’s a great way to fix dialogue that’s going on too long, or is too on the nose, or whatever.

If you read it out loud, then you can see that you’re going on and on and on about something. Then you’re like, well, I can say this so much more succinctly and have way more impact and not lose anything in the story as a whole.

Joanna: Yes, it is difficult. Again, it’s very interesting, I think it takes a number of books before an author can be more confident in their voice.

How have you seen authors develop their voice over the years? Is it a matter of developing creative confidence over time?

Renee: Yes, I absolutely do. I have a client that I’ve worked with a number of times. He’s a veteran, and his writing feels like it’s more cathartic for him. It’s a lot of very angry stuff. It’s not necessarily well thought out, etc.

Then a couple months later, I’ll hear from again. A year later, I’ll hear from him again. He’s like, I wrote this new romance thing because he’s got it all out of his mind. This stuff was way different, and that’s what I would tell him.

He’s like, do you think we should submit the other stuff? I said, you know what, step away for a little while and go back to it. Then you’ll see that you got out what you wanted to say, but maybe now you know how you want to say it a little bit more gently, a little bit more productively, if you would.

He’s done that, and he’s come back and said, you’re right. He realized it was not ready to be to be sent.

Joanna: That takes some maturity.

Renee: You’ll get that with your practicing of writing. The more you write, the more mature you get. I mean, I can see how my writing has changed. I was reading stuff from 1985, and I was laughing. I’m like, oh, my god, what was I thinking?

Joanna: In 2022, I rewrote my first three novels which I had self-published in 2009/2010. I was like, I’ve become a lot better writer, and because those three novels were the beginning of a 13-book series, it felt important to rewrite.

It’s funny, you said earlier, you don’t get a second bite of the apple or whatever, but as independent authors we do. We can do that. I think you meant if you’re pitching an agent. Although, people get their rights back, don’t they, and often rewrite things.

Renee: Well, that’s a road that can’t go back to the traditional. That’s the same thing as an indie writer, you cannot pitch most—I’m not saying every—most agents, including myself, cannot take anything that’s been previously published in any way.

Whether it was just online or whether it was out there online but didn’t sell anything, I can’t have anything. In traditional publishing contracts, it’s going to state that this has never been out there.

Now, if it’s been a long time and you have rewritten 80% of the book, it’s different then. It’s the same with the second bite at the apple for when you’re sending to an agent.

Do you know how many times it’s very frustrating for an agent to get, “Here’s my manuscript, I hope you’ll love it.” Then literally a week later, “Oh, I redid a whole bunch of sections. Here’s the new one, try this one instead.” Someone has done that to me like four times, and I’m like, no, I can’t.

Then there was times where I’ve gotten one that said, “I sent this to you last year. You gave me some great notes on it. I wanted you to know I completely rewrote it. Will you look at it again?” That is usually very okay to do it that way.

Joanna: Right, we’re going to come back to the agent stuff. Let’s just talk about developmental editing because you do that. I feel like the word editor is so difficult because it can mean so many things.

What does a developmental editor do that is different to a line editor, a copy editor, a red-marks-all-over-the-page editor?

Renee: Well, a developmental editor could still give you red marks, but they look at the whole big picture. I can’t help myself from line editing because I’ll see it and I’m like, no, that’s not right. So I’ll do a little of that as well.

Otherwise, they look to see that the story starts in the right place, the scenes are all necessary and productive, like we talked about before, meaning they serve a purpose to the story and move the story forward, back to pacing.

They often see where the story can be improved by moving some things around, adding or deleting things. If something is said a certain way, you can say, hey, what if you said it this way? Or what if you told that in dialogue? Or what if you showed it this way?

So that’s what they do, it’s just like moving things around. Where line editors and copy editors are down to the nitty gritty of grammar, continuity, cohesiveness of style, consistency, making sure the words used relay the intention that the writer was trying to.

I took a copy editing class through the University of Chicago, and that was very not for me. You have to keep a style sheet. There’s a lot of technical things that go along with it. It’s a completely different animal.

Joanna: Yes, I think you have to go with what your strengths are and seeing that story as a whole.

It’s interesting, you said ‘checking whether the story starts in the right place.’

I feel like some people won’t understand what you mean by that. So could you expand on that?

Renee: Sure. I just read one recently where I got all this information, all this preamble, and nothing was really happening. There was no inciting incident, nothing was really happening in like the first 10 pages.

Then by the time I got to chapter three, some major event happened, and now it was off to the races. I said, you might want to bring that in the beginning and less preamble of where nothing was going on.

As an agent, I can read within the first five pages to see voice and style and everything like that. So you’ve got to get to certain benchmarks, or you’ve got to stop turning the pages because it’s taking too long to get there. Like I said, fine line between slow burn and bad pacing.

Joanna: Yes, and even if it’s a slow burn, you’ve got to hook the reader. So I read fiction on a Kindle, and I’m pretty much a three click on a Kindle Paperwhite. So I mean, that’s not many pages.

If I download a sample, I’ll know pretty quickly whether I want to read something. Then if I get to the end of the sample, I will usually buy the book because I am hooked in.

That inciting incident, something happening, is a genre specific thing. The reader has to know, this is the book I want to read now.

Renee: Well, yes. You’re showing that this character is going to go on a journey to get a want and a need, and we’ve got to know what sets them on that journey.

You’re going to want to know that within a certain period of time, or we’re just reading about these people’s lives, and it’s not really going anywhere.

If you’re, as a reader, sitting there and you’re a couple chapters in going, what’s happening, where’s this going? It’s harder to say that if you’re reading like a finished book, as opposed to submissions that come in. I’m talking about traditional again.

So there’s certain kinds of rules that are adhered to, in a sense. I mean, not hard and fast. You know if the rules are meant to be broken. Yes, it’s tough. Okay, so once the manuscript is in shape, many authors want to pitch an agent.

Joanna: What are the key elements of a pitch package that authors need to put together in order to make it through the first mass delete of an agent’s email pile?

Renee: A strong query letter is key. I’m actually going to be teaching a masterclass at StoryFest in South Carolina on this because it’s the first thing that gets you noticed. It’s one of the basic things, but it takes a lot of practice and patience to get it just right.

So you want to have your strong query letter. Keep it to a single page, 250 to 350 words is best. If it takes more, that’s fine. Succinctness and showing that you can tell your story and give all this information shows that you’ve tightened your writing up.

If I’m reading a three-page query letter, I’m going to guess that their manuscript is overwritten as well. So it’s very important to have that.

I’ve created a helpful template for query letters that can be found on my site under the resource tab. That’s free for anybody to use. I did a proposal one as well and it kind of walks you through the process.

That brings me to synopsis. You should have a one- to two-page synopsis on hand in case an agent asks for it. I always ask for them. It’s because you’re going to invest a lot of time reading these books.

While the voice and the writing seem great, four or five hours into this book, you don’t want to suddenly see that it goes off the rails, and suddenly there’s a donkey flying through the air throwing glitter everywhere. Then you’re like, wait, what just happened? You don’t get the time back.

So when I’m reading, and I see the voice and the structure, and everything is all lining up, I like to look at the synopsis to see the story arc itself, to see how it’s going to play out. Sometimes I can see errors there and say, listen, that doesn’t really track.

I may read forward before I make my assessment, they just maybe didn’t write the synopsis as strong as they should. I’ll still read forward to see if it actually played out in the manuscript.

If you’re a nonfiction author, strong query letter and a strong proposal is very key. Like I said, templates are under my resources if you want to take a look at that.

Joanna: Just so people know, what website should they be looking for there?

Renee: It’s

Joanna: Great, we’ll come back to that at the end. Just on the query letter, let’s just cover a bit more detail now. So obviously, we need to talk about the story or the nonfiction project, whatever it is.

Should we also include elements of our sales, our platform?

Like I’m an established indie author, or there might be newer indie authors than me, but should we be including that information as well, to kind of talk more about the author? We’re always told we should talk about author platform, basically.

Renee: Yes, you should.

Indie or traditional, it’s understood that you are going to be the marketer of your book. You’re going to do most of the heavy lifting.

Traditional publishing will do like very basic stuff, but it’s up to the author.

When traditional publishers are looking at a book, if you have a strong platform, if you have a lot of high sales, that will get you absolutely looked at. So definitely showing that you have a strong platform and high sales is great.

You can say, “I’m a successful indie author making my traditional publishing debut,” and go on after that in your letter.

At the end, you can talk about your sales, but your sales have to be fairly high. You know, 3000 is great, I would be very impressed with that, but publishers want to see it as high as possible.

At the converse of that, if you don’t have any sales or you don’t have a high platform, take the time to start building your platform more. Your followers, your social media, all that for your reach.

Just because you don’t have any sales, don’t let that stop you. Everybody starts somewhere. So if it’s not impressive, don’t talk about it. If it is impressive, absolutely. Put it in red, put it in big giant letters.

Joanna: Yes, but start with the story. So I guess, “I’m writing to pitch this project. Here’s a bit about the story. Then here’s my platform. If you’re interested, let me know.”

Should we pitch multiple agents at the same time?

Renee: Yes, but not in a way that you’re just throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall to see what sticks. Research the agents.

Joanna: What are some tips for finding a good match for a book and an author?

Because there’s a lot of agents out there.

Renee: It’s simply the research. Whether you’ve read a book that you really like, and you’re like, this is just like mine, or this is the type of book that this agent handles. Look in the acknowledgments, find out who the agent is for that book.

Look on Publishers Marketplace, Manuscript Wish List. I think Writer’s Digest provides some guidance. I thought I saw something from Reedsy not too long ago where they put up the agents.

I wasn’t among them, by the way. I stay off the grid. I don’t use QueryTracker or other similar sites, because they’re probably a good place, but that’s not the way I work.

Attend writing events like PNWA, or Killer Nashville, or whatever fits in your genre, to see their list of agents. They post them up there, who’s attending, what they’re looking for. Then you can go back for the last two or three years, and I think you can garner a lot of information that way.

Joanna: Yes, I mean, it’s better to pitch five agents you’ve heavily researched than just scatter-gunning twenty-five.

Renee: It’s not good to just throw it out there. Also, too, remember you want to work with this person. Maybe there are agents that you’ve identified from past things that you’ve been doing, or books that you’ve seen, or other authors, so pitch them first.

Maybe you have your top five, or whatever it is. Then pitch ones that are relevant to what you’re doing. Don’t pitch a military agent your romance book.

Joanna: Yes, very important.

Are agents and publishers open to indie authors pitching?

I mean, you mentioned there, if you have a good platform, mention it, if you don’t, don’t mention it. But are they open to it? I mean, obviously even if you don’t mention it, you’re going to have to mention it when you have a conversation.

Renee: It’s not something to hide at all. I’m just saying what will kind of work for you and what will work against you. Saying, “I’m an indie author. I didn’t do very well, and I have no sales.” You don’t want to lead with that.

Joanna: Not a good start.

Renee: Absolutely, agents are open to it. Just like I said, you can’t pitch a book that you’ve already published. Unless you said, “Listen, I published this. I sold 50,000 copies.” Then they’ll be very interested.

You hear about those Wattpad sensations were they had a million Wattpad followers, and then I think it was Simon and Schuster who swooped in and grabbed her. So it all depends, but yeah, you should absolutely go out there, just not with a previously published book.

Joanna: Yes, I think that’s really important. The other thing is, you mentioned before quite briefly, that you are the marketer. I feel like a lot of authors turn away from being an indie author these days because they don’t want to do the marketing.

What sort of marketing can a new author expect with a traditional publisher?

You said they do a little bit. What is that little bit?

Renee: They have a group of reviewers that they’ll send it to. They might include it in some kind of round up. They’re not going to send you on a book tour, you’re not going to go on signings.

You don’t know how many times I get these submissions that say, “I just want to go with a traditional publisher because I want them to do all the marketing for me.” Well, that doesn’t work.

Again, your platform, that’s why it’s important to raise your numbers. They want you to have a ready-made audience who’s already interested in what you have to say and what you’re writing and a fan of your work.

They want you to go on podcasts, and be a guest on a podcast, or a blogger, or something where you’re talking about your book. Some people have access to television shows, and they go on there and talk about their books.

I had a sports agent who would be invited to talk about sports, and then he’d say, “And then here’s my new book.” So you still have to do the main heavy lifting.

Sometimes traditional publishers will say, depending on what your book is, maybe they’ll have a set of magazines that would work well for a piece that you could write an article on, or something to that effect.

Again, it’s only when you’re frontlist. It’s only leading up to your launch. Then they’re onto the new frontlist book to give them the attention. So you’ve really got to try to get the irons in the fire yourself as well. It’s an unfortunate part. I didn’t say it was easy.

Joanna: No, it’s not easy either way. It’s funny, because I feel like traditionally published authors think going indie is the easy way, and indies often think, oh, I’ll just go traditional because then I won’t have to do marketing. So there are pros and cons either way. Given what you said—

What are the benefits of going traditional?

Renee: I was going to ask the indie people that question!

Joanna: But from your perspective.

Renee: I think for a lot of people it’s kind of a goal for them. It’s kind of fun. I mean, not for nothing, having bragging rights of saying St. Martin’s took my book, that’s great. That’s quite a feather in your cap. I think you should do that if that’s what you want to do.

I always tell my clients, the publishing landscape is tough. It really is. I will try so long, sometimes it takes me two years to sell their book, depending on what it is. I will do everything I could, send it out, get some feedback.

Then when I say, listen, I think I’ve exhausted all my possibilities, at least they have the option of self-publishing, a smaller press, going to a hybrid, whatever they want to do to get their book out there. I believed in that book enough, and I’d love to see it out there too.

So you got your bragging rights, the nice feather in your cap, something that I think is wonderful.

You’re also looking at the other side. You’re giving up a big piece of your pie. You’re still doing a lot of the marketing. You may have better distribution the other way.

I don’t know about in the UK, but we don’t have many brick and mortar stores and more. They’ve all been reduced to online. I think there’s a couple of Barnes and Nobles left, but this still happens. There’s still airports and all that you could try to get your book into. I think there’s definitely pros and cons to both sides.

Joanna: Yes, indeed. One of the other things I was considering around this is film and TV rights because your agency looks at that. I mean, there are agents who have relationships with film and TV agents or studios. Is that a better way to go, as well?

For example, I pitched to a person in TV a while back, and they said, “Well, why isn’t your literary agent doing that for you?” I was like, “Oh, well, I’m doing it myself because I’m not with an agent.” So do you think that it’s a benefit to have an agent do that?

Is there a better chance of getting a film or TV deal that way?

Renee: I think some of them require it. Just like the Big Five requires you to have an agent, it’s because they don’t want to deal directly with the author.

So that’s why they want to have the intermediate of an agent to make sure you have representation, make sure that you have someone saying, “They said this, but really, this is what’s gonna happen.” So that’s the pro to having an agent, to do that kind of stuff.

For the most part, film and television, I don’t know if like Amazon Studios doesn’t require an agent or some of those that have popped up in the last few years.

Film and TV, for the most part, are going off of a great story. A lot of times it could be high sales figures that catch their eye, but it also has to do with what’s working at the time.

Hallmark, Lifetime, they’re always looking for new stories that fit their profile and demographics. They want an agent to send them their stuff.

When I was optioning books for film and TV at Harcourt, I was obviously only working with my own books, but I would have celebrity managers calling me up going, “Do you have a female-driven vehicle?” She was representing Cher, and it’s like, well, I’ll see what I have.

When I was a scout for CW Television Network, I looked for the story and what was interesting, whether it was indie or not. It could have been a magazine article, but whatever worked for adaptation.

So I was doing double duty back then, running a book review site. So I was reading all sorts of different things. So in that aspect, just because you’re an indie author, doesn’t mean you can’t pursue that avenue.

There are some agents that just do—like I don’t represent the script, so I don’t go the other way—but there might be some other agents that take your indie book and sell for film rights. We tend to work with just the books that we represent when we do that.

Joanna: Then just coming back to something you said earlier. If you take on a manuscript, for example, it might take a few years, or it might not even happen.

What stops a publisher from publishing a book or taking on a book?

Is it just their list, they don’t want that kind of book right now? Or a timing problem? Like if it’s gone past your level of quality, there’s this next level at a publishing house.

Renee: It could be a lot of things. A rejection by them would be, “This doesn’t quite fit in my list,” or “I have something similar,” or what I always hear the same is, “Paranormal doesn’t sell.” I’m like, it doesn’t sell because you guys won’t take any.

Joanna: It’s selling pretty well for indie authors!

Renee: Exactly. It’s like, well, maybe take one and see how it sells. I understand there’s tropey stuff, and I found a werewolf one which I usually don’t take. I say please don’t send me witches, warlocks, werewolves, vampires, zombies.

I read one from one of our indie authors, actually, she came in as an indie. I thought she put a nice twist on an old trope. It came close at Macmillan, but didn’t quite pass the finish line. You know, it happens.

Joanna: What should an author do with these rejections?

I mean, I find being an indie author very empowering because you don’t have to ask permission. Any success and any failure is entirely my fault, basically. No one’s in control except me, so I can just keep trying to make things happen.

Obviously, the same as anyone else, some books sell better than others. That’s kind of the way it is. So I feel like I’ve never experienced the kind of rejection that people get submitting to agents or to traditional publishing. So how can authors deal with that?

Renee: It’s tough.

It’s tough not to take it personally, but I have to tell you, do not take it personally. I’ve seen them pass on brilliant writing and brilliant books.

It’s either because they were so overwhelmed with the work on their plate already that they have their stable of agents that they want to look at, or they just weren’t in the mood. I don’t know, but it is not personal.

Like I said, if it comes to me, and I’m like, this kept me interested and really thought this was great, and then I send it out, I’m dealing with the rejection along with everybody else. It’s like, this is really good, did you read it?

That’s what happens when we’re in a subjective industry. My fantastic is someone else’s meh.

Joanna: Yes, exactly. It really is, isn’t? As a reader, you know, someone can say, “Oh, this is an amazing book.” I’m like, oh, no, not for me.

Renee: “I couldn’t put it down.” Then you’re like, “I can’t pick it up.”

Joanna: Exactly, and sometimes I’ll try books because they’re just so popular. Then I’ll be like, I don’t understand why this is so big.

Renee: Sometimes we have conversations, my partner and I, and she’s like how did this get out there, but this won’t go? Well, it’s like, listen, we don’t know what kind of blackmail is happening out there.

Joanna: What the hell is going on?!

Renee: What dirt people have on the other?! I don’t know. But again, it’s subjective.

Joanna: Yes, and it’s always changing. I feel like the other piece of advice is to just write another book, because as creative people, that’s what we do. I feel like the more ideas I have, the more ideas I have. The time problem is getting everything written.

I have two particular projects I am thinking of pitching, but I love to move on so fast.

I was thinking, like let’s say this project I’m working on right now, let’s call it the vineyard book, if I finished that, and then I pitch an agent, it might take, I don’t know, six months—maybe never, obviously—but let’s say it takes six months to get an agent.

Then it takes six months to a year, you said two years, to get a publishing deal. Then it takes a publisher a year or two years to get the book in the world. Is that about right?

Renee: Well, some of it. Depending on how quick you get an agent, that’s the first step. Then for it to go to publishing, you can hear back sometimes within two weeks of “no, thank you,” or it could take a year.

So it’s somewhere in between two weeks and a year that you’ll hear back, depending on who you’ve sent it to and how much stuff is on their plate.

Then, if you do get, “Yeah, we’d like to greenlight this,” and when I said it took me two years to sell something, it was because, again, it’s timing. We talked about it, it may not be right now, but maybe it’ll rewrite later.

So it just took me two years that we sold it, finally. Then she wrote her second book with them. So it’s just finding the haystack, then finding the haystack with the needle in it, you know? Then if you get a book deal, right now they are backed up to where it’s taking about two years to pub, unless they fast track you. Although I haven’t seen that lately.

Joanna: You can get some money on signing, but then you get paid on publication.

Renee: Correct. It’s half on signing, and usually the other half on publication.

Joanna: Yes, so just keep that in mind, people, in terms of cash flow management.

Renee: Okay, not on publication. Let’s just say on accepted final manuscript.

Joanna: But they’re in control of that, they can just send it back with some more issues. That’s not up to the author.

Renee: We don’t usually try to drag it out.

Joanna: It’s so interesting. Like, why are we in this industry, Renee? It’s so hard!

Renee: Because we love it!

Joanna: We love books!

Renee: Back to one of your other points, too, is your first book may not be your first book published. It’s like, “I love your voice, I love your writing. The story, not so much. Send me your next project.” That’s what I’ll tell them. Then the next one might be a really great story, and then you send that one out.

So they get their foot in the door, you get published on the second book you wrote, or third or fifth or tenth. Then you get that first one out there, and then the publisher—if it sells through, you have to sell through because you won’t get your second book in there if it doesn’t.

Now they’ve sold through, and they ask what else are they working on. Then you go, “Here, I have these other options for you.” At that point, they’ll be more apt to edit you or help shape up what it is that you sent.

Joanna: You mentioned ‘sell-through’ there. Can you just explain that?

Renee: Sure. Let’s say when you sell it, let’s say you were given a $5,000 advance. There’s a price for your book, and you get a percentage of that wholesale price. So it’s not retail, unless it’s negotiated that way, but let’s just go with wholesale numbers.

So you get the couple of points on the wholesale price, and that goes against your advance. So you have to sell X amount of books at your 8%, usually, depending on what you negotiate, and that goes towards that $5000. Then when you sell enough and that $5000 is paid off, then you start seeing royalties.

Joanna: Yes, I think that’s really important too. The word advance means advance against royalties, and yet people lose track of what that actually means.

In that case, it’s really interesting because here in the UK, I have one author in mind in particular who got a massive, massive deal, like really, really huge, and then we never heard from her again.

Whereas I know other authors who started on much lower advances, but sold through like multiple, multiple times. Then the next time, they got a better deal. It’s hard to know which way is a better way to go.

Renee: Yes, it is. As an indie author, you’re not used to getting an advance anyways. So if it was a matter of between getting a lower advance and knowing that you could sell through and getting your royalties, there really is no difference, right? So it’s six of one, half dozen of another.

If you don’t know that you’re strong in the marketing aspect. I’ve had authors come to me from like St. Martin’s and whatever, and they didn’t take his next book because they didn’t sell through. Then he came to me without me realizing that, and then I found out real quick why. I sold the book, and they did nothing.

Joanna: I guess the other thing is —

Don’t be an idiot and treat people nicely, because it’s not that big an industry really, is it?

Renee: You put your book out there, you always have to be selling, you always have to be working at it. Building your platform, getting the word out. I’m not that kind of person, which is why I’m off the grid. I’m by referrals, usually only, or when I go to events and meet people. That’s how I build my list.

It’s always trying to get your book out there. Obviously, if you sell through, like I said, you’ve got it made.

Also, what helps selling through that advance is if your book is right for other countries. They’ll sell foreign rights, and all those other things get an advance as well. That goes to pay back the advance that they gave you so you can earn out faster.

Joanna: Fantastic. Well, we’re out of time. I do want to just ask—

If people want to pitch you, tell them what you are looking for?

In terms of clients for editing, or whether or not they can contact you.

Renee: Well, I’m usually into like really great writing, really good voices, and really great stories. I mean, it’s more easy to tell you what I don’t take. I’m not a big fan of the post-apocalyptic depressing books, or erotica, poetry, westerns, the vampire, zombie, etc. as previously said.

I find it very difficult right now for fantasy, like with elves and magic and that other world, for me. There’s a lot of other agents out there that do very well with that. I just find that that’s not really my thing.

I do enjoy great chick lit, although the editors don’t seem to. I love humor, if it makes me laugh, especially. Thrillers, mysteries, all that. Also, I don’t do children’s books, even though my career was in that. I don’t take picture books or middle grade. I do handle YA. Again, it’s got to be based on story. You know, that’s the clincher.

Joanna: Nonfiction? Memoir?

Renee: Oh, absolutely. I do a lot of nonfiction. If you guys go to my agency site,, you’ll see the book covers that we’ve done. I’ve done a lot of nonfiction.

If you go to, under the tab of my work you’ll see a lot of the books that I helped get out there, and worked on proposals with the authors, and edited the books, etc. I think that’s a great place to start there because it kind of hones down to specifically me more on that site.

Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Renee. That was great.

Renee: I appreciate your time. It was great to be here.

The post Preparing Your Manuscript For Pitching Agents With Renee Fountain first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • July 11, 2024