Noah Ballard is an agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd. He received his BA in English from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and began his career in publishing at Emma Sweeney Agency where he sold foreign rights for the agency in addition to building his own client list.
Noah specializes in literary debuts, upmarket thrillers, and narrative nonfiction, and he is always on the look-out for honest and provocative new writers.
David A. Miller, III had a few questions for Noah on how he works with new writers and speaks about trends in the publishing market.
David: As an agent, you work with writers, hopefully, long-term, but who are strangers to you at first. Do you look at more than the work submitted to determine that relationship?
Noah: When I’m meeting writers in person, I look for a positive rapport and a willingness to collaborate. Once a manuscript is sent off to an agent, it is no longer the writer’s alone, and an interest in working with me (and inevitably a publisher) on making the book as strong as possible is often equally as important as the talent on the page. It is that meeting of the minds that leads to a productive relationship together beyond the debut work.
David: Writers often say they became writers because they have to write. What drew you to becoming an agent?
Noah: I became an agent almost accidentally. I was working on a novel at the end of college and had signed with Emma Sweeney Agency. Ultimately nothing came of that novel, but it was my introduction to Emma. When I graduated and returned to the NYC-area, she knew me and my taste, and when a job opened up, she offered it to me. While I still do write from time to time, my passion now is using the experiences I’ve accrued to help other writers accomplish their goals—while keeping in mind what it was like to be on the other end of that relationship.
David: When you get a submission, how far into it do you get before you know this one is not for you?
Noah: I have to trust the writer to tell me their story. I am constantly in search of authentic, grounded writing that will leap off my computer or Kindle screen or the pages I’ve printed out and transport me to another world. Sometimes I can tell from the first sentence that I don’t trust this writer, and sometimes I have to read the whole manuscript. I try to give all the projects I evaluate at least 10-20 pages, but there are tells for a writer who hasn’t found their voice quite yet: excessive dialog, unnecessary detail in the setting or character descriptions, unrealistic movement in the plot, telling and not showing, and/or sentences that don’t flow naturally.
David: What trends in the publishing marketplace attract your attention? (Such as, what genres are hot? Where is electronic publishing going?)
Noah: I try not to follow trends. Publishing moves so slowly that if last summer saw a wealth of novels chronicling toxic female friendships, it’s probably not going to be the trend 18 months later (when a book I sell this fall will come out). That being said, there is a consistent trend in the past two years of authors’ stories becoming just as important as their characters’. Now more than ever in fiction, the adage of “write what you know” resonates with agents and editors. Historically, we’ve looked to a very specific kind of writer (read: white, male, heterosexual, financially privileged) to invent worlds for us. Younger agents and editors are looking for the once-marginalized voices to share their own stories, and accordingly, the line between introspective literary fiction and memoir has blurred with fascinated and diverse results.
Electronic publishing is what it is. E-books put out by the major publishers have plateaued at between 10-25% of a book’s sales. The availability of self-published e-books continues to grow with writers flooding the market with their work—whether as a first choice or as a response to a lack of industry enthusiasm—but I have seen no evidence that the readership for debut authors exists outside of niche non-fiction (ex. Special needs parenting guides, emerging market business guides, organizational how-to/prescriptive, etc.) or outlier genre fiction (E.L. James, Hugh Howey, Lisa Genova, etc.) exists. Amazon has told me that 99% of their Kindle Direct Publishing books sell less than 100 copies.
Noah will be taking pitches at the 2018 GLVWG Write Stuff Conference™ on Saturday, March 24 (advance registration required). When you query or pitch to Noah:
- Do … be polite and respectful.
- Don’t … try to shock or disgust him.
- Do … be confident.
- Don’t … stalk him (you won’t get published and it’s illegal).
- Do … provide a query with just enough info about your finished manuscript (and you) that will make him ask for sample pages. Think of queries as a window display and agents as window shoppers. You want the agents to come in and buy from your shop.
And oh yeah, he lives in Brooklyn. You don’t mess with people from Brooklyn. They go bad loco over tepid literature.
To read more about Noah Ballard, click on the following links:
David Miller has published a spy-adventure novel, “Time Birds,” featuring birds that can travel in time. A second novel, “Bravo 26”, is in the final phase. He has also published ‘A Gift of Love,’ a history of the first 100 years of The Lutheran Home at Topton.
Miller has built a successful creative career in advertising, marketing, and publishing, heading three successful advertising agencies. Accounts included Mack Trucks, Inc., The Lutheran Church in America, major accounting firms in the New York metro, plus timeshare properties from Maine to Aruba.
David recently conducted a poetry workshop for the GLVWG, and will assume the Chairman’s position for the upcoming GLVWG 2018 Anthology.