Jason Allen Ashlock is co-founder and president of Movable Type Management, where oversees the development of print and digital properties for the company’s authors and media clients. Ashlock, who read the fiction and non-fiction book winners from this year’s query contest, shares his journey, plus offers advice for up and coming authors.
What led you to decide to become a literary manager? Why did you start Movable Type?
I entered publishing through the side door, after doing graduate programs in Religion and American literature. Though I enjoyed the somewhat monastic lifestyle—spending all day with old books in libraries, talking about and writing articles no one would read—I felt a little irrelevant. I had done some work for Fordham University Press, Oxford University Press, etc, and that got me close enough to book publishing to witness the power of getting a book out into the world. I interned at a literary agency for a bit to get my bearings, and then aimed to dive into a job at a publishing house. Then the world fell apart—Fall of 2008, global economic meltdown, half the people I knew in publishing fired. So I was left with a choice: go do something else or launch out on my own. I chose the latter, and launched Movable Type in spring of 2009. The motivating idea then remains the central philosophy now: provide expansive management, be a radical mediator for an author, build great books however they want to be born—print or digital—and try new things, like TheRogueReader.com.
What is your favorite part of being a lit manager? The greatest challenge?
The greatest thrill is the greatest challenge: discovery. Locating the author or project that will draw an audience. We estimate that we get more than 10,000 queries a year, and, though we try to read and respond to as many as possible, it’s difficult. We sign plenty of authors from queries, but we also build just as many ourselves—coming up with an idea, finding the right writer, putting together the deal. However the project gets discovered, there’s still nothing that beats the feeling of seeing the movement from ideation to incarnation. Looking at the book and knowing there is definitive proof that you and that author and editor existed.
What elements make for a good query?
This isn’t original to me, but I use it as my suggested guide: Hook, Book, Look, Cook.
Hook: short, attention-grabbing paragraph to catch the eye. Book: short summary, equivalent to jacket copy. Look: look around the shelf, where does this book belong? Cook: Author bio.
What are the top mistakes new writers make when writing queries?
I’d say trying to be too cute, too clever, or too candid. Query format is maddening, but it has a purpose: it distills the essence of the project and its author so we can encounter it cleanly and assess. Writers should just embrace the format as a writing challenge—like haiku.
What are the differences between writing a fiction and non-fiction book query? What do you look for in a fiction and non-fiction book submissions?
Fiction is all about gripping story; non-fiction is more about the personality at the base of the project. I handle much more non-fiction, and I’ll admit: unless it’s memoir, the first thing I care about is who the author is. Are they qualified, informed, authoritative? Are they someone with credibility in their field and among their target readers? With fiction, the questions are very different, and more related to story: am I hooked, interested? Does the writer present something new and engaging? Do they know that their story is well enough to reduce it to an engrossing paragraph?
What are the three biggest mistakes new writers make and how can they fix them?
Not knowing their category. You must read widely in the genre you wish to be published in.
Going it alone. You must find outside readers, editors, objective critics to better your work.
Capitulating to Social Media. It can be a resource and a reservoir, but it can also be a timesuck and a rabbit hole of misinformation and self-pity. Know when to engage and when to unplug.
What are the current book trends?
If you mean trends within categories, that’s a question that can only be answered in relation to specific categories. If you’re talking Science, it’s the Brain. If crime thrillers, noir is making a comeback. If you mean general book industry trends, it’s been a great year for children’s books. Ebooks continue their vertigo-inducing rise. Self-publishing success stories continue—as do tales of big publishers picking up self-publishing breakouts and repackaging them in print and digital. In general, the control continues to shift toward the author—but along with that control comes all of the responsibility, too.
How do you feel about the self-publishing ebook trend? Should all authors at least try to become published in a traditional manner first?
There’s no right answer anymore. No linear path. Self-publishing is both an unprecedented opportunity and a terrible distraction. The immediacy, the attraction of having produced something—these draw people toward publication who aren’t ready, or who don’t know all that it entails.
Publishing’s not a button, it’s a process, and self-publishing can be an unhelpful expedition. But it can also be perfect for the right writer with the right project and the right audience. We’ve seen our clients has staggering success without a publisher, and we’ve seen them have very modest results, too.
What do you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?
I like to think I’m still at the beginning of my career! This job is an ongoing process of education and reeducation, so the list of things I know now compared to three years ago is endless. And three years from now, I’ll say the same.