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A Conversation with Louisville’s Literary Lions!

By: Gill Holland

Photos By: Molly Markert, Jolea Brown, & Gill Holland



I have always called James Markert the “John Grisham of Louisville,” even though now he has an alias: JH Markert; and JH Markert could be called “Louisville’s Stephen King!” A University of Louisville graduate and former tennis pro, James wrote one of the funniest scripts I have ever read. I ended up producing that film, 2nd Serve, which shot all over Louisville and featured a “rag tag bunch of misfit tennis semi-pros” taking on the country club elites. His first major novel A White Wind Blew, (under its previous title The Requiem Rose) won the prestigious IPPY award (the Independent Publisher Book Award). In 2023, JH Markert released two books: The Nightmare Man, which has sold in multiple countries, and Mister Lullaby, a Barnes & Noble bestseller. His newest book, Sleep Tight, releases in September and already has glowing reviews: author Peter Farris calls James “a clear heir to Stephen King,” and Publishers Weekly says “Markert evokes the style and substance of horror’s golden years.”


For years, James had an agent in New York City, which, in competition with London, is the center of global publishing. Then, a couple of years ago, James introduced me to his new agent, and I was surprised and pleased to learn that she lives here in Louisville with her husband and two sons. Agents can be very hard to find, much less access for information, so we are fortunate that Alice Speilburg was so generous with her time and info in this interview!


A UK graduate with a journalism degree (after a brief stint going pre-vet!), Alice worked as the cops’ beat reporter and assistant news editor at the Kernel, UK’s daily newspaper. She moved to NYC after graduation and worked at the famed global publishing house, John Wiley & Sons, and then became an agent at Howard Morhaim Literary Agency.


I decided it would be fun to ask them each a couple of questions and put the answers in an article for folks who have always wondered how agents work, how writers even find agents, and how agents and writers can develop a great working relationship.


I figured when one is interviewing two of Louisville’s “literary lions,” I should just ask questions and then let them run with it! So here it goes!


GH: Alice, I think most folks can understand the creative urge behind why writers write, but how does one decide to become an agent? What path led you there?


ALICE: “I knew I wanted to work on books, and I thought that meant I wanted to be an editor. But editors still rely on the sales department to tell them which books they’re allowed to work on. I realized that agents have more freedom to follow through on the books they believe in, that they can keep working with that author until the book finds the perfect publishing home. I started doing informational interviews with agents around the city, and soon made a move over to a boutique agency in Brooklyn.”


“The other really fascinating part of agenting is that I work on every stage of the publishing process, from editing and submissions, to contracts, marketing and publicity, and even foreign rights sales. There’s never a dull moment.”


GH: So, James, what do you look for in an agent?


JAMES: “Early on, I think, for any writer, we just look for anyone who will take us! It took me eight years and three unpublished novels before I signed with my first agent at Writers House, which is one of the biggest agencies around, and even though my agent there sold five novels for me, I always felt like a small fish in a big pond, and I never had the personal connection that, over time, I realized I needed and craved. I have that personal connection in abundance with Alice. She ‘gets’ me and understands my vision and ideas. Kudos to her, as I’m not sure that’s always easy to do. I’m now writing under two names, and Alice didn’t even laugh at me when I mentioned writing under a third. I’ve always published just enough to stay relevant, but it took signing with Alice and a rebranding for me to jump to the next level. We hope to keep that momentum going. Alice thinks ‘outside the box’ more than any agent I’ve known, willing to attack new avenues to bring her writer additional income and notoriety. For years I thought I needed my agent to be in New York, but having Alice in town, here in Louisville, where we can meet face to face whenever necessary, has been a true blessing. Alice, for me, has been a career changer and a gem.”


GH: And, Alice, what do you look for in a writer?


ALICE: “First and foremost, I’m looking for good writing. Once I find that, I’m hoping that the writer is a professional, that they can handle constructive criticism, and even see beyond what I’m asking for, to make the book better in their own unique way. I love writers who can brainstorm plot lines with me, who see the story as organic and are interested in shaping it into something we can sell, and further, something that will resonate with readers. I’m also looking for writers who respect our partnership, who are open to collaboration and see me as a part of their team, not just a ticket to get through the pearly gates of publishing.”


James, of course, meets all of these criteria and more. He’s kind and thoughtful, just a wonderful person to work alongside. Which is great, because he continues to write book after book, each one better than the next.”


GH: James and Alice, what have you each learned, and what advice do you have for other writers in terms of expectations from their work and from a relationship with an agent?


JAMES: “My number one bit of advice for any writer, whether seeking an agent or represented / ‘agented’ and seeking a publisher, is patience. The publishing world moves at its own pace and that is generally slower than the writer writes. And rejections, even with accomplished writers, are par for the course. Every writer expects their newest book to be the ‘next best thing’ and while it very well might be, you cannot let ‘softer’ sales get you down. Always remember why you started writing in the first place, because you love it, and not necessarily for success and money, which is the icing on the cake.”


ALICE: “I’ve talked to some writers who are afraid to ask their agents questions, or follow up on something from several months ago. To me, this signals a problem. A relationship between an author and an agent is built on trust, not fear and power. And I would remind those writers that the agent works for the writer, who is paying them a commission of their royalties.”


GH: Alice, what do you think the percentage of manuscripts that you actually read lead you to then sign the writer? (In the film world, I am at like 1% of scripts I read, I sign on to produce)!


ALICE: “If we’re talking about cold submissions, it’s probably less than 1%! After reading a sample, I might request a full manuscript from 3-5% of submissions, but I’ll sign only one in every five of those requests. But the rate is much higher for referrals. Generally, these would be writers who are in a writing group with one of my clients, or someone who was previously represented by an agent who is retiring. Often I’m already familiar with that person’s work, and it’s just a matter of whether I feel confident enough to sell it.”


GH: What percentage of your time do you spend reading and editing manuscripts and what percent or your time are you pitching publishers?


ALICE: “The Venn diagram is more complex than that, but I probably spend more time pitching. It’s an ongoing process, which might start with a conversation with an acquiring editor months before a book is ready to go out on submission. After we send it out, I follow up for months later, until we have a response. Even after a book is published, I update our rights catalog as new reviews and awards are added to a book, so that we can pitch it to foreign publishers and Hollywood. As most publishing folks would attest, our days are gobbled up by emails, so most of our reading happens in the evenings and on weekends. Sometimes I can dedicate a morning to edits, usually on Monday or Friday, when everyone else is also avoiding email.”


GH: I see there are Speilburg Literary agents in several places around the country; does that help in finding regional voices, or are you focused on things that go national?


ALICE: “We are scattered across the map these days, even more so since remote work is more common now, and agents who work for agencies based in NYC can work from anywhere. This is helpful from an industry perspective for a few reasons. We are ‘on the ground’ finding regional writers more naturally, but most agents (myself included) focus on categories of writing more than where a writer comes from, since our editor connections are focused on a category. But this shift away from NYC has given access for so many more people to enter publishing, people who couldn’t necessarily afford to work for $30k in one of the most expensive cities in the country, and people who simply had no desire to move to a big city. As readers (because all of us in publishing are readers!), we’re drawn to voices that might feel familiar, so having a broader range of people enter the industry, as agents, should theoretically invite a wider range of writers into the submissions that publishers are considering. Which is to say, I’m focused on things that go national, but if I find something brilliant that also captures the bright anticipation of a spring morning in Kentucky, when the dogwoods are in bloom and jockey silk decorations hang on every door, I’m going to be drawn to it in a way that other agents might not be.”


You can find more information on both James and Alice on their websites: jamesmarkert.com and speilburgliterary.com.

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