- How did you become a literary agent?
Publishing is my second career. I got a Master of Library and Information Science from the University of Pittsburgh right after college. Then I worked as a YA librarian. When I decided to move over to the business side of publishing, I applied and was accepted to the Columbia Publishing Course. I did an internship at a literary agency after completing the course and very much enjoyed it. I’ve worked in agencies ever since. Agenting combines a lot of aspects I love: guiding authors on their career paths, finding the right editors for books, and advocating for clients.
- When you say you’re looking for high-concept commercial fiction, what exactly does that mean?
High-concept generally refers to books, movies, and TV shows that let the plot drive the characters and can easily be described in one or two sentences. The Martian, for example, is high concept: An astronaut has to survive alone on Mars. An example of a work that is successful but not high concept is Star Wars. It’s very character-driven and weaves a lot of plot points together, and can’t easily be explained in one or two sentences. High-concept works can absolutely have deep, memorable characters, so don’t worry if you feel your book is more focused on characters than action.
Commercial books, to me, are ones that are written with wide audience appeal, spark discussion in groups, can easily translate to film or television, and are easy for us to pitch to our friends and family. Commercial books tend to use plainer, up-front language and speak to our everyday issues.
- What is the biggest mistake authors make when submitting to you?
In terms of the submission process itself, submitting books that I don’t represent. I have a clear list on my agent page of what I do and don’t represent. I don’t read or enjoy romance, for example, so authors who submit romance to me are not being fair to themselves. Regarding the manuscripts, the biggest mistake I see is submitting your manuscript before it’s really ready to go. I often tell writers that writing “The End” is just the beginning. Agents want to sign clients whose books are ready to take to publishers yesterday. This means edited, polished, edited some more, maybe sat on for a couple of months, then edited again.
- What’s important for you to see in a query from a writer?
When querying fiction, it’s important that the author knows to keep the focus on the book, not themself. I recommend that authors focus on the following when writing a query letter for a novel:
- Introduce your main character
- Tell me a little about the world they live in
- State what it is that the main character wants most in the world
- Follow that with the introduction of the main character’s biggest problem. What is standing in the way of the thing they want most?
When we talk about books with our friends and family, we almost always start with a variation of “It’s about a guy who…” This is just the introduction of the main character. Because books can’t succeed with no conflict, I feel that the introduction of the main conflict is crucial to the success of a query. I want to know what the main character has at stake.
And of course, there are the basic requirements of every query letter: title, audience, word count, and author bio.
- What makes you say yes to a manuscript?
I have to be swept into it. Regardless of genre or audience, I want to feel like I’m right there alongside the characters. I also like books that keep up the pace. While I don’t need a car chase on every page, I need a healthy balance of action and emotion. If I get through the middle of a book, which can be a dangerous ground in terms of pacing, I’m pretty likely to get to the end. Usually I know I want to sign a manuscript if I’m already thinking of editors I want to sell it to before I reach the end of the book. Writing is an art, but publishing is a business, and I have to be able to see a place for a manuscript in the current market.
- Do you have any time for reading for pleasure? And what books do you love (that you don’t represent)?
When I read for pleasure, I love audiobooks. I’m one of those people that has a hard time thinking while sitting still, so I love being able to take in a book while I’m running or cleaning my house. I try to make time for audiobooks every day, and the books I love but don’t represent tend to be either near-future science fiction or nonfiction. I like to look for books read by performers I like, so because I’m a big fan of Wil Wheaton’s performances I discovered Jon Scalzi. I also went on a Michael Connelly binge not too long ago and listened to all five Lincoln Lawyer books plus some of the more recent Harry Bosch novels that Titus Welliver reads. Some of my favorite nonfiction listens are The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn, The Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, and American Kingpin by Nick Bilton.