Posted by S.E. Sinkhorn | Wednesday, July 25, 2012
I'd like to introduce you all to my literary agent, Michelle Andelman. Michelle is Regal Literary's kidlit and YA agent. She agreed to do an interview for me, and she gave a whole bunch of fabulous, detailed answers about agenting, publishing, the market, the industry, and more! Enjoy!
The Agency-Side Questions
First things first: what sort of work do you represent? Do you gravitate toward certain genres, or do you consider a wide range?
I primarily represent middle-grade and Young Adult fiction. I love working with debut novelists; love the sense of discovery! I consider a wide range, and on the one hand gravitate towards voice- and character-driven realistic Young Adult and middle-grade. Placing work in that vein can be a challenge these days, but I think bold voices and characters stand at the heart of children's literature and I want to remain committed to books that carry them forth. I have some stand-out YA voices on my list; I'd love to find more stand-out middle-grade voices! I also love novels that incorporate elements of science-fiction, fantasy, fairy tale, and magical realism -- or which collide genres in unexpected ways.
You work with Regal Literary. Could you tell us a little bit about how your agency approaches the business and what might set you apart from other literary agencies?
I feel lucky to be part of the team at Regal. The agency is committed to working with authors doing something innovative, something a little bit different--like Audrey Niffenegger, Daniel Wallace, and Josh Bazell on the adult side -- and we're guided by the sense that deeply unique work can be "big" at market, that there's a hunger for it. I love working at an agency that values and "gets" the offbeat, the quirky, the fanciful when it's twinned with rigor and depth; on account of this sensibility, I think a lot of Regal projects -- across the categories and genres -- share a special energy, an exuberance. It's really inspiring. We're all editorial agents at heart, and work collaboratively, which is lots of fun and ensures a high level of quality for our projects. And, we're proud to provide our authors in-house marketing/publicity support and strong, skilled subrights handling.
Of course, everyone wants to know what you're looking for in your slushpile. What hits your "yes, please, send this to me right now!" button?
I do read the slush! I love uncovering a gem in there. What usually sparkles for me is a well-crafted query letter that highlights what's special about the project--that can mean an author pulling out several outrageously wonderful, intriguing details of the storyworld, character/relationship arcs, or plot, or articulating the "so what" of the story, you know, why readers will care, why the author herself cares. Letters that passionately articulate what you're trying to do catch my eye. I like ambition in my projects and authors! And then I'm compelled to answer "yes, please" to seeing more if the writing sample--the first 10 pages I always want to see pasted below any query--is as well-crafted, distinctive and gripping. Often a letter itself is promising, but the early pages don't bear my excitement out; I've learned that if I don't spark to the storytelling as immediately as to the concept, a project won't be for me. When I spark to both at the query stage, I know it's off to the races!
On the flip side, what are the things that almost always make you pass on a query or project?
Usually I pass because the spark's not there for me--which is to say, for a subjective reason. This is a subjective business; agents have fairly selective lists in ratio to the volume of rising and published authors out there, and we have to. There are only so many hours in a day, and giving current authors we represent our attention must come first. So, when we find ourselves saying "I've got to fall in love," in order to take something new on, I don't think it's hyperbole! I honestly never want to work on something solely because I think it's commercial and will sell. At this point, that's just not gratifying. I want to feel the writing I'm nurturing and then championing in the marketplace in my bones. I do. Other than the spark not being there, I'll pass if I have reservations about my confidence in successfully placing something, even if I love it: if I feel like there's a good chance editors might come back with the concerns that are often voiced as reasons houses must pass, and I don't think those concerns I'm anticipating could be ameliorated by revision ("it feels too quiet" or "historicals are a real challenge"), or if I see the merits of something and feel a personal tug, but just don't have a clear vision and placement strategy for whatever reason.
If you decide to make The Call, what sort of questions do you like to hear potential clients ask?
I love to find an informed, savvy author on the other end of the line of The Call. (It's The Call as much for agents as authors, by the way -- at least, I'm sure I'm just as excited and anxious and hopeful as the author is in that moment!) I'm looking for a partnership, as I'm sure the author is. So, I want The Call to be open and honest and fun, and to set a tone representative of the sort of working relationship we each want to have. A tall order when all manner of nerves may be getting in the way! But this is all to say that I want to hear potential clients ask smart, thoughtful, meaningful questions that will prompt a discussion as much about my representation style as about their work style, writing goals, and our values. Ask about the nitty-gritty of how our agency handles subrights, what the terms of our agency agreement are, what my submission plans are for your project, but also what drew me to your work, how I react to plans you may have for writing across age categories or genres, how I think of my role as evolving before, during, and after publication.
I know when I queried you, you asked me about some of my planned future projects. Do you like to see that the authors you choose to represent have a plan beyond that first book?
Not necessarily. I do sign authors, not projects -- which is to say I want to see grounds for a long-term working relationship with each author I represent, ideally beyond any given project. So, I want to get an early sense for whether we're compatible in regards to all projects an author may work on for the foreseeable future. For that reason, I may well ask about future projects right up front. But that said, we'll always want to focus on a first project first, and I've taken on writers who only have one novel (but one I feel I can sink my teeth into) and only foggy plans for a future book, or in whom I simply see strong promise for future books.
The Publishing-Side Questions
How do you keep tabs on what editors are looking for?
Several different ways: I'll read the trades to see what sorts of projects are selling, to whom at which imprints, and in what sorts of deals. I'll have coffee, drinks, lunches with the editors who work here in NY, or meet with those who work outside of NY when they are in town or at some of the big book fairs. I'll hear what they're working on, and they'll bring samples of what books they have coming out soon, so I can get a sense for their personal taste and what they're looking to acquire. Sometimes, though, agenting becomes about thinking outside the box: having a sense for an editor's taste but for what she hasn't yet acquired: what she'll love that can catch her off guard and add something new to her list.
What's your general feeling on the market right now? What's going to be a really hard sell, and what are they snapping up?
We're still seeing trend-driven YA being snapped up, with the trend having morphed from paranormal romance to dystopian to sci-fi, and now to something with thriller elements. Voice- and character-driven realistic YA and middle-grade feel like really hard sells these days, with the refrain for rejections often being along the lines of "I liked X, Y, Z but just don't see this standing out." That said, I think editors really want strong, relatable, contemporary realistic novels -- with humor and heart -- so I'm hopeful we'll swing back on that. I've also been hearing that series structured as straight trilogies feel a little "done" -- editors have lots of these on their rosters -- so fresher approaches to building a series could help projects stand out.
In your opinion, how has the publishing environment changed in the last few years? Have the recent DoJ filings against major publishing houses and HMH's recent bankruptcy filing changed the playing field at all, or is it too soon to tell? What about Amazon's foray into publishing (by buying up smaller publishing houses and starting their own house)?
The "rise of e-books" (deserves quotes, don't you think?) and developments you mention are changing the landscape, no doubt. I think our culture is engaged, via the DoJ filings in particular, in what will be a long-term discussion about the value, protection, and consumption of books as intellectual property. It's exciting to be working in books in this moment. The debate is unfolding, the way we come to and consume books is changing, and while I try to keep abreast of all that, I also try to keep in perspective that what goes into book-making: the author's vision and craft, her collaboration with a publishing team which helps polish and promote the work, and the work's reception by a community of readers which really is connected like never before (book bloggers, critics, reviewers, librarians, teachers, parents, children) -- that's the process I'm proud to be a part of, and where (I think no matter where the cultural discussion leads) the author/agent relationship really dwells.
Do you think we're moving beyond print/ebooks in trade publishing? Will we see more "enhanced" books in the future?
I think we may see the technology open up brave new possibilities for certain types of enhanced books -- books which really truly lend themselves to, and which may benefit the reader by offering "something extra." I think of certain types of non-fiction when I say this: cookbooks, for example, or how-to or other types of instructional/educational books. Really, how much would I love an enhanced version of Mark Bittman's HOW TO COOK EVERYTHING? Certainly we've seen companies experiment with forays into enhanced books within the children's market. But I think "experiment" is the key word thus far. I don't think we've seen anything yet to suggest we're moving beyond the book -- or the immersive experience that a simple book itself offers, which I think readers have a primal yearning for. I mean, I do.
Sommer Leigh asks: "What is your vision for the future of YA/kidlit? Not what's the next trend. I mean, what can we conquer in 10 years?"
In all honesty the one thing I envision, a thing I think we both can and have the ability to "conquer" in the next 10 years as a community of children's/YA literature readers, writers, educators, what have you -- a community dedicated to literature created with the child, the teenager, in mind -- that one thing is a truly diverse body: a diverse body of work, and diverse body of workers. I think as we look honestly at how the demographics of America's student body changes over these next 10 years, we should and can--through efforts of groups like the CBC Diversity Committee, for example--look to consciously bring about a sea change in the scope of what and whom our literature represents, how we can identify, reach, and honor a diversity of readers in our packaging and promotion of books, and in the racial, ethnic, religious, class, and gender makeup of writers and other professionals.
In closing: are their any other words of wisdom you'd like to share with aspiring authors everywhere?
I think writing and publishing are about creativity and discipline in equal measure. I'm truly in awe of the writers with whom I work. They are dedicated to striking the balance between these two. I know how daunting it is, and I just say, draw close the people whom you feel will help you strike that balance and keep working at it!