So the wonderful and fantabulous Courtney Brown, famous for coming to the epic Suzanne Collins signing as well as being there with us the morning we met Sarah Dessen and Laurie Halse Anderson, and who we consider our unofficial 5th member, recently attended an SCBWI Conference in Oklahoma. She was able to meet with literary agent, Stephen Fraser. And both Courtney and Stephen were kind enough to conduct this interview for you guys. So read on for the best tips on what not to do when you query, which trends are stong and which trends and writing myths agents wish would go away.
Stephen Fraser: Stephen Fraser joined the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency as an agent in January 2005. He worked most recently at HarperCollins Children’s Books, where he edited such creative talents as Mary Engelbreit, Gregory Maguire, Michael Hague, Ann Rinaldi, Kathryn Lasky, Brent Hartinger, Stephen Mitchell, and Dan Gutman. He began his career at Highlights for Children and later worked at Scholastic and Simon & Schuster. A graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont, he has a Master’s degree in Children’s Literature from Simmons College in Boston. He represents both children’s and adult books in a wide range of genres.
1) How did you become an agent? Do you have any golden advice for the aspiring agents among us?
I became an agent on the invitation of a friend who had started her own a agency several years before. I honestly hadn’t thought of it before. But it does seem to suit my talents and personality.
Being an agent requires knowing the publishing business and having a sense of what makes good literature. I was in publishing as an editor for more than twenty years, so I worked in virtually every area: hardcover, paperback, book clubs, educational.
My advice is to read widely and notice trends. Learn who is publishing what. And most of all, hone your own sense of what is good writing.
2) Forgetting what sells and what your agency represents, what is your favorite kind of book?
I like writing that is lyrical. Language can be such a beautiful vehicle for thoughts and when thought soars, the way that a writer can capture that with words can be magical. Some of the books I want to re-read are those where the use of language is beautiful, like Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees, Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. I love poetry. I also like intelligently written biographies, like that two-part biography about Henri Matisse by Hilary Spurling (Knopf) or the biography of Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee (Knopf). There are some people I can never know enough about. And I like to re-read books I loved as a child like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden or George Macdonald’s At the Back of the North Wind.
3) What are some of the biggest trends in your slush pile right now?
Surprise, surprise: there is a lot of paranormal and a lot of vampires. The usual is a picture book about something scary under the bed or a novel about bullies in school. The manuscript that stands out is one that is completely original. Or at least has a voice that is completely original.
4) What trend do you wish would go away? Or, is there any sort of book, voice, premise, etc., that you’re tired of reading?
I really am tired of vampires. I’m also getting tired of dystopian novels (and movies). I think it is too easy to be pessimistic these days.
5) What kinds of books do you wish you’d see more of?
I’d like to see some good mysteries for kids. I’d like to see a good gay novel. I’d like to see a novel where a teen grapples with religious concepts, but that isn’t preachy in any way. I’d like to see a genuinely funny novel. Humor is hard to do but it is a great way to write for kids.
6) What are your top three tips for an awesome query letter? Are query letters as important to agents as authors believe they must be?
Query letters don’t interest me all that much. I guess I would like to know if someone has been published before or if they are an expert in some field which relates to the book. Mostly, I would like a read a sample page of writing. Like any publishing professional, I can usually tell if someone is a good writer within a sentence or two. This comes from reading so many submissions over the years. So, my three tips are: make it polite and short, give only salient information, and attach a page of writing.
7) What is the worst mistake a writer can make when they first start querying agents?
The worst thing you can say is “I am unpublished and this manuscript isn’t very good.” If you don’t think it is good or publishable, then don’t waste anyone’s time mentioning it or sending it along. The writer becomes a professional writer the moment they act professionally and being apologetic isn’t being professional. Have confidence and poise.
8) How important is it for an author to establish a relationship with his or her agent? Do you need to click with an author to represent him/her, or does the work speak for itself?
Good question. There are many agents and you need to find the one that gets your talent and your writing. I suppose you could choose someone that you don’t particularly like, but whom you trust with your work. But that doesn’t seem very satisfying. Sometimes it may take a few tries to find the right agent for you. A good relationship with an agent can be a very helpful thing for a writer.
Your work should speak for itself and ultimately, even if the agent is the best in the world, it all comes down to the writing. The best an agent can do is get your manuscript into the hands of the right editor. I always tell people, an agent is like a GPS system: he or she needs to locate not just the right publisher, but the right editor.
9) Can you talk a little about what the author/agent relationship looks like – what the agent does and does not do? Are there any misconceptions about the role of the agent that you wish would die off already?
Getting an agent, though a step closer, doesn’t necessarily mean you will get published. But it means you have a champion, and this can be helpful on several levels. It can be a confidence builder.
The agent is a broker for your manuscript. An agent’s job isn’t to make you a millionaire, though that may happen. He or she will get you a fair price for your book. An agent will go over your contracts carefully. And an agent can help you think through your career. What should the next creative project be? Is this book worthy of you? Should you consider a different format or try a different genre?
The onus is on the client to stay in touch with the agent, though an agent will be in touch when submissions are made or when rejections or offers come in.
Most people don’t know that agents generally aren’t salaried. They earn a living by using their own time and money to promote writers they believe in. Their income comes from commissions on books sold and from any outside work like freelance writing or public speaking. So, please be courteous and appreciative with agents.
10) Any last piece of advice, something we didn’t cover that you just wish authors knew?
Publishers need writers as much as writers need publishers. So, I’d say the ”them vs. us” state of thought isn’t really very useful. It’s “we.” Work together with a publisher to create something of value for others to read that is truly worthy of you and worthy of an audience. And keep it joyful.
--Thank you Courtney and Stephen for the insight!
For more information on querying Stephen, check out The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency.