Agent Advice: BJ Robbins of BJ Robbins Literary Agency

Agent Interview by
contributor Ricki Schultz.

“Agent Advice” 
(this installment featuring agent BJ Robbins of BJ Robbins Literary Agency) is a series of quick interviews with literary agents and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else. This series has more than 170 interviews so far with reps from great literary agencies. This collection of interviews is a great place to start if you are just starting your research on literary agents.

This installment features BJ Robbins of the Los Angeles-based BJ Robbins Literary Agency. She started in publicity at Simon & Schuster, was later Marketing Director and then Senior Editor at Harcourt, and opened her own agency in 1992.

She is seeking: quality fiction—both literary and commercial—and general nonfiction, with a particular interest in memoir, biography, narrative history, pop culture, sports, travel/adventure, medicine and health. (Please send all children’s and young adult queries to Amy Maldonado.)


GLA: How did you become an agent?

BR: Becoming an agent seemed a logical step after spending nearly 15 years in publishing in NY.  I started in publicity (first at S&S, then at M. Evans and Harcourt), then moved up to Marketing Director at Harcourt. A few years later, I jumped the editorial/marketing divide and became a Senior Editor at Harcourt.

When I found myself living in Los Angeles in 1991—much against my will, I might add (though I’ve gotten over it)—I decided the way to remain in the book business and utilize all of my publishing experience was to start my agency.

GLA: Tell us about a recent project you’ve sold.

BR: I recently sold Nafisa Haji’s second novel, tentatively titled The Sweetness of Tears, to Morrow.  Her first novel, The Writing on My Forehead, came out last March, with the paperback edition out this March 2010. I’m also looking forward to the paperback edition of John Hough, Jr.’s Seen the Glory, which S&S will publish in July. It’s a brilliant Civil War novel about two young brothers from Martha’s Vineyard who join the Union Army and fight at Gettysburg.

GLA: What are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?

BR: I look for something that stays with me, that’s not only engaging but teaches me something.  It could be a novel about a 15-year-old runaway in Seattle, or nonfiction about a particularly dramatic moment in history.  I want to be moved, entertained, enlightened. What I pray for is a writer who comes to me with something that doesn’t need one bit of editing.  Since that doesn’t happen often—or ever—I look for writing that pops off the page, doesn’t bore me, and has something to say.

GLA: Among other areas, you seek projects in the area of medicine.  What are you looking for here?

BR: I like the occasional gory tale, like Dr. Pamela Nagami’s The Woman with a Worm in Her Head, which is about her experiences in the field of infectious disease. I don’t have a big medical list, although I would certainly welcome more of it, especially insightful and/or groundbreaking medical stories.

GLA: In your profile on Publishers Marketplace, among a list of other things, it says you do not represent “anything with ‘unicorn’ in the title.”  Should all fantasy writers think twice before querying you, or is it just that particular mythological creature that rubs you the wrong way?

BR: To be honest, I added that line for my own amusement. I think I had recently received a whole slew of unsolicited submissions with unicorns in them and found it irritating. However, I don’t handle fantasy or science fiction or most genre fiction, so I do hope that those writers think twice before submitting to me. (I have nothing against unicorns, by the way, in case there’s a Save the Unicorns group out there who might come after me.)


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GLA: Because you deal with so much nonfiction, platform must be important to you. In your opinion, what’s the best way a writer can build platform?

BR: Start locally; get yourself in front of groups of people, get published wherever you can, and build from there. Develop a web presence via a website and social networking sites. Befriend famous people, star in your own TV show, write a nationally syndicated newspaper column, or host a program on NPR.
No seriously—platform is very important, but having something to say and having the writing skills to present your ideas in an informative and engaging manner is important, too. But still try to befriend some famous people, especially if they have national TV shows or a gig on NPR.

GLA: How do you prefer to be queried?

BR: I accept e-mail queries, but I also like getting queries and submissions through old-fashioned snail mail. I just changed my e-mail address for queries, so please use this one: robbinsliterary[at]gmail[dot]com. A Web site is in the works, but in the meantime, the best source of info is my Publishers Marketplace page. I would like to reiterate that it is impossible for me to send a response to every person who sends a query. I wish I could, but it’s just too time-consuming. If I’m interested, you will hear from me—I promise.

GLA: What changes do you think 2010 has in store for the publishing industry?

BR: I’m hoping that no more divisions will be consolidated and that the big layoffs are behind us. I do believe that e-book sales will steadily increase but not dominate as much as people think, and that advances will continue to decrease for all but the most successful authors. And I’m hoping that publishers deal with the problem of e-book piracy, which I believe will be a big issue in coming years.

GLA: What is something about you writers would be surprised to hear?

BR: I play basketball in the North Weddington Mom’s League.  I’ve been their power forward for the past nine years, having discovered my inner jock in adulthood.

GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers’ conferences where writers can meet and pitch you?

BR: The two I go to consistently are the SDSU conference in January and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Workshop in August.

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t talked about yet?

BR: Three things:

1) Make sure you’ve done all the necessary homework before submitting to an agent.
2) Get as much feedback from as many people as you can—professional feedback, I mean—before sending your work out.  Much of what I see might have potential, but it isn’t there yet.
3) Write a great query letter, one that’s written with confidence and passion and doesn’t exceed more than three or four paragraphs.

This agent interview by Ricki Schultz,
freelance writer and coordinator of
Shenandoah Writers in VA. Visit her blog
or follow her on Twitter.

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