NOTE: In early 2014, Brooks Sherman switched agencies and is
now part of The Bent Agency. His submissions email is now
brooks [at ] thebentagency.com.
“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Brooks Sherman of The Bent 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 Brooks Sherman of The Bent Agency [formerly of FinePrint Literary Management.] After a two-year stint with the Peace Corps in bucolic West Africa and a one-year stint in the savage jungles of Hollywood, he is thrilled to be living once more in Brooklyn. As befitting his chosen career in publishing, he subsists on a diet of breadcrumbs and bourbon. He can be found on Twitter or his website.
He is seeking: Adult fiction that runs the gamut from literary and upmarket to speculative (particularly urban/contemporary fantasy rooted in realistic settings, horror/dark fantasy, and magical realism), as well as historical fiction and crime fiction. On the children’s side, he is seeking middle grade novels of all genres (but particularly fantasy adventure and contemporary), and is open to YA fiction of all types except paranormal romance. He would especially love to get his hands on a dark and/or funny contemporary YA project.
GLA: How and why did you become an agent?
BS: I decided to make a serious effort to break into publishing while participating in writing workshops. I found that I was enjoying working with other writers, helping them hone and strengthen their manuscripts, more than I was enjoying working on my own material. I took a calculated risk and quit my then-job to take an unpaid internship with a literary agency. At the time, I thought I wanted to be an editor, but after a few weeks of working with agents, I realized I had finally found my niche. I love working closely with my clients on tightening their projects before we submit them to publishers, and being a jack-of-all-trades to help manage and build their careers means this job is always interesting and dynamic.
GLA: What’s something you’ve sold that comes out now/soon that you’re excited about?
BS: It’s hard to pick favorites, and there are a couple amazing middle grade projects I recently sold that I can’t yet discuss. I’ll give a shout-out to author/illustrator Sam Garton and his heartwarming debut picture book I Am Otter (Balzer + Bray, Summer 2014), as well as to Emma Trevayne, whose YA dystopian novel CODA is being published by Running Press Kids on May 7th, 2013. (Full disclosure: I was not the agent who sold CODA, but it is a fantastic read. I did, however, sell its sequel, Chorus, which will come out in May 2014!)
GLA: Besides “good writing and voice,” what are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?
BS: I pray for a writer who is doing their homework: someone who is keeping up to date on publishing trends and developments, but is not writing just to cash in on them. Also, I’m seeing a lot of middle grade and young adult submissions that are “issue” driven these days, which is really not my thing. Basically, I would love for your story to include a bullying subplot, but if you’re going to preach at me about how bullying is wrong and everyone should be nice to one another, I’m not going to be interested. I’m looking for story first and message is a distant second. So, I would love to receive more submissions that tackle issues without being “issue books,” if you can appreciate the distinction.
GLA: What is your opinion of supernatural detective novels such as The Dresden Files?
BS: Writers, take note: I would love love LOVE to work with the author of such a project. My favorite term for this subgenre is “speculative noir,” and one of my favorite recent examples of this is Lucky Bastard, by S.G. Browne. Also, be sure to check out Trickster, by FinePrint client Jeff Somers, which comes out February 26rd (I would have killed to be the agent for this book!). Anyway, if you send me a crime or mystery novel set in the real world, but with a speculative twist, you will definitely capture my attention.
GLA: You have noted that you are looking for dark YA fiction. However, the definition of dark is very subjective. How dark are you looking to go: Catcher in the Rye vs. Pretty Little Liars?
BS: You caught me. “Dark” is quite the subjective term, and can mean quite a few different things to quite a few people. In my case, a dark YA story is one that would include elements of noir (think along the lines of the movie Brick or the TV series Veronica Mars), or the very real suffering that can occur in high school (Charles Benoit’s soul-shattering You comes to mind here). Basically, I’m especially interested in stories that teens can relate to at this time, rather than ones they can escape into. Still, I could go for something in the horror genre as well, as long as it was more psychological than verging on torture porn (a YA version of Joe Hill’s Horns would be amazing). And if you have a YA fantasy with incredible world-building along the lines of Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina or Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, then I’d love to see your manuscript.
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GLA: You mentioned a few of your favorite flawed protagonists above. What are the characteristics that you look for in the characters you love?
BS: There’s a reason I brought them up: They have some of the most wonderfully human, heartbreaking, three-dimensional characters. I’m thinking particularly of Ig Perrish from Horns and Kyle Chase from You.
GLA: How do you feel the Peace Corps has shaped your tastes as an agent?
BS: I’ll try to keep this specific and to the point. Living in a mud brick house with no electricity, about 100 miles from any paved road, I read every book I could get my hands on. This meant I read well outside my (at the time) limited comfort range: from Paul Theroux to Jhumpa Lahiri, to Nicholas Sparks and a little book called Twilight. So, looking back now, I’d say my time spent in the Peace Corps jump-started my voracious reading drive and enabled me to consider books beyond what I “knew” I’d like on their own merits.
GLA: You’re also looking paranormal fiction. What are a few overdone paranormal concepts for YA or adult fiction?
BS: I’m sure your readers have heard over and over again that agents don’t want to see any stories with vampires or werewolves. I wouldn’t say I don’t want to see any stories with these kinds of creatures, but you have to understand that the market is currently so saturated with these kinds of books, in order for me to be able to sell one, it will have to REALLY stand out from the crowd.
Other things I’d add to this list of “challenging concepts” would be zombies, angels, demons, and rockstar fairies. Again, I’m not saying these projects can’t sell—I’m just saying it’s a tight market for them at this time. But these things tend to be cyclical, so if you’ve written an awesome vampire novel, don’t despair of ever selling it! If no one is jumping on it now, put it away for the time being and work on something else.
GLA: What is something personal about you writers would be surprised to hear?
BS: You mean like the fact that I actually do have horns?
Okay, seriously: Writers might be surprised to know that I (and many other agents) sympathize with them when it comes to submissions. I came into publishing from a writer’s perspective, and I remember the hell of querying my short stories (and the accompanying stream of rejections and near-misses) quite well. I know how challenging it is to continually pitch your work, hoping to land that one shot. You might be interested to know that it’s not entirely different for us agents: we have to pitch our clients’ work to editors (who are themselves often receiving more submissions from agents than they can keep track of), so we also have to deal with our fair share of hope, anxiety, and frustration.
GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers’ conferences where writers can meet and pitch you?
BS: I will be attending several conferences this year, including Houston Writers Guild [April 2013], The SCBWI-New England regional conference [May 2013] as well as the Writers’ League of Texas 20th Annual Agents & Editors Conference [June 2013] and Killer Nashville [August 2013]. For a full list of conferences I’ll be attending in the coming months, please visit my website.
GLA: Best piece of advice we haven’t talked about yet?
BS: If you pitch a project to me (or another agent), and my response is something along the lines of “this isn’t right for me,” remember this: It isn’t personal. I’m not attacking you as a person, and I’m not even attacking your writing. There are plenty of books out there that I love, but that I also know I wouldn’t be the right agent for. More important than finding an agent is finding the right agent.
Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
- How NOT to Pitch Your Book.
- Examining an Excellent Pitch.
- How to Start Your Novel Strong and Get Agents to Keep Reading.
- Genre Author Taylor Stevens Explains “How I Got My Agent.”
- How I Got My Agent: Oksana Marafioti, Author of AMERICAN GYPSY.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Author Platform.
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and how to write a query letter.
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