Agent Advice: Chris Richman of Upstart Crow Literary

As of 2014, Chris Richman is no longer agenting.
Do not query him
“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Chris Richman of Upstart Crow Literary) 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 Chris Richman of Upstart Crow Literary. Chris received his undergraduate degree in professional writing from Elizabethtown College, and an MA in Writing from Rowan University. A former playwright, contributor to The Onion, and sketch comedy writer, Chris broke into agenting in 2008 and has sold several projects. He is looking for: “Chris is actively building his list, enjoys working with debut writers, and is primarily interested in middle grade and young adult fiction, with a special interest in books for boys, books with unforgettable characters, and fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously.”

: How did you become an agent?

CR: In 2008 I was a 25-year old writer desperate for a career in books who decided I had to move to NYC to make it happen. I brought my life savings and applied to every editorial position I could find. Then, on a whim, I applied for an internship with Firebrand Literary (who had already passed on a novel of mine). They let me come in and assist for a few weeks before deciding I had potential. They offered me a position and two months later, I sold my first project. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind ever since.

GLA: Tell us about this move to Upstart Crow.

CR: Working with the great Michael Stearns was one of the main reasons I initially took a position at Firebrand, so it was an easy choice to join him at Upstart Crow. I’ve been told our love of books and authors shines through on our website, blog, and in the general way we speak about the agency, and I can say with confidence that it’s no act or way of endearing ourselves to potential clients. We simply love books and want to do the best by them. It’s wonderful being at an agency where the focus shines directly on the books and the writers.

GLA: What’s the most recent thing you’ve sold? 

CR: Lately we’ve been focused on selling lots of subrights on projects. It’s been great to sell projects in foreign territories, like Jacqueline West’s forthcoming The Books of Elsewhere series. In the states, it’ll come out in June of 2010 from Dial.

GLA: Your history is as a playwright and comedy sketch writer. How does this influence your tastes and the way you read?

CR: My experience with comedy, though probably not as impressive as it sounds, has made me extremely picky with “funny” manuscripts. It takes a lot to make me laugh, so when something does, I find it extremely gratifying. However, I think sometimes people are a bit intimidated by my background in comedy, especially considering I briefly contributed to The Onion, but I’m here to assure you that 1) I’m not as funny as I think I am and 2) if you can hook me with humor, I’ll be a terrific advocate for your work.

GLA: Before we get into your love for kids work, tell me: Do you rep any adult works?

CR: When I first started agenting, I though I might dabble in adult works. I imagined myself selling humor or sports books. I’ve learned, however, that it’s incredibly hard to “dabble” in the world of publishing. I’ve decided that if I can’t go into something 100%, it’s better to stick with what I really know. For me, that’s kid’s books.

GLA: You seek YA and MG.  Besides a soft spot for boy books, what else can you tell us about your preferences?  What do you see too much of?  What do you see too little of?”

CR: I’m definitely looking for projects with something timeless at their core, whether it’s the emotional connection a reader feels to the characters, or the universal humor, or issues that are relevant now and will still be relevant years from now. Can readers truly understand what it’s like to be the prince of Denmark? Probably not, but they can identify with feeling disconnected from a dead loved one and the anger at watching him be replaced by a conniving uncle. I want stories that, no matter what the setting, feel true in some way to the reader.
I definitely see too many people trying to be something else. I used to make the mistake of listing Roald Dahl as one of my favorite writers from my childhood, but I’ve found that just inspires a bunch of Dahl knockoffs. And trust me, it’s tough to imitate the greats. I get far too many emulations of Dahl, Snicket, Rowling, and whatever else has worked in the past. It’s one thing to aspire to greatness; it’s another to imitate it. I want people who can appeal to me in the same way as successful writers of yore, with a style that’s their own.
I see too few writers willing to take chances. I just finished Markus Zusak’s wonderful novel The Book Thief. It breaks so many so-called rules for kids books – there are tons of adult characters and POVs, it’s a
historical at heart, and it’s narrated by Death for crying out loud. It’s one of the best young adult novels I’ve read recently.


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GLA: What are some Chapter 1 clichés you often come across when reading a partial?

CR: One of my biggest pet peeves is when writers try to stuff too much exposition into dialogue rather than trusting their abilities as storytellers to get information across. I’m talking stuff like the mom saying, “Listen, Jimmy, I know you’ve missed your father ever since he died in that mysterious boating accident last year, but I’m telling you, you’ll love this summer camp!” So often writers feel like they have to hook the reader right away. In some ways that’s true, but in others you can hook a reader with things other than explosions and big secrets being revealed. Good, strong writing and voice can do it, too.

GLA: Tell me more about “fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously.” Help define this more so people understand what and what not to send you.

CR: When I was younger, I went through a big fantasy kick. I read Robert Jordan and Tolkien and the combo of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. There’s definitely a place for those types of books, but I now find myself drawn more to fantasy that’s more fun. The thing about Twilight is that it’s not fun at all. If you’re going to send me fantasy, I want there to be more than an epic quest and worlds in peril and all that, if I’m going to take on any at all.

GLA: I know Michael (Ted, too?) reps kids books. Do you find yourself discussing and passing along different projects in this new community atmosphere?

CR: We definitely discuss projects at Upstart Crow. Before signing new clients, in fact, we generally share a synopsis and sample chapters with the rest of the team, including Danielle Chiotti, our adult expert. It’s always great to have another set of eyes on a project to make sure that it’s not only good, but saleable.

GLA: Is Publishers Weekly right?  Are vampires out and angels in?  Regardless, is it fair to say there will always be a big call for “paranormal,” though the specific paranormal item (zombies, vampires, werewolves) is in flux?

CR: I think people are saying that angels are “in” because of a few projects that have just pubbed or are about to, like Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush or Lauren Kate’s Fallen. These things come in cycles, though, and more vampire books are coming out each season. I really think some things, like certain types of monsters, will always stay in fashion in one way or another, as long as the mythology stays interesting and there’s romance at the core. Or comedy, like with zombies, because they’re really funny.

GLA: What’s something writers would be surprised to learn about you personally?

CR: That before becoming an agent, some of the ways I made money were by: waiting tables, teaching at a community college, writing jokes, writing about fantasy sports, bartending, and acting in a dinner theater.

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

CR: I’ll be doing several SCBWI events over the next few months. Look for me at the Metro NYC in November, Princeton in February, North Carolina next September, and many other places. We keep an updated calendar online that we’ll be adding more to soon.

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t covered?

CR: Take your time with your stories, listen to feedback, and, when you have a real winner, send it to me!



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