Agent Advice: Christine Witthohn of Book Cents Literary

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Christine Witthohn of Book Cents 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 Christine Witthohn of Book Cents Literary Agency, LLC.She is seeking: Fiction areas of interest: Single Title Romance (Contemporary, Romantic Comedy, Paranormal, Mystery/Suspense), Women’s Lit (must have a strong hook), Young Adult, Mainstream Mystery/Suspense, Medical or Legal Fiction (something that hasn’t been done before), Literary Fiction. Nonfiction areas of interest: We are looking for very specific NF. Women’s Issues/Experiences, Fun/Quirky Topics (particularly those of interest to women), Cookbooks (fun, ethnic, etc.), Health, Gardening (herbs, plants, flowers, etc.), Books with a “Save The Planet” theme, Entertaining, Reference, How-To Books. Not interested in: Category Romance, Erotica, Inspirational, Historical,  Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror/Dark Thrillers, Memoirs, Short stories/Novellas, Poetry, Screenplays.Christine is looking for romance and other genre, as well as kids works.

GLA: How did you become an agent?

CW: I decided I wanted to do something I enjoyed, yet something challenging.  I had always been a book worm and loved to read, and had experience as a fierce negotiator (coming from a family of eight kids) so becoming a literary agent was a natural fit for me.  I started by offering myself up as slave labor (all expenses on my own dime) to many literary agencies, only to get the doors slammed in my face!  This only made me more determined.

Four years later, after monthly trips of traveling back and forth to NY to meet with publishing pros, developing and nurturing important industry contacts, taking classes and attending legal/contract workshops on both coasts, and attending a numerous conferences … I finally opened my agency’s doors in 2006.

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

CW: Kathryne Kennedy’s Talismans of Elfhame, her new historical paranormal romance series, to Deb Werksman at Sourcebooks, at auction, in a three-book deal.

GLA: Concerning children’s writing, you seek “tween.”  Do you mean middle grade or true tween?

CW: Middle grade.  I am finding that interest in middle grade is really starting to pick up.  Many of the editors I talk to are looking for wholesome, character-driven tween stories (for example: a boy and his dog/a girl and her horse).  Don’t get me wrong, editors are still looking for great YA (young adult), but don’t overlook middle grade.

As for marketing middle grade and tween, that can be a little tricky.  It can also depend on the subject matter and bookstore.  Sometimes I see tween in the teen section of book stores and sometimes it will be displayed in the children’s section.

GLA: In YA and teen, what are some page 1 cliches you come across? What do you see too much of at the beginning of a juvenile ms?

CW: The most common problem I see is a story that’s been told a million times before, without any new twists to make it unique enough to stand out.  Same plot, same situations, same set up = the same ole story.  For example: abusive parents/kid’s a rebel; family member(s) killed tragically/kid’s a loner; divorced parents/kid acts out.

Another problem I often see is when the protagonist/main characters don’t have an age- appropriate voice.  For example: if your main character is 14, let him talk like a 14-year-old.

And lastly, being unable to “connect” with the main character(s).  For example: characters are too whiny or bratty.  Character shows no emotion/angst.

GLA: Speaking of which, what do you come across too much of in romance concerning the hook or on page 1?

CW: 1) Too much backstory in the set up.  2) The hook/heroine’s situation isn’t unique enough to stand out.  3) The story doesn’t grab you from the beginning to make me (or any reader, for that matter) want to keep reading.  4) The writer has a really good plot idea, but the execution falls short. 

GLA: You seek romance, but are you looking for single-title or series or … ?

CW: I rep single title romance (unless a current client writes category, too).

I look for contemporary (esp. with humor), paranormal (no werewolves or shapeshifters, please), and love mystery/suspense.

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

CW: Something so entertaining and well written, I can’t put the story down!

If you are a writer and have a story like that… please drop everything and send it to me, along with a synopsis! (

What do I pray for?  For Judith Ann (a junior agent) to come and tell me she’s already read through the whole pile!  No, seriously… to find a jewel of a story.


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GLA: Let’s say someone came up to you and said, “I have this story about a woman but I don’t if it’s women’s fiction or literary fiction.” What would you say to them to help them decide?

CW: Great question!  I won’t take the easy way out and say, “I know it when I see it.” The difference is often subjective, but women’s fiction really focuses more on the voice/narrative and the plot, whereas, literary fiction has more emotional depth and focuses more on style.

I would ask the person to tell me a little bit more about their story (I need more info than “this story about a woman”).  If the story sounded interesting, I’d tell them to send me a synopsis and the first chapter.

GLA: Let’s stay on the topic of women’s fiction because no agent has ever really delved into it. From reading good books and seeing bad submissions, what can you tell us about the dos and don’t of this category? In other words, fill in this sentence, “If you’re writing a women’s fiction book, three things are of the highest importance … “

CW: 1) You must have a unique plot with a great hook. 2) The story needs to be single title length (do your homework!). 3) READ – know the market you are targeting.

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

CW: Yes, and I go out of my way to be approachable and make myself available to writers.  I try to participate in many festivities at most of the writers’ conferences I attend and I never leave early. I encourage people to introduce themselves to me at conferences and I always make time for them when they do.

Upcoming conferences: RT Convention (April 23-26), MWA Edgar Symposium (April 29-30), The Writer’s Digest Books Conference Pitch Slam (May 28), BookExpo America (May 29-30).  I will be at many more.  Check my website.

GLA: Speaking of conferences, tell us a little about this conference you co-sponsor in Italy…

CW: In 2007, I was invited to the Women’s Fiction Festival (WFF) in Matera, Italy.  I attended, and loved it!  So much so, I became a sponsor.  By far, it was the best conference I had ever been to.  Believe it or not, it’s not just the shopping, food, or wine that makes this conference stand out.  It’s the people!  The festival is an international writers’ conference.  Writers have access to agents and editors from the American, British, German and Italian markets (soon to include French and Spanish).  I have never been to a conference where writers have so much one-on-one access to industry professionals.  This is particularly valuable to someone who is already published and wants to promote themselves in a foreign market.

As if that isn’t enough, the municipality of Matera (a UNESCO world heritage site and popular film locale) holds its own town festival around the writers’ conference so attendees can taste local foods.  Booths are set up with free samples of: breads, wines, cheeses, olives, produce, and pastries.  They also provide entertainment with live bands on Friday and Saturday nights.  What’s not to love?  

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

CW: Writing is a process – Writing IS re-writing.  Hone your skills (take classes/study the craft).  Believe in yourself and your work.  Maintain a sense of humor.  Never give up.  And most important … Keep writing!
The very best of luck to everyone

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