Literary Agent Interview: J.L. Stermer of N.S. Bienstock

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent J.L. Stermer) 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 agencies.

This installment features J.L. Stermer of N.S. Bienstock, a full-service talent agency with a division dedicated to developing literary projects, where she handles both nonfiction and fiction authors. She previously served as literary agent and contracts director with the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Born and raised in New York City, and a graduate of Columbia University, she currently resides in Manhattan solidifying that she is forever a city girl through and through.

(Hear a dozen agents explain exactly what they want to see the slush pile right now. See if your work is a match.)

She is seeking: both fiction and nonfiction. On the fiction side, she’d love to see both commercial and literary fiction as well as graphic novels. On the nonfiction side, she is looking for cookbooks and food-related narratives, prescriptive health, diet, and fitness, how-to, reference, narrative nonfiction, current events-related projects and all things pop-culture (science, business, technology, art, music, humor, crafts, DIY).


What kinds of projects are you looking for these days?

I am currently seeking both fiction and non-fiction. On the fiction side I’d love to see both commercial and literary fiction as well as graphic novels. On the nonfiction side, I am looking for cookbooks and food-related narratives, prescriptive health, diet, and fitness, how-to, reference, narrative nonfiction, current events-related projects and all things pop-culture (science, business, technology. art, music, humor, crafts, DIY.)

Briefly, how did you become an agent?

Like most people, I had to try a few careers before I found the best fit.  After stints in both theater and fashion, I turned my sights on publishing with thoughts of being an editor. Shortly after deciding to actively pursue this route I met the fabulous Don Maass who not introduced me to the world of literary agents, but also offered me an internship which I quickly snapped up. I learned the ropes at DMLA and eventually branched out to my current position at N.S. Bienstock, a talent agency with a great literary division. I’ve found a perfect spot to not only find creative clients with platform and drive for my non-fiction projects, but I also have room for fresh and engaging fiction. Best of both worlds!

(Do you need different agents if you write multiple genres?)

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

I am very excited about my client Zach Wahls. His YouTube video went viral last year and since then has been viewed over 18 million times. His book My Two Moms: Lessons on Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family comes out on April 26, 2012 from Gotham (Penguin). Editors Megan Newman and Travers Johnson are working their magic on that right now…

My most recent sale was for former MTV VJ Kennedy. Her book is titled, The Kennedy Chronicles: The Golden Age of MTV Through Rose-Colored Glasses. I sold it to Rob Kirkpatrick at St. Martin’s (Macmillan) and it’s been really fun so far. I grew up watching her quirky, bad-ass self on MTV and her writing is just as kooky as her on-air persona. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product.

For a fiction submission, you want the query and first five pages.  In a nonfiction submission, do you want a query and the full proposal?

At this time I am only accepting submissions via email. I’d like to see a query letter and then I can figure out if I would like to see more. (This applies for fiction and nonfiction)


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Talk to me about memoir.  There’s a lot out there.  What sets the best submissions apart?

This is a tough one. I’ve take on some really funny and heartbreaking memoirs that were adored by editors, but in the end the editors couldn’t take them on because the author platform wasn’t there. That said, if authors don’t have a platform, it certainly helps if their memoir is connected to something relevant in the current zeitgeist. There needs to be a sense of urgency, of timeliness. Also, they must have a distinct and original voice. This is key–especially if you are telling your version of a story that has been told many times before.

(Find more memoir literary agents.)

What are you looking for right now and not getting?

I’d love to see some fiction that reflects some of today’s more interesting “reality” projects … a protagonist who is:

  • a judge (or contestant or a behind-the-scenes staff member) on a talent/food/addiction/fashion/weight-loss show
  • on the front lines of current political revolutions/weather disasters/culture wars
  • a social media developer/maven
  • …basically I am looking for any characters we might see in our daily lives (in all forms of media) and think: “I wonder what their days are like?”

In nonfiction, I am always looking for people with fresh twists on ideas that have been strong sellers in pop science, food, technology, health, diet, exercise. Nonfiction’s greatest hits!

Will you be at any upcoming writers conferences where writers can meet/pitch you?

I will be attending the Midwest Writers Conference in Indiana this coming July 2012.

Best piece(s) of advice concerning something we haven’t discussed?

One of the things I stress in the classes I teach at Gotham Writers Workshop is persistence. When submitting query letters persistence is key, but authors must be smart about their approach as well.  Make sure you have a well-curated list of agents you are going to query. Make sure they are truly a good fit for you. Keep meticulous notes during the process. And if you get any constructive criticism–do not be defensive and shrug it off–see if you can use it to make your pitch better. So many people give up after a few rejections. Keep the process moving by honing your letter as well as your manuscript/book proposal. And stay positive!! This is a hard one, I know, but bitter and frustrated authors send out that vibe and I can always sense it–in person and even in query letters…you are selling your project, sell it with a smile on your face.

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