Agent Advice is a series of quick interviews with literary and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else.
This installment features Kate Epstein of The Epstein Literary Agency. Kate founded her agency in 2005, after four years’ acquisitions experience at Adams Media. Kate Epstein holds a B.A. with Highest Honors in English from the University of Michigan. She lives with her husband and two children outside Boston.
She is seeking: The only fiction she accepts is YA. On the nonfiction side, she likes Crafts, Fashion, Health, Humor, Inspiration. Journalism, Lifestyles, Memoir. Nonfiction Narrative, Parenting, Pets, Popular Culture, Reference, Relationships, Self-Help, Travel, and Women’s Interest.
GLA: How did you become an agent?
KE: The short answer is that I quit my editor job, paid my town $20 for a business certificate, and hung out my shingle. My background as an editor was invaluable; I also took a number of agents out to lunch or drinks, in exchange for which they let me pick their brains. These days I still find it helpful to solicit advice, at times, and I’m always open with my own. (Even agents more experienced than me seem to find me useful at times.)
GLA: What’s something coming out right about now that you’re excited about?
KE: Jeffery Guidry’s memoir, An Eagle Named Freedom, releases in May from William Morrow. It’s a moving story of a man who volunteers in wildlife rescue and his relationship with a very special bird.
GLA: You used to be an editor. How does your background play into your skills and style of agenting?
KE: I find it immensely useful to know where an editor is coming from when issues arise. Editors are, for authors, the face of their publisher, and sometimes have to present decisions that were not made by them unilaterally. While at times it’s my job to be a bad cop so my clients can protect their relationships with their editors, I keep in mind that there are always people involved.
I’m extremely good at the ventriloquism and sympathy involved in editing a manuscript, and I delight in such work. I love to seek ways to make a book more what its author dreamed it could be.
GLA: Your history is specializing in nonfiction, and I see a lot of pet- and animal-related books you’ve sold. Are you still looking for books in this area?
KE: Absolutely I am. Nonfiction for adults was my exclusive focus for a several years and now I’ve added YA fiction and nonfiction. Nonfiction continues to stand out among submissions because so much of what I’m getting now is fiction. When it comes to pet books, I know a good deal about what I can sell and a good, credentialed author in that area is especially welcome, because I do bring so much expertise to that area. Doing your homework and making it show in your query that you’ve read my website is still the best thing you can add to a great query to make me pay attention.
GLA: You probably see more book proposals than most anybody. Can you give writers three tips on improving their proposals?
KE: The most important thing to remember is that it is a sales piece. It should be professional—but also dynamic. It’s great to dot your i’s and make sure all the pieces are there, but you need to transmit a level of excitement about your project.
A really common problem is a weak marketing plan. I do understand the challenges people face in this area. I believe that even if your efforts are unlikely to directly generate more than a few hundred sales, that you should still describe what you are going to do personally to push your book. An ambitious, even creative, plan for what you will bring to the effort tells a publisher that you will be an eager partner, and that any resources they do provide you will not be ill-spent.
GLA: What are some bite-sized helpful tips writers can take home concerning how to boost their platform?
KE: I think the most important thing is to understand your audience. Know them well. The trap of platform-building—apart I suppose from simple burnout—is that talking can preclude listening. Talk (I mean that broadly—if it’s online it’s typing, of course) about who you are and what you have to offer, but at the same time, listen (or read) and learn.
GLA: Concerning the slush, besides “good writing” and “voice,” what are you looking for and not getting? What do you wish there was more of in the slush pile?
KE: Practical nonfiction by credentialed authors is certainly the smallest stack in my pile, and I’d love to see more of that. I’ve placed a couple of craft books recently, and more of that is welcome. Uncredentialed authors that want to write practical nonfiction should, as a rule, team with someone more credentialed. If I were more on top of my slush pile right now, I could better answer this question, but thus far I’m getting the strong impression that a lot of YA authors have embraced hackneyed ideas about high school and social strata. Plot and character are to me the two most important things; I think most people that attempt YA realize how vital plot is, but to me character is just as important.
I can truthfully say that I’m open to all kinds of topics in YA.
When it comes to memoir, I’m always curious about peculiar jobs or unusual experiences, and I tend to see a lot more books about family life, which aren’t necessarily as interesting to me.
GLA: Recently you made an announcement about taking on your first fiction submissions—with young adult. What draws you to young adult?
KE: I really thought for many years that I had lost much of the ability to gobble a book like a delicious meal, to be so absorbed in it that the real world looks pale. I thought perhaps that was a childish thing. When I started reading YA again, I realized that it is a function of the books themselves. Good YA draws in a reader and doesn’t let go, but it doesn’t stint on plausibility or fullness of character.
I fear to comment on my favorite subgenres because it’s so hard to say how I’ll feel about a book without looking at it, and there isn’t wide agreement about what defines certain genres. (For example, by my lights The Hunger Games, which I adore, is obviously science fiction. But not everyone seems to agree.) When a novel has speculative elements—fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal—I tend to like it most when it reflects in some way on the world we live in. This has not generally been a norm of fantasy (Tolkien told the truth when he said he didn’t write allegory), but it can certainly appear.
GLA: You also said you’d take on YA nonfiction. Do writers still need to submit a proposal?
KE: Absolutely publishers will expect a proposal for YA nonfiction. I’m pretty open in this area. It’s probably pretty narrow, though, since young adults read nonfiction for adults as well.
GLA: Best way for writers to contact you?
KE: E-mail, definitely, kate[at]epsteinliterary[dot]com. I have a rule set up so that if you’re not in my address book and your email has “query” in the regarding line, it’ll get sorted correctly. My guidelines are on my website; I’ve recently started asking for the first three pages for all memoir and fiction submissions.
The only reason I have not simply closed the door to paper submissions is because I am committed to the first amendment rights of prisoners, and prisoners generally can’t e-mail. Everyone else should be able to, is my point of view.
GLA: Something personal about you writers may be surprised to know?
KE: My undergraduate thesis was about Emily Dickinson. It was called “Visiting with Emily Dickinson” and it was about how poets have responded to her in prose and poetry. That feels like a long time ago; but I do still mark December 10 as her birthday.
GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t discussed?
KE: Read, for gosh sakes, read! Read books!
I also think that if you’re getting ready to pitch agents, it might be worth your while to read Publishers Marketplace for a month for $20. The deal announcements are mostly mini-versions of agents’ pitches to publishers (notwithstanding editors can post deals as well, I think it’s mostly agents that do it), and they give you a very up to date version of what’s selling and how. You can also see what agents are placing books like yours—though don’t assume Publishers Marketplace is always complete.
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