Literary Agent Interview: Katie Shea of Donald Maass Literary (formerly Caren Johnson Literary)

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Katie Shea) 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 Katie Shea of Donald Maass Literary (formerly Caren Johnson Literary Agency). A published writer herself, Katie began working in the literary industry in 2008 as a reader with FinePrint Literary Management. She also assisted agents at Folio Literary Management and Langtons International Agency. She holds BA from Marist College. She also Tweets.

She is seeking: nonfiction in the areas of diet, health & wellness, travel, narrative nonfiction, and memoir. She also holds a strong interest in beautifully written literary fiction, commercial adult fiction, and women’s fiction.



GLA: How (and why) did you become an agent?

KS: I took an internship position at FinePrint Literary Management as a reader to get “the inside” of how to get published. I graduated from college with a Journalism/Creative Writing degree and dreamed of becoming a writer. Soon, however, I began to realize how much I loved “the other side” of the publishing business. After six months at FinePrint, I moved to Folio Literary Management where I worked under Erin C. Niumata. With over a year’s work in NYC literary offices, I wanted more. I sent out a mass amount of résumés to different agencies in New York City to get my name and my experience out there. I was looking for a full time position as an agent. I soon met with the wonderful Caren Estesen, owner of the Johnson Lit Agency, who was willing to give me a chance. And here I am! Wasn’t the easiest way, but it worked.

GLA: What are you looking for right now in commercial fiction?  What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?

KS: When I think of commercial fiction, I think mainstream. Will everyone want to read this? How will this appeal to the general audience? I want a hook and a compelling plot that will jump out at me.
I love to see one sentence pitches in query letters. This shows me that the writer knows exactly what the story is about and how to grab his/her reader in one phrase. This screams commercial. Keep in mind that commercial fiction often incorporates other genre types, such as women’s issues, food, family drama, adventure, etc.

For me, I like to see stories with a niche I like. I am a huge foodie, so if I see a query letter about a chef, I am going to want to read it. I have recently been engaged, therefore, this will draw me closer to stories about weddings. And as everyone knows (for those who have researched me), I am greatly into family dynamics. Give me a story from a unique perspective involving a detailed family saga, and I am on my toes!

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One of the areas you seek is literary fiction. It seems as though, typically, literary works are thought of as “important” works with beautiful writing and envelope-pushing or groundbreaking subjects. What, to you, constitutes a piece of literary fiction? Something different? Anything more specific?

KS: Literary fiction involves serious and personal themes, while creating a beautifully written story. First off, I want something I can connect to. I am most interested in stories about family dynamics, motherhood, fatherhood, personal overcome, unexpected relationships, and self-discovery. I truly look for a story that has it all—love, hate, good, bad, tears, laughter, success, failure—showing me that the writer can connect with a vast audience on many levels.

The tone of the book is also extremely interesting to me. The main character must always set the mood of the story. I like sadness and darkness, but I also like to see positivity and happiness somewhere in the plot. I want to feel the story in my veins.

GLA: While we’re on the subject, what are some of your favorite literary titles? Perhaps list 2-3 you wish you’d repped, so potential queriers can get a sense of your tastes?

KS: By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham
Little Bee by Chris Cleave
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

GLA: Where are people going wrong in their memoir submissions to you?

KS: One of the worst things I see with memoir is when the writer starts from the beginning of their life to where they are now. Memoir should be only a chapter of your life. I have been pitched memoirs that could be divided into three books!

For memoir writers, choose your strongest or favorite theme and then work from exactly when it started to exactly when it ended. Do not include the before and after. I do not want to be reading a book from when you were two years old up until you are 43. It just doesn’t work. 

GLA: Some agents require exclusivity when reviewing partial or full manuscripts. Do you? What’s your take on this?

KS: I never ask for an exclusive read when reviewing partials or full manuscripts. Sometimes, however, if I do feel there is great potential in the writer and I want to work on some edits (after I read the full), I will ask to work on an exclusive basis.

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

KS: Unfortunately, no. This year (2011) so far I have made it to two conferences, the Writer’s Digest Pitch Slam and the North East Texas Writer’s Conference. I have no scheduled conferences as of now.

GLA: What is something personal about you writers would be surprised to hear?

KS: I am a writer myself. I have a few things hidden in my desk drawer, one that is a completed literary fiction title. I understand on many levels how hard edits can be and the process of getting your project to the place you want it. I hold compassion and deep love for writers who are serious about being published and who want it more than anything. Passion is something I can detect.

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t talked about yet?

KS: Trust yourself. Trust your instincts.


This guest column by Ricki Schultz,
freelance writer and coordinator of
The Write-Brained Network
. You can
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2 thoughts on “Literary Agent Interview: Katie Shea of Donald Maass Literary (formerly Caren Johnson Literary)

  1. giora

    Thanks Katie for the lovely interview and best wishes in fidning a great commericial fiction to represent. Best wishes from canada to you and your husband in growing a wonderful garden of vegetables.


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