Agent Advice: Sally van Haitsma of van Haitsma Literary

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Sally van Haitsma of van Haitsma 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 Sally Van Haitsma of van Haitsma Literary. Sally earned her B.A. and Masters of Communication from the University of California, San Diego. While in graduate school she was co-owner of Altitude, an upscale retail store for tall women. Transitioning to publishing, she worked at an alternative weekly newspaper, the San Diego Reader, before agenting at the Castiglia Literary Agency. Sally lives with her husband Dirk Sutro and an eclectic library of books, in Encinitas, Calif.

She is seeking: specializes in commercial and literary fiction, narrative nonfiction, memoir, pop culture, education, business and current affairs. Although we do not represent genre fiction (historical, romance, horror, fantasy, sci-fi), we are interested in works of a more literary bent that include these elements.


GLA: How did you become an agent?

SVH: My path to agenting was circuitous. As a teenager, I worked in the school library and read one or two novels a week for pleasure. I considered a life in academia, earning my Masters in Communication at UC San Diego, but was drawn toward the publishing world. Meanwhile, I supported myself as a civil litigation paralegal, honing my business and writing skills. After a brief sojourn in New York City I landed at the San Diego Reader, one of the largest alternative weekly newspapers in the country. A few years later I apprenticed at Sandra Dijkstra’s agency and caught the bug to become a literary agent. Julie Castiglia offered me this opportunity, and I agented for her six years before launching my own agency in March 2010.

GLA: What is a book coming out you repped that you’re excited about?

SVH: Actually, I have three books coming out in short order regarding particularly timely topics. This August, Craig Brandon’s The Five-Year Party exposes the crisis in higher education—how we are paying more and learning less. It’s made a huge splash. It got a terrific review in the Wall Street Journal that catapulted it to a top 100 Amazon book for a while, and the author has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post, ABC & Fox news and a myriad of other media outlets.

A couple months later, foreign policy expert Sarwar Kashmeri’s second book NATO 2.0: Reboot or Delete? reveals the troubling state of our international alliance now fighting in Afghanistan. And in our own back yard, novelist Raul Ramos y Sanchez contemplates civil war as the blow-back from our failed immigration policy in House Divided, the second installment in his America Libre thriller series.

(Look over our growing list of fiction literary agents.)

GLA: You say you’re looking for commercial fiction but tend to stay away from genre fiction. Does your interest lie in so-called mainstream or upmarket fiction? Book-club stuff?

SVH: Yes, I definitely look for upmarket fiction that has book club potential. Michael Zadoorian’s The Leisure Seeker is an example of a work that bridges literary and commercial fiction. At its core, it’s a classic American road trip and love story with a nod to Raymond Carver. That it just so happens to broach end-of-life questions (the main characters are in their 80s) makes it all the more book club worthy.

GLA: Most common problems you see that make you stop reading a fiction partial?

SVH: Poor word choice, exposition that doesn’t serve the narrative, and excessive attributions that suck the life out of the reading experience. If I find myself second-guessing words or phrases within the first few pages, I’ve already lost confidence in the story.

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GLA: In addition to fiction, you rep a lot of nonfiction and have plenty of sales in that arena. Do you usually go out and find pros to write books, or are there coming through the slush?

SVH: I’ve sought out journalists and bloggers, but I’ve mostly met my nonfiction clients through writers conferences or referrals, or they find me through reading interviews like this one. 

GLA: A lot of nonfiction writing tips are pretty simple concerning book proposal editing and writing. But you have sold so many books, I just have to ask if you have any wisdom about getting a nonfiction book published that you would like to share.

SVH: The author platform is so critical these days with regards to nonfiction projects that I encourage authors to develop their professional and social networking at least one or two years in advance of approaching an agent. For example, join national organizations that pertain to the topic or themes of your project, get on their e-mail and newsletter list. Most authors today have websites and/or blogs, so be sure yours is interesting to read and look at, and update it regularly to give visitors an incentive to return and recommend your site to others. And remember, writers are members of a global community, so whatever you can do to help other writers thrive while you pursue your own path to publishing will serve you well.

GLA: You seek pop culture books. These seem tough in my mind because pop culture fads can pass so quickly. How can writers capitalize on a good pop culture idea?

SVH: I think you can look more broadly within social trends and discover topics that aren’t ephemeral. Blogging about a particular slice of pop culture has proved to be a terrific way to convince publishers there is a huge audience for your idea. Several new books are based on provocative, well-written blogs that either created or capitalized on emerging trendsthere’s the cute cheeseburger-loving kitties, and the foul-mouthed dad, and the spoof on white people. The plethora of zombies and vampires certainly speaks to our conflicted attitude towards death. That’s why I’d consider my client Robert Webster’s forthcoming book, Does this Mean You’ll See Me Naked?—Field Notes from a Funeral Director to fit within the pop culture category.

GLA: Interested in any kids stuff?  

SVH: No, I don’t represent children’s or young adult. However I do represent parenting books. 

GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers conferences where writers can meet & pitch you? (Look over a list of writers conferences.)

SVH: I just attended the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference this July, and will be heading to the South California Writers Conference in Irvine late September 2010 and the La Jolla Writers Conference in November 2010. My agency website lists a full conference schedule which I update regularly.

GLA: Something personal about you writers may be surprised to know?

SVH: I can walk away from cookies and ice cream, but have absolutely no will power when it comes to hot popcorn.

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

SVH: Perfecting their writing craft is obviously the most important thing an aspiring author can do, however approaching the goal of becoming published in a professional manner is also important. A succinct and lively pitch letter makes a strong first impression, and speaks volumes as to the writer’s ability to execute their ideas well. And if an agent turns you down or offers constructive criticism, don’t take it personally. Agents want to work with authors who are receptive to improving their work and who can handle the highs and lows of the publishing business. Perseverance is essential.

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