Literary Agent Interview: Evan Gregory of The Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Evan Gregory of The Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency) 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 Evan Gregory of The Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency. Evan began at the agency in 2008 as an Assistant. He currently manages subsidiary rights for the agency in addition to his duties as an agent and general office manager. You can find him on Twitter or over at his blog.

He is seeking: In literary fiction, Evan is looking for horror, mystery, thrillers, science-fiction, fantasy, and women’s literature. He also accepts children’s books including picture books, early readers, and middle grade as well as young adult. In narrative nonfiction, his interests vary and he’s looking for a wide range of subjects including arts, cinema, photography, biography, business, cooking, health, history, nature, family, politics, science, sports, and travel.

 

GLA: Briefly, how did you become an agent?

EG: I studied writing in school and I knew I wanted to work in publishing, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go work for a publisher. Publishing seemed so inscrutable and impenetrable at the time, that I didn’t even know how to approach it. I had learned about literary agents, and thought it sounded like a great way to see the big picture of what publishing was all about without having to work in every single department of a publisher. I took an internship with the Susan Golomb agency, and it was a great experience. After that, I started looking for an entry-level position with an agency. I must have had interviews with half the agents in New York, and was narrowly passed over for other candidates by all of them, including the agency I work for now. I spent a few years working as a salesman at a sporting goods store, a receptionist, and an associate purchaser for accessory jewelry company of all places. One day Ethan called me up to replace his assistant, who had gone on to work for the subsidiary rights department of HarperCollins, and I happily accepted. Since then, I’ve just been trying to prove myself worthy.

GLA: What’s something you’ve sold that comes out now/soon that you’re excited about?

EG: I’m excited about three books coming out this summer [2012]. The first is Technomancer, B.V. Larson’s first book in his new Unspeakable Things series, which will be released by Amazon’s 47North imprint in July. Fans of Steven R. Green and Jim Butcher are sure to enjoy this urban fantasy about an investigative journalist/blogger who seeks to explain a series of baffling crimes involving objects that can manipulate the laws of physics. Superherologist, Dr. Travis Langley’s Batman and Psychology will also be out in June. If you’re planning to go see The Dark Knight Rises, it’s a great companion. Patty Blount’s Send is a contemporary YA novel about a cyber-bully who tries to redeem himself in a new town after the kid he bullies commits suicide, will be out in August.

GLA: Besides “good writing,” what are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?

EG: Our agency represents a lot of genre fiction, so those are the submissions we tend to get the most. Don’t get me wrong, I love that stuff, but not at the exclusion of everything else. I love non-fiction about science and I love working with academics, but I have to hunt that stuff down, it hardly ever shows up in my inbox. I also want more literary fiction, but then every agent says that. I get a few mystery, crime, and thriller submissions, but I want more. Please, however, keep sending me your SF, and your fantasy, and your YA, and your MG novels. I can never get enough.

(Do writers need an outside edit before querying agents?)

GLA: As a newer agent, can you tell us about one thing that really surprised you about agenting and the publishing business today?

EG: The popularity of online romance blew me away. Not being a natural romance fan when I started (I have since acquired a taste) I just didn’t know. If you asked people which genre has the largest online readership, they would probably guess science fiction, or maybe thrillers, but they’d be wrong, it’s romance. Romance readers were the pioneers of the e-book business, and no readership reads as voraciously online as romance readers do. No other genre has as many independent online-only publishers as romance does. Several big publishers have recently started digital first imprints (Harlequin’s Carina Press, Penguin/Berkley’s InterMix, Hachette/Grand Central’s Forever Yours) that are publishing primarily romance in an effort to keep up with this growing market. Next time you look at your Kindle in wonder, you should thank romance readers for making it all possible.

GLA: Concerning all genres, what kinds of submissions do you see too much of and would be happy never receiving again?

EG: I think every agent is loathe to answer this question honestly for the fear that they might miss out on a great project. Common stories can be told uncommonly well, and I wouldn’t want to say “I’d rather not see X” when what I mean to say is “I’d rather not see X done poorly”. That being said, I’ve become rather bored recently with MG or YA fantasies in which the protagonist falls into, or suddenly becomes aware of, some magical otherworld that pulls them out of their humdrum existence. This trope is so shopworn, that it takes a Herculean effort on the part of the writer in order to make it fresh and compelling. Unfortunately for me, this sort of disqualifies 90% or so of the MG and YA fantasies authors write each year. So while I wouldn’t say not to send me your YA or MG fantasy with a magical otherworld, I would say to think very hard about what makes your otherworld better than all the Hogwarts, Narnias, and Wonderlands we already know and love before you prepare your book for submission.

 

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GLA: One of the areas you seek is young adult. That is a healthy market—and has been for quite some time. However, what do you see for the future? Will it always be so hot?

EG: Books for adolescents have always been around. The recent boom in sales of YA/MG books has been a perfect storm scenario. The first factor is local, state, and national programs designed to get students to read. Take a look at the recent NEA study on the matter, and you’ll see these programs have paid off. I’d also recommend the McSweeny’s article on the subject, entitled Young People are Reading More than You. The second factor is probably the dumb luck of having an embarrassing amount of great authors like Rowling, Snicket, Pullman, and Collins around to speak to this growing readership right when they were most needed. The third factor is that internet culture drives more people to read in general, and it creates communities out of those readers. Since kids today are all internet denizens, it makes sense that they would be good readers as compared to the generation before.

I suspect that, as with all things, the popularity of YA novels will plateau, but I don’t think that time is coming soon, and when it does come we’ll all be better for it. I think YA has shaken up the idea of what popular fiction can look like in ways that will reverberate through the entire industry. YA novels tend to make adult fiction look rather turgid and circumscribed in comparison and they remind us that books can be smart and fun. What I’m looking forward to is the type of books those young readers who enjoyed Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are going to pick up as adults. I see the YA boom carrying forward, and I’m taking it as my solemn duty to seek out sophisticated and entertaining novels that those adults can care about just as much as the ones they read as teenagers.

GLA: Concerning MG and YA, you take everything, but is there anything more you can tell us about what you are always looking for? What subgenres do you lean toward?

EG: I tend to prefer YA/MG fantasy over contemporary, though I enjoy both. Perhaps that’s just because as a kid I was a bigger fan of Madeline L’Engle than Beverly Cleary.

GLA: You seek MG and YA. Any early reader or picture books?

EG: I love picture books, but it is a small and very competitive market. I went to an art school (albeit not for art), so I have a keen eye for good illustration, and thus I am very picky. It’s also tough because sometimes I’ll like an illustrator but often I won’t like their story. It’s a delicate balance, and it’s hard to do right. Nonetheless, I invite children’s book authors and illustrators to give it a shot and submit to me. I also enjoy graphic novels, so please send them my way.

(Headed to a conference? Learn how to approach an agent.)

GLA: Is there a difference between “early reader” and “chapter books” in regards to outline and word count?

EG: Yes, there is a difference, both in format and in intended readership. Early readers are for young kids just beginning to learn to read and are more heavily illustrated. Their language is restricted to basic words and concepts that help kids ages 4-6 learn to read. An example would be The Berenstain Bears. Chapter books are for intermediate readers ages 7-10. Chapter books are for kids that are not quite ready for Harry Potter, but the Very Hungry Caterpillar isn’t going to hold their attention either. Chapter books are more like Diary of Wimpy Kid in length and style. They have illustrations, but are primarily about the prose, and they have a bit more narrative complexity. Early readers can be indistinguishable from picture books, and often have color illustrations on every page, whereas chapter books usually (though there are plenty of exceptions) have only black and white line illustrations sporadically interspersed. Early readers aren’t usually more than 1,000 words, whereas chapter books are usually over 10,000 words. Both these sorts of books are targeted at the school and library markets, so there a lot of considerations when it comes to the vocabulary you should use. I would recommend doing a lot of research before attempting to write either sort of book.

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

EG: My college thesis project was a novella entitled Mange L’Orange about senior copywriter at an ad agency who must figure out a way to pitch a pill that radically extends the average human life-span. I thought it was brilliant then, I think it is unreadable now. At one time I also wrote (and performed) embarrassingly sincere SLAM poetry. I even had a goatee!

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

EG: I think my next conference is AgentFest at ThrillerFest on July 12, 2012.

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

EG: Spend a lot of time writing your query letter. Read a book about it, take a class on it, do whatever it takes. Your query letter is your first impression, don’t make it your last. You’re going to want to go through several drafts of your query letter. You’re also going to want to take a long hard look at your first twenty pages. Cut out every sentence, paragraph, or word that is extraneous; show no mercy, because your readers certainly won’t. Those first pages are the difference between a reader walking out of the store with your book, or just walking out of the store. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice on your work-in-progress and don’t be afraid to completely ignore that advice if it is bad. Always get a second opinion, or a third opinion, or as many opinions as you can tolerate. As always, don’t be afraid to quit and try something different. Not every project is going to be a winner, and you’re not going to make it a best-seller by willing it to be so. Besides, if you don’t sincerely believe that your next book will be better than your last, then being a professional writer is probably not going to work out for you anyway.

 

This agent interview is by Brittany Roshelle Davis, a
freelance writer and aspiring author. You can visit her
blog, The Write Stuff, or follow her on Facebook.   


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