Literary agent Quressa Robinson joined the Nelson Literary Agency in 2017 after working at a previous agency and as an editor for five years. She is originally from San Francisco, but has been living in New York City for over a decade. As a New York-based agent, she is eager to build her MG, YA, and Adult lists. When not curled on her couch reading, she plays video games, enjoys too much TV–mostly Sailor Moon and Harry Potter (Slytherin!), eats delicious things, drinks champagne, hangs out with her very clever husband, and adds another “dramatic” color to her lipstick collection. Quressa is also a member of the 2017-2019 WNDB Walter Grant Committee and holds an MFA in Creative Writing: Fiction from Columbia University.
Here, she talks about what types of submissions she’d like to see more of, common misconceptions authors have about literary agents, and what makes a query stand out.
How did you become a literary agent?
I came to agenting in a very roundabout way. I moved to New York 12 years ago to get my MFA in creative writing from Columbia, but always knew I wanted to work in publishing as well. Eventually, I got a job at an indie publisher, and then at Macmillan. As is often the case, I got tired of whiling away as an assistant—I’d spent five years at the job—and knew I needed a change, preferably to a more senior editorial position. These are rare for someone who is an assistant editor—the level I was at—so I decided to see if agenting was a better fit and here I am!
What’s something you’ve sold that comes out now/soon that you’re excited about?
I’ve sold three clients to publishers this year, and two of their books are coming out in 2019. One is an adult space opera called CHILLING EFFECT written by Valerie Valdes. I love that it’s commercial and has a lot of heart, but is still steeped in very real and complex emotional arcs for the protagonist. The other is a YA contemporary, called SLAY by Brittney Morris. The deal was announced in a feature on Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf and was sold in a competitive auction. I think they are both indicative of my varied tastes.
Besides “good writing,” what are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you hope for when tackling the slush pile?
I am trying to have a very balanced list that’s 50/50 adult and kids lit authors. Right now I have more kids lit than adult. I’d love to see more adult SFF projects in my inbox, especially from marginalized creators. The more high-concept the better. And definitely, it should feel fresh. I find the reason I do pass on the SFF I see (both adult and kids) is that it feels too familiar. I want to see things that are elevating the genres and taking them to the next level.
On the kid lit side I’d love to see more upper middle grade. It’s something that I know is hard to pull off well—that very young voice—but I’m not seeing nearly enough in my inbox. I’m open to anything (except mysteries and thrillers).
What are some great recent titles in the genre(s) that you love most, and what, in your opinion, made them great?
I’ve been reading a lot of YA lately—and will be shifting to more adult novels this fall—but I love Holly Black and absolutely have been engrossed with THE CRUEL PRINCE and THE WICKED KING. I devoured both in a day and can’t wait for the final book. I know I’m late to the game, but I’ve also finally gotten around to SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo.
On the adult side I’ve started reading novellas and have dipped into THE BLACK GOD’S DRUMS by P. Djèlí Clark. And a favorite author of mine, Naomi Novik, came out with her latest—SPINNING SILVER—that I’ve also dipped into. I loved UPROOTED, so I’m looking forward to having the time to sink my teeth into this one.
I will say the stories that really get me invested—and probably what all of these have in common—is high concept, amazing voice, exceptional character development, and flawless world-building. All of these are true of contemporary, realistic novels as well, minus the world-building.
What makes a query stand out? What about a manuscript?
Really, the queries that get me, even if they aren’t right for me, are the ones where it is clear that the author understands their own story and what makes it special. I see so many queries in a day that ones that are competently written, engaging and tell me the most intriguing points about the story always make me sit up and pay attention. I often use my client’s original query as part of my submission package—so the ones that feel like the author understands what agents and editors need to see are always going to stand out.
For a manuscript it all comes down to the writing. We all have our own tastes and preferences, which is why much is subjective and this industry desperately needs more diversity and inclusion, but it’s the writing. I love voice and I love character-driven stories. There are so many times I come across a great query, with an intriguing concept that’s exactly what I’m looking for, but the MS or sample lacks the right execution or the writing just isn’t strong enough. But even if something isn’t for me, if it’s well written and it’s truly a subjective pass I often share with my colleagues to see if it’s a better fit for one of them.
What misconceptions do you think people have about agents?
That we are looking to reject them. I’m not. When I read a query and get excited about the concept I’m actually hoping it’s right for me and that I can offer rep. When it falls apart or the sample doesn’t hold up to what the query promises I’m deeply disappointed. I’m actively building my list, so I WANT to sign more amazing writers. I WANT to say yes.
What’s something about you that writers would be surprised to hear?
Publishing isn’t my first job, and I’m older than I look! I actually started out in the non-profit world right out of college decades ago. I didn’t get my first job in publishing until I was 32. Never say never.
What’s your best piece of advice we haven’t talked about yet?
All writers could benefit from learning more about the business of book publishing. Even if you want your agent to handle it all and just run things by you, you need to absolutely know what everything is—and especially how to separate being a creative and an artist from the work of producing something that will have a monetary value placed on it. There is a huge difference in purely writing for enjoyment and writing as a career.
What are you seeking, and how can writers submit?
- Modern-day blue stockings, POC fangirls/fanboys, #blackgirlmagic, #carefreeblackgirls, #blackboyjoy, LGBTQ+, neuroatypical/neurodivergent, and disabled POCs as leads
- Middle Grade (contemporary and SF/F). Cute, quirky, charming, and fun. Along the lines of Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away.
- Young adult (contemporary, SF/F, historical)
- Adult SF/F with strong genre-bending/crossover appeal. (Think the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. I’m also a fan of Anne Bishop and Naomi Novik.)
- Literary fiction that is thoughtful, evocative, page-turning (The Mothers, Behold the Dreamers, Tell The Wolves I’m Home, Station 11)
- Upmarket and commercial fiction
- Passion projects in narrative nonfiction with a strong literary voice and commercial appeal (Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, Black Man in a White Coat by Damon Tweedy, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi). Would love to see non-whitewashed cowboy stories; pop science by women, specifically women of color; and literary, voice-driven memoir with commercial appeal.
- #ownvoices and marginalized authors in all genres mentioned above. Inclusive narratives in all genres.
Send queries to firstname.lastname@example.org, but make sure you check out the submission guidelines here first.