Agent Advice: Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management) 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 Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management (formerly of Wendy Sherman Associates). Michelle has been with Wendy Sherman Associates since 2004, and has also previously worked with Joelle Delbourgo Associates. She enjoys working directly with emerging writers. She has a MA in Literature from New York University.

She is seeking: literary and commercial fiction, YA, memoir, pop culture, humor, graphic novels, popular science and narrative nonfiction. Books that capture elements of the strange and wonderful will always pique her interest, and she also looks for those that offer a unique perspective of the world.  Submissions to her by mail and e-mail are equally OK.  Please include a SASE for snail mail response, and no attachments in an e-mail.


: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you come to be an agent?

MB: I pretty much always knew that I wanted to work with books in some way, but I started out in academia rather than publishing. While I was discovering that studying literary theory was actually not keeping me involved with contemporary writing, I happened on a Craigslist post for an agency assistant position with Wendy Sherman Associates.  I’ve been here ever since, and started representing my own clients about two years ago.  Every day, I wake up and am excited to go to work- I get to read and develop the work of exciting new authors, match them up with editors, and see their books hit the shelves!  Who wouldn’t love that?

GLA: What’s the most recent thing you’ve sold?

MB: Most recently, I sold Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament by Scott Browne to Broadway Books – it’s an amazing debut novel narrated by a loveable zombie who just wants a little respect. I love zombies and see a lot of zombie-oriented books, but this one stood out to me for the amount of heart and humor Scott was able to put into the story.  

GLA: You rep both memoir and literary fiction. These are two categories where cold submissions tend to be a lot more bad than good. What do you look for? What gets you to keep reading?

MB: Memoir and fiction are both difficult categories to get editors excited about right now – they just see so much, and it’s much easier for them to sign up a miss than a hit. So I, too, must be really selective. In both, I’m always looking for a really good hook or well developed concept that makes the book immediately interesting, even if I haven’t read a word of the sample.  Unfortunately, an extremely well written, lyrical book without a pitchable subject just won’t work for me. For memoir, there really must be something unique about your life, or you have such an amazing voice that you can turn the normal into the riotously funny. Once I have something with an interesting hook, I need the material to deliver on that promise.

In literary fiction, I often look for a track record of previous publications. If you’ve been published in Tin House or McSweeney’s or GlimmerTrain, I want to know.  It tells me that the writer is in fact committed to their craft and building an audience out there in the journals.  But if you have a good story and are a brilliant writer, I wouldn’t mind if you lived in a cave in the Ozarks. For the record, I have yet to sign anyone who lives in a cave in the Ozarks.

GLA: You also rep narrative nonfiction. What gets mistaken for narrative nonfiction but is definitely not?

MB: To me, narrative nonfiction is a true story about a subject that is from the perspective of the author. Memoir and narrative nonfiction have a lot of overlap, but I see narrative nonfiction as reaching out into the world more so than memoir. For example, a client of mine is writing about her experiences farming in downtown Oakland. It’s her personal tale, but she also incorporates farming history, the history of her city, and a portrait of the people around her. When I see an article that I love or read about an interesting person, I try to reach out and see if the author is interested writing a book.  How-to is definitely not narrative nonfiction. 

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GLA: What are you looking for that you’re not getting? What never seems to be in the slush pile?

MB: I would love to see more accomplished literary fiction in my slush pile – a good story with the writing to match.  With most of my literary fiction, I tend to read a story I like and then find out if the author is working on anything of book length, but I have seen some lovely surprises in the slush and really welcome more.  I’m always on the look out for what’s being called “book club fiction”- fiction that has a central issue or story that sweeps you off your feet and gets you talking.  I adore slipstream fiction that mixes elements of genre with literary execution, and want to see more of that too. Commercially, I like genre with breakout potential, a la Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman – something that a non-genre reader can pick up and really enjoy.
I also am actively building my YA list, and want to see YA that doesn’t necessarily have to take place over a trilogy. Trilogies are fine, but that first book has to persuade me on its own.

Some specific wishes running through my brain right now: a literary ghost story, a book club novel that explores another culture, and a YA that I can really sit down and enjoy as an adult.

GLA: Do you feel like the economic recession is hitting the publishing industry?

MB: I have noticed a little bit more of a squeeze from publishers on what they’re buying. In the past few years, it seemed a little easier to sneak an interesting but atypical project into an editor’s line up.  It still happens plenty, though, it’s just more of an uphill battle. We’re seeing the biggest impact in bookstores, where sales are slowing and independents are often shutting down. But as long as there are books out there that find their audience, I think we can be optimistic.

GLA: Do you have any strong likes or dislikes when it comes to queries?

MB: My main dislike is when the author doesn’t tell me what their book is actually about. That’s why the query letter is there in the first place! And if you find that you can’t distill the story into a pitch, that might signify a larger problem.

GLA: What is the most common problem you see in a synopsis?

MB: Sometimes I’ll see a synopsis with too much detail. Focus on the main conflicts and turning points, not the color of your protagonist’s outfit (unless that is in fact a major part of the story!).

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

MB: I’ll be at Thrillerfest and Sewanee this summer, both in July.

GLA: Other piece(s) of advice concerning something we haven’t discussed?

MB: The writers who are dearest to my heart are those who’ve gone out and done a little bit of legwork by making a website/blog, belonging to organizations, publishing in magazines, podcasting, etc. Once your book is published, it takes that sort of self-promotion to make it work anyway, and it helps if you are laying the groundwork ahead of time. If I can present you to an editor as a promotional whiz, they are more likely to consider working with you.

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6 thoughts on “Agent Advice: Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management

  1. Anonymous

    The part about "self-promotion" is a downer. I’m a good writer, but a lousy salesperson, which is why I’m seeking an agent…or rather why I thought I was seeking an agent; sigh.

    Guess everything in life seems to come down to people skills. If you have ’em you’ll soar to great heights; if you don’t, you’ll be fated to crawl about the earth like a bug, squashed under foot — if you’re lucky.


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