Agent Advice: Ellen Pepus of Signature Literary (formerly the Ellen Pepus Literary Agency)

This installment features Ellen Pepus of Signature Literary (formerly the Ellen Pepus Literary Agency). She is seeking: "narrative nonfiction, including history, true crime, science, adventure, and memoir, as well as self-help, health and diet, food and cooking, travel, entertainment, popular culture, how-to and humor. She also represents a wide range of fiction, including literary, historical, mystery, women's fiction and romance, erotica, thrillers, fantasy and general commercial fiction.”
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“Agent Advice”(this installment featuring agent Ellen Pepus of Signature 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 Ellen Pepus of Signature Literary (formerly the Ellen Pepus Literary Agency).

She is seeking: "narrative nonfiction, including history, true crime, science, adventure, and memoir, as well as self-help, health and diet, food and cooking, travel, entertainment, popular culture, how-to and humor. She also represents a wide range of fiction, including literary, historical, mystery, women's fiction and romance, erotica, thrillers, fantasy and general commercial fiction. She does not handle science fiction, young adult, children's, short stories, poetry or screenplays."

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: How did you become an agent?

EP: My background is in English, writing and law, and I'd always wanted to work in publishing. My introduction to agenting was at The Graybill and English Literary Agency where I was assistant to several agents (including Jeff Kleinman and Elaine English) and sold foreign rights. When that agency disbanded in 2006, I decided to start my own agency, based in Washington DC.

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

EP: The Belly Dancer, DeAnna Cameron, Berkley 2009. Really fun historical fiction by a first-time novelist.

GLA: You say you're looking for women's fiction that transcends chick lit. Can you expand on what you mean by this?

EP: I love themes and subjects that appeal to women - books about people, relationships, women's lives. I like the funny, lighthearted aspect of chick lit, but I'm more looking for books with more depth, that are original and unpredictable and take a few risks. I would love to find authors who can break out of the formula and still tell a great story.

GLA: You also look for "animal stories," but this seems like a subject where you may get a lot of bad submissions. True? What mistakes are people making?

EP: It's funny; animal books are sort of perennial sellers, so I thought I'd put it out there as something I was looking for - but I do get a lot of misguided submissions in this area, particularly people's "cute pet" stories. I'd like to see books that include animals as a theme or subject, but not necessarily ones about someone's weird dog or cat. Instead, I'd love to see good narrative nonfiction in the science or nature areas or even a memoir/human interest story with an unusual twist and great writing.

GLA: What are the most common problems you see in a query letter from an unknown author?

EP: The most common problems in query letters - first, mistakes in grammar, spelling, word usage, or sentence structure. Anything like that is going to put me right off. Second, not saying what the book is about right away. I am only able to spend a minute at most reading your query letter - tell me exactly what I should know immediately because I may not read all the way to the end. Third, being boring or unoriginal - writers don't seem to realize how many query letters we read in a day or a week, we've seen everything and are looking, more than anything, for our attention to be caught, to be taken by surprise. Be surprising!

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GLA: What are you noticing about how the recession is affecting the publishing world and authors' abilities to sell work?

EP: It's definitely tightened up quite a bit. I think there will still be sales but maybe fewer for a while, and publishers may be less likely to take a chance on an unknown fiction author unless the work has a very strong commercial hook, or, in nonfiction, if the author has a great platform.

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

EP: In 2009, I'll be at the Las Vegas Writers Conference in April and Washington Independent Writers Conference in June. I'll also be taking pitches at the Writer's Digest Books Writers' Conference just before BEA in May in Manhattan.

GLA: When writers pitch you in person, what do they need to do to make their
short amount of time work?

EP: I think pitching is difficult because it's impossible to judge a piece of writing based on a pitch. Having said that, I want to hear about what the book is about, what makes it interesting, why people will want to read it, what one thing will get a publisher excited about seeing it. I also usually like to have a conversation with the writer, to find out their background, why they wrote this particular book, what else they've written, etc.

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice concerning something we haven't discussed?

EP: My best advice to writers is to keep practicing, to take workshops and classes, to really learn your craft. Read a lot. Notice things like story structure, character development, how scenes are put together in the books you love. These things can all be learned. I see way too many people who think they can just bang out an unoriginal, poorly crafted novel and get an agent to take it seriously.
Writing is a discipline and it requires dedication, talent, craft and - unfortunately - luck, but the luck part has a lot more to do with the first three than people think. And if you don't succeed with your first novel, write another one. Consider that first one practice. Keep going, but don't get bogged down thinking you've written a misunderstood masterpiece if every agent in the world turns you down. Assume there's something in that piece that isn't working and move on ... but keep writing.

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