Agent Interview by
contributor Ricki Schultz.
“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Holly Root of the Waxman 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 agents.
This installment features Holly Root of The Waxman Literary Agency. Holly began her publishing career as an editor in Christian publishing in Nashville, TN before coming to New York and joining the William Morris Agency’s agent trainee program. She then moved to Trident Media Group, where she sold audio rights for the agency’s clients, including a number of New York Times bestselling authors, before joining The Waxman Literary Agency in 2007 to sell audio rights and represent her own list of authors.
She seeks: upmarket and commercial fiction, including women's fiction, mystery, urban fantasy, romance, and YA, as well as voice-driven nonfiction projects, with particular areas of interest in narrative nonfiction, lifestyle, psychology, self-help/relationships, science, and practical spirituality and religion. She does not want screenplays, play scripts, poetry, picture books, military thrillers or woman/child in peril stories.
GLA: Why did you become an agent?
HR: I started out in publishing on the editorial side, but once I sampled the agenting waters, I really never looked back. As an agent, I love the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects because there are so many (very different!) kinds of books I truly love. I love a challenge, and since every single book is different, I certainly don't lack for challenges. And on the fuzzy side, the chance to help authors crack open the door to publication truly never gets old.
GLA: What’s the most recent thing you’ve sold?
HR: I had a fun fall, placing a lot of projects for my clients, and it's so hard to pick just a couple! Among those on the fiction side were a super-funny and charming middle-grade novel about a group of eighth-grade outcasts who use dog training techniques to rule their middle school (Fetching by Kiera Stewart, sold to Disney-Hyperion, which is just this brilliant blend of sweet emotional honesty and hilarious hijinks) and a debut paranormal romance series to Berkley (we're currently working on the perfect title for this one) that introduces a spec-ops team that, instead of fighting beasties, is made up of said beasties—vamps, weres, you name it. The author, Virna De Paul, is just crazy-talented, and I think she is going to make a big splash with this series.
GLA: What are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?
HR: Because my list is all over the place—fiction, nonfiction, young adult, adult—I'm always fascinated by what turns up in my slush! I'd love to see more middle grade, but I am exceptionally specific about voice for that age group, maybe even more reflexively than other genres I handle, so I know I will pass on saleable projects that just don't click with me.
I continue to love YA that hits me sideways with a completely indelible voice. I'm also a sucker for contemporary fiction, both for young adults and adults, where the worldbuilding is as specific and well done as it would be in the strongest paranormal (as in Kay Cassidy's The Cinderella Society or Lisa Patton's Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter).
I've talked before about wanting to see fiction for young readers that deals with faith in an ecumenically relatable/personal, rather than strictly market, sense. Think of the way Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret involves, but is not strictly about, a young girl's faith.
GLA: What draws you to commercial fiction?
HR: Simply put, it's what I read, what I've always read—and clearly, I am not alone!
GLA: Specifically within young adult and middle-grade lit, do you trend more toward sci-fi/fantasy, or do coming-of-age stories grab you?
HR: Of course, paranormal is hot right now, but I've sold as much contemporary as paranormal or fantasy YA. My authors on the contemporary side are just so, so skillful at writing emotionally truthful and resonant characters. Not that paranormal authors don't have to think about this, but when the question of identity is not so much the flashy "What am I?" but simply "Who am I?," you really have to bring your A-Game. I find I still need a high concept to go along with that beautiful writing, but there's always room for a well-told contemporary tale. And the best paranormals will be tapping those same themes, but with the added fun of fantasy.
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GLA: You seek “high-concept cozies” in terms of mysteries. Could you be more specific about what you mean here so writers can get a sense of what to send (or not to send) you?
HR: For cozies, there's a limited number of houses you can sell to these days, so I need to feel especially sure about my ability to place a project—this means a concept the sales force can hang a hat on as well as terrific storytelling and a character I'd love to revisit time and again. Cozies are primarily going to hinge on the main character's occupation (florist, dog walker, or in my client Mary Kennedy's case, radio psychologist) or hobby (scrapbooking, quilting, wine, etc.) or some combination of the two, which will make her (it's often a her) uniquely positioned to solve the crime. I'm also open to more traditional mysteries, where I am driven most of all by fast pacing and twisty, airtight plots.
GLA: To you, what is the most cringe-worthy thing one can include in a query letter?
HR: No need to apologize for yourself—"I'm so sorry to take up your time." Please don't threaten or beg me to "make your dream come true" or try to pump up the project in ways that mean nothing—telling me how your mom or friends loved it, or that you have 150 Facebook friends, all of whom you're sure would buy a copy. Don't get in your own way! Just tell me about the book, and we'll go from there.
GLA: Talk to us about your interest in “entertaining prescriptive projects” as well as “pop science projects.” What are you looking for in these areas?
HR: On the prescriptive side, I love anything that makes me go, "I would never have thought that I needed to know everything about this, but I do!" or a project that reads as entertainingly as a narrative would. On the pop science side, I have a secret inner science nerd I'd love pamper with more projects that take complicated subjects like neuroscience and make them accessible and compelling. Of course, with these projects as with all nonfiction, the trick is finding the author with the right blend of platform, authority, and—oh yes—writing ability.
GLA: You wrote a great blog post last month regarding writers getting bogged down in the do’s and don’ts of writing. Can you talk to us a little bit about your thoughts on this subject?
HR: Thanks! That post came from having done a lot of conferences and being a little frustrated with some of the vibes that are put off by some of the industry staffers in these scenarios.
In our efforts to convey how the business works and the appropriate expectations for writers to have in the early stages of the game, it's easy to sound like We Are The Only Busy People Ever In the Universe And No One Else Could Possibly Parse The Depths of Our Busy—which is exceptionally untrue and rude, and—I would hope—not at all what anyone intends to put across.
So from thinking about that, I ended up thinking about how this false impression of agents just sitting around waiting to "zap" writers for mundanities really contributes to a lot of the fear and nerves writers have, and how hard it is to do good work if you're operating from fear. I just want good books, type size and face notwithstanding, and I don't think I'm alone there.
GLA: What is one thing writers would be surprised to know about your personally?
HR: I have entirely too few secrets as it is! I can't give up all the goods...
GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t talked about yet?
HR: I have a favorite saying that I think addresses most, if not all, of the things that make us crazy at any and every stage of the journey, and it is one we all should've learned by third grade: Eyes on your own test paper.
Don't worry about Joe's query or how many full requests Suzy got, or whether Lisa got more co-op or David's deal was a pre-empt. Everyone's road is going to look different.
Same thing applies to agents, honestly. Competing with yourself should be challenge enough. Getting wound up in the comparison game is unhealthy: It's unproductive because it's nearly impossible to know the entire story behind the scenes; it encourages a mentality that if someone else gets something good, there is one less good thing for me to get; and perhaps most of all, focusing on others takes your attention off things you can actually improve (i.e., your own work).
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- Feb. 11, 2017: Writers Conference of Minnesota (St. Paul, MN)
- Feb. 16–19, 2017: San Francisco Writers Conference (San Francisco, CA)
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Other writing/publishing articles and links for you:
- Freelance Editing: How to Hire an Editor For Your Query or Book.
- If Your First Manuscript Doesn't Sell, Start on Another
- Literary Agent Seeking Clients: Susan Hawk of Bent Literary.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Writer Platform.
- How to Deal With Writing Critiques & Revision Notes.
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and how to write a query letter.
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