Literary Agent Interview: Jessica Sinsheimer of Sarah Jane Freymann Literary

This installment features Jessica Sinsheimer of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency. She is seeking: She handles literary fiction, young adult, women’s fiction, food memoirs, travel memoirs, parenting, psychology, and cookbooks.
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“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Jessica Sinsheimer of Sarah Jane Freymann 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 Jessica Sinsheimer of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency.

She is seeking: She handles literary fiction, young adult, women’s fiction, food memoirs, travel memoirs, parenting, psychology, and cookbooks. See full submission guidelines here.

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GLA: How did you become an agent?

JS: I was lucky. My college roommate had an internship at a large agency in New York and, when she finished, got me an interview. At the time, I was fresh from small-town California—there were literally sheep across from my high school—and had no idea what an agent was. But I arrived, loved it (who wouldn’t love reading and talking to writers and editors all day?), and kept on. The same friend got me another internship at a small publishing house, and when I graduated, I was hired with my current company.

GLA: Tell us a little about yourself – what are your interests? Your hobbies?

JS: In addition to the usual publishing-type interests (bookbinding, quill pens, wax seals, old books), I enjoy hiking, kayaking, traveling, browsing for heirloom produce at the farmer’s market, making homemade pasta, throwing dinner parties, undertaking unusual arts and crafts projects, keeping up handwritten correspondence, digital photography and exploring the city. In the next year, I’d like to study a new language, find a karate studio, and get involved with an environmental organization.

GLA: What draws you to literary fiction? Why the love for that category?

JS: I’ve loved literary fiction since a very young age, and I love when manuscripts come across my desk that make me sit up after a brilliant sentence and pause to savor the image—to think, Yes, this is why I love books.

I’ve just finished Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife, which is an excellent example—because the writing is so beautiful, the book transcends the subject matter. If you can write a book that’s officially about one thing but really, actually, about so much more, I will bother everyone in the office until they read it (“How about a cup of tea and this manuscript? How about right now?”) and then, as they read and laugh if it’s funny and make appreciative sounds, and we get that incredible We’ve found something really special glow, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I always love my job, but especially in those moments.

GLA: Concerning the “edgy young adult” fiction you seek, can this be any genre? Can you help writers understand more about what you do and don’t want to see in YA submissions?

JS: Yes, of course—there’s a freedom to this work because it’s for readers who haven’t yet settled into the rational, routine, this-is-possible-and-this-isn’t adult mindset. With that in mind, I’m happy to see YA works of any subgenre. Young Adult can be more tender -more emotionally raw, and messy, and thus truer to life than works for adults.

That said, my personal preference is for YA that would be of interest to young women. We’re primarily looking for YA crossover—works that are multilayered so that they are interesting to adult readers as well. My favorite manuscripts include but also deal with larger concepts than shopping/romance/school issues: they examine the emotional nuances of this life stage, with writing that is beautiful but accessible to young adults.

GLA: When reading a YA partial, what are the 1-3 most common reasons you stop? Where are people going wrong?

JS: Once we’ve determined that the writing is strong enough, it’s usually a question of plot (we receive many works that are derivative or otherwise unoriginal) or voice. As we know from the young adults in our lives, anything that sounds even vaguely parental will not be well-received. And there’s nothing worse than narration that reads like a text message from a grandmother.

In the past month, I’ve received twenty-nine YA partials. Looking back on my notes, I see that I rejected eight for writing, seven for voice, six for derivative or unoriginal plots, four because they were inappropriate for the age group, and two that simply weren’t a good fit for the agency but may find a home elsewhere. Then there were two I liked and passed them on to others in my office.

Also, I think a lot of writers, seeing the success of Twilight, have tried to force their manuscripts into this genre. I know you’ve heard it before, but it’s so true: write what you are meant to write—don’t write what you think will sell.

GLA: According to your BEA bio, literary and edgy YA is the only fiction you are looking for. Is that still so?

JS: Not at all! I’d especially love to see women’s fiction, literary fiction, food memoirs, travel memoirs, Parenting, Psychology, and cookbooks. Naturally, many works are some combination of the above. I also have a lot of respect for writing of the Aimee Bender/Amy Hempel variety, but know this is hard to find in full-length form. If the writing was extraordinary, I’d consider anything—though violent works about alien wars would, admittedly, have an uphill battle.

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GLA: You seek a few nonfiction subjects. When you start reading a query letter for a nonfiction book, what do you immediately look for in the letter?

JS: I always look for a strong narrative element. Nonfiction isn’t just about facts; it’s about the narrator—usually the writer—discovering the subject matter, how it relates to others, and what it means for the reader. Platform is, of course, necessary for some nonfiction, but it isn’t the first thing I notice. I’d say first writing, then narration, then professional background.

GLA: What’s the best way to submit to you? Just a query? Something else?

JS: A query is best—preferably via e-mail—to I won’t object to a few sample pages (attach them as a Word document, please): I know that writing queries is a skill separate from writing manuscripts.

GLA: I know this may be a tough question, but what are your thoughts on the future of publishing? What can you tell writers?

JS: We need to remember that many of the major publishing houses predate the Great Depression. Yes, there have been scary moments, and the industry is changing. But I don’t think it will be technology that brings on this change. I’m with Nicholson Baker (in this week’s New Yorker): though ridiculously convenient, the Kindle can turn otherwise extraordinary content, like the New York Times, into something the resembles a blog. A reliable blog, but a blog. I think great writing deserves more than that.

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t discovered?

JS: Keep in mind that we are not looking for, and representing, every work that is devoid of flaws—we’re looking for the work we fall in love with.

Ensure that the first line of your pitch proves that you’ve done your research: I spent six months gathering data on why I reject authors (there’s a pie chart on my blog), and the number one reason is a lack of research into agents. It’s not necessarily genre, here, but fit: a certain feel that makes a work compatible with that agent’s sensibilities. I immediately have more respect for authors who have done their homework. Use the books available and your intuition.

Your pitch letter may change your writing life forever. Do not simply cut and paste, and certainly do not BCC. Tailor each one. Say something like, “I see that you represented [name of book]; I liked X, Y and Z about it” or “I loved what you said at [conference name]” or “I see you like [name of TV show]—my work is similar.” Vary your sentence structure, use strong verbs and advanced punctuation—and do so correctly. Prove with your writing that you love the language.

Be cordial: we’re considering a long-term working relationship. The best writers are often the kindest. Don’t be impatient, but follow up graciously if you’re not sure we received your work.

I wish I could take authors into the office—a sort of field trip, with free coffee and souvenir letter openers—so that you could see the kind of consideration we give everyone’s work. We read every query carefully, we discuss many of them, we consider a million factors that have nothing to do with whether or not you have what it takes to be a writer. Sometimes we have something too similar to your work; sometimes we just don’t feel we’re the very best agency, of the many, many agents out there, to champion this project. Have faith that we do this out of love of writing, and take our responsibility toward the future of books very seriously. We’re here not just to sell your work, but to make it—and you, as an author—all that you can be.


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