Literary Agent Interview: Melissa Sarver of Folio Literary (formerly Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency)

This installment features Melissa Sarver of the Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency. A graduate of Boston University, she has worked with several literary agencies (Waxman Literary Agency, Brick House Literary Agents, and Imprint Agency—now FinePrint) before she joined the Elizabeth Kaplan team in 2006. She is seeking: In fiction, literary and commercial adult, YA and middle grade. She likes dark, edgy stories with brilliant prose and strong voice as well as quirky stories with a fresh sense of humor. She especially enjoys family sagas, multicultural stories and similarly emotional stories with dystopian themes. In nonfiction, she is looking for voice-driven narrative nonfiction, memoir, lifestyle, business, travel writing, pop culture, cookbooks, and food writing.
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“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Melissa Sarver of Folio 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 Melissa Sarver of Folio Literary (formerly of the Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency). A graduate of Boston University, she has worked with several literary agencies (Waxman Literary Agency, Brick House Literary Agents, and Imprint Agency—now FinePrint) before she joined the Elizabeth Kaplan team in 2006. Be sure to check her out on Twitter.

She is seeking: In fiction, literary and commercial adult, YA and middle grade. She likes dark, edgy stories with brilliant prose and strong voice as well as quirky stories with a fresh sense of humor. She especially enjoys family sagas, multicultural stories and similarly emotional stories with dystopian themes. In nonfiction, she is looking for voice-driven narrative nonfiction, memoir, lifestyle, business, travel writing, pop culture, cookbooks, and food writing. She does not represent: poetry, romance, fantasy, science, biography, or screenplays.

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GLA: How did you become an agent?

MS: Out of college I worked as an editorial assistant at a national women’s magazine for a few years, but I was miserable and desperately wanted to work in book publishing. I took a class at NYU taught by a literary agent and then interned for an agent, and it really opened up a new world of opportunities for me. I left the magazine and got a job as an assistant for three small agencies sharing office space. It was a total crash course in agenting, and two years in, I started taking on my own clients and closed my first deal.

GLA: What's something you've sold that comes out soon that you're excited about?

MS: I’m very excited about a memoir that came out Dec. 28: Dirty Secret, A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother’s Compulsive Hoarding by Jessie Sholl. The first memoir written from child’s point of view—what it’s like to grow up in the house of a hoarder.

Hoarding is such a hot topic right now—nearly four million tuned into the season premier of Hoarders on A&E … we’re hoping all those fans will buy Jessie’s book. And it’s extremely well-written—funny, sad, poignant, a truly unsentimental look at the effects of this disorder.

GLA: One of your areas of interest is multicultural—particularly in young adult and middle-grade projects. What subjects in this category do you feel are untapped or underrepresented and would, therefore, be a refreshing change from what you typically see in the slush pile?

MS: Good question! I just sold a YA novel that takes place in England and India, and I was so excited that it wasn’t set in the U.S. Isn’t part of the reason we read to take us places we probably won’t go? To me it is. I want to learn about other cultures and experience different points of view. In another direction, I think non-white characters are underrepresented in children’s fiction, which just simply doesn’t represent the population.

(Look over a growing list of young adult literary agents.)

GLA: You also like dystopian themes. That seems to be a healthy area of market—particularly in YA. Why do you think this is so? As well, what do you see for the future? Will it always be so hot?

MS: YA topics and trends are cyclical, but I think dystopian is always relevant and in-demand. It’s funny that the term “science fiction” is still not “cool” or commercial, still relegated to genre fiction, but dystopian—suddenly that word is very cool. Do people not realize that most of it is science fiction? Or magical realism? In that sense, the theme has been hot forever.

It’s fascinating to ponder the question “what if?” These books make us think about the world and humanity—how people act toward each other when pushed to the brink, when fighting for survival. It’s so interesting to think how quickly these societies we’ve built could break down and we’d be left with the most basic human instincts.

GLA: With regard to your interest in food-related projects and cookbooks, what can you tell us about your tastes (no pun intended) in this category? What has been done to death? And, can you tell us about any potential holes in this market?

(See a list of cookbook literary agents.)

MS: I love cookbooks—I do cook and bake, but I also just love looking at cookbooks and reading them. My favorites include strong narrative about the chef (I really like the Momofuku cookbook that came out last year, by David Chang and Peter Meehan).

I’m a bit more into restaurant or chef cookbooks, and also those that represent a movement. Cookbooks are selling well right now but it’s tough to break in, with practically every food blogger under contract for a book at the moment! I’m moved by innovative people doing interesting things—I love reading their stories. I’m a big proponent of the locavore movement and enjoy reading about all the entrepreneurs out there, though the book market may have already seen its fair share covering this topic (urban farming, etc.).

Narrative books that truly tell a story work well (The Fortune Cookie Chronicles; The Billionaire’s Vinegar, Waiter Rant). Those that tend to be more in the vein of “I’m going to study how to make butter for a year” or “I’m going to only eat hot dogs for a year”—somehow I think the doing something for a year books have run their course.

And as far as exploring one location or one food, there has to be a very meaty (no pun intended) story there with many great characters and historical information or current relevance that truly warrants a whole book on the topic. I’m personally looking to do a wine book right now—I’m not sure exactly what that will be, but I’d love to have a wine book on my list.

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GLA: What’s the number one thing you’d say new writers need the most help with?

MS: If we’re talking about nonfiction, it’s all platform, platform, platform. There is no way around a writer's platform; it’s a huge component for publishers. If you don’t have an established audience (a big one), they are not interested. So if you are writing nonfiction, work very hard in building your platform: Twitter, blogging, Facebook, radio, TV, national magazines, and newspapers. If you’re a consultant or a speaker, be ready to prove some big numbers as to how many people you speak to each year.

(See how to build a writer platform.)

As for querying, no matter how many times we agents say it (on blogs, in articles, at conferences), writers still often don’t do their research when querying agents. I’ll get “Dear Agent, After extensively researching you and your agency, I am sending you my thriller/sports book/poetry collection… ” and none of those are areas I represent. You should know what titles our agency has represented and try to find out what other books I like, which I’ve talked about in interviews that are easily found online. Keep your query brief, and really hook me right away. If I’m bored reading one page you’ve written, I don’t really want to read 300 more…

As for those writing fiction, the number one issue I see in manuscripts is too much exposition. Often the author should have cut the first 30 pages. That information is really there for the author and not the reader.

GLA: In a recent interview, you discussed authors’ responsibilities in terms of building and maintaining platform (for nonfiction and, increasingly, fiction). Going along with that, what do you consider to be the best way writers can build their platforms? What should all newbies be doing?

MS: This is a tough one because the most obvious answer is Blogging! Tweeting! But not all authors are cut out for Twitter; if you’re not very good at it and you don’t do it at least a few times a week, don’t bother. And there’s nothing worse than the people who only show up on Twitter to say “My book’s pubbing in two months!” “My book’s pubbing in one month!” “My book pubs today!” Yawn. It needs to be interactive, and you need to be saying things of substance, funny, clever …

It’s a little bit the same thing with blogging. It’s not enough to have a blog. Try to blog on other people’s sites or some of the larger blogs that have many contributors, try to write short pieces that get published, and you could gain exposure there. Be on Facebook (though how I loathe it!) and maybe start a website that features you and excerpts of your writing.

Get to know other writers; they will be your biggest advocates and show up at your book readings and other events. Join a writers group, and get involved in writers conferences in your area.

(How to Deal With Writing Critiques.)

GLA: How have you found the role of agent to be changing as the industry changes? Any projections for what’s to come?

MS: Our role has been changing in that we have to do so much more editing than before, because the publishers are looking for any reason to say No and editors know they can only bring polished manuscripts to their bosses. So we now do many rounds of editing before we send a project out. We essentially spend a lot more time working on spec and taking leaps of faith in a project that we know we’re going to be working on for months, if not longer, before sending it to editors.

My prediction is we’re all going to be making a lot less money in the years to come; advances are shrinking (and rightly so, if we want to sustain our industry) and we’re working much longer on projects to get them to the point of sale.

For people who say agents and publishers will no longer be needed in the near future because writers can simply publish their work digitally on their own, I say they are wrong. Sure they can publish on their own, but good luck finding a large enough audience and marketing your book. There are very few people who will be able to, on their own, produce the kind of numbers it takes to make a book a success.

You have people like bestselling author Seth Godin who announced recently he’ll never publish another book with a traditional publisher. Well, he’s in a very unique position to be able to do so—that is, he has millions of fans already, who he gained from the books that were published by a big publisher, and he has a huge online presence. He’s the minority. Plus, most authors don’t want to deal with the day-to-day business of publishing books—they want to write!

GLA: What is something about you writers would be surprised to hear?

MS: Maybe that I was a dancer from age 3 to 23. Not professionally, but I had a lot of classical ballet training.

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

MS: Nothing scheduled at the moment.

GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t talked about yet?

MS: Don’t become a writer to get rich; it may happen, but it’s a long road to getting there and most of the “riches” come in other forms. Write (especially fiction) because you feel you can’t do anything else, because there are stories inside you that need to find their way out.

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This guest column by Ricki Schultz,
freelance writer and coordinator of
The Write-Brained Network. You can
Visit her blog
or follow her on Twitter.

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