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Agent Advice: Seth Fishman of Sterling Lord Literistic

UPDATE SEPT. 2010: Seth is now agenting with The Gernert Company.


“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Seth Fishman of The Gernert Company) 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 Seth Fishman of The Gernert Co. Seth has been with SLL since 2005. He represents, among others, Maggie Koerth-Baker, Erik Bergstrom, Molly Crabapple, Theo Ellsworth, Shawn Goodman (2009 Delacorte Prize winner), Ted Kosmatka, Keren Landman, Will McIntosh, Matthew Olshan, Tea Obreht, Nate Powell (2009 Eisner Award winner), Galit and Gilad Seliktar, and Bill Willingham’s prose work (New York Times bestseller and multiple Eisner and Hugo award winner).

He is seeking: literary and commercial fiction, popular science, young adult, sci-fi/fantasy and
graphic novels (of both a traditional and literary bent). He is looking particularly for original, even fantastical stories.

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GLA: How did you become an agent?

SF: I studied for an MFA in England, at the University of East Anglia, where I met a number of British agents, none too keen on adding the American student to their roster. So I was able to observe my classmates interact with the agents at mixers, etc., and realized that this was where you get the firsthand contact, where it all begins. When I came back to New York, I thought it would be a better place to start off.

GLA: What is a book coming out you repped that you're excited about?

SF: I have a number of books I’m excited about, of course. But one in particular is worth mentioning, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger's Wife, due out in March of 2011. Tea is 24 years old and is the youngest on the recent The New Yorker 20 Under 40 List. The novel has already been excerpted in The New Yorker, and her writing has already been lined up or has appeared in The Atlantic, Best American Short Stories, Best American Non-Required Reading, among others. She is truly a gem, and this novel is one of the best books I have ever read.

GLA: I haven't noticed many agents remark that they're interested in short fiction, but you did. Do you accept short story collections? Or do you happen to find a lot of fiction clients through their published short stories?

SF: Actually, I mention short fiction for slightly different reasons. Most of my clients write short fiction, and I, for one, think it is extremely important to cultivate one’s short game (wow, a golf metaphor) in order to maximize one’s career potential. What I mean is, I care a lot about short fiction and essays and I have made contacts over the years at all the major fiction posts and work very very hard to place my clients strategically in these publications. Going to a publisher with a publication in The Atlantic under your belt is an enormous advantage. And it often connects the client to other writers that are in the issue, that read the issue, that care about the short fiction world.

GLA: When you say you look for commercial fiction, besides the category of sci-fi/fantasy, are you open to any other pop genre categories?

(See our collection of fantasy agents.)

SF: My take is pretty much that I’ll do what I like. Literary fiction is my first love and I’ve been having a lot of success with these writers, so I’d like to make it clear that I shouldn’t be pegged as an ‘only sci-fi/fantasy guy’. Still, I read sci-fi/fantasy when I was younger, and am now back into it, but that still means I’m looking for the best of the best, careful creative writing and imaginative intelligent ideas. I read some thriller, post-apocalyptic, heist, and mystery, but am not really looking for classical genre. I think I’m looking for something in these categories that define a new era of thinking, like the way my client Ted Kosmatka takes on physics in his writing. I am not really into zombie books, they feel awfully repetitive, but give me a zombie book with a new twist I’ve never seen before, and I’m game, as long as it is well written. (Er, I’d prefer vampires to zombies any day).

GLA: Looking over your recent sales, I see three debuts. What's it like to sell a writer's debut?

SF: This is an interesting question. Certainly there is something magical about starting a writer’s career, and oftentimes there can be more excitement around a debut than a ‘credited’ author, but all in all, selling these books are fairly similar (in a good way). I love finding new authors and helping them get their books into shape and then landing them a book deal. But I also really really love taking on new clients that already have books and are looking for new homes. In many ways, that’s a bigger challenge, having to go against what might be a tough publishing record and make an editor read the new book and not just the old book’s sales record. In the end, both groups of writers are just as happy, sometimes for entirely different reasons, and the phone call to tell them about an offer is amazing either way.

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GLA: Interested in any kids stuff? Can you give us any specifics about what you do and don't want to see in the slush?

SF: I do like YA, on the older side, though I have a couple of middle grade and picture book clients. Again, it is all about the good writing and creative angle on what is probably a familiar idea. As to slush, I’d love to get material from authors who care about what they are writing. Who know we need double-spaced pages and easy to read fonts. Who reference publications in magazines (of any sort) and, as a bonus, know what kind of writing I actually like and look for. I want pages in order, not random chapters. And, certainly, ones that spell my name correctly!

GLA: Most common problems you see in the first 20 pages of a fiction partial?

SF: This is very personal, as some problems aren’t problems, they are clearly preference. But often a prologue is a problem. It usually means that there is something shoved into the beginning of the novel to add excitement. (Yes, Twilight has a prologue, but you tell me if it adds anything to the book – I’d say sloppy writing, but I suppose this is a perfect example of how subjective the industry is). Letters, people awakening in the first scene, really dramatic flashbacks/flash-forwards are often turnoffs, not because the writing is bad or you can’t do that as a writer, but to me, it is familiar, and feels uninventive. Again, there is nothing wrong with doing anything you want to start a book, but if you do the same thing everyone else is doing, you better make it stand out.

GLA: I don't know a lot about graphic novels but I see a few sales under your belt. Is the world of graphic novels growing? Shrinking? Staying the same? Give us a peek into this world.

(Find more graphic novel agents.)

SF: Growing, for sure. But it is an interesting world. The trade publishers (Random House, Penguin, etc.) are all jumping into the game, some with very fine imprints (Pantheon, First Second, Del Rey). But most are not very confident in how to publish graphic novels, so they take fewer risks, don’t push them the right way, fail to take advantage of the direct market (comic book stores and conventions). It is very hard to get one sold, but we try because we love it, no? Graphic novelists have been doing some of the most amazing creative writing for years in an ostracized world, and now they are being more accepted, and it has been really wonderful seeing their creativity hit the big screen and the big publishers.

GLA: If a writer were interested in submitting a graphic novel to you, would they only submit the text? How should a submission look when it comes in?

SF: Again, this is tough. I prefer to take on writer/illustrators, that can do both. But, to submit to me I’d need a full script and about 5-10 sample pages of art, unless the artist has a portfolio I can get some info from.

GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers conferences where writers can meet and pitch you? (Find a list of writing conferences here.)

SF: I will be at New York Comic Con 2010, on a few panels. Otherwise, for the time being, I’ve nothing planned. But feel free to check out our website and submit to me that way.

GLA: Something personal about you writers may be surprised to know?

SF: Hmm. I am from small town West Texas. For some reason that usually throws people well off.

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