Interview with literary agent Sarah LaPolla of Bradford Literary Agency.
Krista Bean (Scripts & Scribes): What do you look for in a query letter? What might garner an immediate rejection (provided the query is sent in the appropriate format, and is in a genre you represent?)
Sarah LaPolla: With queries, I look for character + plot + conflict. Meaning, who is this story about, what do they want, what will they do to get it, and why should I care? Assuming the query follows all guidelines and is in a genre I represent, there are few things that will make automatically reject something. Though, it’s unlikely I’d keep reading the query if the author isn’t bringing anything new to a familiar premise, or if something about the query/story is blatantly offensive.
Krista: Have you ever requested a full manuscript off of a query letter, or do you always look at partials, synopses, etc. first?
Sarah: I request fulls more often than I request partials. I rarely look at synopses, but sometimes they are useful. Mostly, if I already decided I’m interested in the book based on the query, I just want to read it!
Krista: At what point in reading a manuscript do you know that it is – or isn’t – for you?
Sarah: I can usually tell within the 1st 3 chapters if I want to keep reading. By this point, I know whether the writing is strong enough, and the voice, premise, plot, and character are established. For me, character and writing quality are the first things I look at in a novel, so even if the plot isn’t totally on track yet, I’ll keep reading.
Krista: You have an MFA in nonfiction Creative Writing. Does that experience in nonfiction in any way influence the way you look at fiction?
Sarah: What separates creative nonfiction from other nonfiction writing is that it relies on using the same techniques and approaches to storytelling as writing a novel. It’s not just reporting facts or relaying information. There’s still character development, a plot, and a narrative arc. So my experience in the program gave me the same skills needed to be a better editor and reader of fiction. (Not to mention all the literature courses I took outside of my essay-writing classes!) I think my writing background also makes me more willing to be an editorial agent. I understand how revision transforms a project, so I don’t necessarily reject something just because it needs some more work. That said, my experience in the industry itself is much more valuable in terms of doing my job well. Being able to understand the market and making a project stand out in the best way within that market is not something I would have been able to learn in a writing program.
Krista: You’re a big fan of working with debut authors. What about it makes it so rewarding? What are the challenges?
Sarah: The challenges, of course, are getting publishers to take a chance on someone unknown. Thankfully, many editors love debut authors too, but it’s still harder than selling someone with proven sales history. The rewards, however, are that much sweeter! In publishing, the lows tend to feel very low and the highs become phenomenal. It’s a tough little industry! With debut authors, those highs and lows are more intense because not only is every book deal different from my perspective, but from their perspective, it’s all unknown. I like being able to guide an author through that because I know how maddening it can get sometimes. And of course there’s the books themselves! There’s something so special about seeing a project you found in the slush pile get recognition or seeing an author you’ve helped find a home go on to find an audience.
Krista: What’s the toughest part about your job? The most fun part?
Sarah: The tough part can vary in a given week (if not a given day)… for today, I’ll say it’s the waiting. Waiting for manuscripts, waiting for responses, waiting for an offer, waiting for contracts, waiting for publication… The fun part, of course, is when all the waiting pays off and you have an amazing book you can hold in your hands! My favorite part of the job is being able to call an author with good news – whether it’s an offer of representation or telling them a publisher wants to buy their book. I’m usually all about email, but there are some things you just need to say out loud and hear the response!
Krista: You worked as an assistant to the foreign rights agent at Curtis Brown before moving over to Bradford Literary Agency. How did that original position compare to what you’re doing now?
Sarah: I miss foreign rights sometimes. It was incredibly educational and interesting, and I feel lucky to have begun my career in a field many agents don’t really get to experience. My passion was always starting a list of my own though, and if I stayed on the foreign rights path, I wouldn’t be able to devote the time to my clients the way I’d need to (or want to). I prefer where I am now, but I don’t think I would be here without my other experience.
Krista: How important do you consider conferences to be for aspiring writers?
Sarah: Conferences can be great learning tools, but I’d advise against going to them because you want to pitch to agents and editors. Querying is free, and if we’re interested in your work at conferences, that’s what we’ll ask you do anyway. Writers attending conferences should go because they want to learn *how* to pitch and learn when their book is ready. So many writers I meet at conferences often don’t quite know what genre/market they’re writing in, or are still working out plot details, or are clueless about how the industry works as a whole. It’s fine to not know these things! That’s why I think conferences are important. Sadly, I see more conferences using “pitch your novel to agents” as the selling point, and that doesn’t actually help writers.
Krista: How important is it for a writer to have an online presence – both before signing with an agent, and after his/her book is published?
Sarah: The answer is to this question is different if you write nonfiction because it is very important to have a presence before you write a nonfiction book. With novels, “online presence” isn’t important unless the writer has a *bad* presence. If I Google an author before I offer representation, and all I see are racist/sexist tweets or long blog posts about how the publishing industry is dying and terrible… no. Just no. These are cases of your online presence working against an author. I’d rather a writer not have a platform than have the wrong one. With fiction, the story is what matters. Marketing comes after.
Krista: Tying into the previous question, how much self-promotion should an author be willing to do?
Sarah: As much as their publicist asks of them, as long as it doesn’t cost them anything or impact their writing time. An author’s first job is to write, so no author should feel pressured to do their own marketing. If they use social media, self-promo can be as simple as tweeting every once in a while about their book (linking to reviews, letting readers know the pub date, etc.) But, constant self-promo tweets are not effective, so I like to remind authors that self-promo can simply mean being proactive. Friends with your local bookstore or cafe owner? Ask if they’ll let you do a reading. Publisher has limited galleys they can send to reviewers? Ask if they can make postcards or bookmarks that you can give away to booksellers or librarians. Self-promo is about more than just social media. Sometimes it means being your own publicist if – and only if – it becomes necessary.
Krista: What are your favorite books (that you haven’t represented)?
Sarah: It really depends on genre, but my overall Top 3 would be: THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY, and CATCHER IN THE RYE. I had to pick recent favorites in the genres I represent, my Top 5 would be: ELEANOR AND PARK by Rainbow Rowell (YA), THIS IS NOT A TEST by Courtney Summers (YA), WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE by Maria Semple (adult literary), DEPT. OF SPECULATION by Jenny Offill (adult literary) and THE RIVERMAN by Aaron Starmer (MG).
Krista: Best Judy Blume book?
Sarah: The best? That’s a tough one. I don’t think I can speak with authority on “the best.” For me personally, though, I’m going with the Fudge series, especially OTHERWISE KNOWN AS SHEILA THE GREAT.
Krista: Wayne or Garth?
Sarah: Wayne! I usually go for the sidekick, but my crush on Wayne Campbell goes back nearly 25 years. I can’t help it.
Krista: Kristy Swanson as Buffy, or Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy?
Sarah: Oh man. OK. I’m going with Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy because she was a more nuanced character and I love how SMG played her. BUT! This was a tough call for me! Both Buffys have a special place in my heart for different reasons.
Sarah LaPolla joined Bradford Literary Agency in May 2013. Prior to joining forces with Laura and Natalie, Sarah worked for five years in the foreign rights department at Curtis Brown, Ltd., and became an associate agent there in 2010. She received her MFA in Creative Writing (Nonfiction) from The New School in 2008 and has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Ithaca College.
Sarah represents YA and adult fiction. On the adult side, she is looking for literary fiction, science fiction, magical realism, dark/psychological mystery, and upmarket commercial and/or women’s fiction. For YA, she is interested in contemporary/realistic fiction that doesn’t shy away from the darker side of adolescence. YA sci-fi, horror, mystery, and magical realism are also welcome; and she would love to find a modern Judy Blume for the MG market. No matter what genre, Sarah is drawn to layered/strong characters, engaging narrators, and a story that’s impossible to put down.
Follow Sarah on Twitter at @SarahLaPolla and visit her blog, Glass Casses.
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