Interview with literary agent Linda Epstein of the Jennifer De Chiara 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 in a genre you represent?)
Linda Epstein: I look for a good hook, in a clear, concise, well-written query. When a query is just too complicated and meandering to understand, or if the spelling and grammar are terrible, it’s usually a pretty quick rejection for me. If you can’t write a letter, how can you write a whole novel? I have very limited time to read queries, as my main focus is taking care of the clients I already have, so if you don’t get the letter right I probably won’t read the manuscript. I immediately delete anything that’s addressed to any name but mine; “To whom it may concern”; or “Dear Agent”; and also anything that has attachments.
Krista: At what point in reading a manuscript do you know that it is – or isn’t – for you?
Linda: If I’ve gotten to the end and I start thinking about which editors I want to show it to, I know it’s for me. If I start talking to myself in more than a few places, saying things like, “Oh come on, why’d you have to go do that?!” and “Stop it. That just does not work,” then I know it’s probably not for me.
Krista: You’re currently only accepting queries for children’s/YA books. What’s so appealing about books for young readers?
Linda: Well, I guess middle grade books are just my favorite. They’re about kids who have just arrived at a time in their life when they start looking out at the world and seeing that they are part of something bigger. It’s awesome! I love that. But wait! YA books are really my favorite. The angst of being a teenager, of starting to make choices about who you’re going to be, and how you’re going to be? It’s awesome! I love that. But wait wait wait! Picture books are my favorite! They are the marriage of art and words, an opportunity to read aloud, to engage a young child to wonder or laugh. It’s awesome! I love that. Children’s literature is so rich, so diverse, so much fun, such an opportunity, what’s not appealing about that?
Krista: You state that you’re interested in historical books and retellings. Any time periods or specific stories you’d like to see?
Linda: What’s most interesting to me about retellings is when the author does something new. For example, Malinda Lo’s ASH turned the Cinderella story in a whole new direction, or Sharon Cameron’s ROOK riffed on THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL in a fantastically original way. That’s where the appeal is. I loved CODE NAME VERITY because it was brilliantly done, although categorically I usually shy away from things set during World War 2. What I’m drawn to is a great story, not necessarily a particular time period.
Krista: What’s the ideal manuscript that could come across your desk right now?
Linda: I have no idea! How about something totally unexpected and brilliantly written, with a great commercial hook, yet still quirky and original?
Krista: What’s the toughest part about your job? The most fun part?
Linda: The toughest thing is when I can’t sell a manuscript that I love. It’s almost as devastating to me as it is to the author, believe it or not. I’ve invested a lot of my time and energy to the manuscript already, so to make the decision to put something aside is heartbreaking. The most fun thing is selling a book, of course. I feel like a fairy godmother who has just made someone’s dream come true.
Krista: You speak frequently at conferences, and even co-lead the Writing Yoga Retreat. How important do you consider conferences to be for aspiring writers, and how much more likely are you to consider work from someone you met face-to-face at a conference?
Linda: I think conferences can be great, but writing isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Some aspiring writers will never go to a single conference and will still end up on the bestseller list. For others, going to a conference can make the difference between getting published or not, packing it in or continuing to write. It’s a very individual thing. If going to a conference or retreat will nurture and support someone in their writing, then they should get themselves there.
Any author is free to query me, as long as they’re writing what I represent. I look at every query that comes in. Usually what you get when you go to a conference though, is priority attention. So, for 4 weeks or 6 weeks or whatever the specified time is after the conference, I’ll give priority to the conference attendee’s queries. Obviously if I’ve met you, and we’ve already discussed your work, I’ll be familiar with what you’re sending me. But ultimately it comes down to the writing. I don’t care how much I may have liked meeting someone at a conference, if the writing doesn’t do it, it’s still a pass.
Krista: How important is it for writers to have an online presence – both before signing with an agent, and after their books are published?
Linda: In my opinion, it’s pretty important. I suggest that any author who is sending their work out to agents or editors should at the very least have an author website. It’s like an online calling card, a place for people to land when your name is Googled. Because it will be Googled. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should look professional.
After your book is published it’s a very good idea to be involved in some kind of social media, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr or whatever the next new thing will be. It’s where buzz gets built, between authors and other authors, authors and booksellers, authors and the reading public. And buzz sells books! Isn’t that what we’re trying to do?
Krista: Tying into the previous question, how much self-promotion should authors be willing to do?
Linda: Authors need to do whatever it takes to sell their books. I guess a book could just hit a nerve in the zeitgeist and sell itself, but most books need lots of support. An online presence, being willing to hit festivals and conferences, finding ways to get interviewed and exposure, are all things that authors can do to help sell their books. Gone are the days when a publisher would just handle it and an author could choose to be a recluse.
Krista: Are there any especially helpful books, websites or other resources you’d recommend to aspiring writers?
Linda: I highly recommend that writers join professional organizations like SCBWI or RWA or whatever the organization is for their genre. Being on Twitter and checking out some of the writing-related hashtags is a good idea too. If you Google “hashtags for writers” you can see what the choices are, and find something that fits. There are also many books about writing that are super inspiring. Two favorites are BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott and ON WRITING by Stephen King. Lastly, for those seeking publication, signing up for Publisher’s Lunch will get you an email every day that shows which editors are buying what. I think it’s very beneficial for aspiring writers to know what’s happening in the world of publishing.
Krista: What are your favorite books (that you haven’t represented)?
Linda: The answer to this changes daily, depending upon my mood. So today let’s look at books I’ve loved that have come out relatively recently and I’ll pick one from each age group. For picture books, there’s THE SLEEPER AND THE SPINDLE by Neil Gaiman; GLORY O’BRIEN’S HISTORY OF THE FUTURE by A.S. King in the YA category; and for middle grade I’ll pick COUNTING BY 7s by Holly Sloan; plus THE MUSEUM OF EXTRAORDINARY THINGS by Alice Hoffman, to throw an adult book into the mix!
Krista: If you could have dinner with three famous people, alive or dead, who would they be?
Linda: I’d like to eat popcorn and candy for dinner with Theodor Geisel, in a box with a fox; I’d like to have moules-frite and too much wine for dinner with Gertrude Stein and I’d like to invite Neil Gaiman over for a Passover seder, where he and I could rewrite the Haggadah together.
Krista: Is there anything else you’d like to include?
Linda: There are still some spots left at this summer’s Writing Yoga Retreat, if you haven’t had enough of my sassy responses in this interview. If you come, you’d get to experience the rarely seen Zen aspect of Linda Epstein, while nurturing your work in progress. And really, thank you so much for inviting me to be interviewed!
Linda Epstein joined The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency as an Associate Agent in 2011. Before that she read manuscripts, book proposals, and queries at Folio Literary Management; was Submissions Manager at The McVeigh Agency; did a short stint at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency and a longer stint at Meryl Zegarek Public Relations. She was also a Community Relations Manager at Barnes and Noble, where she set up author readings and signings and organized book groups and book fairs. She’s a member of SCBWI and speaks frequently at writing conferences and retreats all over the country. Some day she will finish writing her own novel. In the meanwhile, she has an award-winning blog and you can find her on Twitter @LindaEpstein.
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