Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Interview: Agent Sarah LaPolla on how authors can stand out, negotiating offers, and the state of publishing


Sarah LaPolla is an agent at Bradford Literary Agency, where she represents a mix of middle grade, young adult, and adult books, with a focus on literary fiction, science fiction, magical realism, dark/psychological mystery, literary horror, and upmarket contemporary fiction. Prior to Bradford Lit, Sarah and I were colleagues at Curtis Brown Ltd. Follow her on Twitter!

NATHAN: Let's cut to the chase. What's the best way for an author to get your attention?

SARAH: The easy answer – by not trying. The bells and whistles are usually a turn off. When it comes to queries, the only thing that really gets my attention is a good story. That will always speak louder than gimmicks. And even if there is a particularly clever gimmick, or even if I know the author in some way, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll request a manuscript if I don’t love the story first. 

The other way authors get agent attention is via Twitter – and with the popularity of pitch contests, this is just as useful in connecting with agents as querying is. I’m as introverted online as I am in real life, so I don’t speak for all agents here, but the best way to get my attention on Twitter is just be yourself. 

I don’t follow or respond to everyone who replies to my tweets, but I’ve developed friendly relationships with authors over time. There are always names I recognize, and when I see those names in my query inbox they do get my attention a little more! 

But replying to every single tweet or pitching your book on social media usually gets my attention in a bad way. 

One of the most important element of an agent's job is negotiating offers. How do you go about this? Do you call editors up and yell "ONE MILLION OR GO HOME" and then hang up?

Oh man, I wish! It’s generally way more civil than that, and I’m among a very email-friendly generation of agents and editors, which I am grateful for. 

I might receive an initial offer on the phone, and go over basics (advance level, territory, royalties, subrights), but it all stays pretty non-committal until I can hang up and call my author. Then the bulk of negotiations are finalized via email (usually), and it’s a lot of “let’s see what I can do… OK can’t do that, but can definitely do this... and we’ll add in that, but… OK…. OK… cool cool cool” until there’s a deal! Haha. Isn’t it all so glamorous? 

It’s when there are multiple offers and there’s an auction where I break into a sweat and the more Hollywood-style bargaining comes into play. At that point it’s about maintaining composure, staying honest with everyone involved, and ultimately letting my author trust their gut after I give them all of the information they need to decide what’s right for their career.

It seems like we're in a moment in publishing where there are a handful megabestsellers and lots of other books are languishing. Have you experienced this, and has it changed how you approach your work?

This is an interesting question. I started in publishing during the “OMG what is digital?” panic and that was around the time the class divide (if you will) became more apparent in books. So by the time I started taking on my own clients, publishing had come out the other end of that. 

My own approach to agenting never needed to change. The agents I interned for and assisted largely had midlist authors, and they were excellent authors who provided their agents with a livable wage (even by NYC standards!). If I were in grad school, I’d attempt a thesis comparing the declining middle class with the declining midlist! 

I think what’s happening in publishing is true across all industries right now. There are A-list pop stars, and the ones finding their following on iTunes and YouTube. There are Hollywood blockbusters and reboots galore, and then there are screenwriters desperate to get their original material into festivals. 

So, as far as my approach to taking on new projects – I guess I decide which books will be Huge vs. Not So Huge, and go in knowing that. Some might require a wider submission list or strategizing with subrights agents first. Others might not. I don’t get swayed by either scenario, really. If I decide a project is still worth taking on, I prepare my authors for realistic expectations. I still take on books that will be deemed “smaller” because those tend to be the books I love. But I also don’t consider those books “languishing.” Not being a bestseller doesn’t mean the book isn’t valuable or well-reviewed or even selling well. It just means there are 10 spots available on the bestseller list, and a lot more than 10 authors.

What do you look for when you're considering an author who has previously self-published a book or forty?

New material, mostly. 

If an author is querying a book they already published, it raises questions – Why did you self-pub in the first place? What were your sales figures? What are you hoping an agent will do for you? I want all of those questions answered in the query. 

Sometimes authors only self-pub because they think it’s the path to a traditional deal (it isn’t). Other authors self-pub because they didn’t feel they needed a traditional deal for that particular project, but now money is coming in and they have this new book that might be more mainstream and they need help. 

I don’t begrudge anyone for self-publishing, but if they’re now approaching me for representation, I need to know the full scope of that decision and where they hope to go from there. Which comes back to “new material.” If you already self-pubbed 100 books and you’re approaching an agent, be prepared to send them a project that’s all-new, never-been-published that they will be able to send to traditional publishers while helping you manage your previously self-published backlist.

What do you wish all authors knew about working with agents?

So many things! Though, I guess mostly that getting an agent is Step One in a longer process to getting published. Given all the work authors put into their books before querying is even an option, it’s not hard to understand why authors think the goal is Getting An Agent. It is the goal if they want to go the traditional route, but it is nowhere near the finish line. 

Going along with that, the other major thing authors should know about agents is that we are not their boss. If anything, authors are our boss, but mostly it’s a partnership. An author’s job is to write books an agent can sell for them, and an agent’s job is to sell it. There’s a lot more to the relationship than just those two things, but that’s the core of it. It doesn’t work without mutual respect, trust, and patience.

How do you see the role of agenting changing as the industry evolves? Robo-agents?

If I’m ever replaced by a robot, I will be very upset. I enjoy what I do way too much. Maybe a robo-assistant could be cool though. I’d send it to all of my networking events for me! 

The question of “the changing role of the agent” comes up a lot. I mentioned the “core” of the author/agent relationship as simply writing and selling books for each other, and I think that’s been the core since the dawn of literary agents. That’s something I don’t see changing. What has changed is what comes with that. 

10-15 years ago, most agents weren’t especially editorial. Now it’s a job requirement. I wasn’t selling books 10 years ago, but from other agents I’ve spoken to, the norm seemed to be sending a book even if it wasn’t “polished” and an editor would be able to offer on it. That is not the case now. Most agents I know who started around the same time I did are heavily editorial. We’ll go through two or three rounds of edits sometimes before it ever goes on submission, and on the editorial side, requests for revision or simply passing because it “needs too much work” are not uncommon. Because there are industry changes on their end too.

5-10 years ago, “hybrid author” was a phrase only a few agents really understood, and others (myself included in my wee early days) thought authors needed to pick a side. Now authors can publish across platforms, use a pen name for certain markets and have multiple publishers for others. The agent’s job is now to strategize with the author’s goals in mind and make them happen in a way that was not a strong possibility not too long ago.

My role as an agent hasn’t changed too much yet, but I pay attention to what’s already happened. My guess is that we have another year or two before another major shift happens, and I’ll adapt in whatever way is best suited for my authors.

Anything else you'd like to say? The floor is yours!

Oh, probably a lot of things will come to mind if I really let them, so for now I’ll just say thank you! It’s funny; I don’t really pause to truly think about the industry as a whole that often. I focus on client-by-client needs. It’s interesting to see patterns and how I’ve evolved with the industry without even really realizing it sometimes! So, I appreciate the chance to do that. Thanks, Nathan!

Thank you, Sarah! If you're interested in submitting to her, please check out this page.

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.






10 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that midlist authors provide agents with a livable wage (even in NYC!), but how many midlist authors are making a livable wage? I'm going to guess none. The median income from writing for an American author in 2014 was $8,000. I'd love to see a post addressing this reality and the consequences for literature. Would we hear from more diverse voices if authors could earn a living from their writing? Is it fair for publishing professionals to earn full-time salaries while authors create the product that they sell in their "spare time"? How many non-white-collar workers have that kind of time? I'm asking this from a place of privilege - I have one book published and one on the way, and I can work on them full time because my husband has a white collar job. I'd like to hear from a single mom holding two jobs who has published a midlist book. Can you find one? Would she agree with what I'm saying?

Nathan Bransford said...

Anon-

I think you're misinterpreting what she's saying -- I believe she agents were getting a livable wage from mid-listers when she was coming up as an agent, not that it's super common right now.

I'd be curious to know the business model you'd propose where publishing professionals don't make living wages and mid list authors do.

Nathan Bransford said...

But re: diverse books: absolutely. I'm hoping that's in the process of changing, but it's definitely a problem for people who are strapped to find the time to write. Hopefully the publishing world can continue to find ways of subsidizing people to make that a reality.

Anonymous said...

I hope it's changing! I feel like the publishing industry is contracting, with fewer opportunities for authors from disadvantaged backgrounds. I don't know what the business model should be; I don't necessarily mean publishing professionals have to forgo living wages, although I understand that realistically, there isn't enough money to go around. If more of it went to authors, though, wouldn't we have more people entering the field and improving the product? I thought this article was really interesting: https://medium.com/@nickkokonas/why-we-are-self-publishing-the-aviary-cookbook-lessons-from-the-alinea-book-e89236ab6ca1 Anyway, sorry to hijack the post, I thought the interview was really interesting; that phrase "livable wage" just caught my attention and inspired a rant...

JOHN T. SHEA said...

Thanks to Sarah LaPolla and Nathan for this interview, which reminds us that agents are as individual as authors, and not identical products of some Agent School somewhere.

Sarah LaPolla said...

Hi Anonymous - Nathan already clarified that the "livable wage" I was referring to is from a bygone era, but I wanted to add that I completely understand where you're coming from! It's actually far more common for agents not to get a salary at all. Agenting is my full-time job and I only get paid when my authors do. We also deal with increased costs of living and decreasing advances, and as a result, many agents have second jobs the same way authors do. And yes, this is a major issue for people who are not privileged! Like Nathan said, this is a concern the publishing community is aware of and working on from within. Thanks for your comment!

JOHN T. SHEA said...

Yes, not only are times tough, but my toast ALWAYS falls Avocado side down!

Anonymous said...

In the current publishing market, with Amazon and KDP and KU being what they are, the average midlist author is almost certainly better off WITHOUT an agent and indie publishing, but then again, this agent once derided independent publishing (perhaps still does). There are many solidly midlist indie authors consistently making 6 figures. They would not make nearly that much traditionally, especially while providing "their agents with a livable wage (even by NYC standards!)"

It would be interesting to hear an agent's view on their value to indie publishers. It's certainly not "helping you manage your previously self-published backlist." Most independent authors successful enough for an agent to feel compelled to reach out to them do not need an agent's assistance with their backlist - unless you're talking about foreign, tv/film, or print only rights.

Caleb said...

Hilarious! @John T. Shea

Caleb G said...


A few of you commenters are making some false assumptions, I think. And I really don't understand the anti-agent sentiment. What's that about? Thank you Sarah LaPolla for your interview.

As for diversity, I'm sure the publishing industry could do a number of things to bring people into the fold whose stories aren't being told because they're, frankly, too oppressed to create art, but let's not disregard the minority writers who right now today are publishing. I think the field is pretty diverse. Perhaps, what we need is better promotion, rather than search for some magical "diverse" writers. If you're willing to look for it, and not simply wait for things to be marketed to you, I think you can find whatever you want to find.

Now, agents making a living wage, isn't that a good thing? These agents who were doing okay ten years ago with a midlist author clientele were not doing okay because they were bilking or robbing the authors. They were providing a useful service to enough people that they were able to live off the income. Authors with agents get better deals. That's why people hire agents. Now, how does an author make a living wage? Well, assuming you're not a blockbuster star, you do it by writing a lot. Not just your favorite kinds of fiction, either. We authors have chosen a creative field in which to work. With creative jobs, the income is not always great. You have to work really hard. Agents are in sales. Sales jobs are different. If you're a good salesman, your income will be pretty steady. This has nothing to do with cheating or an agent's immoral greed.

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