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.