Today’s interactive interview features Elana Roth of Caren Johnson Literary Agency. Ms. Roth maintains a thought-provoking blog and also contributes to the CJLA blog, so if you’re looking for more information about her querying preferences and the agency in general, check out those links. Details on the interactive part of the interview are at the bottom. Now, without further ado (although there’s been quite a bit of ado so far (sorry)), I give you Ms. Roth.
KV: How often does a query intrigue you enough to look at the included pages? And how often do those pages intrigue you enough to request the manuscript?
ER: I pretty much always look at the sample pages. I've had cases where the query wasn't wonderful, but the pages had a great tone. I find the two work really well together. I really do need that query to tell me clearly what the story is, but the pages can give me the broader picture of the book's potential.
I request 5 to 10 manuscripts a month, from an average query rate of 300 queries a month. So the odds are so high, but about par for the course.
KV: What are you looking for in a requested manuscript?
ER: First and foremost I just want something really cool--a concept or voice I haven't seen a million times before. I don't expect crazy plot-lines, since most stories have been done, but I do want something fresh with the hook and setup and character. Those are things I can pick out in the query. But the manuscript just needs to keep me reading, which means something tightly written, plotted and edited. I am a plot girl. I like actions and events and intrigue. Keep me interested.
KV: What are some of the most common problems you see in the manuscripts you request?
ER: Pacing is a huge problem. If I hit page 50 and nothing has happened yet, we have a problem. That's usually where I stop reading. Children's books aren't that short, but they aren't that long either. If you think of having about 250 pages for a YA novel to work, you've just wasted the first 1/5 of your pages. Start the story where the story starts, and then keep it moving.
Voice is also a problem but one I find is harder to pinpoint. It's also very personal. I've hated voices other people loved. So it goes. But I think we are all aware of the hyper-cliché girl voice in YA. Before writing a whole book, find your voice. Both your own voice as a writer, but also the voice of the character. Do those exercises where you write conversations with the character, let them talk. Make sure you know exactly who they are, and then write that.
KV: When you come across a manuscript you really like/love, how do you decide whether to request revisions or offer representation?
ER: This is really case by case. It really depends on that inherent level of excitement. It also depends on any significant problems. Several books that I now represent had some problems, but I loved them, so I asked for revisions before I offered representation. This is mostly to make sure the author is actually capable of the work and capable of collaboration. But other times I just discuss any notes with the author during the phone call and if I think it jives with them, then I'll offer and handle the revisions later.
KV: When you do make that Call, you’re probably going to ask the writer if she has any questions. What sorts of questions should she ask?
ER: Every author should know what some deal-breakers are for them. Some authors might have a problem if their agent is also an aspiring writer. Some authors might want a more editorially hands-on agent.
I think it's mostly really important to talk about communication styles. For example, I'm a really blunt person--and I use that conversation to let authors know that I'm always going to be a straight-shooter and maybe don't work with me if you're too sensitive for that. I find a lot of a good agent-author relationship is just personality and willingness to communicate openly.
Beyond that, I think authors should be aware of all the basics, like commission breakdown, how the agreement works, how rights are handled, etc.
KV: And now for a few quick questions from the normal interview. What client work do you have coming out soon? What drew you to those writers and/or projects?
ER: I have a weird gap in books coming out because we (agents as a whole) had a bad run in 2009 selling anything at all. I went more than 6 months between selling things. So my last book out was Laura Toffler-Corrie's THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF AMY FINAWITZ, which is a hilarious middle-grade novel that I always think of as FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER as told by Woody Allen.
My next client book out is M.P. Kozlowsky's JUNIPER BERRY, which I can't be more excited about. It's a modern fairy tale, but it's charming and scary and imaginative and amazing. That is due out in May 2011.
While these projects couldn't be more different, both authors are just so talented in their fields. Laura is an incredible comedy writer, and I still laugh every time I pick up AMY FINAWITZ. And JUNIPER BERRY grabbed me from the first go--the concept is just that fresh, but the book fits so strongly into that classic timeless middle-grade genre we love so much. Michael is just a beautiful writer.
KV: Is there something you haven’t been seeing lately in the slush pile that you wish you were?
ER: I haven't been seeing anything new, really. I've been getting hammered with fallen angel books of all varieties. And I'm still getting lots of paranormal, girl-who-has-dreams kind of stuff. It's not really right for me, unless there's truly a spin I haven't seen before.
I would still love some really cool twist-on-reality-with-a-science-edge kind of book. I'm a nerd, so I like nerdy things.
KV: What’s the best way to query you?
ER: E-mail! All of our submissions info is here: www.johnsonliterary.com/submissions
And like I said above, include the first 3 to 5 pages of your novel at the bottom of the e-mail body. It helps!
Thank you, Ms. Roth, for these wonderfully in-depth responses. My favorite line from this interview (for obvious reasons): “I would still love some really cool twist-on-reality-with-a-science-edge kind of book.” (And if you don't know why it's obvious, maybe you should read a little of Bob.)
As for the interactive part, just leave a question down there in the comments sometime between now and 5:00 p.m. EST (that’s 2:00 p.m. PST, for those of us on the West Coast), and Ms. Roth will answer it sometime between now and whenever the world ends--but probably a lot closer to now:)
P.S. This is the last agent interview we'll be posting this year, but we'll be back in January with more agents, more interviews, and maybe a few more surprises. And I'll be back next week with a few Christmas-related posts. In the meantime, have a wonderful last weekend before Christmas!