A Night With Three Agents

Originally Published: April 2012

by Emily Goodman

It’s a tough time to sell books, especially any that “reek of the familiar,” but it’s also a good time to be an unpublished writer or illustrator. In fact, it’s better to have a blank slate right now than a so-so publishing record.

These were some of the insights from the panel of three literary agents who spoke to a full house at the SCBWI Metro-NY Tuesday Professional Lecture Series in February.

Edward Necarsulmer of McIntosh and Otis, Rebecca Sherman of Writer’s House,and Erica Rand Silverman of Sterling Lord Literistic spoke about the current publishing climate, author-agent etiquette, submissions, and e-books and answered audience questions.

Necarsulmer said that just as the invention of paperbacks made authors into rockstars, the paradigm shift currently under way in publishing has the potential to do the same. Books are still important, he said, and the climate is changing every single day.

But he identified the loss of Borders as the most significant change of the past year, calling it “a big blow that intensified an already strict focus on the bottom line.” Getting a book onto the chain stores’ shelves often made the difference in a book’s success or failure, he explained, and Borders was a bigger champion of picture books than Barnes & Noble. “This has changed my willingness to take on certain kinds of projects,” he said. “We have to give editors as little reason to say no as possible.”

Sherman said that it’s futile for writers to try to figure out what the next huge trend will be. “Something unique and different has the best chance of success right now and will stay on shelves the longest,” she said. “See what’s selling well now and try to figure out why, but don’t let that mandate what you do.” One of her current favorite projects, she added, played with several tried-and-true writing conventions, and that was a major part of its appeal.

Silverman had a slightly different view. “It’s exciting to have something that doesn’t fit neatly into a category, but it’s a harder sell. Writers should have a sense of what the typical categories are. If you know, and can say succinctly, what your book is, where it fits in and where it’s different, that will help enormously. Editors need to know how to sell the book to their colleagues.”

All three agents said they care more about a manuscript’s quality than its word count. All three edit manuscripts. Sherman explained, “Editing is now seen as part of the agent’s job.” And all three recommended that writers be honest and transparent about their big picture career interests and where they’ve submitted their manuscripts.

Silverman said, “You’re looking for an agent for your entire career. Don’t make your decision in a week! Describe all your writing interests to make sure the agent can represent all of them. And be honest and tell us when you’re querying other agents.”

Necarsulmer said that for him to take on a project, “I really need to be taken with it. If it’s not breaking new ground, it better be really good.”

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Emily Goodman is the author of the award-winning picture book PLANT SECRETS, published by Charlesbridge, and is working on a novel.

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