Monday Meet-Up for LEAP DAY: February 29, 2016
Literary agent, Kirsten Carleton
1. Please tell us a little about yourself, and how you became an agent?
I’ve been wanting to be in publishing in some capacity ever since I decided to be a writer in 7th grade. As a result, I took lots of workshop classes, and eventually realized that what I really loved doing was giving feedback to writers and helping them uncover their stories from the outside. By the time I graduated from Amherst College and the Columbia Publishing Course, I knew agenting was where I wanted to be – I get to be in the writer’s corner in a way that nobody else does, advocating for them with no conflicts of interest, supporting their careers in a holistic way. I started as an assistant at Sobel Weber Associates, then eventually moved to Waxman Leavell Literary before finding a home at Prospect Agency, where I rep YA and adult fiction across speculative, thriller, and literary genres.
2. What do you wish aspiring authors knew about the book industry?
Most aspiring writers I talk to know quite a bit about publishing! They do research by reading blogs like these, follow industry professionals on social media, keep on top of current news and trends, etc. Those that don’t may not realize how important all that is. Gone are the days (if they ever existed) when one could toil in solitude, pouring everything into the craft with no thought as to how to publish or market one’s work. There’s a lot of competition out there, and the best way to make yourself stand out, beyond the baseline requirement of having an excellent book, is to be thoughtful about querying the right agents, having a growth market in mind as an audience, being able to draw on current comp titles, building a network of fellow writers who might be able to blurb, and generally making the case that you’re taking it all seriously. Professionalism also goes a long way. Treat a query like business correspondence, respect the time of people who are working on your book (especially if they’re doing it on spec!), and don’t be crazy. You’d be surprised by how many creepy and/or sloppy queries show up in the slush!
3. What is something you’ve read recently that got you excited (whether you worked on it or not)?
I really loved Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep. I’m super interested in stories about mental illness that talk about it realistically in a way that avoids typical tropes of being used to teach the main character a lesson about compassion, healing through the power of love, either giving the character superpowers or making them unfit for society, etc. It’s hard to fit an honest discussion of mental illness to a traditional narrative in a way that feels satisfying but doesn’t sugarcoat the chronic nature of most conditions, but I thought this book did a masterful job.
4. Is having an agent important? Why?
Obviously, as an agent, I think agents are important – depending on what you want to do. For self-, short story, academic, and independent press publishing, agents aren’t always required. Unless they have bigger things in mind down the line, it’s unlikely that an agent will offer representation for those either. But for mainstream trade publishing, I think agents are vital. There are still a couple imprints that read slush, but the bulk of submissions go through agents. Agents will also take care of nitty gritty details like contract terms, delivery dates, and helping to brainstorm marketing, all of which are difficult to do well unless you draw on significant experience and a strong understanding of industry standards. Another benefit is having a bit of a buffer between you and your editor. Ideally, everybody will get along great, but if there’s ever a conflict, an agent can go in to play the heavy while you remain a delightful, easygoing author, a joy to work with.
5. Anything you’d love to see from your slush pile? A particular genre? Something specific?
A few things I’ve been thinking about are historical novels based on tough women like Pancho Barnes, Ada Lovelace, and Ching Shih; epic fantasy drawing on Chinese mythology, ideally featuring Sun Wukong the Monkey King; hard scifi along the lines of Apollo 13 or The Martian set at the bottom of the ocean; twisted thrillers featuring an indelible antihero that don’t have the word “Girl” in the title. Of course, I’m always excited to be surprised by something I didn’t even know I wanted!
6. Last tips or advice?
Keep your chin up! If writing were easy, everybody would do it. It’s a hard business with lots of rejection, and there’s an art to learning from it without taking it personally. Good luck out there!
Interested in submitting to Kirsten? Check out her guidelines at http://www.prospectagency.com/boathouse.html