Founded in 2003, Talcott Literary have become a popular agency within the publishing industry due to their reputation for nurturing the next generation of writing talent.
Today, close to half of their client base were unpublished when Talcott discovered them. As a result they have always been an attractive agency for writers across the world because they welcome and encourage international talent to approach them.
After graduating from college with a BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing, Sara D'Emic became an editorial intern for Hanging Loose Press. Responsible for reading the slush pile of this long established literary magazine, in many ways, laid the seeds for her later vocation. A vocation which began to become clearer through her next position as an editorial/PR intern for Last Light Studio. The small publishing press only release three books from the slush pile every year, because their main efforts are focused purely on the publicity campaigns for their current crop of authors. The all hands on deck approach invariably means the PR interns will gain considerable knowledge of the publishing industry within a short time frame.
Consequently, when Sara saw an opening at Talcott Notch Literary Services, her skill set was such, that the agency was quick to recruit her in 2012. She is now actively extending her client list and through this interview sheds light on exactly what type of submissions she is looking for.
Sara is also on Twitter, so do click the follow button at the end of this interview for further insights.
As part of your internship at Hanging Loose Press you read through the slush pile for the magazine. How important was that experience in developing an analytical eye for agency submissions? Do you think literary agencies would benefit from having their own literary magazine to promote their clients?
Hanging Loose was my first introduction to evaluating queries which requires its own set of of analytical skills. Pretty much everything sounded good the first time I tackled the slush pile. As for how what I learned there relates to what I’m doing today, I’d say it helped me judge works for someone other than myself. Hanging Loose is primarily a poetry magazine which is something I didn’t know much about when I started. I had to be able to tell whether the editors would like a particular submission or not. Far more of my personal taste goes into my work now; representing something you don’t really like or know about is a bad decision. Still, the question isn’t just whether I like a submission, it’s whether an editor, the acquisitions department, the booksellers, the readers will like it too.
I’ve never seen an agency that also had a magazine (for the record Hanging Loose isn’t an agency). Combining the two would be a conflict of interest, especially if the agency is outwardly using the magazine as a vehicle for their clients. I doubt it would work business-wise either, for a lot of reasons, though a big one is that agents don’t work with short fiction.
When a literary agent joins an agency for the first time are they instructed by the agency to represent a particular genre so the agency can cover all bases? Or does a literary agent look for an opening at an agency that enables them to specialize in their own preferred genre?
The agency will probably search for someone who works in different genres from the rest of the staff, if that’s a concern. I don’t think an agency would ever instruct someone to work in a genre they didn’t like. A lot of being a successful agent is knowing the area you’re working in, from knowing the editors and houses, to tropes of the genre, to the big titles and authors in that category. Some of that can be learned but you have to start with at least liking the genre. You can’t sell it if you don’t know anything about it, if you hate it, if it all sounds the same to you and you can’t separate the good from the bad. If my boss asked me to start working on, say, religious titles I doubt I’d ever make a sale.
As a writer yourself, has working at a literary agency given you a greater appreciation for why agents do not have the time they would like to send personal rejections, instead of form letters? Does a new literary agent consciously not personalize rejections when they join an agency, knowing as their client list builds they won't be able to later on?
As a writer I’ve never gotten to the point of querying. But yes, form rejections become necessary because there's simply not enough time. First and foremost there are our clients we need to take care of, not to mention the sheer volume of queries. Some new agents might decide not to send personalized rejections ever. My personal policy is to give specific feedback only when I can say something helpful. For example, if I got a query for a 200,000 word book I'd mention to the writer that it's way too long to be salable. But if I rejected a project because I didn't like the writing, or it didn't intrigue me that much, or because of something even more subjective then I can't say anything constructive in a letter. Writers want to know what they might have wrong but the thing is agents aren't the only people who can answer that. You're not alone in a void.
Does a literary agent who comes from a writing background, as opposed to a marketing one, have a distinct advantage in connecting with writers as writers, and not as brands to market?
Possibly. I think, and perhaps this is in part what you meant, coming from a writing background gives you the ability to evaluate and edit. Someone coming from a purely marketing background might fall into a trap of approaching a novel in the wrong way. Publishing is distinct from any other industry and if you're not already intimately familiar with books and writing, what you're selling, it's going to be tough.
When a US literary agency is based outside of New York, such as Talcott Notch is, does the agency place more emphasis on its website design being eye-catching to writers in order to attract clients regardless of the agency's location? How important is the writer's own online profiles while you are considering their submission? For those writers without websites, would Talcott Notch encourage and guide a writer to build an online presence for their career with the agency?
First question: no. Location doesn't matter in terms of our (or any other agencies) ability to work and sell books. Being outside New York really just means that we make it more of a point to attend conferences and connect with other publishing professionals there.
For myself I don't place that much emphasis on a writer's online profile while I'm considering taking them on as a client. Especially if it's fiction that's not really necessary at this stage, where you're just sending out to editors. Later on it's very important-- you need at least some online presence to bring readers in. That is something we work with.
If you were struggling to find a publishing deal for a new client, how long would you give it? And what avenues would you explore before dropping them?
That's really case by case. Generally if the book isn't selling, we might try revising it based on editor feedback, or if the author is working on something new we might shelve the first book and work with the second. We've had authors whose second book sold, then the first one did after they'd established themselves. I haven't dropped a client. I think if a year or two went by and there was almost no publisher feedback, and we had exhausted all our other options I might have to cut ties.
How challenging is it for a new literary agent to build up a rapport and trust with publishers? If a client's book does not generate acceptable sales at a publishing house does it harm your chances of selling another client to them?
Interesting question. It's hard with only email communication because there are a lot of new agents out there at any given time. We also have to learn editors' individual tastes, as we ask authors to do with us, and so if an editor doen't know who you are they might be wary that they'll actually like what you're submitting. That said editors are generally open to new people.
Agents aren't responsible for how a book does commercially, once it's sold. There are things we can do to help but that's the publisher's job--we don't control marketing, sales, distribution, any of that. Additionally, there's no real reason that an editor would turn away a manuscript based on the agent. Each client is different, and furthermore the manuscript is evaluated on its own merits by a lot of people at a publisher.
What are the specific genres and materials you want to see in submissions? And what advice would you give writers before they contact you?
For the general guidelines and genres you can just look at my bio. I'm open to a lot of different genres. I tend to prefer darker stories (which doesn't mean they can't be funny) and character driven work. I like things that don't totally follow a genre convention, that are a mix of a few things. I'd love to see a literary horror, or something that isn't quite urban fantasy but still has a mix of the supernatural and the everyday. Or a mystery where the main character isn't a detective. Historical mystery and teen mystery leap to mind.
Before you send out to me: please have written a good query and have pasted the ten pages in the body of the email. Also, it will probably take longer than four weeks for me to respond. I aim to answer queries in the order I receive them, but if I can't tackle my inbox for a bit it gets backed up.