#70: Behind the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with literary agent Alex Slater, by Maria Gagliano
June 8, 2015
There has never been a more exciting time for Young Adult literature. There is a thriving new canon of YA lit for readers to explore, and the publishing opportunities for debut writers are constantly expanding. We chatted with literary agent Alex Slater about his take on the booming YA market, and advice for writers hoping to break onto the scene. Alex will moderate the panel “Social Consciousness in YA Literature” at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference in Brooklyn on September 12. You can find the full panel schedule here.
How have you seen the YA market change in recent years?
Trends always change, fantasy to realism and back again, but personally I’ve seen the footprint of the YA market expand in recent years. Something like 80% of young adult books are bought by adults for themselves. Which means more agents are looking for teen literature, and more writers are trying to break out in the market. However, it’s important to remember that publishers are still struggling for the limited space in bookstores, and therefore the projects have to shine very bright for editors to invest. To add to that, I’ve seen the YA market grow quickly overseas as well. Many foreign publishers are experimenting with bigger young adult lists, and it’s paying off. For some projects, I have actually sold the translation rights first, before selling the North American print rights here at home. It’s a sign of how world publishers are following this expanding market.
YA is such a thriving market, I’m imagining you’re flooded with submissions. What do you look for in debut novels that is often hard to find?
I look for those two or three sentences in a query letter that unlock a new part of my mind and make me whisper…Of course. Usually, this is called the hook, and if you have a good one, agents will scramble for you. However, it’s not always about the hook, because a character’s situation in a novel may be thrilling, but the fiction itself may not be executed well. Therefore, in my submissions I look for strong comparisons to other works (comp titles) that show me the author not only understands the market, but is a reader herself. Comps should not be mega-bestsellers, but instead, titles that have earned critical and commercial praise for their uniqueness, and when you mix two together (BLANK meets BLANK), we get your shining new manuscript. I also look for publication or writing history, either in the form of MFAs, freelance work, or proof of “the struggle.” I take on projects that have already been through so many wringers that the author cannot do any more to it on their own, and she stands behind the manuscript like a barn raiser. If I can see that in a query, then I can see the passion, and hopefully that will communicate to me this is a person who is serious about publishing, who respects people’s time, who is willing to take ever more rejections and heartache, and who asks for more.
What are some common mistakes YA authors make when submitting to you?
Addressing me as “Ms.” Alex Slater. It just shows instantly that you’ve done zero research. Other mistakes are: sending a query that is more than 500 words long; telling me how much your friends and family love the work; starting your query with personal information about yourself and not your story; shopping your debut manuscript when it is still over 100,000 words long.
You’re moderating a panel at SLWC about social consciousness in YA literature. Would you say that YA offers more opportunities than ever for writers to push boundaries when exploring social issues? If so, how have you seen writers do this?
Yes, of course. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign was long overdue, and now that it continues to expand, not only are more diverse writers speaking up, but the publishers are hearing the demands. Young adult books make an excellent arena for issue-conscience fiction because the characters within these stories, the memorable ones anyway, implant themselves in evolving minds permanently. Traditionally, character arcs in YA fiction end with the characters finding themselves in the world, from THE CATCHER IN THE RYE onward. Imagine how much we will learn from the new voices being published and the new boundaries being explored. Imagine how these stories will affect young minds. Everybody remembers the first time a character made you look at the world differently. Well the world is a big place, and the more we learn about the people we share it with, the more we’ll look out for it, and each other.
What advice would you give to debut YA authors who are currently looking for an agent?
I would suggest that debut authors join or form a community of other writers and share their work, workshop it, and read, read, read. Read while you write and read between projects. The more voices you’re exposed to, the better chances you have at finding your own. Many people get into YA fiction because they think it’s easy. They saw a movie and think: I can do better than this. Well maybe you can, but you won’t understand the conversation you are entering unless you actively listen and interact with that conversation, and find what exactly you have to add to it.
Alexander Slater joined Trident Media Group in 2010. As a Foreign Rights agent, he represented the entire agency’s Middle Grade and Young Adult titles, and attended the book fairs in Bologna, London, and Frankfurt. Alex is now building his list domestically, while keeping his focus on children’s and teen literature. Some of his clients include Molly Booth and Jesse Jordan, and internationally, he’s represented R.J. Palacio, Louis Sachar, and many other New York Times bestselling authors.
Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, baker, and Business Director of Slice. Her writing has appeared in BUST magazine, the Huffington Post, and Salon, among other publications. You can find her on Twitter and at mariagagliano.com.