#74: Behind the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with literary agent Erin Harris by Liz Mathews

Erin HarrisAsk any two literary agents how they spend their day, and you’ll get wildly different answers. But even if they go about their work differently, they’re all rooting for the same outcome: to discover incredible new writers in their submissions. We spoke with Erin Harris, literary agent at Folio Literary Management, about how she approaches the imperfect art of finding new talent. Writers, if you’ve ever submitted your work to Erin, know that she reviewed it with a hopeful eye. Erin will share more about her quest for great new writers on our A Day in the Life panel at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference in Brooklyn on September 12. You can find the full panel lineup here.

When you receive a query from a prospective writer, what’s the first thing you look for? Is there a ritual in how you consider a manuscript or proposal?

What a good question. Let me start by saying that I receive approximately 40 queries a day. If I let the queries pile up, I’m sunk! So I allocate about half an hour, daily, to reviewing these unsolicited submissions. As you might imagine, it’s important for me to sort through them efficiently, but also thoroughly. I think there’s a common misperception surrounding queries. When I talk to aspiring or emerging writers at conferences, they often ask me if agents value queries at all, the implication being that queries might be a thorn in our collective sides – to be extracted and tossed away as quickly as possible. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Agents are in the business of discovery; we’re looking for literary talent that we can foster and nurture, and queries are one of the vital ways in which we connect with talent.

After a day of phone calls, emails, pitching, and meetings – and maybe, maybe some reading and editing (if I’m lucky) – I actually really look forward to sifting through the day’s queries. This is a moment when I can catch my breath. When I can kick my feet up and let someone else do the work for me! All I have to do is listen to their story. And I’m always, always making a silent wish that I’m about to stumble upon something amazing and fall head over heels.

My method for navigating a query is as follows:

  • I look to see how the author found me. If there’s a personal connection great, but if an author explains why they’re reaching out, demonstrating knowledge of my interests and tastes, that’s just as effective. I want to know that a writer has targeted me for a reason. More often than not, when a writer hasn’t explained why she’s contacting me, the query she’s sent is for a project that isn’t right for my list.
  • I look at the title. Is it a good title? If so, this demonstrates some promise and I start to get excited. If not, I become a bit skeptical, but I’m still willing to give the writer the benefit of the doubt.
  • I look at the genre and word count. If the word count isn’t appropriate to the genre, then I quickly skip down to the author’s credentials and the first couple lines of her sample pages. In cases such as this, where the word count is either over or under, I’m not interested, unless the author’s credentials and opening lines can make me think twice about passing. (But then, I know the project is going to need either expansion or condensation and the journey to a sale could be long and winding.)
  • If the genre suits my tastes and the word count is appropriate to the market, then I skip down to the author’s credentials. If the credentials are good, then I read the summary of the book very carefully and then continue on to the sample pages. If the writer doesn’t have impressive credentials, then I speed read the summary to get the gist of the project, and then skip right down to the sample pages to see if I respond to the author’s voice.
  • If in my reading or speed reading of the summary, I don’t respond to the concept of the book, I will still take a very quick look at the sample pages. If you can’t tell by now, I’m really rooting for the writer – I want her to win me over, and I’m open to being surprised by what grabs me. With that said, it’s very rare that my instincts about a project are wrong. I can’t recall a time I’ve not liked the premise of the book and then been won over by the sample pages…

In the end, if a query has a great premise and wonderful sample pages, then I’m likely to request the manuscript. If the author has great credentials – such as an MFA or publication credits – that’s a big plus.

In terms of considering manuscripts and proposals, I look for many of the same elements as in the query, but the hope is that these elements are sustained for the length of the entire book or proposal: a fresh, compelling, and saleable premise; a strong voice and dazzling writing; a plot or narrative arc that is urgent and propulsive and demonstrates good pacing; characters that feel three dimensional and sympathetic, even if they are flawed or “unlikeable.”

In your profile on the Folio website, what do you mean when you suggest that there ought to be more agents who think like writers? Is there a way for writers to reverse that, and be writers who think like agents?

Just to clarify: I say that I think there is a need for agents who think like writers; though I certainly don’t mean to imply that there’s a dearth of amazing agents out there – simply that I think the role of “the agent” has shifted a bit in the last 10 years, as agents seem to be engaging more with their authors in an editorial capacity. Given this reality, I believe it helps to have a writing background or editorial inclinations, which is why I made the decision to get an MFA. Being an agent means existing at the intersection of creativity and commerce, and so for me, at least, it’s helpful to feel like I have one foot in each world and can act as a bridge between the two.

As for the second piece of your question – I love the idea of inverting my assertion; yes! I think it is always to the writer’s benefit if she can think a bit like an agent, which basically means having an awareness of the publishing ecosystem and understanding, fundamentally, that it is an industry.

In less abstract terms, I think publishers and agents alike really appreciate authors who know the importance of taking an active role in their own PR and marketing. To be an author these days means you are not only a creative, but also something of a brand. Strategic networking and getting your name out there is crucial. Your publisher and agent will help you strategize about how to do this, but the willingness to actually do the work and to think outside of the box, those things have to come from you.

When considering queries, do you seek out a balance between the genres you’re interested in? For instance, say you’d just found a really amazing YA manuscript, and then you notice another few queries that are also YA-oriented. Would you look for, say, a nonfiction piece among your queries, just to break things up?

When I started selling books, I only represented literary fiction, upmarket fiction, and narrative non-fiction. That was my background, and my training. The foray into YA came about two years later. My mentor at the time had a few “adult” literary authors who decided to write YA novels, and I had the privilege of working on those manuscripts and seeing them through to publication. Concurrently, I started to read some YA recreationally, and I thought to myself, Hey, I really enjoy this and believe in it. Why am I not representing YA also??

Now, I adore the variety that comes from representing books for both adults and teens. At present, my list is about 60% adult 40% teen. So far, this seems like a good balance. If I feel short on YA, I might reach out to a few writers who have piqued my interest. Similarly, I am always reaching out to talented literary writers whose short stories have caught my eye and captured my imagination.

But, as far as unsolicited submissions go, I’d never turn away a project that I felt passionately about simply because it would tip the balance. I’m just looking to represent amazing work that’s written by amazing people – it’s that simple.

But I will share this: I am on the hunt for another literary or upmarket novel to add to my fall list!

Is there something you wish writers would think about or do before they ask you to consider their work?

This response feels fairly self-evident to me, but maybe it won’t to others… I always hope that writers are sending me their most polished work, even if I’m only reading an excerpt rather than the whole manuscript. As I mentioned previously, agents often assume a more editorial role now, but this doesn’t mean that we’re freelance editors or writing teachers. The work really needs to come in at the highest level. You need to think that it’s ready to go on a bookshelf. Then I’ll step in and together we’ll make it even stronger. Then, an editor will step in and make it bullet-proof.

Have you ever represented a book that you really believed but had a hard time finding an interested publisher? What was that experience like (and how involved was the writer)?

Oh my goodness, yes! And I don’t think I’m alone in this. You can have a very talented author who has written a book that maybe just isn’t right for the market right now. That’s one thing. In these cases, it’s your job to encourage the author to maybe work on something else, and to steer her in a more productive direction. Just because you haven’t written your breakout book now, doesn’t mean you’re not going to – you just need to be nimble and tenacious. These situations are tricky and hard, but as an agent you’ve got to keep the faith and help your author get to the next level.

But, actually, I don’t think this is the sort of scenario you’re asking about. I think you’re asking about what happens when an agent goes on submission with a book that she knows in her bones needs to be on shelves immediately, and the submissions process is rocky – what is that experience like?

Well, it’s shocking, heart-rending, stressful, maddening, insomnia-inducing… especially when you’re not getting any kind of consensus in the passes you’re receiving from editors, and you feel utterly sure that what the market is saying is just dead wrong. Well, that’s when you as an agent need to really step it up, call forth your dragons, and fight for your author and what you believe in. It only takes one publisher to see things your way in order for the book to happen.

I’ve been in this latter situation twice now, both with literary debuts, and I’m very relieved to say that both had happy endings. The first novel became a New York Times editor’s choice book and made the Washington Post’s best books of the year list, and the other (which hasn’t published yet) was acquired in a six figure two book deal. Telling these two authors that their books had finally found the perfect home has been the highlight of my career to date.

Erin Harris is a literary agent at Folio Literary Management who represents literary, upmarket commercial and historical fiction, as well as YA and narrative non-fiction. Erin received her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School and enjoys working with both debut and established authors. She is particularly drawn to fiction set against the backdrop of another time, place, or culture; fiction with mystery or suspense in its DNA; and fiction that includes a fabulist element. On the non-fiction side, she looks for compelling narratives that reveal underlying yet unexpected truths about our world. Some of her clients include: New York Times Editor’s Choice novelist Daniel Levine, historical novelist Jennifer Laam, Times Magazine contributor and former Newsweek correspondent Carla Power, and YA authors Emiko Jean, Marie Marquardt, and VCFA graduate Stefanie Lyons. In her spare time she co-curates H.I.P. Lit, a literary event series based in Brooklyn.

Liz Mathews is a former publishing veteran recovering from her years in New York by living in Minnesota. After years as a copywriter for a science fiction and fantasy publisher, she now attends science classes, thinks about statistics, and sells books to business people in her spare time.