Literary Agents in Profile
with Brian Mercer
me about your path to becoming a literary agent.
something recently about how, when you're looking through the
windshield of your career, it's hard to see where you're going, but
when you look in the rearview mirror it's so clear. I like to say
that I fell into being an agent, but I'm not so convinced by that
writes and produces kids' cartoons. My uncle married her when I was
twelve and she would occasionally ask me to read some of her
projects. This sparked my interest in children's media. Then, in
college, I realized I had a skill for reading friends' essays and
telling them how to make them better. I did a lot of writing in
college, too, though mostly editorial and nonfiction — I wrote a
column for my university’s newspaper for two years, and of course I
was an English major. After college I worked in the editorial
department of a wine magazine, but then I left to become a teacher
with the intention of transferring into educational publishing.
was teaching, I attended a writers' conference. I went entirely
because Andrea Brown, the literary agent, was speaking. I had never
heard of a literary agent before and it was something I wanted to
know more about. After hearing Andrea speak I thought, "This is what
I want to do." I started interning with her and, about a year and a
half later, I was brought on as an associate agent.
someone is pitching a project to you, either in-person or through a
query letter, what's going through your mind? How are you evaluating
always looking for what I call the So-What Factor. Why does this
story matter? Why do I care about this character and his journey?
What makes this story stand apart from others out there? Why am I
invested in this? There aren't very many original stories anymore. A
lot of them have the same theme. So how is a writer handling this
theme in a unique or compelling and touching way?
What would be an example of a good So-What Factor?
client Kathryn Fitzmaurice wrote a well-received middle grade book
called The Year the Swallows Came Early, published in 2009.
When I first read Kathryn's manuscript, I realized that the So-What
Factor was missing. Essentially, an eleven-year-old girl named
Groovy has had a large sum of money stolen from her. And, okay,
that's very upsetting, but so what? What was that money meant
for? There has to be a purpose for that money and now her dream is
dashed and she has to figure out how to put the pieces back together
and go on. So that became the So-What Factor: What that money was
meant for coupled with Groovy’s journey to recover from the incident
and salvage her dream for the future.
also think about this with Twilight. You have Bella -- she's
not the coolest girl in school, she might not even be the prettiest
girl in school. But the most gorgeous, richest, smartest vampire
falls in love with her and she falls in love with him. Okay, so
what? Well, they can't be together because it's dangerous for both
of them for a multitude of reasons. The only way they can truly be
together is for her to become a vampire. And that means she
has to let go of her friends. She has to let go of her family. She
has to give up her life. The stakes are really high for her. That's
part of the So-What Factor.
agent, you're not just handing a writer's manuscript over to editors
but working with your clients to make the work the best it can be.
Can you speak to that process and what you bring to it?
Typically, I read a manuscript and I see a spark in it that incites
some kind of emotion for me. Then I mostly look at the big picture
items. Is this plot compelling enough? Are the characters developed
enough? Is there a strong enough subplot? Is the story moving
forward in a compelling and appropriate manner? Sometimes it's
smaller picture stuff and I'll do some line editing, but I'm
typically looking to see that the author can tackle the big picture
items. Ultimately, it depends on the state of the manuscript. There
are some manuscripts I won't touch because I think they are so near
depends on the author. I have a tendency to take on new authors with
raw talent but maybe they haven't nailed their craft
Andrea Brown Literary Agency
They're still working on it. This means we’ll do more editorial
work. It's so inspiring for me, finding raw talent and helping build
a writer gets an offer of representation, how should he or she be
evaluating the agent to insure that it's a good fit? What qualities
should a writer look for in an agent?
before even contacting the agent, you should do your research. You
don't want to query an agent you know nothing about. Questions you
should ask or consider asking: What's the agent’s working style?
What are the expectations for communicating between the agent and
the author? And what are books the agent likes? Do your tastes
match? And a key question: Do you have the same vision for your
you don't need to have a friendship or a sense that you would work
well with this person?
course you do. But it's also a business relationship, so there's no
need to be best friends with your agent. I am close to some of my
clients, and with some it's strictly business. Often times, you
don't really know how you’ll work together until you go into the
working process. It's kind of like committing to be boyfriend and
girlfriend before even dating.
mistakes do you see in query letters that you'd counsel people to
avoid? Any pet peeves?
there are a couple. One is educating the agents on the marketplace.
I find often the first paragraph will say something like, "Kids
really enjoy wizarding stories and that's why Harry Potter has been
so successful." I know Harry Potter's successful. I know the
marketplace. That's my job.
pet peeve is telling me that your children and grandchildren and
family members and/or students or the students of your
teacher-friend all enjoyed the book. Certainly they did.
comparing your book to some of the best sellers is another pet
peeve. I see a lot of, "This is like the Alex Rider series," and,
"This is like Harry Potter," and, "This is like Twilight."
I've heard advice where
people say that comparing your book to something that's well-known
is shorthand for letting an agent know what your book is like. Is
that not true?
something off-putting about comparing your book to some of the
best-selling books ever. If you're going to compare your book to
something, I think it’s smarter to compare it to other books in your
genre that might not be as tremendously popular. This will also
show me that you're familiar with the marketplace. To say, "Kids who
read Harry Potter are going to like my book..." Well, that's like
millions of kids.
Something else that's really important is to keep your query letter
brief. If you do your research, it's very easy to find online how
to write a professional query letter. A query letter informs me if
you are invested in this industry, if you've been doing your
research, if you attend conferences. It's typically immediately
apparent if you don't know the industry.
material are you especially attracted to these days? What are you
very interested in smart, young adult books, urban fantasy, maybe
even commercial-historical young adult. I love all sorts of
middle-grade projects: literary, commercial, quirky, contemporary.
have a personal fascination for extreme religion. I would love a
project about a kid growing up in an extreme religion who, for one
reason or another, decides to find his or her way out of it and what
that entails. Because, if it's something you were raised in and
that's all you know and believe, what does it take for a young adult
to move away from that? What are the repercussions from your family
Brian Mercer is the author of
Mastering Astral Projection (Llewellyn, 2004) and The
Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007).
He is a board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association.