Agent Query: Jennifer Rofé

with Brian Mercer

Jen, tell me about your path to becoming a literary agent.

I read 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 rear view mirror it's so clear.  I like to say that I fell into being an agent, but I'm not so convinced by that anymore.

My aunt 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.

While I 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.

When 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 it?

I'm 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?

My 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.

You can 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.

As an 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 perfect.

It just depends on the author. I have a tendency to take on new authors with raw talent but maybe they haven't nailed their craft yet.  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 career.

When 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?

First, 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 project? 

So, interpersonally, you don't need to have a friendship or a sense that you would work well with this person?

Well, of 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.

What mistakes do you see in query letters that you'd counsel people to avoid?  Any pet peeves?

Yes, 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.

Another 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.

Also, 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?

There's 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.

What material are you especially attracted to these days? What are you presently acquiring?

I am 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.

I also 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 and community?

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.

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