Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Agent Rebecca Sherman of Writers House

Rebecca Sherman is a literary agent at Writers House in New York.

What were you like as a young reader? What were your favorite books?

Apparently, my mother left board books for me in my crib and would walk into my room in the morning to find me “reading.” I learned about colors, shapes, numbers and letters with Richard Scary books. I loved to read, but I was a pretty shy and anxious child.

I remember I was in both the “advanced” and the “regular” reading comprehension group in first grade because I was too timid to answer any of the questions in the advanced group, but answered EVERY question in the “regular” group because I was so frustrated that no one else could come up with the answers.

Some of my favorite picture books still are Where the Wild Things Are, There’s A Monster at The End of This Book, and anything involving James Marshall (George & Martha, The Stupids, Miss Nelson is Missing).

As I got older, I read a lot of Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and Roald Dahl. I really believe that I fell in love with reading in Mrs. Barber’s fourth grade class where I read Bridge to Terabithia and Tuck Everlasting for the first time. Every class ended with Mrs. Barber reading poetry to us. This is how I learned that reading could connect people.

Unfortunately, in junior high there was a slight drought of great reading. Somehow I ended up reading a lot of early R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike, despite the fact that I can’t see a horror movie to this day. I was looking for something age-appropriate and not too girly and just couldn’t find it.

I am definitely envious of today’s teens and tweens who have so many YA options. I would have loved to read about characters I could relate to, but soon enough I moved on to adult literature.

Admittedly, I became a bit of a pompous reader and attempted A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man poolside at my overnight camp and Lolita on a family road trip. But my favorite books from my high school years are My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok and the Glass family stories by J.D. Salinger.

And I’ve made up for lost time by reading many YA novels…even poolside and on the subway.

How did you prepare for this career? How long have you been working as an agent?

I was absolutely unprepared for my career as a literary agent. I stumbled on the job of assistant to a Literary Agent at Writers House after graduating from Northwestern with a B.A. in English.

Truth be told, I went on the interview as a favor. A family friend who is in publishing was guiding me on my New York City job hunt. She told me to send a cover letter and resume to her best friend, an agent at Writers House, even though she didn’t need an assistant. I thought it was a complete dead end, but did it anyway.

The next day, Susan Cohen (scroll for bio), another agent at Writers House called me to set up an interview because she had been without an assistant the entire summer. I had been interviewing for editorial assistant positions and had set my sights on such a job.

I’m not sure that there is any way to prepare outside of a literary agency. Working as an assistant at Writers House was the best course I could have taken. I prepared by observing those around me, devouring children’s and YA books, getting to know those on the editorial side, etc. It was trial by fire, one step at a time.

I began as Susan Cohen’s assistant in September 2001 and took on a few clients about two years later. I was considered a Junior Agent when I represented my own clients and assisted Susan. Around Summer 2005, I really began to build my own list and was promoted to Senior Agent June 2006.

What do you see as the job(s) of the agent in the publishing process?

The literary agent is the advocate for the author (and/or illustrator). While an editor, designer, or art director has an entire publishing house to stand by them and help with decision making, an unagented author or illustrator is going at it alone. I feel it’s of the utmost important for that client to have me and by extension, Writers House in his corner.

That is not to say that I see publishing as agency vs. publisher. To the contrary, I see the client, editor and agent as three integral members of a team. The agent should not be seen as the middleman between the editor and author. The editor and author should maintain a direct relationship. Instead the agent is there to handle business matter (negotiations of offers, contracts, subsidiary rights, etc) freeing the client to focus on creative matters with her editor and publisher.

However, I like my clients to keep me abreast of all progress and setbacks. While it is my job to help untangle complications of scheduling or promotion, I also want to be involved to celebrate a starred review or a great school visit.

Overall, it is my job to oversee and help manage a client’s career instead of focusing on just one book.

What are its challenges?

So much to do, and only so many hours in a day.

Also, there are times when I absolutely love a project and cannot sell it. If I love a project, there is no system of checks and balances. I am free to enter into a working relationship with that writer. By taking on a client, I have devoted my time to her, but none of Writers House’s money.

It’s heartbreaking, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I understand that just because I love something doesn’t mean that a publisher can necessarily take the risk to put money into it. So despite the fact that I am emotionally involved and have allocated some of the little time I have to a project, it might never reach book store shelves.

What do you love about it?

Being an agent allows me to take part in so many aspects of not only a book’s creation and success, but on a more personal level, the advancement of an author (or author/illustrator’s) career. There is the potential on any day to discover the next great writer. As an agent, I am often the first fan of a writer’s manuscript or artist’s portfolio.

I am blessed with the job of calling a client to say that their work is going to be published. Not a bad gig.

Would you describe yourself as an editorial agent–one who comments on manuscripts–or as an agent who is exclusively concerned with publishing issues? Why?

I am absolutely an editorial agent. My editorial input is expressed mostly for the benefit of unpublished authors. If a client has already been published and plans to publish again with the same publisher, I might put my two cents in (if asked), but would leave the substantive part of the editorial process to the client and editor. However, for unpublished clients and prospective clients, I feel it is of the utmost important to send the most polished manuscript possible to editors.

It is part of my job to have a critical eye and to know the market. This knowledge should be shared with clients whose careers I am trying to strengthen or begin. If I can’t sell a client’s manuscript, I can’t move on to the next step of “concerning myself with publishing issues.”

If I extend an offer for representation, I am agreeing to work with a client for the length of their career, not just for one book. Going through an editorial round with a client is a great way to get to know each other and establish a trust. I want to submit manuscripts to editors from clients who are open to feedback and believe in teamwork.

If I find out that a potential client is unwilling to make modifications or collaborate via editorial work with me, I have saved myself and an editor a great deal of hassle. A client who refuses to revise when it is in the best interest of the book, is a client neither an editor nor I would want to work with. My clients do reflect on me and my reputation.

Why should unagented writers/authors consider working with a literary agency?

I simply cannot imagine trying to both create a great manuscript (or a great dummy or proposal) and educate yourself about the business of publishing. If I was a writer or illustrator, I would want that to be my job, and would want to find someone who feels passionately enough about my work to do their job for my benefit. Oh, and your advance will be higher with a literary agent, not to mention a stronger contract in a variety of ways.

What distinguishes Writers House from other literary agencies?

Writers House is the best of both worlds: small enough to feel tight-knit and familial, but large enough to have a great deal of clout and provide many services for our clients. Writers House includes an in-house foreign rights department of three members, a three person accounting department, a CFO, a contracts manager, and a subsidiary rights director who handles audio rights, permissions and more. The agents at Writers House represent an array of award winners and bestsellers and many have been with Writers House for more than twenty years.

From my point of view, our focus on and success with children’s and YA titles is unparalleled in the industry. Six senior agents specialize in books for young readers with other agents (even those focused on thrillers or romance titles) representing clients in this market.

The range of material for young readers that Writers House represents is inspiring and includes Newbery Winners Susan Patron, Sharon Creech, Cynthia Rylant, Robin McKinley and Cynthia Voight, Printz Winner John Green (author interview), Coretta Scott King Winner Kadir Nelson and Caldecott Honor recipients Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith in addition to bestsellers such as Stephenie Meyer (author interview), Christopher Paolini, Dav Pilkey, Barbara Park, Francine Pascal, Ann Martin, Neil Gaiman, James Howe…and that’s just skimming the surface. Our devotion to books for young readers benefits our clients at each stage of the publishing process. Please visit our website to find out more about the agency and some of the clients we represent.

Could you give us some idea of your tastes, the kinds of authors you’re looking to sign?

I’m always looking for manuscripts with a striking voice and unique point of view mixed with authenticity. Humor is a real plus for me. Although I represent many author/illustrators, I am looking for more novelists.

For a better idea of my tastes, please see my website on Publisher’s Marketplace which lists many of my clients and upcoming projects.

Do you work with author-illustrators or illustrators?

I work with author-illustrators primarily, though I have taken on clients who are only illustrators at the time. In these instances, I always ask the potential clients if they have ideas for stories of their own, and in most cases, they do. I am not currently looking for authors of picture book texts who are not also illustrators.

Along with Alexandra Penfold of Simon & Schuster, you’ll be joining Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts as a speaker. Could you give us some insight into your program?

Alexandra and I have previously worked on books together, so our program is sure to include a little bit of she said/she said. We’ll illuminate many stages of the process from the agent and editor’s perspective including times where we work as a team and times where we are butting heads.

Could you share one tip for finding the perfect agent?

Not just one. My advice is to be talented, open, patient, and persistent. Look for an agent with whom you will be compatible, not just someone who can sell your manuscript.