Agent Interview: Erin Murphy on Erin Murphy Literary Agency

Erin Murphy on Erin Murphy: “I grew up in Arizona, a fifth-generation native to the state and the product of a family of elementary educators–both parents and all four grandparents were teachers and administrators.

“Many of my fondest memories revolve around books and words: The first day of summer vacation, signing up for the reading program at the public library and picking out the first stack of books of the summer; going to the used bookstore with my dad and walking out with a big grocery bag of paperbacks to read during a camping trip; getting to the Waldenbooks at the mall the day the new Trixie Belden came out, cash in hand; learning the Dewey Decimal System and helping my mom shelve books the summer she volunteered at the school library around the corner; reading my way through the entire hardcover fiction section of that same library years later, in eighth grade, with my best friend; cuddling up to re-read the Narnia books every Christmas break. (I realize now that I never had to learn to love to read–it was a given. On the other hand, I had to teach myself to love physical activity, and that came less easily!)

“I felt like the black sheep of the family when I used my English degree to become an editor instead of a teacher, but as my engineer-not-educator uncle said, it’s in the blood; you end up teaching no matter what your actual job title is.”

What inspired you to become a literary agent?

It’s funny because I don’t think of the process as being “inspired” so much as “accidental.” I never went looking for this job, but it’s turned out to be the best fit for me. I don’t think I could love what I do more; I’d keep doing it if I won the lottery.

In 1998, I was editor-in-chief at a regional publishing house, Northland Publishing/Rising Moon Books for Young Readers, and it was just time for me to leave.

I thought I wanted to try working for myself. I did a bit of freelance editing of regional nonfiction titles for other publishers, but I heard from a lot of children’s writers I’d worked with or corresponded with over the years, wanting me to do paid critiques for them (which surprised me to no end, let me tell you–writers paying editors?!?). I always say that it was a short hop from helping them strengthen their manuscripts to helping them sell them.

The truth, though, is that there was a definite inspiration point. Mary Wade had booked me to do a day with the Houston SCBWI group before I left Northland, and she kindly did not rescind the offer when I was no longer gainfully employed.

[See one of Mary’s biographies, Joan Lowery Nixon: Masterful Mystery Writer (Enslow, 2004), right.]

I did an incredible number of critiques in one day at Mary’s beautiful home (in my memory, it’s 25, but I think that must be an exaggeration), and I saw so many wonderful manuscripts, but the writers all said they didn’t know where to send them because so many houses were closing to unsolicited submissions, and it was so hard to track who was moving where and so on. I thought, I could figure that out for them!

My very first clients were Kelly Bennett, who lived in Houston, and her writing partner Ronnie Davidson; I’d worked with them at Northland.

To this day I think I have more writers from Texas on my list than from any other state. I am so grateful for all those early clients who put up with my massive learning curve; they took a big chance on me.

I’d never worked in New York and had no contacts there, and my early submissions went into the slush pile, I’m sure.

I was fortunate to become an agent at a time when agents were taking more and more of the role that editors have had in the lives of authors historically. I love that in this job, I know where my loyalty lies.

An editor is the publisher’s representative to the author and the author’s representative to the publisher, sandwiched in the middle in many ways. I knew where my paycheck came from when I was an editor, but I often felt more loyal to my authors than to my company.

Sure, an agent has to balance many things (her reputation, relationships with editors, what is best in the big picture of a client’s career) against any conflict of the moment, but I always know for certain that the author’s interests outweigh everything.

I also love that my clients, and I decide if our relationship is to be long-term (and of course we hope it is!). I don’t build relationships only to have someone outside of that relationship decide that they’re not working any longer and I have to move on.

My career unfolds side by side with those of the authors I work with. That’s still true with many editors and the authors they work with, of course, as well, but a lot of editors have to move around in order to move up, and houses change direction, get bought out, etc.

An agent can be the consistent point in an author’s career when other things change.

What led you to specialize in youth literature? Could you give us a snapshot of your career?

Just as I never imagined I’d be an agent, I never imagined I’d focus on children’s books!

When I was hired at Northland, their children’s program was just beginning. It wasn’t even really a program yet, it was just a couple of books. I started there the week that The Three Little Javelinas, which I believe remained their best-selling book ever until the company closed its doors, first arrived in the warehouse.

When my boss interviewed me, I think she had high hopes for building a real children’s program, and she definitely had a passion for it. She asked me if I had any interest in children’s books, and I was honest and said no, absolutely not. I had only been out of college a year, and in my mind, children’s books were my mom’s bailiwick (she was an elementary librarian); I was trying to be my own woman!

Betti Albrecht, my boss, was so relieved because she wanted that to be her baby; let the new girl deal with the stuff for grown-ups! About eight months later, Betti passed away quite suddenly, and as I was the only other editor, everything fell to me. Then the publisher retired, the art director was promoted to publisher, a new art director was hired…by the time the dust cleared, I was doing the job, and had found my own love of children’s books.

How long have you been in the business? How has it changed?

Let’s see, I started at Northland in 1992 and started my own business in 1998. Publishing is so odd in that it feels ever-changing and never-changing simultaneously.

I remember the furor 15 years ago over books on CD-ROM, the worry that they would spell the demise of the book as we knew it.

Now, at last, ebooks feel like real and important aspects of this industry–the rights that have been such sources of contention for so many years are now concrete and not just hypothetical.

Audio books are more and more important as well.

And yet books in their traditional form also live on. The Internet and online book-selling have changed so many things–the world is smaller in many ways, and rights issues are harder to anticipate and ever-developing.

The chain stores have so much say over what books get backing from corporate publishing, and it often feels like too few people are making decisions for too many–and yet I grew up in this business in independent publishing, and I know and appreciate that there are many strong-minded individuals forging their own paths successfully, and the remaining independent bookstores are so very vital to reaching readers.

Trends come and go, issues evolve, but at its heart, the business is the same–it’s driven by a love of words and story and a desire to understand the world, by a wish to preserve these things and share them. In children’s publishing especially, I think there is a sense of the greater good at work, even if it is a business and does have to turn a profit.

Would you describe yourself as an “editorial agent,” one who comments on manuscripts, or one who concentrates more exclusively on publishing issues? Why?

Oh, I am absolutely an editorial agent. I work closely with my clients on developing their work before we send it out, and we continue to develop it if necessary, based on feedback we receive, until it sells or goes into the drawer.

I sometimes even match clients up to critique and develop each other’s work.

Manuscripts have to be in such good shape in order for editors to take them to acquisitions committees and build consensus, and the more of that work that is done ahead of time, the better chance the manuscripts have.

It’s a fine line, developing a manuscript enough that it feels whole and publishable, but not so much that an editor doesn’t see her place in bringing it to life, but I try very hard to walk that line.

Is your approach more manuscript by manuscript or do you see yourself as a career builder? In either case, why?

Before I sign a new client, I want a sense of where the writer is headed, what projects are on the horizon, what dreams we are pursuing. Helping to shape a career is such an intuitive process–it’s definitely working without a net in so many ways.

If I don’t have a big picture in mind, I find the work kind of deadens for me. I want a sense of my clients always striving forward, not finishing one manuscript and then waiting to see what happens.

I definitely want to be open to serendipity and surprises, and I want my clients to be listening when the muse speaks, so the plan is always in flux, but I can’t fathom only thinking of a client in terms of one project. I sign writers, not manuscripts.

Why should unagented writers consider working with an agent?

Several of my clients have found that their writing selves have opened up in surprising and wonderful ways once they turned over the marketing side of things to an agent. They can stop worrying about that aspect of things, knowing they have a partner to help them make tough decisions, and free themselves to just focus on growing in their craft.

The validation of having an agent express interest in your work, and the quicker response from editors, can make you feel less like you’re shooting in the dark, as well–and paradoxically, you can allow yourself to take risks and write in directions you didn’t dare go before, because you do have some projects that someone has said are marketable–now you can play a little without so much worry that every piece you write has to get results.

I think the very best work springs out of this sensibility.

And by the way, I don’t think every writer needs an agent, by any means.

What do you see as the ingredients for a “breakout” book in terms of commercial success, literary acclaim, and/or both?

To me, the books that resonate the most with readers are those that are surprising and distinct, and yet touch the universal, and also hit a note that feels extremely timely.

I’m full of talk of balance and paradox today, aren’t I? Well, I’ll continue with that: The paradox here is that any manuscript that follows a formula for commercial success won’t likely find it, unless it is genre fiction or something along those lines that succeeds because of formula.

Personally, I’m not attracted to formula, and the vast majority of new authors looking to find success in children’s publishing won’t come to it in genre fiction anyway, as much of that comes from packagers and established authors and lines.

A lot of the time, the “breakout” is a myth. It’s so ironic when a multi-published author is seen as suddenly breakout–chances are, he’s been working his butt off for years, and to him it doesn’t feel sudden at all.

I think the best talents are the ones that are nurtured over time, and the best success comes when the author is ready for it.

I know for me in my life as an agent, growth has been slow and steady; each new stage comes at about the time I realize I’m pretty comfortable with where things are. It unfolds at what turns out to be the right pace. I wish the same for my clients, and it has been immensely satisfying to see that come to fruition.

In this market, thinking in terms of the big picture helps you make your own success, and that isn’t just about the craft–it means building relationships with booksellers, teachers, librarians, and readers in general.

Children’s book buyers appreciate someone who is in it for the long haul and isn’t just looking for quick and easy success.

That mythical “breakout” often seems to come when a writer has a large community rooting for her, growing the readership with each book, and something just comes together, hits more universal notes and manages to plug into something very “now” at the same time, so that all those supporters are feeling extra-supportive all at once, and the awareness just spirals up and outward.

That level of awareness can be manufactured with lots of money, but in general, it’s much more satisfying and long-lasting when it’s organic, and when a publisher’s investment in marketing piggybacks on the momentum an author has already built.

In terms of markets (children’s, YA, fiction, non-fiction, genres, chapter books, ER, picture books, etc.), what sorts of manuscripts appeal to you?

I have always acquired and sold a fairly even distribution of picture books, middle-grade fiction, and YA fiction without really thinking about it; my interests just seem to be that spread out.

My inner child reader is a smart and brave 11-year-old girl who loves escapism and has a secret affinity for history. I have heard others describe my taste as fairly wholesome and classic.

I’m definitely drawn to beautiful writing and literary fiction, so long as it is not impenetrable–I think readers should be challenged, but I don’t really enjoy being challenged to find my way into a story, if that makes any sense.

I love silly picture books so long as they aren’t slight (gawd, speaking of impenetrable–is that the annoying editor-speak that writers hate or what?). By this, I mean that a silly picture book can’t be a throwaway–read it once, that’s it–it has to have something to it that engages the reader enough to want to read it over and over again.

I love it when a book for any age makes me cry, and that only seems to happen when I feel the story has really earned it. I’m not a sucker for manipulation (but I’ll forgive it if it’s the least of a story’s faults and I am immensely entertained).

I love it when fiction is tightly woven so that it feels like whole cloth–there is a world behind the pages that keeps turning even when we don’t see it, the characters didn’t spring to life on page 1, and yet the themes and motifs and storytelling work together in that way that takes the story beyond true-to-life and into true-to-story.

I have always felt that stories are more true than facts. I am a fairly new nonfiction reader–I didn’t read much nonfiction as a child and don’t find myself naturally drawn to it–but when I love a nonfiction piece, it is because the writer has pulled the human story from the research.

Do you work with author-illustrators and/or illustrators?

I work with a couple of author-illustrators on the pieces they write, but I don’t work with illustrators to find illustration work only.

Are you accepting unsolicited submissions? What is the best way for a prospective client to get in touch with you?

I don’t accept unsolicited submissions or even unsolicited queries–I only consider prospective clients if they come to me by referral (and not from somebody I’ve never heard of!) or if we have previous contact.

I always open to queries from attendees at conferences where I speak.

As my guidelines say, my submissions policy “does not exist to cultivate an air of exclusivity, nor does an opportunity to submit your work equal an invitation to query indiscriminately.”

I know that all writers have to get through the “green” stages and figure out the basics of the business and the craft, but at this stage of my own career, I don’t find it’s the best use of my time to read queries or submissions from people who haven’t made the most of the many, many resources out there for new writers.

I am more productive for my clients, and more helpful to those prospective clients who do reach out to me, because I’m not juggling slush.

And I am more attracted to people who, like me, tend to research the heck out of things, and enjoy the hard work that growth requires.

People who write their first draft of their first children’s book and then go looking for an agent don’t really have a sensibility I appreciate.

Email is best for first contact. I like a query to give me a sense of the whole person and the person as a writer, as well as the breadth and depth of projects the writer has available and in progress.

If I have a positive response to a query, I’ll ask to see sample writing, and I’m pretty quick about that; if I ask to see complete manuscripts, the process grinds to a halt for a few months (unless I get caught up unexpectedly!).

Someone recently expressed concern that I take months to read whole manuscripts, thinking that was true with my clients as well–but I read client manuscripts much more quickly, I promise!

And I have lots of busy clients giving me new things to read all the time, which is why I don’t have as much time to read the work of prospective clients.

I always encourage prospective clients to pursue other opportunities while they wait for my response. I don’t want their process to grind to a halt because of me.

Do you have any particular submissions preferences or pet peeves?

I like it when someone includes or clearly references previous correspondence so I don’t have to reconstruct my memory about them and their work.

I strongly dislike it–aw, hell, I really hate it–when a writer submits simultaneously and then signs with another agent without giving me the courtesy of letting me know there’s a competing offer of representation on the table.

I think that part of the process is kind of a mystery to many writers; the message of “don’t nag, don’t call” has been drummed into people so hard that they don’t have a sense of when there are exceptions to the rules.

How much contact do you have with your clients? Emails, phone calls, retreats, listservs? What kind of relationship are you looking to build and why?

I have a lot of contact with my clients, and I love it that way!

I email my client list with announcements whenever something new sells, or a starred review comes out, or a writer wins an award.

Much to my terror, my clients started a listserv that I found out about after the fact, when they decided to ask me to join them (for which I am eternally grateful)–oh, I was so worried that having them talk to each other would cause all kinds of problems! (Aaaahhhh! It’ll be anarchy!)

But it’s been fantastic, so warm and sharing and often just plain goofy, and my clients are now wonderful resources for each other, too.

Last year we had our first retreat; another is scheduled for July.

I always wanted my clients to feel a sense of investment in the agency, and I think that’s very much true. They really pull for each other, buy and promote each other’s books, and there’s a sense that when one has a new kind of success, everybody is proud.

For me, this business is about relationships as much as books, and a very nice thing about running my own business is that I get to choose who I spend my working days with! You can bet I choose to work with people (editors and writers alike) with whom I feel a sense of connection.

What are the greatest challenges of being an agent?

Staying on top of changes in the industry, navigating tough times with writers, reading everything I want to read, staying so organized that nothing slips through the cracks, not being able to stop time or clone myself to get more done….

But I definitely think of all of these things as challenges, not down sides. No down sides to this job, really. I’m spoiled rotten.

Would you like to highlight a few of your clients and/or their recent titles?

There’s a complete list of recent and upcoming releases and recent sales here.

Today, the book that is most on my mind is Laura Resau‘s Red Glass (Delacorte, September 2007) because Laura is at IRA in Atlanta where she will receive the Young Adult Fiction Award at a banquet tonight. We also just found out that the book won the 2008 Américas Award. It is such an amazing read–beautifully written, full of comedy and heartbreak, and so uplifting–it’s hard to leave behind after turning the last page.

Looking at the shelf next to me for things that have arrived from publishers in the last couple of weeks, I see:

Galleys of the chapter book Maybelle Goes to Tea by Katie Speck (Holt, August 2008), the second book featuring a spunky cockroach always maneuvering to get more out of life; Mary Hershey‘s hilarious and heart-warming middle-grade novel Ten Lucky Things That Have Happened To Me Since I Nearly Got Hit by Lightning (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, July 2008), another sequel; and the lush YA fantasy Aurelie: A Faerie Tale by Heather Tomlinson (Holt, September 2008).

Paperback releases of the so-much-fun-I-can-hardly-stand-it “sketch-diary” Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel by Ruth McNally Barshaw (Bloomsbury, May 2008; hardcover, May 2007), which also has a sequel coming out this spring; and the rousing middle-grade adventure Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R.L. LaFevers (Houghton, May 2008; hardcover, April 2007)(author interview), which has a sequel coming out this fall; as well as the Australian edition of Susan Vaught‘s Big Fat Manifesto (published in the U.S. by Bloomsbury, December 2007), a sassy contemporary YA novel featuring a shameless fat girl.

The cover of the picture book Dogs on the Bed, by author and bookseller extraordinaire Elizabeth Bluemle (Candlewick, October 2008)(bookseller insights), which has the most infectious bouncy rhyme; and mechanicals for the picture book The Hat That Wore Clara B. by Melanie Turner-Denstaedt, which FSG will release next year, and which is especially close to my heart because the author passed away from cancer last fall before seeing her first book published, although she did get to see the sketches the amazing Frank Morrison did for it.

Brand-new hardcovers released in the last month: Neptune’s Children by Bonnie Dobkin (Walker & Co.), a modern-day Lord of the Flies; The Lucky Place by Zu Vincent (Front Street), a beautifully written coming-of-age novel told in vignettes against the backdrop of the new suburbia of the 1960s; and A Curse Dark As Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic), a retelling of Rumplestiltskin that finally gives a name to the miller’s daughter and makes the mill a creepy setting with a life of its own, which has been getting lots of nice buzz online.

As a reader, which books have you enjoyed lately and why?

I’ve been in an adventure phase lately (Philip Reeve‘s Larklight and Kenneth Oppel‘s Airborn were fabulous reads), and I’m always reading something quieter and more character-driven (right now I’m loving Scrambled Eggs at Midnight by Heather Hepler and Brad Barkley)(Dutton, 2006)(co-author interview).

I read headlong through your Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007) on the plane home from Austin a couple of weeks ago; it was the first time I’ve ever been mad that a flight landed on time, and my poor husband thought I wasn’t very happy to see him because I kept sneaking little bits of the ending in on the drive home from the airport; fortunately, he’s very understanding, so I don’t have to blame you for a rift in my marriage!

The last audiobook I adored was Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree [by Lauren Tarshis]; such a different sort of perspective for middle-grade, and so satisfying.