Agent Interview: Michael Stearns of Firebrand Literary

Michael Stearns from Firebrand Literary: “Michael Stearns brings nearly twenty years’ publishing experience to Firebrand Literary.

“Formerly editorial director and foreign acquisitions manager for HarperCollins Children’s Books, and Senior Editor, Director of Paperback Publishing for Harcourt Children’s Books, he has worked on hundreds of books for children and adults.” See more information.

What kind of young reader were you–avid, reluctant? What kinds of books did you love?

Unlike anyone else in my large family, I was an avid reader and always had a book to hand.

As a child, I remember loving Roald Dahl and Edward Eager and Beverly Cleary, and I read their books and tons of others voraciously until I was about ten or eleven and discovered science fiction and fantasy. (In those days there wasn’t really much in the way of teen fiction.)

When I was twelve, a friend and I read all of Heinlein’s “juveniles” and, realizing how formulaic they were, we mapped out the plot points on a chart and fit all the events into a single plot structure.

My career path probably should have been obvious at that point.

What led you to choose youth literature as a career focus?

I’m here purely by chance. I went to USC film school, but discovered there that I loved reading and writing more than I loved film production, mostly via a half-dozen workshops I took with T.C. Boyle. His workshops are some kind of brilliant and really taught me how to read closely, and how to see an author’s goals and tailor commentary toward those goals. Rather than, say, simply trying to make a story more like the kind of story a particular reader (me) preferred.

His classes made me into an editor.

Although you’re new to agenting, you’ve long been an industry pro as an editor. Could you tell us about your experience on this front?

I’ve had a long apprenticeship in the industry (I started in 1990!) and have been fortunate to work for a number of truly wonderful people——people who trusted my passions and let me run with them (to not always successful places).

When I started as a temporary editorial assistant, the picture book market was huge and fiction was a dead end. Nowadays the opposite is true.

Happily, I’ve been around long enough to see how the market changes, to trust that quality will out. Excellence will always find an audience; the challenge is in convincing others of that.

But more to the point, everyone knows that editors edit, obviously; few realize just how much of an editor’s job is to sell the book again and again–to an acquisitions team, to a marketing team, to a sales team, over and over and over again.

Learning how to do that sort of prepared me for what I’m doing here at Firebrand.

Looking back, what are your favorite three of the books you edited and why?

This is where I’m supposed to say that I love all of my children equally and similar such twaddle, right? Well, that’s true, but … the three books I’m most proud of are probably the ones in which the relationship between the editor and the author really grew over the course of the book.

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly (Harcourt, 2003), which won all sorts of honors, but which I love because of how great it was to work with Jennifer.

Tangerine by Edward Bloor (Harcourt, 1997), which was rich and complex when I first received it, though I still asked for a deep revision——a scary revision, I think——and discovered an author who saw what I was asking for and exceeded my wildest hopes during revision.

And Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge (HarperCollins, 2006), which I didn’t edit but purchased for the U.S. market. A brilliant writer who is going places.

Oh, and anything by Bruce Coville. And Edith Pattou. And—, well, I could go on, couldn’t I? But shouldn’t. Right.

What will you bring from your editorial career to your new one as an agent?

The skills I bring to the table as an agent are the same I possessed as an editor, for the most part—which sounds like I’m doing nothing new here.

But…I still work with authors to shape their books. I know the industry from an insider’s perspective. I know most of the editors at most of the houses here and in the U.K., and, I hope, have some goodwill among them. (Maybe not all of them.)

I have a sense of contract terms from a few houses and so have a good sense of who is offering what and how certain new frontiers (e-books, digital audio, and so forth) are falling out in terms of rights.

All of these things come into play on this side of the business, as well——perhaps even more so, as we’re closer to the authors and their careers and need to get the best for them and from them to be sure or their success.

What inspired you to shift gears and become a literary agent?

Oh, what a question. Opportunity? Nadia asked me to come on board, and…while I loved what I was doing at HarperCollins, I also thought it might be time to shake things up for myself a bit. I’m unmarried, childless, debt-free, and this seemed like the one chance I’d have to try something sort of new. You know, change is good. Reinvigorates the soul.

Could you tell us about Firebrand Literary [see agent bios]? Who’re the players, what is the agency focus, what makes it unique?

There are four of us here at present: Myself, Nadia Cornier (who founded the agency three years ago), Ted Malawer, and a new junior agent, Chris Richman.

Our main focus is on teen and middle grade lit, though I have a few picture book clients I work for, and Nadia has some adult authors she is keen on.

Do you envision your approach as more manuscript by manuscript, or do you see yourself as a career builder?

I’m really on board for the long haul. I’m not interested in writers with only one book in them, good as it may be.

I’m interested in writers who are going to build their audience and their skills and talent over many books and many years. That’s the most fun, anyway, getting in on the ground floor with a writer and watching as he or she grows.

Why should unagented writers consider working with an agent?

A good agent actually knows and understands what makes for a good book.

He or she watches the market, meets with editors to find out what that editor is looking for at the moment (because that changes season by season), researches how the house is retooling its lists (because that, too, changes season by season in response to what happened to the previous season’s lists).

An author can’t do that. And shouldn’t be trying to do that. Instead, she should be sitting at her keyboard and writing her books. That’s where her energies should be focused.

Agents do something incredibly valuable. As an editor, I was plain grateful for the work done by Steven Malk and Barry Goldblatt and Gail Hochman and a dozen others who submitted books to me that were exactly what I was looking for at a particular time. They served their writers well, and they helped me do my job better.

And that’s the sort of agent I hope to be for the writers who work with me.

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 don’t work on nonfiction, nor chapter books, nor emerging readers. I love novels—middle grade and teen—and a very few picture books.

I’m not much interested in issue novels per se; if the issue is wrapped up in a compelling plot, then fine. But plot and character and the writer’s control of voice always have to come first.

Many writers come to me telling me why they’ve written a particular story—to convey the importance of some moralistic bit of whatever—but I don’t care about that at first.

To quote Samuel Goldwyn: “If you have a message, send a telegram.”

Me, I want a story I can’t put down.

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

Of course! Really, we have a website that allows for easy queries and submissions, and I hope any prospective author will check it out and try me via that route. Especially as Firebrand does not accept submissions through the mail. (Fewer trees cut down, fewer paper cuts; it’s easier all around.)

Are you interested in speaking at writers’ conferences?

Not only am I interested in speaking at conferences, I’ve got a whole slew of them lined up for next year. (They’re where we find new writers.) I’ll be speaking at the Whidby Island Writers Conference, the local chapter of the Los Angeles SCBWI, the Seattle chapter of the SCBWI, and the Orlando chapter of the SCBWI.

As well, Nadia and I dropped in at the Vermont College MFA summer residency. Would love to meet new writers and look forward to each of the speaking gigs.

Firebrand’s parent company has recently launched a separate packaging company called Tinderbox! First, what’s a packaging company?

Few people are aware of just how many successful novels they know came from what in the industry is called a packager. Gossip Girl. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Goosebumps. Sweet Valley High. Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys.

I could go on for a while, but memory is short and packaged work is long, and enough is enough. Suffice to say that packagers have always been around, and that many publishers have “in house” packaging teams that come up with stories and then seek out writers. It’s a part of the business that doesn’t get talked about much.

Interested people can read more about it here [see Book Packaging: Under-explored Terrain For Freelancers by Jenna Glatzer from Absolute Write].

For Tinderbox, we’re devoting one day a week (and weekends so far) to coming up with stories that hit holes in the market as we see it. (We could be wrong.)

We come up with concepts, titles, dramatis personae; we work up fully fleshed out outlines and series arcs; we do everything but write the actual pages.

And then, after we’ve kicked the outline back and forth between us and taken it as far as we can, we try to match it up with a writer who we think can pull it off.

What will be the relationship between the two?

Tinderbox does not employ Firebrand authors. We’d rather avoid any strange conflicts of interest (how can we advise our writers to write a packaged project that we’re putting together? short answer: we can’t in good faith).

So our writing roster is made up of talents from other agent’s lists—writers who are in between big projects and want someone to do some of the heavy lifting, concept-wise. Or writers who need a break into the industry and see a packaged project as a way in. Or what-have-you.

And I’m happy to say that thus far we’ve got a great bunch of interested writers—award-winners, bestsellers, and a number of great talents who see our projects as worthwhile.

As this business grows, we’ll hire dedicated staff. But at the moment, it’s a one-day-a-week-and-weekends thing, as most start-ups are.

What about this opportunity appealed to you?

There is something gloriously fun about creating stories in a group. An idea pops up that doesn’t work, but then someone else adds something to it and flips it over; then another person takes it and pulls it inside out—the idea keeps going around and around the table until it has morphed into something cool and exciting.

There’s a reason television is often written by teams (I’m thinking of good television here, mind you—Buck Henry and Mel Brooks et al), and that’s because a good idea can become a great idea in a short time. It’s a joy to create in a group.

Not what I always want to do, but for now, I love it.

And like so many of us, I take my joy where I can find it.