Agent Interview: Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse Literary Agency

Sarah Davies runs the Greenhouse, a full-service literary agency exclusively for authors of fiction (though not picture books) for children and young adults. Greenhouse launched in January 2008 and has already developed and sold a number of debut authors.

With offices in Virginia (just outside Washington D.C.) and London, the agency represents both American and British authors and sells direct to both markets. Foreign rights are handled by sister-company Rights People – a specialist children’s rights-selling business with a fast-growing reputation for selling literary properties around the world.

Sarah has more than 25 years’ experience of children’s publishing, moving to the USA from London in October 2007. She started her career at Collins (before it was HarperCollins), followed by a spell at Transworld/Random House. In 1994, she joined Macmillan Children’s Books in London as Fiction Editor, rising through the editorial ranks to Publishing Director and member of the management board, where she was involved in all aspects of business strategy and development for an award-winning list which published 200+ titles per year, from novelty/preschool books to sophisticated teen fiction. She held this position until 2007 when she left to start Greenhouse.

Sarah has worked with and published many leading authors on both sides of the Atlantic. Americans include Judy Blume, Meg Cabot, Sharon Creech, Carl Hiaasen, Karen Cushman, David Baldacci, Sarah Mlynowski, and Gary Paulsen. Brits include Philip Pullman, Peter Dickinson, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Eva Ibbotson, and Frances Hardinge. She also has considerable experience in contract negotiation, marketing and rights, as well as a strong understanding of digital developments.

Excellent publishing contacts in both the USA and Britain–and homes in both countries–give her a uniquely transatlantic vision. She makes regular trips to New York and London, and in 2007 was a member of the judging panel for SCBWI UK‘s first-ever writing competition, which resulted in the anthology Undiscovered Voices.

Married to an American, Sarah has twin sons who are more-or-less grown-up now, but who taught her much of what she knows about children and reading. She attends major international book fairs and trade events and loves meeting new authors and nurturing fresh talent. She says, “Everything I’d most like you to know about Greenhouse is embodied in its name. You’ll find my Ten Top Tips for Writing Children’s Fiction, and lots more info, on the Greenhouse website.”

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

While I’d never doubted since I was fourteen that I was destined to be a publisher, I fell into children’s books more by accident than by design. I’d been in my first job–working in religious/inspirational publishing in London for the late, great Lady Collins of what was then Sir William Collins Sons & Company Ltd (now, of course, HarperCollins)–for a year or two and was ready to move. I went for, and got, a job as Assistant Editor of the similarly late, great Armada Paperbacks imprint at Collins, which published mass-market fiction such as Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys. It was there that my love affair with books for young people began.

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

I’ve been in the books business for more than 25 years, virtually all of it in children’s publishing (I made a short foray into adult fiction, which gave me great experience of editing blockbusters; plus I got very good at rewriting embarrassing sex scenes).

The children’s industry has changed massively during my career. It seems a distant memory that we used to be called “kiddies corner”–a minor-league ghetto inhabited by “nice ladies” who made little sums of money from a lot of books. But 15 years ago that’s how it looked–or it did in the U.K., and I suspect things were much the same in the U.S.

The financial pulling power of authors like J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Stephenie Meyer, Christopher Paolini, Jacqueline Wilson (who is huge in the U.K.)–and so many others now–has changed the status of children’s books and made them a really big economic player on the publishing scene. This has led to more children’s publishers/lists springing up, as well as more agencies going into the children’s/teen arena.

Now the great debut voice is at a premium because we have proof that the hottest new properties can sell around the world and on the grand scale.

In general, the business has become far more international, and there is much more synergy between the transatlantic markets than there was, though there will always be areas of difference too. I’ve also seen the rise and rise of the role of marketing and, of course, new and developing possibilities within the digital realm.

What led to your transition from publisher to agent?

I had been with Macmillan Children’s Books in the U.K. for thirteen years, I was being approached about various new job possibilities, and I knew it was time for me to make a move.

I had the option of moving upwards in a corporate publishing structure or moving outwards into something different. I loved working creatively with authors, and I also loved negotiating and doing deals, so agenting was an obvious area to consider.

I was also attracted by the fact that agenting is all about creating opportunities and being personally dynamic and flexible, rather than constantly having to fit into a corporate structure.

I’m definitely an entrepreneur at heart, so the opportunity to create a new business from scratch, on a new continent–but with the security and strength of a highly successful and solidly established parent company [Working Partners, the people behind many leading U.S. and U.K. children’s fiction series] was too good to miss.

The Greenhouse also enabled me to span the Atlantic in both a literary and personal way, representing both American and British writers and keeping homes on both continents, and this seemed tailor-made for me. Oh, it also enabled my American fiancé and I to get married and actually live on the same continent!

Could you offer us some insights into your transatlantic approach?

My publishing career gave me great contacts on both sides of the Pond, plus I acquired, worked with, and published many debut and established American authors over the years.

It has therefore felt very natural to reach out to both American and British authors and know that Greenhouse has good things to offer them. Skype, webcam, Blackberry, FTP sites, electronic banking–and United Airlines–all make it very feasible to run a transatlantic business these days, and I receive submissions from all over the world.

Although publishing contracts are necessarily territorial, talent is not! A great story will work in many different markets; there’s no reason why an American author shouldn’t score their biggest deal in the U.K., or vice versa. What I do believe is unique, however, is that Greenhouse takes the same commission for both U.S. and U.K., calling them both “home market”.

However, as I write this I do have a very exciting piece of news, hot off the press!

I’ve just appointed a wonderful young British agent–Julia Churchill (previously of London’s Darley Anderson Agency)–to focus on building our British stable of authors. This will not only enable me to concentrate even more on the American market, it will also enable Greenhouse to deepen its reach into British writers’ conferences and events in a way I just can’t do now as most of my time is spent in the U.S.A.

I’m very proud that in less than one year Greenhouse has the platform to grow in this way, and I believe we’ll keep growing. The agency is very twenty-first century–it blows out of the water the idea that all your staff have to be sitting in one building in one city. Julia will be in London with my finance people; my senior rights colleague is in Toronto, and my contracts manager is in Bath, England.

If the talent’s out there, there’s no reason why in time we can’t appoint more agents in different locations, all bringing the same values to what we do, and together forming a cohesive business. I find that a very exciting and modern model, and it really reflects today’s international books industry. My ambition is for Greenhouse to be the agency of choice for children’s writers on both sides of the Atlantic.

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

I am absolutely an “editorial agent,” and that is a trademark of the Greenhouse. I came up with the name “Greenhouse” after a lot of cogitating because I wanted the agency to be all about nurturing, growing, flowering.

Turn over my business card, and you’ll read that Greenhouse is “Where writers grow.” I have spent my whole career working editorially with authors, from concept stage to craft, and writing editorial notes, changing titles, supporting an author through revision (often several revisions), is deep in my bones.

My mantra is also that if I’m going to get an author a deal, it must be the best that author can possibly achieve–and that invariably means a lot of hard work. I have to get wholeheartedly behind each manuscript I send out, and I therefore have very high standards. The night before a submission you’ll find me going through correcting typos.

But the trade-off is that many editors have commented on the quality of Greenhouse submissions. Because I’ve been a publisher most of my life, I know exactly how publishers think, and that has been incredibly helpful.

When a Greenhouse manuscript lands on the desk of a hard-pressed publisher, I want them to drop everything because they know that if it’s from Greenhouse it’ll be good.

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

I see myself as a career-builder. I’m looking for authors I can accompany for the long term, if possible. I love thinking strategically–and I also love to see my writers develop in their mastery of the craft and in their self-confidence.

I want to create careers for writers if I possibly can, not just one-off success. It’s a great privilege to accompany authors on this journey into the unknown, and through long experience I do understand the insecurities and anxieties that are part of this writing life. It is my job to be alongside, as professional friend and ally.

Most people I work with have a long-held dream of being a professional writer, and I want to see them still writing, with increasing success, well into the future. That means taking care with each step we make together.

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

There are probably three aspects to every great book–a really strong story, a great voice, and characters that leap off the page. If you’ve got all that, then you know you’ve got a winner.

I think an author sometimes has to experiment with styles and voices to find what is truly their niche. Think of someone like Meg Cabot who had a degree of success as an adult romance writer, but really took off when she found her voice for teens.

There are many examples of authors who were writing in a smaller, quieter way, but who then found their big idea, their big story, that changed everything (for example, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, Knopf, 1996, 1997).

There’s no formula for this, but there’s something about the right idea coming along at the right time, and in the hands (and creative imagination) of the one writer who can tell that unique story. It’s a kind of alchemy!

Sometimes the “breakout” comes more gradually because it takes a while for the market to catch on to a writer’s brilliance. Someone I’d mention here is Philip Reeve, the author of Mortal Engines (HarperCollins, 2003, 2004) and its sequels, and Larklight and Starcross (Bloomsbury USA, 2006, 2007; 2007, 2008) who I think is not only a great storyteller, but also has an outstanding wit and command of language. He’s becoming better and better known through word of mouth, but it has taken a while.

In your interview with Tami Lewis Brown at The Tollbooth, you mentioned that you don’t represent picture books, illustrators, or non-fiction, but rather are interested in middle grade, tween, and teen manuscripts as well as the occasional brilliant chapter book. Is this still the case? Could you tell us more about your tastes?

Bearing in mind Greenhouse started life less than a year ago, I’ve focused on where I feel I can best use my abilities and experience, and that is in the areas you mention (though I hope we’ll go into picture books further down the tracks).

I like both commercial and literary fiction–and all points in between. I love strong, original concepts, particularly ones I feel could work internationally.

I’m interested in the whole world, not just U.S. and U.K., and having Rights People as my sister company, selling all Greenhouse’s foreign rights internationally, means I don’t have to use sub-agents. This is a great asset for my authors–a real plus that I can offer them.

More specifically what do I like? I like authors who can make me laugh or cry, who can make me see the world in some new way–who make me want to leap to the phone to call them as soon as I’ve turned the last page.

I also love authors who can do great action (very rare) and big stories that engage the intellect as well as the heart (also rare). Oh, and sharp, snappy commercial writing with a strong hook.

But I also have a passion for beautiful, powerful language and therefore adore writers who can weave magic with their words (which means, yes, I will take on a literary novel if I have a strong enough belief in the author).

As I always tell my writers, editors acquire books because they fall in love with them. I have to fall in love too – with the potential of the writer, even if the material I see is rough and needs some shaping or development.

Likewise at The Tollbooth, you mentioned Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2008), Beth Goobie’s The Lottery (Faber, 2007), and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008)–thank you!–among recent favorites. Obviously, you have an affection for the spooky side of story. What about more realistic fiction? What are your recent favorite titles on that front and why?

Well, of course I loved Sherman Alexie‘s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown 2007)–that wonderful combination of deeply affecting but also funny.

I liked the commerciality, but nonetheless originality, of Audrey Wait! by Robin Benway (Razorbill, 2007).

I thought Dairy Queen and The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Houghton Mifflin, 2006 and 2007) were lovely–moving, fresh, and absorbing.

I’m currently enjoying Trenton Lee Stewart‘s The Mysterious Benedict Society (Little Brown, 2007), and I like anything by Laurie Halse Anderson.

I’ll also mention Frank Cottrell Boyce (Millions, Framed, Cosmic, HarperCollins, 2004, 2006, 2008) and Julie Bertagna‘s Exodus (Walker, 2008–sequels to follow) whom I used to publish at Macmillan.

Frank has a wonderfully sharp but compassionate eye for family life from a child’s perspective. Julie writes with lyrical power and was weaving stories around climate change and global warming before many people had even accepted them as a reality. It took a while for Julie to find the right house in the USA, but I believe Exodus has launched here very well.

Two books I tried very hard to publish (narrowly missing out to rivals!), but would have done anything to represent: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Random House, 2007, 2008) and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (Random House, 2003, 2004). Both are unique, impossible to put down, absolutely memorable.

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

Yes, I accept submissions. Before sending anything, take a good look at the guidelines on the Greenhouse site. I ask for a succinct query email (no snail mail), with up to five (the first five) pages of text pasted into the email. I don’t only want to see your concept, I want to see how your story opens and how you write. It’s also worth looking at the Authors section on the site, which will give you an idea of the kinds of stories I like and with which I’ve so far had success.

Do you have any particular submissions preferences or pet peeves?

I like writers who follow my submission guidelines. Or to be more honest, I get a bit cross with those who don’t! Here are a few tips:

If you cut and paste, make sure you’re not addressing your email to another agent instead of me!

Make sure you’re sending me the kind of story I’m likely to be interested in. In other words, do your research in terms of age group, etc.

Don’t try to be too clever or gimmicky. Just tell me simply about your story and yourself.

Keep your query short and clear. I often receive 150 queries in a week, so it really helps if I can assimilate quickly what you are saying to me. You should be able to outline your story in one paragraph.

Remember that of necessity I have to make a rapid decision about you–whether I want to read more. I can usually tell in a few lines if I am going to be interested in your writing or not. Think about every word you write, open strongly, hear the cadence of your writing as if it’s music. Be a perfectionist (I am!). This is your big chance to impress.

If you send exclusively to the Greenhouse, do let me know and I’ll try to look at it more quickly.

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?

My authors are very, very important to me, and I feel a great responsibility for them. They have placed their trust in me, and that is a great privilege. I see my authors as my friends, but I also feel it’s important to keep a professional distance so I remain objective. I try to be in very regular contact, even if nothing much is happening, so that I can reassure and encourage.

Writing is such an isolated life, and it puts so much pressure on an individual’s inner resources, so I try to think through what each author might be needing at a particular time. Often it’s just a chat, a brief update–or an email (like one I’ve just sent) saying, “Nothing happening yet but keep the faith.”

I keep authors (and the wider public) in touch via my blog, and I meet my writers as and when I can at conferences and events. I’m very interested in the idea of “community” and look for ways that my authors can feel connected to each other, whether it’s via Facebook, enjoying a Christmas lunch together, or fostering transatlantic friendships. I’d like to feel my authors found their work more fun, supportive, and social because they are part of Greenhouse!

Do you expect your writers to develop a market brand and stick to it? Or are you open to them pursuing a diversity of stories within their body of work? In either case, what is your reasoning?

When an author is starting out, I think it’s helpful to aim at a particular area of the market–so if your first novel is a paranormal romance it’s a good idea to follow up with something targeting those same readers.

Why would you not? You are trying to establish your name, and your name is your brand. This enables your publisher to position you on their list, and makes it far easier for them to justify the costs of marketing and promotion.

Further down the tracks, when you’re more established, I’d certainly be supportive if an author felt a strong pull to write something very different. I represent authors not books, so I’ll look after my authors whatever they write (if I think I can sell it).

What are the greatest challenges of being an agent?

A major challenge is making fast, good decisions on multitudes of submissions–and never losing sight of what that decision means to a writer who has laboured long and hard to produce it.

For me, agenting is about supporting writers in their calling, negotiating with integrity, being known for having high standards, being strong but absolutely fair, respecting publishers as well as writers, never losing my love for this craft or for language… I have a very high view of what an agent should be, and keeping all that in balance–and locating and attracting the finest talent around–is the challenge. I believe that if I am good, people will come, so that’s what I focus on.

What do you love about it?

There’s so much that I love! The author calling me late at night because he’s scared he can’t do his revision on time–and I’m the only one he can share that with.

The little celebration dance (my celebration track is Kelly Pickler‘s “Red High Heels”!) I do around my office when a publisher’s just called to tell me they want to make an offer.

The tears on the phone as I tell a writer their life’s dream has come to fruition after so much effort, and they are going to be published.

The pride I feel in the very first Greenhouse book jacket, now framed and hanging on the wall above my head. The knowledge that out of an empty room in Virginia, where I arrived so tremulously one year ago, a business has come into being–something that has changed people’s lives, not least my own. This is a crazy, nerve-racking, anxiety-inducing but also thrilling industry, and my authors and I share the journey and the risk; it makes a unique bond.

What observations do you have about the U.K. and U.S. markets? Are there any differences in terms of market sensibility, etc.?

For sure there are differences, but also quite large areas of overlap now as the biggest author brands increasingly work around the world.

Generally, it seems easier to sell British fiction to the U.S., than American fiction to the UK–much to the frustration of American agents! There are complex reasons for that–partly to do with market size, partly to do with cultural/historical background, geography and voice.

Brits can be a little insular and aren’t drawn to stories from the Deep South and (sadly) aren’t that interested in American history–especially stories about Vietnam, the Revolutionary War, or Civil War.

They also like their fiction a little hard-edged, I think–more quirky than charming, more conceptual than warm or strong in sentiment. But there’s also a particular kind of British voice that doesn’t seem to work in the U.S.A.–it’s hard to define, but stories that feel rooted in the British family and school system don’t tend to succeed here (with some great exceptions).

The teen market is much bigger in the U.S., and there’s an enviable amount of shelf space devoted to it. This means that much great U.S. fiction never finds its way to the U.K.–especially more “issues-based” or older novels.

That can seem surprising until you look at the costings involved in producing a small run of books. And profit/loss is what it tends to come down to in the end.

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

Well, this is a bit invidious, given that none of my authors are published yet! I’ll therefore just say, look out for all the authors I’ve sold so far. Which in the USA means Sarwat Chadda (The Devil’s Kiss (Hyperion, Fall 2009)), Lindsey Leavitt (Princess for Hire (Hyperion, Spring 2010)), Valerie Patterson (The Other Side of Blue (Clarion, Fall 2009)), Teresa Harris (Treasure in the Past Tense (Clarion, Spring 2010)), Alexandra Diaz (Of all the Stupid Things (Egmont, Spring 2010)), and Tami Lewis Brown (One Shiny Silver Key (Farrar Straus, Fall 2010)).

I love them all, and I believe they each have strong futures ahead of them.

What do you do outside the world of youth literature?

Well, my nearest and dearest might tell you I’m a bit of a workaholic. I do work pretty hard, but that’s because I love what I do, I find it very exciting, and you don’t build a business by sitting around!

But I also keep busy looking after my apartment in London (not easy running a property long distance) and traveling back and forth. I miss my British family a lot, especially my sons (twin boys, aged 22) and my four nieces, so I see as much of them as I can, whether here or there.

My husband and I love animals, especially dogs, and we spend a lot of time with our elderly Golden Retriever, Hogan.

I’m interested in everything historical, especially the Civil War, and I love the outdoor life you can have in the U.S.A. This year I discovered kayaking, especially on the Shenandoah River.

I also do quite a lot of photography. If I wasn’t in the books business, I’d probably train as a photographer and take arty black-and-white portraits and close-ups of nature, full of vivid colour.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Only that I’m delighted (or as we Brits say, “dead chuffed”) to be interviewed on Cynsations, which is a blog I heard about soon after I arrived in the U.S.A. It’s a great honour to be here!

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