Literary Agents Assistant Interview: Tracy Marchini on Curtis Brown Ltd.

Tracy Marchini on Tracy Marchini: “I’ve been with Curtis Brown for three years, working with Ginger Knowlton and Laura Blake Peterson. Before joining Curtis Brown, I’d worked as a freelance children’s book reviewer and a local newspaper correspondent.

“In my personal life, I like to write, read, go to ballgames and explore the city. After completing the qualifying races last year, I’m now training for my first marathon and learning that it’s possible to injure oneself in a multitude of embarrassing ways (for example, with my own gym shorts.)”

Could you give us a general description of Curtis Brown, Ltd.?

Curtis Brown was founded in 1914 and is a full service literary agency, with a foreign rights and film department. We are the home of many literary greats, including the estates of Ogden Nash, D.H. Lawrence and A.A. Milne. We’re also the proud home of many contemporary greats, including our very own Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith!

You can see more about Curtis Brown’s submission policies and the specialties of our individual agents on our website.

How did you come to be a literary agent’s assistant?

When I was younger, my mother started writing children’s literature and became active with the local SCBWI. I started writing regularly a year after she did, and later went to college for a BA in English, with a concentration in Rhetoric.

When I graduated, I started attending the SCBWI conferences. We were sitting at the staff dinner after my first conference, and it came up in conversation that I had just graduated and wanted to work in publishing. I happened to be sitting across from one of our fabulous Curtis Brown authors, and she recommended that I send my resume to her agent.

I didn’t end up interning at CB, though. One of their agents was leaving to form their own agency, the Kirsten Manges Literary Agency, and she offered me an internship. It was really inspiring to watch someone build an agency from the ground up, and when it was time for me to move on, Kirsten passed my resume back to CB because they had an assistant opening.

What about the job appeals to you?

Well, I know this is going to sound like some serious sucking-up, but I have to say that Ginger and Laura both have a fantastic list of authors to work with.

Whether it’s throwing title suggestions back and forth, giving encouragement during a tough time or just teasing someone about their baseball team’s performance, I love working with our authors. Sometimes someone will say something and my whole day is brightened, and sometimes I find myself worrying about clients if we don’t hear from them for a while.

Also, I like that everybody that we work with is creating something. I think one of the best feelings is to put something together and say “I made this,” so I really enjoy working with a ton of people who are constantly sharing with us something that they’ve made. And then, I enjoy being a part of the next step, which is–what can we turn this into? (book, film, merch, etc.)

What are its biggest challenges?

The amount of time in a day. Sometimes I am amazed by just how many people touch a book during the publication process, and on some days it feels like I’m talking to them all at once!

Also, recently, I found it’s difficult not to be (at times) discouraged by the news coming out of publishing. Down first quarters, massive lay-offs, and questions about whether the industry as a whole will even be relevant 50 years from now.

But I think it’s important to remember that people will always want to read (no matter the format), and so we will always need writers.

Will we always need agents? I think so. But I think that we will see the role change over the next few years.

I always imagine people who work at literary agencies going to glittering NYC parties in shoes so expensive I’ve only seen them on HBO. Am I on target or off base? And in either case, what’s the scoop?

I think it was Moonrat that just did a great blog post on entry-level salaries in publishing, and I can tell you that at my level, we go to the parties not only for the networking, but for the happy hour and potential for free appetizers! My shoes are frequently a pair of uber-fabulous black Pumas, though I have been caught in a pair of Stuart Weitzman’s.

I’ve been to only one or two publishing parties that was probably HBO-worthy, but it’s more common for a publishing party to be a group of agents and editors at a favorite bar who are looking to meet other up-and-coming editors/agents to help build their contact list.

Once there was a cupcake party going on at the same time as a pub party, and I managed to win a book about cupcakes and eat a cupcake — success!

(You can, however, feel free to imagine me in expensive shoes, drinking a martini and talking to Judy Blume and Meg Cabot.)

Could you describe a typical day in your work life?

It’s hard to say what a typical day is like, because you never know what’s going to be in your IN box or what frantic phone call might come in during the day.

At any given point though, I could be comparing contracts, pitching audio books, reading unsolicited queries, preparing submissions, reading client manuscripts, tracking down royalty statements or payments, negotiating permissions, researching new editors or imprints, researching what rights we have available for certain projects…

What advice do you have for writers looking to make a positive first impression on an agent?

I was thinking this morning about how an author in bygone days might have been a creator first and a business person second. In this climate though, I think you have to wear both hats consistently.

So, when approaching an agent, I would advise that you have already done your research, prepared a clean, well-written query letter, followed their submission guidelines, and then be patient. Frequent phone calls to “follow-up” before the agency’s announced response time elapses are only going to hurt your cause, not help.

It’s not groundbreaking advice, I know, but I think sometimes people forget that when you approach an agent, you’re doing this as a business person. Professional agents want to work with professional writers.

What does the downturn in the economy mean for those seeking representation?

I think that it is going to be tougher to wow an agent when the publishers aren’t buying many books. It’s discouraging for an author to take them on and not be able to sell the first few books, even if the agent loves their writing.

When publishers aren’t interested in acquiring too many mid-list books, it makes an agent really think about taking on debuts. And, unfortunately, a published author with not-so-great track record is going to have a tough time as well.

But publishers are, of course, still buying books. So, all you can do is keep write, submit, repeat.

How about for the market more generally?

It’s hard to watch industry suffer, and it’s always sad to hear that someone you liked working with was let go. But in the long run, I think that we’ll see publishing change for the better due to the downturn.

Publishing houses are talking about how to use print-on-demand in order to eliminate the return system. And I think a smaller list will likely lead to higher quality books, since more time (in every stage – editing, layout, marketing, etc.) could be devoted to each one.

It could also help a publisher grow a community around their imprint. I also think branding is going to become more important, and that could be great for savvy authors, and perhaps a bit more difficult for those who are not as technologically fluent.

Are you interested in speaking to writers’ groups? If so, what kind of event would interest you?

I’ve gone as an industry professional to the Rutger’s One-on-One Conference and the SCBWI Poughkeepsie conferences.

In addition to talking about what an agent can do for writers, I’ve been thinking about how interesting it could be to host a discussion on social networking that’s geared specifically to writers. I enjoy speaking to writers both one-on-one and in a larger conference setting.

You recently attended the O’Reilly Media Tools of Change for Publishing Conference. What should writers know about emerging technologies?

I think the first thing writers should know is that the print book is not dead. E-book sales to print sales are still comparatively small. Publishers are still trying to figure out the best way to price an e-book, and agents are concerned about securing the fairest e-book royalty rate for their client.

That said, I’ve started to think about my projects in terms of “what is the best format for the story I’m trying to tell?”

Children’s writers especially need to think about how tech savvy their audience is. Teens are constantly creating content — original and fanfic-wise.

Maureen Johnson does an excellent job of interacting with her audience and encourages her readers to blog, video, etc. and then she gives them feedback.

(One thing that Adobe’s panel at TOC mentioned was that teens expect feedback on their work from their peers.)

On a larger scale, Fourth Story Media and Scholastic’s 39 Clues series are excellent examples of packagers/series that are thinking across multiple platforms.

How are technology changes affecting literary agencies?

An agent’s role is to protect the rights of their client, and we traditionally sell only what the publisher needs. For example, we sell the U.S. print book rights to HarperCollins, the audio book to Listening Library, and the Italian edition to Mondadori.

But the growth of digital rights is eventually going to make the idea of territory obsolete. Also, the rights required to publish across multiple platforms could be seen as a large rights grab unless the publisher has concrete plans to use each right they’re requesting.

I think that agents are going to have to balance protecting an author’s rights with allowing the publisher room to create synergy.

What inspired you to launch your blog, My VerboCity? Who is the intended audience, and what is your focus?

I’ve blogged off and on since college, maybe even high school. I’ve experimented with character blogs, personal blogs, and group blogs.

My VerboCity was originally going to be a more personal blog about living and writing in New York City. But as I gained more experience in the industry, I found that most of the posts started to focus on the craft of writing and my thoughts on publishing. My readers are mostly writers and others in the industry.

So far, what are your two or three favorite children’s/YA reads of 2009 and why?

This is a tough question, because of course more than two Curtis Brown authors have published a YA in 2009!

But outside of our ridiculously talented authors, I would say I’m still thinking about The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams (St. Martin’s)(author interview), and I was also blown away by the stories in HarperTeen’s There’s No Such Thing As The Real World. (Okay, our own K.L. Going did contribute, so I guess I slightly broke my own outside CB rule!)

What do you do outside of the world of books?

Since I write outside of work, I can’t say I’m ever fully outside the world of books!

But I love the Yankees, and have a small-but-growing collection of Yankee books and ballgame ticket stubs. I seriously considered buying a piece of Yankee field for $80, but, alas, I think I’m going to have to draw the line at buying Yankee dirt… for now.

I also love going to concerts, and wish that feeling of being part of the pit could translate into other areas of life (like, for example, the subway.)