SCBWI Bologna 2010 Agent Interview: Sarah Davies of The Greenhouse Literary Agency

Interview by Jenny Desmond Walters for SCBWI Bologna 2010

On your website, you have wonderful information for people interested in learning more about your agency. One of the things you mention is that Greenhouse is looking for stories that have “a great concept, memorable characters and a strong voice.”

Can you give some specific examples of the kinds of qualities that make characters memorable to you as you read?

Most of all I want to believe in a character. I want to leap out of the reading experience (words on a page) and into the mind of that individual, so I am caught up and transported into their world. I want to feel their dilemma and the difference between what is going on in their head and what the other characters may see or hear; the inner agenda versus the outer. For example, the feisty girl who is vulnerable inside. I want to experience not only a story arc but also a character arc, so the protagonist makes a satisfying journey that gives meaning and richness to the unfolding events.

As someone once said, “The best stories teach us more about ourselves than about the characters.” Very true, and if we feel changed ourselves by a story, by our identification with a character, then we are unlikely ever to forget it. Isn’t that the essence of great fiction?

Before becoming a literary agent, you were a children’s publisher for many years, working with some top authors in the industry. What factors propelled you towards starting your own literary agency?

I had been Publishing Director of Macmillan Children’s Books in London for a number of years. While I loved my team and we were very successful, my time was increasingly spent in management–of staff and systems. I had a deep feeling that I was moving towards a major change in my life. I was hungry to get back to doing what I loved most–working closely with writers, editing, developing stories. I was also very drawn to an entrepreneurial endeavor–starting something from scratch, but with the personality and culture that I envisioned, rather than one imposed by corporate demands.

I felt I had the experience and qualities that, as a publisher, I sought in literary agents. I knew the business inside and out, I loved negotiating and doing deals, and I had many years’ editing experience. I also had a transatlantic identity–knowledge of both U.S. and U.K. publishers and markets. Oh, and I was engaged to marry an American man!

All these things came together when my old friends over at Working Partners in London said they were keen to “do something in the U.S.A.” This gave me the backing of a highly successful parent company and access to the difficult infrastructure that a single-agent company just can’t afford–finance, legal, tax and media experts, plus an amazing rights-selling sister company, Rights People.

When I came up with the name Greenhouse I knew I had found the perfect scenario–autonomy to create a great agency brand, but supported by a very experienced back-office team. The idea of launching this in the U.S.A. totally thrilled me.

I love the Greenhouse’s slogan that it’s “a place where writers grow.” What are some of the specific ways you interact with your clients in order to nurture their growth and their careers?

I’m a great believer in the fact that all areas of life feed into each other; i.e., If we are supported, connected, happy and excited about what we do, we will achieve more than we ever thought we could. So the first thing is that I try to foster a culture of communication, friendship and lively connectedness for our clients.

While Julia [since January 2009, Julia Churchill has been developing the U.K. side of Greenhouse] and I keep in touch with authors as much as we can, we also encourage authors to seek support from each other as they go through the often bumpy ride to publication and beyond.

I try to be very responsive; if an author contacts me, I get back to them very fast, wherever I am. I also often call them just for a catch-up and chat. Anxiety and self-doubt are big issues for most authors, and I try to head off those feelings or deal with them as well as I can. We want our writers to focus on their creative work, while we deal with the rest.

I love strategizing, and I’m always thinking “what comes next?” for our clients. How are we going to get to the next level, how do we position ourselves, what should the next story be if we’re to consolidate, etc. etc.?

Our goal is to keep authors under contract, with a developing career. This business isn’t just about getting published, it’s about staying published, and that’s something we keep in mind all the time.

We also get very editorially involved and try to help writers grow in their craft and self-confidence–more on that below.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face when selecting a new client?

I tend to see opportunity rather than challenge when I take on someone new. What I love is when I have a gut feeling that a particular writer is for me. Their story, their style, their interaction just meshes, and I have an instinct that it’s going to work between us, professionally and personally (because both are very important; this is going to be a close relationship for the long term).

First and foremost, I’m looking for a writing voice that leaps out at me and announces that this individual has something special, even if raw. Plotting we can often fix, but it’s tough to create voice if it doesn’t exist. I love writers with an ear for language, a stylistic panache, a je ne sais quoi that excites me. It isn’t a question of being “good enough” (as some submitters suggest); it’s all about being standout.

Before I take someone on, I like to think very carefully about the manuscript and how it could be made stronger before submission (usually it can). I therefore need to know that the writer is keen to work hard, to revise, that they are truly serious about developing their craft.

There is often so much revision in the process–even after we’ve sold the book–and attitude, flexibility, meticulousness, openness are key ingredients.

The submission journey is one of shared risk for author and agent–I imagine us setting off down the road together, hand in hand.

You’ve been in the business for 30 years. How would you say it has changed over the course of this time?

That’s a huge question!

Briefly, when I started out, children’s publishing was a little niche run by “nice girls” who stayed in their “kiddies’ corner.”

Yes, I’m serious. Our aim was to make small sums of money from a lot of titles. So, the real change is that now children’s publishing is big, big business, acknowledged as often the most recession-proof, profitable area of corporate publishing. Rowling, Pullman, Colfer, Horowitz, Meyer (and so many more) have shown the international sales clout attainable and that has in turn galvanized Hollywood.

There’s also much more international synergy. Twenty years ago markets were more disparate; it was all much more amateurish. Now, children’s books are much more sales-and-marketing led, and we see adult-level publicity/marketing campaigns (not for all books, of course).

News of hot properties spreads around the world extraordinarily fast. A big book in the U.S. is likely to be big–or at least highly sought after–in many territories. Of course, that’s also attributable to the Internet age and ever-increasing globalization. This international view particularly underpins Greenhouse; we see the whole world as our marketplace.

The other thing of course, is new media and where all that is taking us; ebook publishing, digital download, apps, hand-held readers. What will the Apple Tablet bring?

Exciting times, even if we do have to hold on to our hats. It goes against our literary grain, but we have to think not only of “stories” but also of “content.”

On your website, you note that you are an “editorial agent.” Can you explain more about what that entails? Is this the kind of service that all agents provide, or would you say this is a unique aspect of The Greenhouse?

I can’t claim we are unique, but it’s true that editorial is a strength of ours. We believe more in potential than in initial actuality. By which I mean that I’m looking for voice and concept, but if the plot is a bit of a muddle and the characters need more development, we are prepared to work closely with authors to develop these areas. Of course that is a gamble–we can’t be sure the manuscript will develop into something fabulous, but there are times when we take that risk (and it has paid off very well for us and the authors concerned).

There’s also a small number of authors whom I feel are cruising just below a point where we can be confident of taking them on; perhaps their story needs a much deeper level of creative input. We’re currently looking at how we might work more with a small number of these. Nothing is formalized, but it’s an area that interests me and we’re just connecting now with our first individual in that capacity.

I believe it’s our responsibility not only to try our hardest to get an author a deal, but also to get them the best possible deal. Usually, this means taking time to get a manuscript into optimum shape before submission. It’s all about care; we never just “fling stuff out and see what sticks.”

Your blog is filled with jewels of information and inspiring topics for hopeful writers. It’s clear that you balance an enormous number of responsibilities. How do you find time to keep up with the ever-increasing demand to have a presence on social networking forums and blogs, and do you think it is important for hopeful as well as established writers to do the same? Have you ever picked up an author because you read his or her blog?

I personally don’t dwell too much on social networking. Julia Tweets from the Greenhouse site, but I honestly don’t have the time. However, I do quite a lot of interviews and take my own blog very seriously–like a carefully honed journalistic assignment each week.

I see it as helping to present the “face” of the agency, letting visitors into what I think and feel about the industry and the business of writing. But I also like to demonstrate that I too am a writer–I craft my work and struggle to get it right; I share in the pressures.

Of course, there is value in anything that promotes a writer and develops their fan base, and social networking can be great for that. But it isn’t a universal panacea, and I do worry about the hours aspiring writers can spend blog-reading, Facebook-ing and tweeting.

It’s not about being friends on Facebook; it’s about becoming a strong and memorable writer. For me, it all comes down to that, and focusing on the nuts-and-bolts craft is the absolutely hardest thing. Perhaps we all need to shut out distractions for one day each week?

I always look at links to blogs or sites that writers include in submissions, but for me, that’s not mandatory. In some ways it can be easier to create your web presence after you have a deal, so you can target it more accurately. I’ve never signed an author on the basis of their blog, though it’s great (and an additional incentive) if that is lively, relevant, fresh and original; it all helps to create an impression. Plus, it can reveal a great self-promoter. However, if your web presence is tired, badly designed, out of date or banal, then it isn’t going to help you.

Your agency represents middle grade and young adult manuscripts. Are there any stories you’re not getting right now but would like to see come across your desk?

There’s a lot in my blog about what I’m looking for, and I recommend reading through back posts to get a wider sense of that. However, in general I’m looking for work that leaps out at me for some reason. Yes, I’m still interested in dark YA (the money is still there), but it’s got to have something very fresh. I see a lot of very similar stories; Death in every imaginable guise is huge!

I’m intrigued by “what if?” concepts because asking oneself that question can lead to boldly original plotting. I also like big issues in YA–faith, meaning, redemption . . . I want to be challenged as well as swept away emotionally.

I’d like to see more quality/charming/beautiful writing for girls in middle grade, and I’d love to find a really hilarious story for boys (not relying on the perennial supposed boy-pleasers of slapstick and farts). I’m interested in international stories, with authentic settings, and I have always loved brilliant high-concept or character-led work for tweens.

Writers who try to do something different, who are ambitious in a literary sense, are always very welcome.

In an interview at the beginning of 2009 with Cynthia Leitich Smith, you said that you hoped to begin accepting picture books in the future. Do you still see that as something the Greenhouse will do and, if so, do you have any timeline in mind for when this might happen?

Ah, something I am often asked. Our position at the moment is that we represent picture book texts when by a client whom we initially took on for older, longer fiction. In fact, we sold our first picture book last fall.

I’m afraid I don’t have a timeline at the moment for soliciting picture books from the wider public. We are very, very busy with older fiction and receive a huge number of submissions, so I have a concern about widening the net right now. It made sense to focus on older work at the outset because I’m a fiction editor by background, my expertise is particularly with character and plotting, and because there’s much less synergy in the international markets for picture books. But it’s something I’m keeping under review and I wouldn’t be surprised if we are considering picture books by the end of the year (but I’m not promising).

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

We always accept unsolicited submissions, and a number of our authors joined us in this way. We accept e-queries only, and all submission guidelines are given on the Greenhouse website. I’d suggest any interested writer should start there and closely follow the instructions.

And last, do you have any tips or suggestions for authors who meet you at conferences?

If an individual met me at a conference and wants to submit work then they should include where we met in the email heading and also give more details in the body of the message, so I’m reminded about the conversation we had. Inevitably, I prioritize submissions from people I’ve met, especially if they are exclusive to Greenhouse.

I enjoy meeting authors and talking about writing, and I’ve become friends with a number of writers whom I didn’t subsequently go on to represent.

We’re all in this business together, we’re united by our love of books and reading–and a profound belief in the power of literacy and imagination for young people. Plus, it’s all a lot of fun. The only constraint, unfortunately, is time!

Cynsational Notes

Sarah Davies was a children’s publisher in London for more than 25 years before moving to the U.S.A. in 2007 to launch the Greenhouse Literary Agency. Based in Washington, D.C. and London, the Greenhouse exclusively represents authors of children’s and YA fiction and is not only transatlantic (Sarah personally represents both American and British authors direct to both markets), but also unusually international–foreign rights are sold by sister-company Rights People, a specialist children’s rights-selling business with a fast-growing reputation for selling literary properties around the world.

In her publisher incarnation, Sarah worked with and published authors such as Judy Blume, Meg Cabot, Sharon Creech, Karen Cushman, and Philip Pullman. As an agent, she represents many debut authors, a number of whom have achieved deals at auction – among them, Sarwat Chadda, Lindsey Leavitt, Brenna Yovanoff, Tricia Springstubb, and Valerie J. Patterson.

Sarah has been a fiction editor half her life, and brings a wealth of editorial experience to her role as literary agent, working closely with writers to reach an optimum submission point. Sarah says, “Everything I’d most like to tell you about the Greenhouse is in its name. It’s where writers grow!”

Jenny Desmond Walters is the founding regional advisor of the SCBWI Korea chapter. She is an experienced education professional with a love of learning and literature. She has worked in public television developing curriculum and promoting instructional programs, as well as worked extensively with educational publishers and learning materials companies. For the last several years, Jenny has lived in east Asia where she has become an avid writer and observer of life in Japan and Korea. Her articles have been published in national children’s magazines and writing journals, and she has been a member of SCBWI for more than 10 years. Jenny currently resides in Seoul with her husband and three daughters, and she rarely runs out of interesting stories to write.

The SCBWI Bologna 2010 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations. To register, visit the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2010. Note: Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.