Thursday, July 1, 2010

Interview with an Agent: Melissa Sarver

Sorry about not posting an interview last week. (Summertime is just crazy and unscheduled for everyone, isn’t it?) Happily, today’s interview more than makes up for it. I give you Melissa Sarver of The Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency. Enjoy!

KV: How did you get into agenting?

MS: After college I interned at a boutique literary agency at the same time I was interning at a number of magazines; I was offered a (paying!) job as an editorial assistant at a magazine and spent three years there being miserable and longing to work with books. So I decided to leave and knew (from that internship) that I was more interested in being an agent than an editor. I got hired as an assistant for three small agencies sharing a suite, which was a major crash-course in agenting. I learned an immense amount about agenting and book publishing in a short amount of time, and one of the agents, Elizabeth Kaplan, supported me when I wanted to take on my first client, a YA novelist. Under her amazing mentorship, I now represent more than 15 authors and it all worked out.

I loved the idea of molding a project, whether it’s the writer’s idea or my idea for which I find a writer. It’s incredibly rewarding seeing a book through from start to finish and being an integral part of an author’s career. I also relish the opportunity to work on different genres, which I wouldn’t be able to do as easily if I were an editor.

KV: How would you summarize your personal agenting philosophy? What do you expect from an agent-author relationship?

MS: I work very closely with my authors through the entire process; I’m extremely hands on when it comes to editing proposals (thank you, magazine days!) or manuscripts. The relationship works best when it’s a partnership because both sides have very important things to bring to the table--knowledge, material, contacts, strategy, editing skills. Editing is a dialogue, whether it’s between an agent and an author, or with an editor. I’m always respectful of an author’s ideas and the fact that it’s their work (that they’ve spent a lot of time on), but they also need to be respectful of the fact that I work in the business and talk to editors and other agents every day and am completely plugged into what’s going on. First and foremost I am the author’s representative and strive to do the best possible job for my authors each and every day.

KV: What client work do you have coming out soon? What drew you to those writers and/or projects?

MS: I’m very excited about a number of upcoming books: Jessie Sholl’s memoir DIRTY SECRET: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother’s Compulsive Hoarding. This author came to me with a YA novel that I loved; while we were in the throes of revising it, she mentioned to me that her mother was a hoarder and she’d been thinking of writing a memoir about her, their relationship, and hoarding in general. I told her I was obsessed with hoarding and it seemed like the rest of country was too, so get started on that proposal! It’s a fascinating, sometimes frightening, story that will publish next January. Everyone will recognize someone they know in Jessie’s mom, even if it’s not to that extreme.

Also, YA author Kim Culbertson’s novel SONGS FOR A TEENAGE NOMAD comes out in September and she’s had major support from teachers and librarians. It’s a remarkable, emotional story about the individual soundtracks to our lives.

And on a completely different note, is Kimberly Palmer’s GENERATION EARN: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back. Kimberly, the personal finance columnist for US News & World Report, wrote this book for all those tired of being referred to as “generation debt,” offering advice that bolsters their financial goals. It’s a holistic approach to career ambition, family, and enjoying what they have while giving back to the global community.

KV: What genres do you represent? What genres do you definitely NOT represent?

MS: I represent literary and commercial fiction (adult, young adult and middle grade). I don’t look for thrillers, romance, paranormal or fantasy (though I do love dystopian and what I’d consider “speculative fiction”).

As for non-fiction, I gravitate toward narrative (especially in the areas of food and travel), memoir, cookbooks, lifestyle and pop culture, diet and exercise. I’m also interested in business and marketing books, especially “big idea” books.

KV: What query pet peeves and/or pitfalls should writers avoid when querying you?

MS: Don’t tell me you’ve written ten books if none of them have been published. Don’t tell me you’re a “published” author if it was through a vanity press. Don’t tell me what other editors and agents have said when they’ve rejected you. Don’t call what you’re writing a “fiction novel.” Don’t tell me you’ve looked extensively at what I represent and then submit a thriller. Don’t tell me that you’ve already written a trilogy (or worse, a five-book series); let’s start with one book and say it has the potential of being developed into a series. And if you’re out there writing, don’t write an entire trilogy before approaching agents and editors! It’s a waste of your time.

The query should showcase your writing skills (if I’m bored after a few paragraphs, why do I want to read 300 pages of your work?) and pique my interest in wanting more. Keep it brief and dynamic. Tell me a little about yourself even if you’ve never been published before. And don’t call to follow up on your query. After four to six weeks you can check in with an e-mail.

KV: What are you looking for in a manuscript right now?

MS: I’m looking for dark lit fiction right now, something that really moves me. I love books that change the way I think about humanity and the world. Contemporary or recent historical, taking place in another country, somewhere new and interesting to me. I also love a good family saga. Of course good writing trumps anything I would specifically ask for. I’m looking for good food writing but there has to be a great story there and also a solid platform.

KV: What’s the best way to query you?

MS: Please send a query to If it’s fiction, please include the first ten pages of the manuscript in the body of your e-mail. Due to the high volume of queries we receive, we are unable to respond to every one. If we are interested in seeing more material, we will contact you and ask for the manuscript or proposal.

Thanks again, Ms. Sarver, for these responses. And good luck to all you queriers. It sounds like she has a diverse list, so she might be a good agent to query if your project is more genre-bending.

P.S. Have you ever wanted to ask these agents a question yourself? Well, don’t forget to stop by next week, then, because Taylor Martindale of Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency has graciously agreed to field questions in the comments the day her interview posts. The Super Big Interview of Doom is set for Friday, July 9, so don’t miss it!


A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Another great interview. Thanks, Krista and Melissa!


Kimberly Palmer said...

As one of Melissa Sarver's authors, I wanted to add that she is a truly amazing agent and so great at giving guidance throughout the entire process. I feel lucky that she is my agent!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Amy, you're welcome.

Kimberly, thanks for the comment. Honestly, I can think of no better endorsement than that from a client. (And I look forward to checking out your book. As a twenty-something econ major turned stay-at-home mom, it sounds right up my alley:) )

Myrna Foster said...

So, what kind of "speculative fiction" is she interested in?

Krista Van Dolzer said...

I can't say for sure, of course, Myrna, but I suspect she means more futuristic and/or sci-fi, since she specifically mentioned wanting dystopian but not fantasy.

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Todd Henry said...

Count this as another author endorsement. Melissa's been amazing to work with, quite involved in every aspect of the process, and has provided much-needed encouragement and insight at key points along the way. (And she sold my book quickly and to the perfect publisher, which is always a plus. :)

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Thanks for this note, Todd. As I said before, client endorsements are the best kind.

Kim Culbertson said...

I'm chiming in late on this post (because I just read it!) but I just wanted to echo as one of Melissa's authors that she is terrific! She is truly a partner in the process and gives outstanding feedback and suggestions!
Songs for a Teenage Nomad

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Thanks for your seal of cliently approval, Kim. And congrats on SONGS FOR A TEENAGE NOMAD. Sounds like it comes/came out this month!

Kim Culbertson said...

Thanks for the congrats! :-) It's been a lot of fun so far...