Friday, December 17, 2010

Interactive Interview with an Agent: Elana Roth

Today’s interactive interview features Elana Roth of Caren Johnson Literary Agency. Ms. Roth maintains a thought-provoking blog and also contributes to the CJLA blog, so if you’re looking for more information about her querying preferences and the agency in general, check out those links. Details on the interactive part of the interview are at the bottom. Now, without further ado (although there’s been quite a bit of ado so far (sorry)), I give you Ms. Roth.

KV: How often does a query intrigue you enough to look at the included pages? And how often do those pages intrigue you enough to request the manuscript?

ER: I pretty much always look at the sample pages. I've had cases where the query wasn't wonderful, but the pages had a great tone. I find the two work really well together. I really do need that query to tell me clearly what the story is, but the pages can give me the broader picture of the book's potential.

I request 5 to 10 manuscripts a month, from an average query rate of 300 queries a month. So the odds are so high, but about par for the course.

KV: What are you looking for in a requested manuscript?

ER: First and foremost I just want something really cool--a concept or voice I haven't seen a million times before. I don't expect crazy plot-lines, since most stories have been done, but I do want something fresh with the hook and setup and character. Those are things I can pick out in the query. But the manuscript just needs to keep me reading, which means something tightly written, plotted and edited. I am a plot girl. I like actions and events and intrigue. Keep me interested.

KV: What are some of the most common problems you see in the manuscripts you request?

ER: Pacing is a huge problem. If I hit page 50 and nothing has happened yet, we have a problem. That's usually where I stop reading. Children's books aren't that short, but they aren't that long either. If you think of having about 250 pages for a YA novel to work, you've just wasted the first 1/5 of your pages. Start the story where the story starts, and then keep it moving.

Voice is also a problem but one I find is harder to pinpoint. It's also very personal. I've hated voices other people loved. So it goes. But I think we are all aware of the hyper-cliché girl voice in YA. Before writing a whole book, find your voice. Both your own voice as a writer, but also the voice of the character. Do those exercises where you write conversations with the character, let them talk. Make sure you know exactly who they are, and then write that.

KV: When you come across a manuscript you really like/love, how do you decide whether to request revisions or offer representation?

ER: This is really case by case. It really depends on that inherent level of excitement. It also depends on any significant problems. Several books that I now represent had some problems, but I loved them, so I asked for revisions before I offered representation. This is mostly to make sure the author is actually capable of the work and capable of collaboration. But other times I just discuss any notes with the author during the phone call and if I think it jives with them, then I'll offer and handle the revisions later.

KV: When you do make that Call, you’re probably going to ask the writer if she has any questions. What sorts of questions should she ask?

ER: Every author should know what some deal-breakers are for them. Some authors might have a problem if their agent is also an aspiring writer. Some authors might want a more editorially hands-on agent.

I think it's mostly really important to talk about communication styles. For example, I'm a really blunt person--and I use that conversation to let authors know that I'm always going to be a straight-shooter and maybe don't work with me if you're too sensitive for that. I find a lot of a good agent-author relationship is just personality and willingness to communicate openly.

Beyond that, I think authors should be aware of all the basics, like commission breakdown, how the agreement works, how rights are handled, etc.

KV: And now for a few quick questions from the normal interview. What client work do you have coming out soon? What drew you to those writers and/or projects?

ER: I have a weird gap in books coming out because we (agents as a whole) had a bad run in 2009 selling anything at all. I went more than 6 months between selling things. So my last book out was Laura Toffler-Corrie's THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF AMY FINAWITZ, which is a hilarious middle-grade novel that I always think of as FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER as told by Woody Allen.

My next client book out is M.P. Kozlowsky's JUNIPER BERRY, which I can't be more excited about. It's a modern fairy tale, but it's charming and scary and imaginative and amazing. That is due out in May 2011.

While these projects couldn't be more different, both authors are just so talented in their fields. Laura is an incredible comedy writer, and I still laugh every time I pick up AMY FINAWITZ. And JUNIPER BERRY grabbed me from the first go--the concept is just that fresh, but the book fits so strongly into that classic timeless middle-grade genre we love so much. Michael is just a beautiful writer.

KV: Is there something you haven’t been seeing lately in the slush pile that you wish you were?

ER: I haven't been seeing anything new, really. I've been getting hammered with fallen angel books of all varieties. And I'm still getting lots of paranormal, girl-who-has-dreams kind of stuff. It's not really right for me, unless there's truly a spin I haven't seen before.

I would still love some really cool twist-on-reality-with-a-science-edge kind of book. I'm a nerd, so I like nerdy things.

KV: What’s the best way to query you?

ER: E-mail! All of our submissions info is here:

And like I said above, include the first 3 to 5 pages of your novel at the bottom of the e-mail body. It helps!

Thank you, Ms. Roth, for these wonderfully in-depth responses. My favorite line from this interview (for obvious reasons): “I would still love some really cool twist-on-reality-with-a-science-edge kind of book.” (And if you don't know why it's obvious, maybe you should read a little of Bob.)

As for the interactive part, just leave a question down there in the comments sometime between now and 5:00 p.m. EST (that’s 2:00 p.m. PST, for those of us on the West Coast), and Ms. Roth will answer it sometime between now and whenever the world ends--but probably a lot closer to now:)

P.S. This is the last agent interview we'll be posting this year, but we'll be back in January with more agents, more interviews, and maybe a few more surprises. And I'll be back next week with a few Christmas-related posts. In the meantime, have a wonderful last weekend before Christmas!


Elena Solodow said...

Excellent interview!

Here's a question:

Was there a book in particular that inspired you to become a literary agent?

Louise said...

Great interview. My question is: Would you take on a previously self-published novel?

Ken said...

My question: Is there a future for male YA protagonists? I hear both ways; lots of requests for them, but they can be a tough sale.

Elana said...

Thanks for the questions!

@Elena - No book in particular. I've just always been a reader, and was an editor for many years before switching sides.

@Louise - It'd be a hard sell for me, for sure. You already have a track-record. But I have signed authors who have previously self-published. But they didn't query with that specific novel--a new one instead, which is much easier and cleaner.

@Ken - I think so :) Most of my books are male YA main characters. It definitely makes it harder to sell, so that's why the plot and concept are all the more important.

Cori said...

Hi there,

Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I love your tweets, btw.

My question is this: When an author (possibly me) queries you and then a couple of weeks later wakes up in the middle of the night knowing that her first few pages are TOTALLY wrong and she (possibly me) changes them and re-submits to you, do you automatically delete the query because the writer didn't have her act together?

Thank you- and happy friday!

Elana said...

Hi Cori,

That's a good question. I do have this happen. The problem is that response times are so different between agents. I try to be within 2 weeks--so sometimes someone can catch me, and if they're lucky I've scanned the subject lines and see there's a new one from the same person. (I have a good memory like that, but not everyone does.) In that case, I'll just delete the first query, and answer the revised one.

But...the issue is, if you're querying you should be able to live with your first page the way they are. You shouldn't be querying if you're still actively revising.

I'm a big advocate of putting that project to the side when it's being queried. Start writing something else, so you don't do these last minute changes.

Hope this helps!

Braden said...

Thanks for doing this. I, too, love your tweets.

I want to ask you about word count. I've read the agency blog and it seems you have very clear preferences about word count. I want to query at middle grade modern fantasy, but it's at 84K.

Because of the world-building, I think those extra words are necessary.

Would you still consider it, or would it be a "delete" as soon as I list word count in the query?

Elana said...


We all look at word counts for a loose guide on if you have a good sense on what's appropriate, but there aren't hard fast rules--just guidelines.

Fantasy is always longer. Middle-grade can be quite long these days. It's not a dealbreaker, but...I guarantee it could still be cut from there ;) Everything can.

I wouldn't toss it because of that, but I'd have to really be swayed by the concept to want to dig into that for that age level.

Braden said...

Thanks so much for your time.

LS Murphy said...

Thanks for answering questions, Elana. First, you rock. I love your tweets and your blog. Second, my question: How have you seen the industry change and develop this year in terms of e-books v. traditional publishing?

Krista V. said...

Awesome questions, everyone, and Elana, awesome answers!

All right, here's my question: Elana, you mentioned that writers should know if they want a more editorially hands-on agent, so I'm wondering, are you more editorially hands-on or hands-off?

Elana said...

@LS Yes, I think there's been huge growth. I'm not sure how qualified I am to get into details, other than it's finally becoming clear that we can't ignore digital and best to integrate and embrace it early. It's exciting for sure.

@Krista - Oh, I'm SO editorial, it's silly. I was an editor for 5 years, after all. Authors know that when signing up with me :)

Okay, off to our agency holiday lunch! I'll be back later to answer whatever else is coming in.

Julie Hedlund said...


You gave me feedback on a couple of PBs, per an auction victory on my part. You are blunt, but in a helpful, constructive way (as opposed to a destructive way).

Just thought I'd throw that in there... :-)

Ben Spendlove said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Krista V. said...

*smacks forehead* Right. I should have known that. Now that you mention it, I remember reading that you'd been an editor in your bio on CJLA's website.

Thanks for answering my (stupid) question:)

Alex said...

Hey Elana,

Thanks for doing this, it's mighty swell of you.

I was wondering if you have a take on the New Adult genre? Do you think it will gain acceptance and see growth? Would you rep a novel that falls into that genre?


FictionalMike said...

Hi Elana:

Great interview, excellent info!

You mentioned, "Some authors might have a problem if their agent is also an aspiring writer. Some authors might want a more editorially hands-on agent."

I'm curious: Are you an aspiring writer? And where would you place yourself on the "hands-on" spectrum?

Thanks again to you and to Krista for a wonderful interview.


Ben Spendlove said...

Okay, I think I've got my head on straight. What I really want to know is if it makes a difference if I query a book as YA or New Adult (thanks Alex), or should I just say it's plain urban fantasy?

*sigh* If that makes any sense at all.

Myrna Foster said...

Do you like MG and YA fantasy? And if so, what kind of word counts do you like to see for them?

Krista V. said...

On behalf of SeymourPats over at AW: Is the market flooded with dystopians right now?

Elana said...

Hi all,

Sorry for the delay in response on these!

@Alex - Truth be told, I don't think New Adult exists. I think it was a marketing ploy by one publisher. I think things are either *teen* or they aren't. So...that should probably answer the question on whether I'd rep it.

@FictionalMike - No, I'm not an aspiring writer. And I should clarify that comment to say that some writers would be fine with their agents also writing--some wouldn't. It was more of an example. I myself do not feel that urge to write a novel though. And per the question above, I'm pretty darned hands-on as an agent. That's my job, no?

@Ben - I'm not it actually YA? If so, then I'd call it YA fantasy. If it's not teen, then just call it fantasy.

@Myrna - I do, but I don't want to see the really traditional high-fantasy stuff. It's not new enough. Word counts in my opinion shouldn't be much longer for fantasy. I still like my YA in that 60-80k word sweet spot.

@Krista - I don't think so. I think a lot of them have sold, and sure that means it'll be harder to differentiate them...but I wouldn't say it's flooded.

Krista V. said...

And that's a wrap! Thanks to Elana and everybody else for making this interactive interview another success.

Kristin said...

Great interview, Krista & Elana!
Thanks for your time!

Myrna Foster said...

Thanks to both of you!

Krista V. said...

You're welcome, Kristin and Myrna!