Today, we are kicking off the official start of our agent interview series with Melissa Sarver, of Folio Literary Management. Welcome, Melissa!
Me: How did you become an agent?
Melissa: Like everyone in publishing, I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on – books, magazines, newspapers. I studied journalism at BostonUniversity and then moved to New York to be an editorial assistant at a national women’s magazine (ok, fine, this was preceded by a few years of waitressing in the EastVillage, interning for a magazine and a literary agency). A few years into the magazine gig I realized my heart wasn’t in it and I really wanted to work with books. I was drawn to the lit agent side of the business because I wanted to work closely with authors in developing projects both fiction and non, and be a part of their exciting careers from the very beginning. I also didn’t want to work in one of those really tall, hermetically sealed buildings in midtown. So I got a job assisting three separate agencies that shared office space. It was a crash course in agenting – working on numerous genres and seeing the different types of agent styles. A few years in, I began representing my own clients and selling my own projects mainly in the areas of Young Adult fiction, cookbooks, business books, memoir, health, and more. I began working exclusively with Elizabeth Kaplan, who I had already been assisting, and did that for a few more years. With all the agencies I worked at, I worked closely on the foreign rights for their books; so I am thrilled to be at my new post at Folio Literary Management, where I’ll be the co-director of international rights while continuing to represent my own authors and projects. I enjoy being on the agency side of the business because I can essentially choose the types of projects I work on. I’m never going to inherit a project someone else took on and left, the way editors often have to. I represent fiction and non-fiction, so in any given day I’m working on a cookbook, a YA novel, a memoir, etc. It keeps my job very interesting.
Me: What are three things that elicit automatic rejections from you when reading the first 50 pages of a manuscript?
Melissa: First, too much exposition up front and not just getting us into the action of the story or the narrator’s head right away. Second, cliché dialogue or dialogue that doesn’t ring true for the age of the characters. Same goes for overused or badly conveyed dialect trying to set the story in a certain time or place. This all needs to be used very sparingly. Third, bad grammar in general. I can deal with a few typos but when it’s clear from the beginning that the writer doesn’t understand certain key grammatical rules, then I’m out.
Me: What are you looking for right now in contemporary fiction submissions and not getting? Are there any subjects or genres that are near and dear to your heart? And on the flip side, what are you getting too much of?
Melissa: I’m looking for higher concept contemporary fiction, like Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why or Gayle Forman’s Should I Stay. I am a sucker for a fresh, compelling voice, but I think that’s not enough to find success in today’s market, unfortunately. I’m looking for more issue-based books a la Sara Zarr or Laurie Halse Anderson. I love the hint of historical instead of dystopian, even alternative histories. I’m also looking for horror or darker, gothic stories with a bit of the grotesque. I’m still seeing too much dystopian that doesn’t feel fresh. And, oddly, too many “dead sister/friend/parent” contemporary stories without more driving them than the protagonist learning to deal with her/his grief. And even though Anna and the French Kiss was successful and wonderful, it’s still difficult to break these kinds of books out, especially as a debut book.
Me: What is one thing about you that a writer would be surprised to learn?
Melissa: As for books, I’ll read anything that takes place in Ireland. Not sure why – I’m not of Irish descent – but I am a sucker for everything Irish. Hmm, I’m not sure about surprised but I love to bake, especially pies and cookies (they don’t often look pretty but they taste delicious).
Me: Best piece(s) of advice you can give a writer we haven’t talked about yet?
Melissa: Well, it should be obvious but you’d be surprised: writers should read as many published books as they can, to improve their own skills and to know what is out there and working and what’s been done before. I can’t tell you how many times writers pitch me what they think is a new idea and I name 5 other books that have told the same story.
Me: Are you open to submissions? If so, how should a writer go about submitting?
Melissa: I am! I just moved to Folio Literary and so am looking to sign up new writers – please go to the website, www.foliolit.com, to find out my submission guidelines.