Today, we have literary agent Cassie Hanjian of Waxman Leavell Literary Agency on the blog. Thank you, Cassie, for being here with us!
AN: How did you become an agent?
CH: I started out as an international literary scout working with foreign publishers to help them acquire US-originating projects for translation. Being a literary scout is a lot like being a consultant: you’re constantly advising clients about the state of the US market, telling them which books match up with their lists and which books might not be the best fit for their program. As my former colleague Andy Kifer has already said below, it’s a great first job: you have a bird’s-eye view of the entire marketplace at a given time and learn the ins and outs of what each publishing house, each imprint, and each editor is looking to acquire. I specifically learned a lot about the submission process and developed an editorial eye for commercial and genre fiction during my time as a scout, both of which have helped me tremendously in my role as an agent.
My time as a scout just happened to overlap with the release of 50 Shades of Gray, and, post-50 Shades, foreign publishers really started paying attention to self-published fiction. I spent a lot of my time after that culling self-published projects and using other resources to find indie authors that might do well in translation, often discovering potential projects before they had an agent attached. Finding that I was often ahead of the game, I started thinking that my knack for finding new and upcoming talent could be put to better use on the agency side of the industry. It was also during this time that the indie community really started to explode with diversity, and it was exciting to experience this shift first-hand. As a scout, I also couldn’t specialize in the genres and areas I loved most — you have to report back to clients on the marketplace as a whole — so I felt like I was really following my passions by transitioning to the agency side.
After I made the switch to the agency side, I specialized primarily in foreign rights (because of my scouting background) and author support before moving to work at Waxman Leavell Literary Agency.
AN: Many of my readers are aspiring authors and are actively looking for their first agent. Can you tell them a little bit about what the author/agent relationship is like? What can they expect after they sign with an agent?
CH: To me, the ideal author/agent relationship is one that feels like a partnership. Both parties are collaborating and exchanging ideas about what could make a project better, how to tap into their audience, and how to develop an identifiable author brand. Of course, with any partnership, each person has a clearly-defined role, to some extent. The author’s main job is to write and revise, and the agent’s main role is to sell the project and act as the author’s advisor during every step of the publishing process. I think the best agents want to be as involved as possible once they’ve signed an author.
It’s also important that you and your agent are on the same wavelength. Even if you don’t always agree with your agent, do you at least understand where they’re coming from when they make suggestions on your manuscript or offer advice on how to handle a certain situation? Do you feel they really understand your content and the market for your book? Are they speaking “your language” when they explain things to you? Having someone who truly understands you, your vision, and your content will make them a more effective advocate for you in the long-run.
AN: What are you looking for right now in 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?
CH: I’m incredibly passionate about commercial fiction of all types, especially New Adult and commercial women’s fiction. In New Adult, I’d love to see something with a little bit of an edge that’s not afraid to depart from what’s currently considered New Adult. I will say, however, that I think of New Adult projects as genuinely commercial novels with an amazing story at the center. My favorite New Adult novels also include a strong romantic element (whether it be sexy or sweet) that tugs at the heartstrings. In commercial women’s fiction, I also want something plot-driven that focuses on overcoming some sort of really difficult issue and will hopefully make me cry in the process.
I’m also looking for upmarket women’s fiction, historical fiction, contemporary romance, cozy mysteries, and psychological suspense. On the nonfiction side, I’m interested in seeing projects in the categories of parenting, mind/body/spirit, inspirational memoir, narrative nonfiction on food-related topics, and a select number of accessible cookbooks.
I seem to be getting a lot of traditional thrillers, science-fiction/fantasy projects, and literary fiction in my submissions box. I’m only representing psychological suspense and cozy mysteries in the suspense world, which both have very different definitions from a traditional thriller or espionage thriller. I also don’t represent science-fiction, fantasy, or literary fiction at all. I highly suggest authors thoroughly research each agent they plan to query. Agents build their areas of specialization by thoroughly understanding that segment of the market and cultivating relationships with editors who are also passionate about those areas. If it’s not listed under their areas of interest or representation, don’t query them.
AN: As an agent, you see a lot of manuscripts from beginning writers. If there was one area you could tell a writer to focus on, to work toward improvement in, what would it be?
CH: A lot of beginning writers spend too much time in the first few chapters setting up their story with exposition. When I start to read a manuscript, I want to be sucked in by an active beginning that’s not just setting up the protagonist’s environment or background. The protagonist and other characters should be engaging in dialogue and doing something active in these first few pages. We can get to all of the nuts and bolts later in the novel, but the reader needs to be really engaged in your story from the start to keep them turning the pages.
AN: Are you open to submissions? If so, how should a writer go about submitting?
CH: I am! If your project fits in any of the categories listed above, please send me your query letter along with the first 5-10 pages of your manuscript or proposal in the body of the e-mail to cassiesubmit [at] waxmanleavell.com.
You can follow Cassie Hajian on Twitter here.