uring my summer book tour for Lowcountry Bribe, I met associate literary agent Jessica Sinsheimer at two conferences, as she represented the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency. Her humorous and warm, yet introverted, way of treating writers captured my interest. She held her own with senior agents in Oklahoma, appearing the most collected of the bunch, and owned the conference in Georgia as the sole agent on the faculty. I marveled as she made writers feel they could be accomplished while she joked of eating hush puppies for the first time, ultimately eating an entire plate of them!
So I asked this sweet lady to provide WOW! readers a taste of her insight, from material she loves to represent to what turns her on in a query and a client. I’m sure you’ll enjoy meeting Jessica.
WOW: Jessica, I’m so happy you were able to fit this interview into your hectic schedule. You are a very active lady, and I have many questions to ask. Let’s open with an easy one—one that most authors want to know first. What genres are you seeking to represent on behalf of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency?
Jessica: Thank you, Hope!
I actually don’t discriminate based on genre. I’ve been surprised and delighted to love works in genres I’d never considered before. But I consistently like the following:
Nonfiction: Food/cooking, food memoirs, popular science, popular psychology, parenting, history/politics, most narrative nonfiction
Fiction: Women’s, literary, young adult fiction (all subgenres), middle grade fiction
Here are some books I’ve read recently and enjoyed (runaway bestsellers excepted because they tell you less about my taste):
Nonfiction: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking; Proust Was a Neuroscientist; Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners; Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain; Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships; How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting;
The Gastronomy of Marriage: A Memoir of Food and Love.
Fiction: The Rules of Civility; Gilded Age Claire McMillan); A Reliable Wife (what a fantastic first sentence!); The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake; Love in Mid Air; Getting Revenge on Lauren Wood; The Catastrophic History of You And Me; What Happens in London (Julia Quinn).
WOW: Do you prefer to be queried in the office or gather your clients via conferences? Many of our shyer writers may be interested in this answer. I know I’m mortified pitching in person.
Jessica: I love meeting writers, but talking can only get us to a certain point. Some of the best writers are uncomfortable in person, something I’m well aware of and account for—but voice in person and voice on the page are quite different.
During these author-agent speed dates, as I’ve come to call them, I keep this in mind and seek a sense of the writer as a person and a client. Would they be nice to work with? Are they interesting? Do they seem like a prima donna? I don’t take off points for being too polished, but this is usually a trait separate from being a good writer.
I also find that other correspondence—the check-in notes, the e-mails along the way—often doesn’t have the same voice as the writer in person. I’ve met (and really liked) the company of some writers while at conferences and then been shocked by their snippy tone in e-mails.
When getting agents to like you, kindness and patience are key.
WOW: Having met you twice at conferences this year, I found your personality sweet and approachable. Authors gravitate to you as you seem grounded and unthreatening. How do you break the ice with authors pitching to you, or do you sit back and let them open the dialogue?
Jessica: I know it must be uncomfortable to approach an agent, so I try to be the first to reach out. I usually say something purposely mundane like, “Thank goodness they still have coffee at 4:00 p.m. Most conferences don’t.” Talking about snacks and caffeine gets people comfortable—reminding everyone that agents, writers, and most humans appreciate the same things.
The great thing about writers is that they’re so multifaceted and fun to talk to. I’ve met crime writers who are great cooks, memoir writers who run yoga studios, women my grandmother’s age who write radical fiction and curse hilariously in public (and can probably drink me under the table—not that we’ve tested that theory, mind you). There’s always much to talk about.
Since there’s only so much I can know about a project before seeing it on the page, I focus on seeing if we click. The people I genuinely connect with almost always end up being my best, most successful clients.
“I know it must be uncomfortable to approach an agent, so I try to be the first to reach out.”
WOW: Please explain your role with Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency and how you came to work for the agency.
Jessica: I was hired as an assistant six years ago and loved it so much that I stayed. I can’t imagine a better workplace.
Before this, I worked at a publishing house where assistants were not allowed to speak at editorial board meetings—and before that, an agency rather like the Mad Men office (without the cool clothes).
But my first day at SJFLA, I was encouraged to share my opinions and was reassured that my contributions were valued. It’s a wonderful company. Everyone is kind, intelligent, trustworthy, hardworking, interesting, witty—and often hilarious.
WOW: What’s your worst habit?
Jessica: I multitask to my detriment. And while my e-mail is color-coded and filed to a T, my desk is a mess. Right now, it has a gift box of tea, enough scribbled-on Post-its to be stapled into a book (someone should invent a Post-it-sized filing cabinet), a self-published book, five printed queries, two cards from writers (one with excellent stationery), a draft of a contract, two beverages (Sarah Jane put a kibosh on my usual three after I kept knocking them over), and a box of macarons from a client I just signed. (Yes, I love her.) I also have far too many pens. I prefer liquid ink but sometimes forget to cap them. It’s all in neat-ish piles, but it’s a lot.
WOW: What do you like to read in your spare time?
Jessica: My personal reading varies widely, and I’m usually reading about ten books at any given point. I can’t travel with fewer than four books—much as I’ve tried. And though, yes, this is heavy—I still prefer real books. My Kindle is just for manuscripts.
My ten usually includes some light nonfiction (pop psychology, parenting, or politics), women’s fiction (anywhere from “would-be literary fiction if written by a man” to books that I want to cover with a homemade dust jacket before taking them on the subway), a YA novel (I prefer contemporary, real world stories these days), and either another light nonfiction title or historical fiction.
WOW: You’re on the young side. Does age ever come into play when you are meeting with authors? How about with publishers?
Jessica: There are many, many young editors in publishing, and I’m always amazed by how much we have in common. I can’t tell you how many short, brunette, ex-Californian, geeky, liberal arts grads with names beginning with J are in the industry. This is fantastic for me since it makes for wonderful editor lunches and colleagues who are a pleasure to work with.
The first time I gave a talk, in addition to fearing the requisite tomatoes (though in retrospect, heirloom tomatoes are too expensive to throw in NYC), I was so worried someone would stand up and say, “I’m a rocket scientist. Who are you to reject my book about rocket science?”
But I soon found, much to my pleasure, that speaking about my experiences in the industry was enough to please audiences. I developed pie charts and line graphs and have been appreciated, I think, for attaching numbers to the things everyone talks about. Agents get a lot of queries and reject a lot. Okay—how many in how many days and for what reasons? That sort of thing.
Age isn’t really an issue. Some people come into the industry later in life, too. Life experience is valuable, of course, but so is time spent in the industry. I’ve found myself absorbing more information than I thought possible just by being around intelligent people in the business. I started as an intern in 2004, so I’ve spent a lot of time listening.
WOW: Do you write or are you one of those literary souls with a genuinely good eye for excellent writing and a knack to identify what will sell?
Jessica: I write surreal short stories in the Amy Hempel/Aimee Bender vein, but I’ve always been an omnivorous reader. I actually remember running around my childhood living room, having come home from kindergarten, yelling, “I can read! I can read! I can read!” and terrifying the cat. I really believe that if you spend enough time learning about and discussing what you love, you eventually learn to spot the best of the best.
WOW: Platform is beat into our heads online, in writing magazines, and at conference after conference. While we’d love to approach you with a household name, authors find self-promotion horrendously scary and foreign. How much does platform impact your decision to ask for a full manuscript? To sign with an author?
Jessica: I’ll tell you a secret: I have a Twitter feed for one of my pen names, and I’m utterly terrified to use it. I tweet constantly as “myself,” which is so much easier. Some writers just have bold ideas and magnetic personalities, and that draws followers.
In terms of fiction, platform isn’t an issue for me, unless you have direct experience with something unusual: maybe you’re writing crime fiction and you are/were a police officer. (Sometimes I meet people in fantastic roles like this and ask them if they’d consider writing fiction.)
For nonfiction, however, platform is terribly important. What you need depends on the book, what’s already out there, the market for your subject, and what will make an editor and reader consider you an expert.
I’d never take on a book I don’t like because the writer has an amazing platform. However, I’ve definitely thought about pursuing writers I’ve read about, having noted they possessed a lot of experience. The difficulty there is finding someone with the time, inclination, and ability to write a great book.
“I don’t reject people for taking too long to send their work to me!”
WOW: Let’s say you meet an author at a conference and find her/him interesting, then read a chapter of their manuscript and want more. How long does that author have to get those additional chapters or full manuscript to you before the offer is off the table?
Jessica: I don’t reject people for taking too long to send their work to me! I prefer to receive it soon, however—while I still remember why I asked for it. I love making a request in the morning and having the manuscript by afternoon—but this is more me as an eager reader than having deadlines as an agent.
Also, I tend to request fulls, not partials, after seeing the query plus first ten pages. This is so that I don’t reach page fifty (often a cliffhanger) and have to wait impatiently while the writer sends the rest—again for reader-ly reasons, not agent concerns.
WOW: Let’s say we pitch you cold turkey without a previous connection. What are obvious mistakes we can avoid as fledgling, unpublished writers? What can we do to capture your eye in a query letter?
Jessica: Put something in the first line of your query that proves you know who I am, what I’m looking for, and that you’re a pleasant human being who isn’t simply CC’ing every agent in publishing.
I easily forgive tiny mistakes if the overall voice is wonderful.
I’m a huge fan of varied sentence rhythm, advanced punctuation used correctly, and a general sense of writerliness. Many writers hurt their chances by trying so hard to be formal that they end up sounding stiff and voiceless. Instead, think book jacket copy. Your query’s primary purpose is to get me to read more.
WOW: When authors pitch via e-mail to a slush pile, do assistants and interns cull submissions before the agent becomes involved? How are they trained to recognize the diamonds in the mix?
Jessica: Nope. I read all of the queries myself. It’s faster and less confusing, plus I’m a bit of a control freak. We receive too many (fifty plus a day) to keep tabs on who’s read what.
In terms of manuscripts, yes, I do have readers, but I still read each one myself. It’s such a subjective business—I want another opinion when I love or hate something. It’s also helpful to have someone say, “Jessica, you should really look at this.” I like to be the first agent to make an offer, and getting to the best work first requires a lot of help.
WOW: Describe turn-offs you’ve experienced in either pitches or meetings with authors.
Jessica: The worst is when writers are frustrated and take it out on me. Some people come from a place of, “Here’s another agent to reject me—gosh, I hate her already,” when it really should be, “Here’s someone who might understand my work and help make it better.”
I find it hard to associate positive feelings with such writers. One actually said, “You don’t have to blow smoke up my [redacted] if you’re not interested,” which shocked me, the cynical New Yorker, when I asked to see more of her work. Would a dating manual advise you to say, “I know you don’t want to,” when asked on a second date? No. It’s the same thing.
The standard rules of getting to know someone, and getting someone to like you back, apply when searching for an agent. We’re seeking long-term commitments. Sometimes we’re not 100 percent sure about taking on a project—and your pleasantness or attitude can make the difference.
“Yelling across rooms is rare. We’re usually quite civilized, but we keep our ears open and help people interested in the same needs meet.”
WOW: How do you keep up with what editors want?
Jessica: There are many, many events in the industry to help agents find editors with similar interests. Editors are delightful—smart, savvy, pleasant, well-read—and I love talking with them about their personal tastes. I was at an event recently where an editor stood up and, because she wanted a book like this so badly, yelled across the bar: “I want gothic YA! Does anyone have gothic YA?” Several agents came up to her after that.
Yelling across rooms is rare. We’re usually quite civilized, but we keep our ears open and help people interested in the same needs meet.
We hear from our agent friends about editor tastes, too. And if we really get into a jam, we can approach our friends at each publishing house and ask, “Hey, I have a project that’s ________. Who at your house is best?”
WOW: What do you worry about most when signing clients?
Jessica: The last thing I want to hear from an editor is, “So your client has thrown a tantrum/walked out of a reading/tackled a photographer/set the local B&N on fire. What shall we do?”
I need to trust clients to conduct themselves in a professional manner—on and off the page. This is why we need to know you as people; so we can trust that when you present yourself, you’ll do well.
This isn’t to say that I expect all writers to be natural public speakers. It’s certainly a bonus—but it’s also a skill that can, with practice, be learned.
WOW: If a debut author self-publishes, what would entice you to represent him/her? What would he/she have to accomplish to rank high on your radar?
Jessica: I’ve actually offered to write the equivalent of “please excuse my daughter from P.E. today” notes to writers whose families insist that they need only to hit upload to become the next Amanda Hocking. Don’t they realize that if it was that easy, everyone would be doing it?
The problem with self-publishing before you’re ready—if traditional publishing is the ultimate goal—is that most writers don’t have the resources available to them to reach the sales figures that grab our attention.
Some people say five thousand copies is the magic number; some say ten thousand. But if you self-publish and only sell fifty copies, publishers may see your book as a failed experiment. It’s unfair, but often true.
“Some agents say that editorial work isn’t their job. I, however, love it . . .”
WOW: What makes for a good agent/author relationship? While doing so, describe the perfect client.
Jessica: I’ll give you a recent example. One of my clients recently came to me with an idea, two characters, a setting, and a scene. Together we turned it into a novel that is a thousand times better than where she started. We spent hours brainstorming on the phone, going back and forth via e-mail. We must have had eight or nine rounds of revision with me going through the full manuscript and sending back notes. I knew it could be phenomenal, so I pushed her until it reached its potential.
And I loved every minute of it.
Some agents say that editorial work isn’t their job. I, however, love it—assuming I have a clear vision of where the work should go and that the writer and I collaborate well together.
So my ideal client is not only hardworking, talented, creative, on the same wavelength, pleasant to talk to, and capable of taking my ideas and running with them—but also someone who has an enormous amount of patience (not wanting to send something out before it’s ready), kindness, and an upbeat personality.
WOW: What trends in the industry catch your attention these days? Will any of those trends alter how you do business?
Jessica: I’m delighted to report that, at a recent event, at least three editors told me that realistic teen fiction is the next big thing.
I am, frankly, delighted. We’ve been hearing for years that the pendulum would swing in this direction. I’m so glad that it finally has.
WOW: Any last words for writers?
Jessica: Write what you love, not to the trends. Read what you love, especially in your genre. Remember that agents are—behind the business casual and propensity for sending rejections—people. I like to engage with writers on a human level and hope they’ll do the same with me.
WOW: Thank you, Jessica, for a humorous and informative look at literary agents. I’m sure many of our readers will find this information extremely useful as they look for an agent this year!
Queries, however, should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org and should consist of a query and the first ten pages in the body of the e-mail.
C. Hope Clark is author of Lowcountry Bribe, the debut book in The Carolina Slade Mystery Series, published by Bell Bridge Books, February 2012. Her second release, Tidewater Murder, is expected in early 2013. Hope is also editor of FundsforWriters.com, selected by Writer’s Digest for its 101 Best Websites for Writers.
Visit her website at: www.chopeclark.com