Flashback Friday | Stephen Barbara
I’ve been so lucky in my life to not only meet amazing people, but question them and learn from them. I’ve been able to amass a pretty large catalogue of interviews because of their generosity and they have really helped me get my foot in many different doors. So first, to all the people who have been gracious enough to give me their time and patience, thank you!
I’ve created the Flashback Friday series to show these interviews and reviews. They’ve been locked away in my archives but now it’s time to share them. I hope you enjoy this look back on the articles that got me started and introduced me to some of my best friends. Enjoy!
PS. The information in this interview is dated and may not be accurate anymore. If you are thinking of querying Mr. Barbara or any agent/editor on my Flashback Friday series, please find more current information.
Sometimes, it’s all about who you know…or in this case, who you work for. Stephen Barbara works at the Donald Maass agency, one of the most reputable firms in the business. I figure anyone who works there has got to be smart, savvy, loves books, and is incredibly driven and determined. Stephen did not disappoint.
Stephen’s working at the Maass Agency might have been what first attracted me, but I stayed interested because Stephen is such an incredible agent. In fact, as I read some of his previous interviews, I was blown away by his professionalism and knowledge and all around view of the literary world.
Plus, when I had mentioned to a few authors that perhaps I’d like to query some agents and ask if they’d want to participate in this series, they were all quick to point out his name. “You’ve got to interview this guy…Stephen Barbara. He’s fantastic. He gets back to you real fast.” I heard several variations of those comments several times and realized that, yes, Stephen Barbara is someone I really need to interview. So I did.
After a few email exchanges, the questions and answers were exchanged and now here he is: agent extraordinaire! Stephen B!
In an interview with Almafullerton.com, you stated 2006 was your first full year as an agent. What do you feel has changed most in publishing in those 2 years?
SB: The biggest change from my point of view has been with the internet. In 2006 it was still interesting for an agent to have a blog, or to post on a writers forum or to create a profile on a social networking site. It was something different. Now the internet is crawling with agents.
I think it’s safe to say, both for agents and writers, that the web no longer represents a special opportunity. It’s become the norm – a basic requirement.
You represent YA and Middle Grade but also select adult fiction. So I wonder: why do you think there’s such huge cross-over appeal with the YA market now? Teens aren’t the only people reading Twilight, Harry Potter, Eragon, etc.
SB: One reason is that Teen is now a separate section in most bookstores. That’s big. A lot of adults wouldn’t want to be seen browsing books in the same area where you would find picture and chapter books, but when the teen books are isolated the stigma disappears. It’s Ok to be seen there. Teen books are cool.
There are other reasons. If you look at American culture now, there’s a tremendous worship of youth – my mother complains there are no people on TV her age anymore. Increasingly we want to watch and read about and listen to youthful characters. And I think that can be seen in the cross-over phenomenon.
The trick of the writer is to make it effortless. To have a person feel as if they’re inside the words, not reading lines. So my first question is: can that kind of effortless narrative be taught? Or is that what separates the great writers from the wonderful writers?
SB: I don’t know if a teacher will give it to you, but you can work at having a natural style. Anything that looks simple and easy is usually the result of enormous labor and practice. There’s that great Pascal quote: “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.”
Secondly, as an agent, it’s your job to read between the lines, see the marketability of a book, see its flaws, see the ways it can be better. I’ve always been curious: when reading a client’s finished work, can you enjoy their story for what it’s become, or do you too clearly remember the work behind it?
SB: If I’ve taken a break from a story, I can see it with fresh eyes. I worked a lot with my client Jack D. Ferraiolo on THE BIG SPLASH before the submission went out. On a plane ride back from L.A. recently, I read it in galleys and found it amazing. Just terrific. It was like coming to it for the first time. It was good to take a break so that I wasn’t bogged down in the details of the revisions process.
Speaking of clients, you do a lot of career planning and management with your authors. What are some words of encouragement you give them when they’re having a difficult time with a plot line or just can’t seem to get their ideas on paper?
SB: Each client is different. With Lynne Jonell, we have a joke that when I call her I have to tell her she’s brilliant. If I don’t use that word, ‘brilliant’, I actually get in trouble. And there are other things you do. Sometimes you might brainstorm with clients a bit, let them bounce ideas off you until you hit on something fresh.
What has been a highlight of your career so far?
SB: Hard to say. There are so many good days. Publishing gives you this interesting life which you wouldn’t have anywhere else.
Between negotiating contracts, reviewing contracts, editing, drafting letters etc., your job is very demanding of your time. There’s a lot to do. So when do you decide it’s time to add on more work and delve into your slush pile?
SB: I try to look at the incoming queries the same day or week they come in. It’s hugely time-consuming but it’s the only way. If you wait three months to respond to your queries you’re doing archaeology – all the best queries are gone by then, snapped up by faster agents.
You work at the Donald Maass agency. (An agency I will certainly query when my manuscript is ready!) Obviously, you love the written word. Do you have any plans to follow in Mr. Maass’ footsteps and write a How-To book, or even a fiction book?
SB: I’m quite happy to leave the writing to my clients. My life is this kind of joyful immersion in what my clients and others are doing. That’s the real thrill for me, to be surrounded by talented people doing new and exciting things and to have a role in their success. That’s ambition enough for me.
Finally Stephen, the author-agent relationship is extremely important. What can an author expect from being represented by you?
SB: A good partner in the publishing process: responsive, on the ball, a strong negotiator with good contacts and a highly reputable agency behind me. I hope that doesn’t sound like so much bragging!