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Interview – Sarah Davies

Sarah Davies 5Today is a good one, guys. No, a great one. I have one of the most amazing literary agents on the site today and we talk about it all: hybrid authors, hybrid agents, querying, digital publishing, changes to publishing. This woman really needs no introduction, as I’m sure all the writers out there reading this have, at one point, been to her fabulous blog and the book lovers reading this interview have, at one point, picked up a story by one of her fabulous authors. But just because they are so impressive and I love reading them, here are agent Sarah Davies’ vital statistics:

Sarah Davies founded the Greenhouse Literary Agency and is head of the agency.  She created the business after moving to the USA from England in 2007, following a long career as a senior UK children’s publisher.

As a publisher, Sarah worked with many high-profile writers on both sides of the Atlantic. As an agent she has shepherded many debut authors to success. She has considerable experience in contract negotiation, marketing and rights, as well as a strong understanding of digital developments. Excellent publishing contacts in both the USA and Britain, and homes in both countries, have given her an unusually transatlantic view of the children’s books industry, from both sides of the desk. A member of AAR and SCBWI, Sarah is an experienced speaker on children’s books and creative writing and attends many writers’ and book-trade events throughout the year.

So, are you ready? Without further ado, here is agent Sarah Davies. Enjoy!

Hi Sarah! Thanks so much for being on the site today. Okay, let’s just dive right in. You have an incredible roster of authors and have sold some amazing books to some amazing publishing houses. Your track record is impeccable and it’s not because of luck! You’re obviously awesome at what you do! Where did this business savvy come from? How do you nurture it? And with publishing changing so much, how do you make sure your info always stays relevant?

Thanks for your kind words! I feel my life and work as an agent have been hugely enriched by the many years I spent as a publisher in London before I came to the US, crossed the desk to become an agent, and launched Greenhouse.  In my publishing career I was part of a management team that ran a large and successful division, I worked with countless authors (both established and debut), and had seen all sides of the industry in depth before I ever actually represented my first client. All that was invaluable experience, and it’s helped me with every piece of decision-making as Greenhouse has grown.   Having worked with many literary agents from the publisher perspective, I also had a clear ‘road map’ in my mind of what I hoped to achieve, and how I would do it. I think every organization has a ‘culture’, and I chose the name Greenhouse because it represented both the goals and style I sought.

How to stay relevant? Of course, I’m always reading articles, industry news, and talking to colleagues within the business. I’m also at trade events such as BEA and the Bologna Book Fair, which is so useful in maintaining an international perspective. However, my guiding star is that the fundamentals don’t change. This business is still about finding a great story, well told, skilfully crafted, emotionally resonant. I think we can get a bit bamboozled by all the ‘change’ we hear about.  Truth is, the heart of it all stays the same.

Well said. 🙂 In your bio, it states that you have a strong understanding of digital developments. One new thing to come out of the changing, developing world of publishing is the hybrid author, someone who publishes both traditionally and on their own. So firstly, how do you feel about the role of a hybrid author? Is there a place on your list for an author who has self-published?

Yes! I’m all in favour of authors making the most of opportunities to build their profile and increase their earnings through writing, and we represent several who have both self-publishing and traditional sides to their work (for diverse reasons). Of course there are provisos within that: it’s vital for all sides to communicate, for strategy to be agreed and make sense for the author’s long-term benefit. And existing contracts need to be checked for any restrictions on competing works or options. Before we go into a contract I like to ask an author about their long-term plans (as much as they’re known at that point) so we can try to tailor some clauses around that. It’s much easier to have that early overview, if at all possible, and carve out maximum flexibility for whatever that author might subsequently want to do.

One of your colleagues, the wonderful Kristin Nelson, has not only talked about hybrid authors, but hybrid agents as well. What do you think the role of an agent is nowadays? I imagine some people believe the bottom line of any agent is to sell great stories, but I know so much more goes into the job. There’s contract negotiation, rights management, career guidance…the list goes on and on. 

Yes, agents are hybrid creatures, and it’s hard to know even where to start in enumerating the different things we do.  I love agenting because it draws on every aspect of my experience, skills, business knowledge, understanding of people, and sources of inspiration. You probably can’t say that about many jobs!

The role of an agent? For me, initially, it’s about being both a talent spotter and a talent developer. But as the relationship grows it’s also about walking with each author down a long and twisty road towards the goal of becoming an established, selling, earning writer, who is able to make a consistent living (at whatever level) doing the thing they love most. Within that, there are many challenges, diversions, decisions and small pieces of strategy, and my job is to build the mosaic that will hopefully lead to success. Mediating, interpreting, between author and publisher is a big part of what we do.

You’ve been in the business for many years, first as a publisher in the UK, then as an agent in the US. I’m sure you’ve seen it all! There’s no doubt that some big changes have happened and will continue to happen. But as someone in the trenches, who is up close and personal with it all, what sort of change would you still like to see happen?

You ask good questions! Probably the biggest lament authors have is a) lack of communication/ responsiveness from editors because they’re so stretched, and b) lack of support in marketing and publicity. I’d love to see editors freed up more to do what they do best, and I’d love to see a clear and well-communicated plan behind every book that is acquired.

I’d also like to see more staff in publisher contracts departments. For some reason these are always understaffed, which can lead to long delays. I think every agent in the land would back me on that! Let’s hear it for the valiant contracts experts. Not a glamorous job, but totally crucial.

(As you can see, I’m focusing here on the ‘up close and personal’ stuff, rather than the macro of change within the industry.  These grass-roots things affect authors every day.)

Okay, let’s switch gears! You recently did an interview back in March and talked about what’s on your wish list for queries. I love your answer! You mention finding something with a strong voice and a great idea. I’m sure every writer would like to believe they have those elements in their writing. But what are some characteristics of a strong voice for you? 

Voice is such an elusive subject; we could discuss it for hours and still not nail it down. I’ll try, though.

Voice is the means by which your story is delivered; the filter through which the reader absorbs it. And that story can be received very differently according to the voice used. I know this because I sing (I used to have a band and also performed a lot a capella; now I sing in a choir). I could sing you the same song in distinct ways and you would absorb and interpret the meaning of that song differently in each case. Voice isn’t an ‘add on’; in many ways it is part of the story.

I believe that voice is music. I suggest we train ourselves to hear the cadences of language – to develop our ‘ear’ for what words and phrases are doing aurally as well as visually. I can tell almost immediately, in a few lines, if a new writer has a voice. It’s one of the most potent factors in deciding whether or not to offer representation. So often the voice, the tone, feels stiff and a bit pedestrian. What is the solution? I think reading widely, being exposed to a variety of voices, and asking ourselves how and why they work. Experimenting a little and reading aloud.

What are the characteristics of a strong voice? Being appropriate to, and reflective of, the story, character, place and time you are evoking. Flow, pace, and choosing words and phrases with intention. Developing a feel for the arresting use of language, without overwriting or being gimmicky. Perhaps being brave and stretching stylistically. What’s the worst that can happen?

I love that answer! I’ve always thought the same thing. Writing is like music! Okay, on your great website, you have a list of things you bring to the table for an author who signs with you. You mention, among other awesome things, “A creative and trusted sounding board on editorial issues with deep understanding of a writer’s craft, and with the skill and experience to help shape your work to submission point, where necessary.” When you take on a client, what is your editorial process like? Do you focus on the major (character development, plot, pacing) the minor (line edits) or both?

It all depends on what I think that manuscript needs, and everyone is different. Very occasionally I’ve put a manuscript on submission with no editorial work at all – but that’s rare. My goal is not only to sell the work, but to sell it as well as possible, and in order to achieve that I am always eager to see if we can raise the bar a little; to push the author to find their very best work. Sometimes even beyond what they thought they could do.

My first read tends to be on e-reader (and quite fast since we’re regularly in competitive situations with other agents). That will tell me something about the work we might do. Once I’ve signed the client I always print out the manuscript and read it again. This read is very different and done with pencil in hand. I’m looking to see if the structure works, if the arc is sound and satisfying, if the stakes are high enough, and if the whole thing hangs together. Could it be stronger? Is there something that jars?  I’m not the publisher of this book, the end vision won’t be mine, but I’m trying to approach the manuscript with an editor’s mindset; what are editors likely to say when they read it? Can we preempt any issues? An editor may have ten manuscripts on their e-readers at any one time; I need to be sure my client’s will stand out for its quality and crafting. Sometimes we do major revisions, sometimes it’s more about tweaking.

Ultimately I care about both the macro and the micro. Before I go on submission I correct typos and even punctuation. I have this crazy notion that if I am rigorous, perfectionist and caring, I can leave the ultimate result to destiny. I like to go on submission with both my author and I knowing there was no more we could have done. That way we have peace, whatever happens.

You’ve worked on some amazing books as an agent! I especially love Brenna Yovanoff. What are some things an author can do in terms of editing his or her manuscript before they query you? What can they do to make their story as strong as possible?

So many submissions I see are done too fast. Query letters with typos, pages that need more attention. My advice would be: take your time. Find the trusted critique partners (those already published can be best of all, because they’ve been through the process), workshop parts of the manuscript. Ask yourself challenging questions about the story and characters (and everything else). Be willing to (oh horrors!) start again, if necessary. I’m a big believer in rewriting rather than just tweaking; that way you can pull in, more naturally, all the new ideas and observations you’ve had since the last draft.

Be rigorous with yourself about detail. Spelling, punctuation, formatting all matter. Have you chosen every word and phrase with a clear purpose?

I always recommend doing one more read through than you think you need. Most manuscripts I see would benefit from that eagle-eyed final read. Even better if you’ve had a break of a week or two and then come back to it afresh. Be honest with yourself. If there’s something niggling you, then take care of it before you go on sub.

You have a pretty large list of clients. Do you ever think you’ll be closed to queries? 

Well, of course not all the authors you see on the Greenhouse website are repped by me! My agent colleagues John Cusick (US) and Polly Nolan (UK) are building their client lists too.

I am proud of the fact that we’ve never closed to queries (other than for short vacations or Christmas) in six years. And that every query gets a reply (unless the query’s rude or manifestly not for us because of genre etc, and even then we often relent and reply!).

It’s hard to say if I’ll personally ever close to queries. I like to think I’ll always have room for someone whose writing really lights my fire. And of course, not all my clients are active in the same ways at the same time; there are periods of quiet when authors are plotting or writing. At any one time there’s usually a small group who are dominating my time, and that group ebbs and flows from week to week according to where we’re at with manuscripts and the publishing process.  My goal is to remain very responsive.  If that were to change, I would think again about putting up the shutters for a while.

You often talk about the international sides of the business. Why do you think that is important and is it possible to write with potential sales to other countries in mind?

One of Greenhouse’s mottos is “The world is our marketplace”. Coming from a UK and European background that is easy for me to see because I am regularly in touch with the industry in other parts of the world. Not all books will sell in all markets – many will indeed only sell in North America – but there can be much value (both financial and in profile terms) if deals can be done for your work in other countries.

Foreign rights are very important for us. My agent colleague Polly Nolan is in London, building her own client list but also representing my clients on any manuscripts which we feel have ‘legs’ to sell in the UK/Commonwealth market. And vice versa. Our sister company Rights People is all about selling translation rights and they are the best at what they do. It’s one of the huge pluses of Greenhouse that we are so closely related to Rights People and have fantastic access to their knowledge, skills and preeminence within the international industry.

Can you write with other countries in mind? Tricky, I think. I always feel writing with one eye on the market risks compromising your approach to the story you really want to tell. I’d always advise authors to write the book that’s burning within them, whatever that may be. Then we can work out the best place to sell it.

Sarah, your answers have been so awesome! Now for the last question! And since I can’t ever leave an interview without asking for advice: Your motto at Greenhouse (which I love) is to nurture and grow the talent of exceptional writers. What is your best advice to authors whenever they’re having a tough time, facing rejection, and not really feeling the love anymore? 

If you are going to be a writer, I guarantee you will experience those lean times – even if you are successful.  The publishing business is a rollercoaster. It can throw you about from giddy heights to depths of rejection and defeat. The question is, how will you deal with that?

Firstly, know and expect that the path will be twisty and hard. Yep, we signed up to the rollercoaster so we’d better ride it! To quote the cliché: ‘If it were easy, everyone would be doing it’. Writing is terribly hard, so you need strategies. I’m a great believer in having as rich and varied a life as possible. Remember that even though writing is important, it isn’t everything. Cultivate interests and joy wherever they may lie, so you have good stuff in your head to draw upon.

Secondly, make good friends in the business who can support you. Who can you call and have a laugh with when things look bleak? A glass of wine and a good vent with buddies who understand can work wonders.

Thirdly, try to stay balanced. Balanced people with a sense of humour tend to ride the rollercoaster more easily, and bounce back faster.  Different people with different outlooks deal with identical situations in amazingly different ways. If, like me, you tend to be intense -if you tend towards melancholy – find the outlets that help you. I’ve really been helped by running – and playing my ukulele. It’s hard to feel too down when you’re strumming a ukulele!


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