This week we are presenting the insights of our agents on querying and the publishing business in general. I am fortunate to be working with Michelle Brower, formerly of Folio Literary Management but now at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth. Michelle picked my novel out of the slush pile one snowy afternoon, and changed the course of my life. Working with her has been a joy. She has the instincts of an editor, the deftness of a politician, the empathy of a therapist, and the business acumen of a venture capitalist — the perfect recipe for a literary agent. In 2014, she gave the following interview to a former Deb, Heather Webb, and it remains one of our most revisited posts. I’m reposting it here in its entirety.
INTERVIEW WITH MICHELLE BROWER BY HEATHER WEBB
Today at The Debutante Ball, I’m thrilled to welcome my agent, Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management. Michelle and I met at a conference about two years ago in New York in a query session. A group of a dozen writers read aloud their queries and the two agents in our group (including Michelle) would talk to us about how they would improve upon them. It was a great workshop and, needless to say, turned out even better when Michelle asked to see pages on the spot! I signed with her about a month later and the rest is history.
There are many things I love about working with Michelle–she’s quick to respond to questions, warm and friendly, supportive, and an editorial agent with killer instincts. Also, one of the most important things to me is that we’re on the same page with the sort of books I love writing. When I’m uncertain about a particular pitch, we talk through them and voila! Magic happens.
Enough from me! Let’s here what she has to say about being a stupendous, successful literary agent.
What is the most difficult part of being an agent? The best part?
The most difficult part of being an agent is finding the time to read for pleasure, which is important to me in my profession and as a human being. There’s always a virtual stack of manuscripts that take precedence. But the best part is finding a new author that you really adore somewhere within that pile.
How many manuscripts do you read each year as compared to how many new clients you sign per year?
I probably read about 30-40 new manuscripts (or partial manuscripts) per year, and my assistant probably reads 50-60. And those don’t include manuscripts that I’m working on already, or option projects, or second books that are under contract. Out of those new manuscripts, I would say that I sign 2-4 of them per year. The numbers can be daunting, but I really am looking for those few new books that will get me excited about sending them out one day.
What is the element about a book that speaks to you most?
At my heart, I am a character person, but that is quickly followed by being a writing person. I need people to connect with (even if our connection is complicated) and I need words that make me look forward to reading each sentence. And third comes plot- I do love a sense of story, but that doesn’t mean much without the first two items on my list.
Are you more or less likely to sign a writer who has been published in the past?
Neither. I love authors who have been published previously if I feel I can add something new to what they are doing. Sometimes the first or second books don’t sell well, but if I think the third is fresh and I can spin it so that editors look at the material and not the track record, I’m happy to take that author on. I also love my debuts; those often take a little bit more editorial time and investment, but it’s lovely to present a new writer to the world. I’m like the escort to the ball.
Do agents hang out together and talk about “the author that got away”? Or the opposite–about a hideously inappropriate writer who may or may not need a straight jacket?
I hate to say that we gossip, but we gossip. It’s part of the job description. I’m very lucky to have many close agent friends, and we definitely learn from each other’s experiences. It’s good to have an agent support group for the highs and the lows.
How do you feel about in-person pitch sessions? (Most writers are completely terrified of them.)
I actually don’t love them. It’s so hard for me to make a decision about an author’s work without actually reading pages. I like to reframe pitch sessions as “let’s talk about your book” sessions. It takes some of the pressure off, and it allows me to give advice that the author can take with them even if I’m not the right agent for them.
What would be a dream project for you? In other words, what are you looking for this very minute?
I would love something that’s funny and emotional and quirky and insanely well-written, a la Where’d You Go Bernadette?