Saturday, August 2, 2014

What Hooks Me: Sarah Davies & Erin Murphy

Sarah Davies
Sarah Davies is the founding agent at The Greenhouse Literary Agency, which has bases in the USA and the UK. She worked as a publisher for many years before founding Greenhouse. Meg Cabot, Karen Cushman, and Judy Blume are among the authors she published. Her agency clients include Lindsey Leavitt, Kat Yeh, and Sarwat Chadda.

The agency represents the range from picture books through YA, and Sarah has a special focus on MG and YA. Her agency philosophy is summed up in the name: It's a place where writers grow.
Erin Murphy

Erin Murphy is the founder of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, which is based in Arizona but also has offices in Seattle. After working at Northland Publishing/Rising Moon Books for Young Readers, Erin founded her agency in 1999. The bestseller Robin LaFevers is among her clients.

The agency covers everything from PBs through YA, and tends to prefer lasting classics over trendier works. EMLA is legendary in the business for the close relationships clients enjoy, with an annual retreat that generates potentially dangerous levels of fun.

What do you look for? 

Erin Murphy: I look for authenticity, both in the author and the work. She likes characters that feel true. "You can't feel the hand of the author pushing them around on the page."

Sarah Davies:  She's hooked by ambitious writers. "And I'm not talking her about money and deals, much as we love them." She wants writers to crave mastering the craft, who have a big idea even if it might not pay off. She likes experimentation with structure. She's also an editorial agent who works with writers to get their work ready.

"I just love people who work hard," she said.

 What would you like to see or not see in a cover letter? 
Erin Murphy: She wants to see where you are in your career. She wants to get the sense that you've been at this for awhile, and how you're evolving.

Sarah Davies: The sole purpose of the query letter is to point the way to the writing. Keep it below a page, and keep your pitch below three paragraphs. Two is better. Make it intriguing, and make the reader want to go on and read the story. "But it's all about the writing that follows."

How do you see your role when you take on a client? 

Erin Murphy: Revision is as important a skill as writing. She often asks people to revise before she'll take them on as a client. If she doesn't know they can revise, she can't talk them up to editors.

Sarah Davies: She does a lot of work with her clients on their manuscripts. "If the bar can be raised, then I will do whatever I can do help that author get there."

Is it better to work with one publisher? 

Erin Murphy: If you're doing a book every few years, it makes sense to stick with one house and build that relationship. If you're a picture book author, you might publish with more houses, especially if you are prolific (which many picture book authors are).

Sarah Davies: Publishing contracts sometimes have limitations that determine this. Publishers want to make sure authors aren't overexposed, and they want to make sure authors aren't selling similar books to different houses. She likes knowing what clients are working on to make sure they're not hamstrung by contracts.

What doesn't hook you? What makes you cringe? 

Erin Murphy: If you're in prison, don't submit to her. Also, if a project is presented with outsize ambitions and celebrity dreams, that's a flag. "Your ambition should be about you growing as a writer or an illustrator."

Sarah Davies: She doesn't like cut and paste queries. She also sees the same beginnings again and again. Particularly prologues—prologues with car crashes. Then Chapter 1 is different in tone, and it starts with the character getting out of bed. In any given day, a third of her submissions start that way. She likes to be surprised. She likes fresh language and different ways to get into stories.

What's the children's publishing landscape look like today? 

Erin Murphy: Children's books are a bit insulated from some of the changes in publishing, because it's still about getting books into kids' hands. Everyone in the business cares most about story.

Sarah Davies: Her agency is having great year. The last two or three years, she's been a lot about YA. This year, she's done really well with middle grade. The international marketplace is improving slightly as some countries come out of recession.

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