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Publisher Interviews: Sarah Davies, Greenhouse Literary Agency

In our Publishing Interviews Series, Michelle Schusterman temporarily steals the mic from Kody Keplinger and sits down with with Sarah Davies, agent, editor, photographer, and lover of good cheese.

Most of your career has been in children's publishing. What made you decide to make the switch from editor to agent?

I had been a publisher all my working life, straight from university, making my way up the editorial ladder. I joined Macmillan Children’s Books in London in 1994 as Fiction Editor and around 2003 became Publishing Director, managing a team of about 20 editors publishing everything from preschool books through sophisticated YA fiction under the YPicador imprint, which I helped to create. I was also on the management board. In this position you don’t have so much time for authors and editing; you spend all your time in meetings.

While I loved so much about my job, I knew I was approaching a major life-change. I was being interviewed for big corporate publishing jobs; it was very flattering, but deep down I knew I wanted to do something more entrepreneurial, more creative, and where I could use every ounce of the experience I had gained throughout my career in a way that would more personally impact writers. I wanted to be free of the corporate straightjacket and create something that had a personality all its own.

I loved editing, shaping and developing stories. I loved negotiating and doing deals. When I was offered the possibility of starting a US and UK agency, with a strong back-office staff covering finance, legal, tax etc, I knew it was too good an opportunity to miss. I could become the sort of agent with whom, as a publisher, I’d have liked to work! I am passionate about discovering writers and helping them to grow – that was why I named the agency Greenhouse.

Oh, and did I mention I was engaged to marry an American?

That wasn't the only change; you also moved from the U.K. to the U.S. How would you say the two markets compare right now in regards to YA and MG fiction? Are editors looking for anything specific on either side of the pond?

Huge question; I’ll try to make it brief! The two markets probably overlap more now than they ever have thanks to the global nature of the industry, the power of the web, the speed of international scouts always seeking the Next Big Thing. And the fact that commercially powerful authors like J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Philip Pullman, Suzanne Collins, Rick Riordan, Darren Shan etc have turned the world’s and media’s eyes on children’s/YA fiction as never before. The biggest properties therefore tend to be big in many different markets.

While there is strong overlap between US and UK – particularly in the less culturally specific genres like fantasy, dystopia, dark thrillers – there are also many differences. Sometimes an author’s voice just doesn’t work in the other market. Kate diCamillo is published in the UK, but sales are small. Jacqueline Wilson is one of the UK’s biggest authors, yet hasn’t ever ‘hit’ in the USA. Neither author quite feels accessible to the other side of the Pond; there’s something culturally alien and dissonant in tone.

Stories with school settings feel unfamiliar in the younger age ranges (US and UK have very different systems), though can be aspirationally exciting to teens (what British schoolgirl hasn’t dreamed of their own American-style prom. In fact, they now have proms on the US model!). Certain sports just don’t bridge the gap (Brits don’t get baseball or American football), and lots of history doesn’t travel.

Generally, everyone wants the big-hitting, thrilling stories. Work that is conceptually strong and very original, though the UK is probably a year or two behind the US in terms of paranormal, and YA has only quite recently broken out of its long-term doldrums. There is still far less space for YA on UK shelves than is the case in the YA-dominated USA, and I think the biggest market in the UK will always be the 8-12 range.

Probably more UK fiction still gets published in the US than vice versa, though that has shifted a bit of late thanks to the great YA pouring out of the US. Many American agents find the UK market baffling, so it’s very helpful that I’m ‘bilingual’!

Greenhouse prides itself on being a "transatlantic" agency - what exactly does that mean for potential clients?

The English-speaking world (in publishing contracts) is usually made up of a) North America and b) UK/Commonwealth. Regular US agencies will call the UK/Commonwealth ‘foreign’, but to Greenhouse it is all part of our domestic market, and we take the same commission as for North America. If you have an international kind of book, that is going to be good news because UK/Comm is likely to be your second biggest market.

More importantly, we have a deep knowledge of both markets, and offices in both countries. This means we can you represent you equally well in both. We have done a number of major transatlantic deals (a few simultaneously in both markets) and have been successful in finding UK homes for some US books which I don’t believe most agencies would have placed. We’ve done that by literally putting the manuscript into the hand of just that right editor at the right time. And we can do that because we know them personally.

I still represent a number of British authors, but since 2009 my colleague Julia Churchill has been building the UK side of our client list. She is based in London, but we talk and email constantly and meet every couple of months. We have an amazing broadband telephone, which we call the Batphone!

I think it's safe to say you're an editorial agent! When considering whether or not to take on a client, how do you decide when a manuscript is not for you, a revise and resubmit, or something you want to sign right away?

Good question! It’s a combination of gut feeling and prevailing circumstances. The easy ones are those I recognize instantly as NOT FOR ME or WOW, I LOVE IT! And then there are the tricky ones in the middle. I have taken some big risks by signing people who I knew needed to rewrite completely (with direction) – and we’ve had some incredible successes that way.

For preference, I would rather a writer does their revision/rewriting before I sign them, because some people are amazing at revision and others find it much harder or are on a massive learning curve. It’s tough to know what manuscript you are going to get at the end of a long editorial process, and I don’t want to raise hopes that can’t be fulfilled. However, the intense competition among agents these days for the best new talent often means a fast and clear decision. We back a hunch and then give that individual every support.

I tend to ‘leap’ when I can see evidence of a great voice and concept; when there’s something in the story that calls out to me. Plot we can work with, but voice is much harder to create if it’s not there.

I get concerned when there’s tons of hoopla surrounding a writer signing with an agent. I know it’s a really big thing for an author, but it’s the publishing deal that is the main event – that’s when we open the champagne, send up the balloons, and get on Facebook.

Different agencies build different types of relationships with their clients. What kind of relationship do you go for with your authors in terms of communication and support?

Look, the writing life is very hard at times – don’t be fooled by those who make it sound effortless. I’ve spent my whole adult life working with writers, and I know how they think and feel. The anxieties, the isolation, the successes that make any fall even harder. The revisions that you’ve waited months for, which finally arrive in the middle of a precious vacation. Will I get the deal? Why is the contract so slow in coming? Why doesn’t my editor call me? Can I really revise for the FIFTH time? Will it SELL? And then I’ve got to write ANOTHER ONE . . . . . . .

Really, I’ve seen it all. And that has given me a very special concern and empathy for authors. Because of that, I try to be very speedy and frequent with communication, both by phone and email. And that’s true wherever I am in the world. I have called authors from Italy, rescued them from the brink of despair at midnight, and even carried out an auction from the battlements of the Tower of London on my son’s birthday . . . . We are fast, kind, empathetic and tenacious on behalf of clients, and that’s the kind of relationship I believe in. OK, in truth we work like crazy and are warriors on behalf of our writers.

We also try hard to foster friendships between our authors – often they can help each other in ways that I can’t, whether it’s with contacts, tech advice, revision techniques etc. After all, everyone is going through a similar process and many of the experiences and emotions are shared. There’s a great generosity of spirit among our clients – they want the best for each other, and I am so happy about that. It’s great to see Americans and Brits making friends with each other too – and now we even have our first Africa-based author.

Is there anything in a query or manuscript that would be a complete deal breaker - certain cliches, frightening word counts, any pet peeves?

The only real ‘deal breaker’ would be rudeness – thankfully I only experience that occasionally. A successful agent/author relationship will be one of mutual respect – it’s a collaboration of a wonderful kind, a shared journey. Your editor may leave, but your agent relationship should go on and on. The submission/offer process is a bit like dating – do you want to marry me? Do I want to marry you? Funny, but true! I see it like a professional friendship, and actually it works best if we like each other.

More literary no-no’s: Word counts over 100,000 makes me wince; most stories over that would be improved with cutting and tightening. Rambling queries without focus make me switch off, and queries where people tell me endlessly how wonderful they are make me roll my eyes (and reach for the delete key). Also, I shudder when I read submissions predicated on ‘teachable moments’ for children, whether to do with morality, race or the environment.

I see tons of stories that start with a) a protagonist waking up and eating breakfast b) moving house c) moving state or country – especially with characters moving from the US to Europe (either Britain or France). I also tend to be knee-deep in pounding hearts, shuddering spines, pulsating nerves – every body part imaginable to portray fear or emotion. Less can be more, guys!

You don’t need to go crazy and try to be ‘eye-catching’. Just write well. Create a cool, arresting and simple beginning that engages the reader.

Are there any specific genres in YA or MG that you're particularly interested in right now?

The greatest heat is still in the area of dark YA. Publishers have been going insane for dystopia, and now it’s a race to get there before every imprint has its dystopian epic. But moving past that, I’m really interested in clever-concept thrillers – ‘what if’ scary stories that grab you and don’t let go. I think this is where we’re headed post-dystopia.

Paranormal still has life, if it’s original in concept, with great writing. I’m also interested in love stories (if truly wonderful; SO hard to find!) and would love to find mysteries, in either YA or MG.

I adore great MG. Commercial, contemporary MG (cute and sassy) is proving difficult right now – there’s a lot out there – so it really has to fly conceptually. I’m not the only agent finding this area tricky. However, our beautifully voiced WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET by Tricia Springstubb (September/Balzer & Bray) is getting tons of librarian buzz - really exciting to watch it build. In tone it’s a cross between Kate diCamillo and Katherine Hannigan’s IDA B. I’d love to see more in that classic area, but it’s rare to find someone with the glorious lightness of touch and voice that Tricia has.

Five Real Fast (answer these as quick as you can without thinking!):

1. Dogs or cats? How can I answer that? Dogs: 2 – Dachshunds called Lucy and Sargie. Cats: 2 - black and black/white called Joey and Phoebe.

2. Best non-Greenhouse book you've read this year? MATCHED by Ally Condie. Loved it, and love the author whom I met at BEA.

3. Favorite hobby (other than reading)? Photography – black and white, landscapes, macro, shapes and abstracts. I can bore endlessly on aperture and shutter speed.

4. Preferred form of bribery? A perfect, juicy pear accompanied by a sharp, nutty hunk of Robusto cheese. Oh, and a whole day off, paddling downriver in a kayak – without my Blackberry.

5. Favorite city? Okay, that's evil of me. Favorite vacation destination? Italy and France. France and Italy. Interspersed with the wild, misty, ancient Welsh mountains of myth and magic - and a pair of worn hiking boots.

Thank you so much, Sarah!

Interested in querying Sarah Davies? Check out her submission guidelines.
Michelle Schusterman

Michelle writes books for kids, screenplays for a tv/film production company, and music for anyone who'd buy a "groove matters" bumper sticker. She lives in New York City with her husband (and band mate) and their chocolate lab (who is more of a vocalist). She is the author of middle grade series I Heart Band - 2014, and The Kat Sinclair Files - 2015 (both from Grosset).

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  1. Only after reading through this, copy and pasting, previewing, publishing, and reading a final time did I notice the cats names are Joey and Phoebe. And now I can't stop laughing.

  2. Great interview! Thanks Sarah and Michelle! (The cat names are awesome lol)

  3. fantastic interview :)

  4. Fantastic interview Michelle and Sarah!!

    Cat's names FTW!

  5. Love the cat names!!
    Great interview :) Thanks, Sarah and Michelle!


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Item Reviewed: Publisher Interviews: Sarah Davies, Greenhouse Literary Agency Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Michelle Schusterman