Elana Roth worked at Nickelodeon Magazine and spent nearly five years as an editor at book packager Parachute Publishing (where she worked on R.L. Stine’s Rotten School among other series) before her career veered into the world of agenting and she joined the staff of Caren Johnson Literary. Here Elana talks about her career, her agenting style, and more.
What made you decide to move from editorial work to agenting? How has that transition been for you?
I was really lucky to work at a packager for as long as I did. I think being an editor there was a perfect education, since my fingers were in every pot from of the book-making process from writing to production and I really learned the anatomy of the product. But after those five years, I realized I had learned as much as they could teach me, and having worked on books for pre-school through adult, I had winnowed down my tastes a lot. So, I realized I wanted to switch tracks and work on the kinds of books I loved the most. The transition has been fun and challenging. While it’s a lot of the same skills as my old job (working with editors around town, dealing with contracts, and foreign rights), I’m really happy to get to be learning new things again. And just getting to fall in love with new books and new writers is amazing.
You’re very hands-on with your authors. Is that more of a necessity in today’s children’s publishing world or is that just your particular style due to your background?
A huge part of it is just my training. It was my job to deliver a great, finished manuscript to editors that they could publish as is. So I can’t look at a book and not think of what would make it stronger. When I read a book, I have to see what those editors will see. And yes, a lot of it is more of a necessity now that the climate is so tough. Editors have to be pickier and pickier, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to iron out any issues that might give an editor pause before acquiring the book. I know there are a lot of people out there who say “writers should write, agents should agent, and editors should edit,” but being very editorially-minded gives my clients an edge. If I send out a book that’s publishable as is, then the odds of selling it go up dramatically. Plus it makes editors trust the product I offer them, so there’s really no downside.
Have you changed anything about the way you work due to the effect the recession is having on the publishing world? Is there anything writers should be doing differently?
I haven’t had to change anything yet. I am still going to be picky about the projects I sign, and then work hard to send the best book out the door. I set my bar pretty high on the quality of book I’ll sign up, so if anything I’ll just get pickier–but I think that’s a good thing. If the number of books being published shrinks, hopefully the quality will increase. As for what writers can do, it’s basically some version of the same. Work harder. Revise more. Read everything in your category so you know what’s making it to publication. Spend more time on craft before querying agents. Don’t waste time on conferences thinking that will get you in the door. Only query agents when you are sure your work is as strong as it can be.
My dirty little secret is that I’m not necessarily going to conferences to find clients, though finding something can be a big bonus. I think conferences serve a lot of purposes, and one of them is certainly giving writers some face time with industry professionals. But the weekends are so overwhelming, and there are many writers at many different stages of readiness in terms of their work. I’ve found that a good percentage of attendees just aren’t ready for anyone to see their work, let alone pitch an agent or editor with it, even though they do anyway. But I go because as a newer agent it’s important for the writers out there to get to know me, my style, my tastes, my reputation. I also love being able to network with the other industry professionals, which is really valuable down the line. Anytime you get like-minded people in a room together, good things can happen.
Are you looking for anything in particular right now? What types of books for young readers do you really dig?
I’m a sucker for a big hook. If you look at my clients’ books, you’ll see that I can’t get away from it. (Prime example and shameless plug: Pam Bachorz has her debut novel, Candor coming out this fall, and it’s about a planned community where everyone is brainwashed to be perfect, but one boy knows the truth and works the system to his advantage. You can’t get much bigger hook than brainwashing, and the book sucked me in from the first page.) I’m always looking for a new, great hook. I love alternate visions of the world we live in, or some strange “what if?” premise. I’m mostly really big on plot. Which doesn’t mean I don’t think voice is crucial. But on their own, really introspective, quiet books that are all voice and no story don’t do it for me. And I have a lot of YA right now, so I’d like more middle grade, but I’m not picky about genre when it comes to falling in love.
Some of my favorite books I’ve read lately have been Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy, which I admire for being so entirely pleasurable and gripping. I haven’t had that much fun reading a book in a long time. I also loved The Big Splash by Jack Ferraiolo. I’m jealous I didn’t get to rep it. The humor is great, and I love Raymond Chandler, so this was such a fun read for me. And I thought What Would Emma Do? by Eileen Cook was charming and funny and a really refreshing contemporary YA. So if those books are any indication of my taste, then I think I’m in good shape.
Any advice for unpublished authors approaching agents at conferences? Through queries?
At conferences, sign up for critiques whenever you can. It’s a better way to get feedback and let someone see a glimpse of your work than just giving them a kamikaze pitch at lunch or in the bathroom. I’ve also noticed that writers seem to avoid the agents and try to get straight to the editors, which I always think is funny. As soon as that conference is over, the editor wants the agent as his or her first line of defense. Agents aren’t the bad guys…I swear. Just make sure your book is ready for viewing. I think a lot of people jump the gun before they’re ready.
In terms of queries, just be as polished and professional as you can be. And polite behavior always wins out. I try to be sensitive and respectful of the fact that the writer is putting themselves out there to be rejected, so I would hope you’d be respectful of me as well. I hear a lot of complaints about queries, and how hard it is. But the thing hopeful authors need to remember is that you’re applying for a writing job. Which means the query should read nicely. I know they are hard to write, but if you want me to think you can write a 250 page book…then I hope you can write a good cover letter. Just be succinct and polished.