Feb
11

Eric Smith: Agent, Author & Geek Whisperer

An Interview with Agent & Author Eric Smith

Eric Smith is an associate literary agent at P.S. Literary, with a love for young adult books, sci-fi, fantasy, and literary fiction. He began his publishing career at Quirk Books in Philadelphia, working social media and marketing on numerous books he absolutely adored. Eric completed his BA in English at Kean University and his MA in English at Arcadia University. A frequent blogger, his ramblings about books appear on BookRiot, The Huffington Post, and more.

Eric Smith with a background of sticky notesAs a published author in his own right, Eric seeks to give his authors the same amount of love his writing has received. (Which is a lot.) And this week, Eric agreed to answer a few questions over email to explain a little about life as an agent in 2017.

ALR: Thanks so much for your time, Eric!  As new writers, our interactions with agents often consist of cold queries and form rejections—we don't often have the opportunity to see things from your perspective.  :)

Your book, a Geek’s Guide to Dating (Dec 2013) was published by Quirk Books and your two YA novels, Inked (Jan 2015) and Branded (Mar 2017) are published by Bloomsbury Spark. You also co-founded the Geekadelphia blog and the Philadelphia Geek AwardsGiven your background as a self-starter, why did you opt to release your books through traditional means instead of going the self-publishing route?

You Have To Be Your Own Marketing Team

Inked
Branded

Well, running a local blog like Geekadelphia and a local awards show like the Philadelphia Geek Awards is a lot different than trying to publish a book and reach a national (and international audience). My blogging was being done for a specific niche community that was easy to reach, because they were right there in my backyard. I knew a lot of people who read the website, who came to the events, and the like.

With a book, your goal is to break out of that bubble of close friends and family, and to reach a broader audience. I wouldn't be able to do that myself. Some people can though. I've seen scores of self-published success stories where the author is able to connect with hundreds of thousands of people. Even some of my authors have self-published projects themselves (see Rebecca Phillips and Alan Orloff as amazing examples).

But when you self-publish, you're doing a lot more than just hitting publish and tweeting things out to your followers, like I do when I blog. You have to be your own marketing team. Your own publicist. Your own sales force. Your own art director. That wasn't what I wanted with these books. And Quirk and Bloomsbury are legends when it comes to gifty pop-culture books (like my Geek Dating book was) and books for teens. Who wouldn't want to be with them? :-)

ALR: Based on what you've learned—both as a writer and an agent—what do you see as the main differences between the smaller, more niche publishers, like Quirk Books, vs the larger publishing houses out there?

Heart & Determination Make Up For All That

A Geek's Guide to Dating
Textual Healing

Very little? I'd be hesitant to even call Quirk smaller these days, considering Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, and the like. They do niche books, sure, but they've got a lot of might behind them.

And that's the great part of those niche, indie publishers. They can be focused. They aren't publishing hundreds or thousands of books a year. They're doing a few dozen, with a focused list. Smaller publishers doing YA, like Soho or Flux, are producing some of the most daring, stunning work... and they have time to really push those titles. And it's why I'll pick up every title those publishers put out.

Sure, maybe you won't get huge placement at conventions or full-spread ads or whatever... but heart and determination make up for all that, in my opinion.

ALR: Your agent profile on the PS Literary website lists that you’re “actively seeking out new, diverse voices in Young Adult (particularly sci-fi and fantasy), New Adult, and Literary and Commercial Fiction.”  My understanding of New Adult (NA) is that it’s essentially the middle ground between Young Adult (YA) and Adult, where the tone and outlook may still have youthful qualities but the circumstances are more about breaking out into the big world. I also assume the language and personal relationships are able to expand more towards the Adult side of things vs what would be considered appropriate in YA.

In your view, how does NA differ from YA and Adult and why does this category interest you as an agent?

NA Bridges The Gap Between YA and Adult



I mean, it's exactly what you just said right there. :-) Those mature relationships and themes centering around what it means to be an adult, and maybe flounder and struggle in that new world you've been thrust into. It's targeted pretty specifically to that new adult who is in that transitional stage between being a teen and going into the "real world" that they might not be ready for.

If you want a good comparison, compare the YA titles of Zoraida Cordova and Dahlia Adler with their New Adult tiles. Vastly different, only a slightly older audience.

As for why it interests me... well, it's mostly because of what I've read by rockstars like Zoraida, Dahlia, and Katherine Locke. I'll know a good project when I see it. I know that's a bad and super vague answer, sorry!

[ALR: I am perfectly okay with that answer. Thanks! ;)  -Ange] 

ALR: As a writer submitting to an agent (and as an agent submitting to a publisher) is there some risk in pitching a manuscript in the “New Adult” category? Is this a category that publishers and booksellers are actively looking to bring to the market? I haven't seen many dedicated NA sections in bookstores.

Adulting for Beginners

I think you need to look at what kind of books the agent represents and what sort of books the publisher puts out. There are only a few big publishers even doing New Adult, so it's important to make sure you're approaching the right folks. Some people don't read it, don't rep it, don't sell it. Make sure you're approaching the right people.

I haven't spotted New Adult in many bookstores either. Sometimes I spot it in the romance section, or in YA, or just in the general fiction area. It's a tough one to shelve, I suppose.

ALR: At what point in the querying process do you generally know that you’re interested (or not) in representing a manuscript? Assuming you get far enough to actually be considering a partial or full manuscript, does your "go/no-go" decision hit you in an “aha” moment where you suddenly know it's a good fit for you, or is it a slow creep towards a yes or a no? 

I Don't Ask for Pages

Generally right from the query. I don't ask for pages (unless it's a social media contest or something), and if a writer can't hook me with a pitch, it's probably not a book for me.

This is something I learned pretty early during my time at Quirk Books, actually. There, books had to be able to be explained in just a paragraph or so. Sometimes a sentence. If you couldn't do it, it probably wasn't a good fit.

When it comes to the writing after I've requested pages, a strong opening usually gets me. Experimenting with tropes right away in the first chapter or two, surprising me. Leaping right into the story. I need to see the stakes as soon as possible. No stakes = I don't want to read the book. And stakes don't have to be something crazy, like the end of the world or something. It can be a relationship that's falling apart. Because sometimes that IS the end of the world for someone, you know?

ALR: Assuming you like what you read in a submission, do you head over to Google to assess whether or not the author has an existing web presence or social media platform? How critical is this in your decision to represent someone and what do you look for (if anything)?

Always.

As for what I'm looking for, it's to see what kind of person the author is. Sounds silly, but I like to know whether or not me and the author could be friends? And on a more important note, are they an active part of the book community? Are they engaged with potential readers? Authors? Are they the sort of person who only tweets out links to people to buy their book?

How to Create a Web Presence

I'd say it's pretty critical. If I hop over to someone's Twitter account and see a bunch of racist nonsense or something, then obviously I'm not going to be getting in touch with them. A few of my authors aren't very active on social media though, so it definitely isn't a deal breaker if they aren't on there.

Remember, platform is important with non-fiction. That's where it matters. Establishing that you're an expert. Fiction though, not so much. Focus on the book.

ALR: Before the age of the Internet, agents in New York were perceived to have a major advantage over those in other locations. The expectation was that those in the Big Apple could schmooze with editors from the big publishing houses and push your book over coffee. Does today's reality bear any resemblance to this idea or has the digital era essentially leveled the playing field? How critical is "face to face" time in 2017 and what does a typical day (or week) in the life of an agent actually look like?

Your agent can really be anywhere

I've been doing the agenting thing for a year and a half now, and I only had my first editor/publisher lunch about a week ago in NYC. I live in Richmond, Virginia, and before that, Philadelphia. There are conventions like Book Expo and AWP and ALA where you can set up meetings and travel and hangout with publishing folks... but there's also the Internet. Email. Google Chat. Twitter.

I connect more with editors on social media and through email than in person. So yeah, your agent can really be anywhere. Mine lives in Minneapolis!

My typical week is just full of reading potential manuscripts, going through queries, and working with my current authors. Maybe it's getting them out on submission, maybe it's working with them on a work-in-progress. All depends on what's going on that particularly day/week.

ALR: How many queries do you receive throughout the course of a year? What percentage of those queries result in a partial or full request from you vs an offer of representation?

0.2% cold queries result in an offer of representation

Hard to say! I get a dozen or so a day, maybe around a hundred a week? If I'm in an article or something, I'll get infinitely more. I'm still pretty new though. I'm not as flooded as you might think. The agency as a whole gets way more. My rockstar colleagues have been at this way longer than me.

Last year I requested a little over one hundred manuscripts, the year before that a little over 150. I keep them all in a spreadsheet. This doesn't include projects I've been pitched or read in-person at conventions and the like, and I go to a lot of those.

That percentage question requires too much math, so I'll skip it. :-) I signed 9 authors last year, if that helps.

[ALR: "Math" inserted stealthily post-interview via graphic. ;) -Ange]

ALR: New writers can spend so much time and effort trying to connect with the right agent that when that joyous day actually arrives, it can be hard to stay grounded and remember that there’s still a long road ahead. How hard is it to find a home for the books you choose to represent? What percentage of represented books never find a traditional publishing home and what generally happens in that scenario?

That's a good question!

It depends, I think. And I wish I could share some examples, but the best examples I have are currently for projects that haven't been announced yet!

I favorited [that Tweet] so fast I nearly broke my mouse.But take Lindsey Smith's Eat Your Feelings which sold to St. Martin's Press (the teal tile below is from her FoodMoodGirl.com blog), or Samira Ahmed's Love, Hate & Other Filters (it had a name change, don't mind the link's address) which is coming out with Soho Teen next year.

Both of those authors signed with me and sold their books after about four months. But, that's not the case with every project. I have one that's due to be announced soon that was out on submission for nearly a year and a half. But we didn't give up. And it's with an enormous publisher.

FoodMoodGirl.comAnd sometimes, even after that long, a book doesn't quite find a home. And when that doesn't happen, you have a good cry (the agent and the author, because we're both very attached) and move on to the next book. Because an agent isn't there for just ONE thing. You're in for the long haul. At least, you should be!

Again, can't dish a percentage. Stop trying to scare me away with math, Angela. :-)

["My name is Angela, and I have a math problem."  Seriously, have you seen the pinned tweet on my Twitter profile? :) -Ange ] 

ALR: Authors often have writing goals each year.  Have you set yourself any particular "agenting" goals for 2017?

Go to less conferences (I went to way too many last year) and focus more on my life outside of books. Sign more diverse and marginalized writers before I inevitably close up shop for submissions. And of course, sell the books by my current clients.

ALR: Thanks again, Eric!  

Please have a click through the various links in this post to check out Eric's books and blogs, and those of his fantastic clients.  To anyone interested in submitting to Eric while he's still accepting new clients, you can find his manuscript wishlist and submission guidelines linked here.  And you can follow Eric via the social media platforms listed below:

http://ericsmithrocks.com/
https://www.facebook.com/ericsmithwrites/
https://twitter.com/ericsmithrocks
https://www.instagram.com/ericsmithrocks/

Eric Smith: Agent, Author & Geek Whisperer

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