Sarah Burnes

First Draft Episode #177: Sarah Burnes - Transcript

Date: February 12, 2019


Sarah Burnes, literary agent with The Gernert Company. She has been my agent since 2013. I loved what Sarah had to say about her approach to the slush pile, the myth of work-life balance, and her “no assholes” rule.

The original post for this episode can be found here.


Sarah ENNI Hey friends, before we start the show today, I wanted to let you know that my debut novel Tell Me Everything is going to be in stores on February 26th, and I will be doing a launch event at The Ripped Bodice in Culver City, California on March 3rd. I will be in conversation with the incredible Tahereh Mafi, New York Times Bestselling author of the Shatter Me Series as well as the National Book Award long-listed A Very Large Expanse of Sea. That’s March 3rd, 4 pm at The Ripped Bodice. Don’t miss it.

I have a few other events coming up as well. San Francisco on March 8th at Books, Inc. with Nina  LaCour and Jennifer E. Smith. Seattle on March 9th at The University Book Store in The U District  with Kendare Blake and Somaiya Duad. Ashville, North Carolina on March 27th at Malaprop’s Bookstore with Stephanie Perkins, and Boston on April 2nd at Trident Books Café with Katie Cotugno and Sara Farizan. Check out the events page at sarahenni.com or firstdraftpod.com to find out more details and to see what other festivals I’ll be hitting up this spring also. I hope I see you there.

Okay, now on with the show.

[Theme music plays]

Sarah ENNI Welcome to First Draft with me Sarah Enni. Today I’m talking to Sarah Burnes, literary agent with The Gernert Company. She represents Linda Holmes, Heather Havrilesky, Margaret Stohl, Zan Romanoff, Alexa Donne, and Alex Marr among many others. And has been my agent since 2013. In the lead up to the release of TELL ME EVERYTHING I wanted to share conversations with my agent and my editor. A kind of rare, behind-the-scenes look at the relationships that make a book work.

I hope you’ll find the conversation illuminating, and because Sarah’s is the best, I know you’ll find it entertaining. Just a heads-up, I messed up the levels on Sarah’s microphone while we recorded this, so her voice is much quieter than mine in this episode. So, you might want to step away from leaf blowers or aggressive heaters to listen to this one.  Okay, let’s get to it.

Please, sit back, relax, and enjoy the conversation.

ENNI Hello Sarah Burnes, how are you?

Sarah BURNES I’m good Sarah Enni, how are you?

ENNI I’m doing very well. I’m so happy we could chat in your office. This is a little bit of a different interview than what I usually do because you are not an author yourself, you are an agent. You are my agent [laughs].

BURNES I’m your agent.

ENNI So, I want to talk about our process, our working relationship, how we got to having my first book come out, but before we get too far into that, I would love to start with a little background for you. I’d love to hear your background of how you came to be an agent.

BURNES Ah-ha, okay, so I was on the publishing side before I became an agent, and I was actually in Adult publishing. I was an assistant at Houghton Mifflin and then in the Knopf Group, where I got promoted. And then I got a job as an acquiring fiction editor at Little Brown. I was clawing my way up the corporate ladder, and the higher I got the more unhappy I was. I just realized that… well two things happened. One, I realized that the higher I was getting in the hierarchy, the more unhappy I was. But then I also had a baby. At the time – she’s about to be nineteen – corporate America and corporate publishing was not that friendly to working motherhood. And I really wanted some flexibility in my schedule.

So, I started thinking, “Okay, I’ve been in publishing for ten years. What do I do now?” So, I decided to switch sides of the transaction, basically.

ENNI That is wild, and very cool that, obviously, agenting appears to be working out for you [both laughing]. And you have more flexibility. It’s great to see you be able to still be with your family and spend time and you can be around when they have important things going on. And I can’t speak for all of your clients, but when you tell me that you have a kids thing to go to, I’m like, “Great. That’s awesome. You have a life!” That’s very important.

BURNES Yeah. I’m leaving here to go take my son to the doctor… so.

ENNI There you go! What was that like? Agenting is a very specific job with a skill set that I don’t have. But it’s very different from editing. So, what was the transition like to that side of the equation?

BURNES It’s interesting, because I felt that my way into my work – any of the work that I do – is still very editorial. So, I read something, I think it through, I think through what could be done better. What the author’s intention is, all these kinds of editorial questions. But then when I go to sell that work, I have thought the material through really deeply and that really helps me position it in the marketplace also, which then helps me communicate to the editors, which helps me do the deals.

So, it’s very much of a piece, actually, kind of editorial work.

ENNI And then you know, you can anticipate the questions or what the editor’s job is in-house, cause editors have to sell it their team as well.

BURNES Absolutely, absolutely. And I still, when I’m working on something, I can say to an author like, “This is what goes on in an editorial meeting. This is the response.” I never want to go out with something that I think like, “Well, we could work on this piece of it, but let’s see what they say.” I don’t do that.

ENNI And you also had a lot of relationships because of ten years of building co-worker relationships.

BURNES That’s exactly right.

ENNI Which I feel like every time we chat you’re like, “I know this person!” It’s like you know the whole city of New York! Which is great!

BURNES [Laughs] But what’s interesting is that I didn’t really know anyone on the children’s side. I mean, I knew the people at Little Brown, I knew a few people here and there, but really didn’t know anybody on the children’s side because I hadn’t come up on the children’s side.

ENNI Right, when you first made the leap to agenting, were you doing adult at first? How did children’s get in the mix for you?

BURNES Children’s came in the mix because Ann Brashares is a friend. Really, a friend of a friend. And I always really enjoyed talking to her so much. I saw her somewhere and they were having a conversation and she said, “A friend of mine is looking for an agent, her book is about to be published, and I think it’s going to do well.” And that was Cecily von Ziegesar, right before the publication of the first Gossip Girl, which I read and I was like, “Whoa! This is gonna be big!”

ENNI Yeah, that was a good prediction by that person! That’s exciting, was that one of your first clients?

BURNES She was one of my very first clients.

ENNI That’s amazing. And then what about kids, especially YA, made you want to continue to represent that kind of work?

BURNES A couple of things. One was that… so that was in 2001, something like that? I think I was pregnant with my son – my middle child who was born in September of 2001 – so it was right after the publication of the first Harry Potter. So, that market was just exploding. I mean, literally the shelf space in Barnes & Nobel was expanding. Cecily was actually… those books came out of Alloy, which was the packager, and the head of Alloy told me that because of Ann and Gossip Girl, the YA section of Barnes & Noble had doubled. That’s probably historical hyperbole [laughs].

ENNI I don’t know though. I remember not being able to find it at all, and then in D.C., my Bethesda Barnes & Nobel, the whole bottom floor, essentially, was halved and it was just shelves and shelves of YA.

BURNES It was this amazing moment where publisher’s lists were expanding and the retail environment was expanding for children’s. So, it was an amazing moment to step in there. As it turned out I wasn’t that good at doing the packaged stuff, I’m much better as – I hope you have experienced – reading directly to the writer.

ENNI You are very editorial, you are. You want to be in there.

BURNES I want to be in there, exactly.

ENNI Helping bring it to life. Your list is still very varied. You do non-fiction, you do adult as well, you do some middle-grade, so you’re still representing a lot of different writers but you also have Beautiful Creatures  [by Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia]– so YA has continued to be something that you seem to be very passionate about.

BURNES Yeah, well I just sold Zan Romanoff’s [listen to her First Draft episode here] new book, yeah!

ENNI Yeah! A friend of the pod, Zan Romanoff, very excited about that. It’s cool to see that opportunity have come in and your notes on my books were so great, you clearly understand what the YA markets about, I think.

BURNES Historically, I was reading for pleasure, children’s and YA. As a reader, when I was in adult editorial, I was just keeping up with what was going on in the children’s side. At the time, the adult market was – as it is now – pretty clogged. So, as a new agent trying to figure out what I was good at, what kind of material I understood, what markets I understood, when the children’s material started coming in, I was like, “Well I love this. Let me see if I can make it work.” And then I did get extremely lucky with the material that came my way.

ENNI Exciting, yeah, The Gossip Girl and then Beautiful Creatures. You have Pseudonymous Bosch is one of your writers. A lot of really, really cool stuff. Well, thank you for that background, that’s very useful. Now I want to talk a little bit about when we started working together. And some of these questions run the risk of digging for compliments but…

BURNES [Laughs out loud!]

ENNI This is not my intention. I do just want to hear your perspective on, for example just to start with, my query was just a slush pile query. I just sent an email. I was querying widely and Logan Garrison, who was your assistant at the time, and was an agent in her own right, read my book. I was just re-looking at emails this morning and she sort of frantically emailed me like, “We are currently reading this. What is going on with you?”

I think it’s a heartening story. I was just a person who emailed you cold. When you are looking through submissions like that, what’s traditionally been your process? When do you read it? What are you looking for?

BURNES My process is that we read everything that comes in. We read all the queries that come in because you never know where something completely great is going to come from. You just absolutely don’t. And we’re very responsive to the words on the page. I think that it’s also true in children’s publishing as opposed to adult publishing, it doesn’t matter who you are. Nobody’s really looking for a platform.

ENNI Yeah, it’s different that way.

BURNES It’s very different that way. Even though I hate the “P” word…

ENNI The “P” word being platform [both laughing].

BURNES The “P” word being platform. I remember very distinctly, because I was on vacation. I was visiting my college roommate in California with my kids, and Logan emailed and she said – I bet I read it on the plane on the way out – but I remember talking to you from my friend’s house in San Francisco. Because Logan had read it and she loved it and I really trusted her taste. And I remember having that conversation with you, “Please, please, please sign with me!”

ENNI It was wild! Is that still how [it works]? Are you still reading what your assistant passes up to you? How much are you in there?

BURNES Yes. I really am. The way I think about that is that my primary responsibility is to my clients. Before you got here I was sending very last notes for a novel I’m going out with this week, and literally just doing like, “I think you need a hyphen here” kind of notes, getting it ready. And so that’s the responsibility – it’s now Julia – it’s now her responsibility to read through things and flag the things that are of interest.

ENNI I’m curious about this for you personally, Julia is your assistant and she’s been with you maybe about a year or so?

BURNES Not quite, but yeah.

ENNI How did you prep her about what you are looking for? What was the primer on, “This is the kind of thing I want to see.”

BURNES That’s such a good question. I think that because my list is so varied, when I was working at Knopf, there was an editor there who used to say [drops voice lower and more masculine], “We don’t take on books, we take on writers!” And I always thought that was really pretentious.  But now that I’m building my own list, I understand what he means because I am interested in interesting people who are doing interesting work, and I think have the possibility of growing. I always think, “Okay, well they’re working on this project, but then what will the next one be? And what will the next one be?”

So, for what my assistant is vetting for, there are certain things that I am looking for generally and I will say like a lot of agents who represent children’s work right now, I’m more interested in diverse voices than anything else. Particularly as my list gets really full, I want to privilege writers from diverse backgrounds, and diverse stories, and own voices things. Because I think, “Well, I’m a gatekeeper and I want to use that privilege for people who don’t have it.” Basically.

ENNI When it comes to work, you are so diverse, but I do think [pauses] I guess I’m wondering how you would phrase it, but I see your books and I think they all have really distinctive voices.

BURNES Yes.

ENNI Is that something that you look for particularly?

BURNES Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, that’s the most important thing, which is the voice on the page. And then I construct my decision making around that. “This is an amazing voice, but is there a viable project after that?” And if there is a viable project then where should it go.

ENNI That’s what I noticed looking across all of the books that I know that you’ve represented. So let’s talk slightly granularly about our working together. Because, seriously, looking through these emails was bananas. It was 2013, year of our lord – 2013!

BURNES That’s amazing! Really?

ENNI Isn’t that wild? Yeah.

BURNES That was five years ago! Whoa.

ENNI I know! March 2013 is when Logan emailed me and you let me know you were reading it. I had one other agent who offered rep, so I got on the phone with you while you were on vacation and talked to you for an hour, or longer, and I asked you all manner of questions – which you were very patiently answering - which was great. 

So, that project, just for the sake of this conversation, that project was called BRIGHT LIGHTS. It’s a YA contemporary story, it’s still out in the mix, but that was the project you really responded to.

BURNES Right.

ENNI I want to bring it up and talk about it because that is a project that, as of yet, has not sold. But, you are still so supportive of it which is like a boon to me and helps me.

BURNES It’s good!

ENNI [Laughing] Thank you so much. I still love it, but it also means the world to know that you still care and are still thinking about it.

BURNES But I have to say, I don’t take on things unless I feel really strongly about them, and it’s not worth it. And so, I’m not going to take on something that if a couple of people turned it down I’m like, “Oh well, I guess that won’t work.” For me to do my work, I feel more strongly about things than that.

ENNI Cause it went through – we’re not gonna get too bogged down in the weeds – but 2013 we then revised together for the rest of 2013. Then it got to an acquisitions meeting at a house and it was after an R&R [revise and resubmit] already. So, this was sort of this long, tortured process. Then the R&R came in and we did another round of revisions – you, me, and Logan – and finally the editor suggested a revision that was very extreme.

BURNES Right.

ENNI Kind of a really big shift in what the story would have been, and I think that was around April 2014, and you were wise enough to say, “Let’s pause on this, and actually step back from it. I don’t want you to keep working for free basically.” And all these great pieces of advice that I was grateful for. Then [pauses] I threw a lot at you [laughs] over the next couple of years.

BURNES Right.

ENNI And that’s what I want to talk about, is that every client/agent relationship is so different, and you as an agent have to adjust to all of your different clients and their needs. I would love to hear your prospective on this because after we weren’t able to sell the book you signed me for, I then got divorced, moved across the country, started a podcast, had you set me up with a couple of ghost writing projects. Wrote one book that went nowhere, wrote another book that still in the middle of “We’ll get back to it at some point.” And then, eventually, we go hooked up with Scholastic and we’re writing TELL ME EVERYTHING.

So, it’s been a very wild situation. I want to hear how you think about these unusual bumps and how you were looking at me as a client. Is this common, or uncommon? What was your side of this whole thing?

BURNES But I’m so impressed with what you have done! I know I’ve said that to you before, I’m not just saying it for the podcast. You were in one situation when we met and then the book didn’t sell and instead of throwing in the towel you completely remade your life.

ENNI Kind of double-downed [chuckles].

BURNES Right! In this incredibly inspiring way. I literally couldn’t be prouder of the work that you’ve done. 

ENNI Thank you.

BURNES I’ve actually said that to her before, and that I really believed in you as a writer. One of the other things interesting about the children’s market is that a couple of years ago I sold a book – a ten-year-old book – that a writer of mine had written. I hadn’t even been her agent and she said, “Oh, I’d like to try this again.” And then we sold it. It was something like the market had caught up, or the wheel had turned again, or something.

I really believe in that. If you have something that is really good, that one of those strategies - if it hasn’t sold - is to hold onto it. Figure out what the next thing is, what the publishing relationship is going to be and look, I’ve just read the first revised fifty pages and it’s so much better! And I loved it before, but those five years that you have spent growing as a person show on the page.

ENNI I would agree with that. And that’s one of those moments, when books don’t sell, and people are like, “I’m so happy it didn’t sell.” You know what I mean? I’m grateful for the added time. And the fact that you’ve told me to shelve a project before… and when you said that I was so relieved. It’s a project that I won’t go back to because it doesn’t feel the same way. But BRIGHT LIGHTS feels like a very special unique thing, where I’m not done with it and neither are you. And I think it’s great that we were on the same page with that.

BURNES Yeah, and look, it’s so painful when it’s not the case – let me say. I have been in the situation where a writer has been working on something and I express reservations, “I think this is what you need to accomplish.” And then they get to the end of it and they haven’t done that and I have to say, “I’m just not the right person for it.” But a writer’s commitment is to the work it’s not to me. I feel so grateful that we still - you and I both – BRIGHT LIGHTS is the book of our hearts.

ENNI Yeah, it does feel like that. Just to make this a broader question that’s not necessarily about me specifically, I would love to hear how you think about your client relationships, and when there are needs to pivot or change, or situations develop, how you approach those changes?

BURNES The first person who I worked for in publishing was a guy called Sam Lawrence, who had his own imprint at Houghton Mifflin. He was a horrible sexist, but he was incredibly committed to his writers, and into making the things that they wanted to happen for their careers, happen for them. And while it’s a little bit like that thing in Broadcast News, I didn’t want to be like him personally, but professionally that’s the kind of intense commitment that I would like to have with my writers.

I do think that one of the things I’m better at now, certainly than when I was on the editorial side and even then, when I was first an agent, is understanding what any given market looks like and either how to circumvent its exigencies, or plow into it. So, when Beautiful Creatures came in, I remember thinking, “The market may think this is too close to other books that are out there.” Whereas, I really felt like what they were doing was making something that was both really new, but very classic. So, it was super exciting to have all of that go extremely well.

And I think part of my job is to not just champion a writer’s work, but to understand what is going on out in the marketplace. That’s also always shifting because a bookstore chain will go out of business, or it will be the rise of, “It’s all e-books.” Or, something really surprising will work.

ENNI Right, trends are hard to predict. Which I am gonna come back and ask you a broad view of the market, but in a minute. So, it sounds like you see part of your job of cultivating an artist, but also helping them contextualize what they want to accomplish within what’s truly happening on the ground. Cause that’s the kind of thing an author is just not gonna know.

BURNES Exactly. A journalist who I represent, Jon Gertner, once commented to me that journalists, generally, are often a couple steps ahead of the culture because they are going out into the world and reporting back. And sometimes when he was pitching stories to magazines they would say, “That’s not interesting.” Or, “That’s not going to become anything.” And in fact often it is because they’re sort of the seers in some way.

I remember when I was working with Alex Marr on her Witches of America book.

ENNI Which is wonderful. I love that book so much.

BURNES Yeah, it’s such a fantastic book. One editor said to me, “Are witches a thing?” And I was like [sputtering], “Where? What? Of…” I was totally gobsmacked.  Like, “How couldn’t you know that witches are a thing?” And in some ways, again on the adult side, Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson [A Rather Haunted Life], she created the whole Shirley Jackson phenomena.

So, I also think part of my work is letting the writers lead me too, and sort of understanding where they’re going is and helping them beat that path.

ENNI That’s such an interesting point and I was just having drinks with an editor, Vicki Lame, who works at St. Martin’s - she’s a wonderful editor – super fun to chat with. And she was talking about how she is really looking for diverse rom-coms. She was like, “I just want smart fluff.” She was like, “We used to call it fluff, and now it’s a whole different kind of fluff cause it’s really smart too.” She was saying that’s really what she just wants to be reading at this moment. And I was like, “I’m with you. I’m ready for rom-coms of all kinds to come back movie, TV, and otherwise.”

But then I was thinking, you know it’s so interesting, right in the aftermath of the election, it felt like we had this six months of books come out that were… that felt like omnisciently timed. It seemed like there was then a lot of dark feeling books that came out right after Trump was elected and everyone was like, “Oh, this is a book for the moment” or whatever. But we all know as professionals, those books were written years ago. And in the foment of Trumpism and now we are getting, I think, the first books that have been written since all of that went down, and truly a lot of them are like, “Let’s talk about royals, and let’s have weddings.” Like respite books. And she and I were talking about how either things went really dark or really light and we’re in this strange extreme moment.

BURNES You know I work with Linda Holmes and I read her book last spring [Evvie Drake Starts Over] which is this wonderful… I mean, speaking of smart, fluffy rom-coms…

ENNI Yeah! Pitch it.

BURNES It’s a story of recently widowed woman and the former baseball player who moves into her back apartment. I called her and said, “This is the first book that I’ve read since the election that makes me feel better.” And she said, “Well, I wrote it to make myself feel better.”

Part of the reason why the book is so great is that it’s in a world without Trump [giggles]. There’s no politics… I mean, there’s only small-town Maine politics.

ENNI It is sort of funny to take note of that and think these are quickly shifting tides.

BURNES But to the trends question… we publishing professionals always say this on panels, or podcasts, “You cannot chase the trends. You can’t do it.” Because it takes – Linda’s book won’t be out for another year! The work has to exist on its own. I think publishers, they can’t chase trends, but certainly Vicki… she’s trying to fill out her list for fall ’19. But for a writer embarking on a project, who knows what the world is going to look like. You really have to write the thing that you really care about.

ENNI The trends are organic groundswells that are sort of zeitgeist-ing us. It’s not worth trying to pre-map that. You have to hold on for dear life and see what happens.

BURNES I actually think one of the things that’s interesting about the children’s market also, if you look at the phenomenon… you had Harry Potter, and then you had Wimpy Kid [Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney], and then you had Hunger Games, those books don’t necessarily relate to each other. You wouldn’t have thought… so they were like the huge phenomenon. And then you had Twilight [by Stephenie Meyer]… you know, Twilight and Wimpy Kid!

It’s so fascinating. In some ways that’s why you really cannot pay attention to the trends cause you don’t know what’s going to be next.

ENNI Right. That’s such a good point. And yeah… don’t try! It never works out right. I’ve had so many friends waste a year doing that. So, we were talking about adjusting to maybe tumultuous career paths for writers, but you’ve also had to adjust to your personal life. We don’t have to get into details, but you had stuff happen in the last few years. You have kids, it’s a crazy world.

How do you think about balancing your personal life with… you know, your job is really demanding on focusing on other people. And artists aren’t always the easiest people to work with [she says with a bit of abashment]! So how do you think about that?

BURNES [Laughing]  When my daughter was first born I was still at Little Brown. I went to a big women in media lunch, and there was an editor of People who was honored. This was a lunch full of women professionals, mostly magazines, but some book publishing people too. And this woman said something along the lines of, “Everybody talked about work/life balance. But everybody in this room knows there’s no such thing.” And I felt this sense of relief like, “Oh my god, you mean I actually don’t have to keep everything in balance all of the time?”

So, a lot of it is just being able to accept that if somebody is sick, well you gotta stay home with them. That’s what’s required. Or, if you’re running an auction, well you have to show up for that. By realizing being able to… as I’m looking at Heather Havrilesky’s new book here, What If This Were Enough Which is about accepting the imperfections of the everyday.  That’s my new mantra. Accept the imperfections of the everyday.

ENNI I feel like I’ve possibly been saying this on the podcast lately, but I also said it just at BookCon that I had a moment with my therapist where I was like, “There’s this, and this, and this, and I know I need to be more balanced, and I need to be more…whatever.” And she was like, “Well, but… why?” It was such a lovely moment of her being like the Oscar Wilde quote, right? “Everything in moderation including moderation.” She was like, “We don’t need to be all things, all the time, every day. That’s such a waste of time.”

And it was such a big relief to me, because especially as writers, I just have to know that sometimes I’m gonna be working really hard for two months, then I have the month off… or whatever it is… and that’s fine. Literally trying to do everything every day is exhausting [and adds as a quiet aside] and not necessary! I appreciate that.

So, okay, just to talk about TELL ME EVERYTHING specifically for just for a second, because this was an unusual thing. And I interviewed Amanda Maciel, my editor for that book, about how that came to be. How it was a kernel of her idea and she really let me run with it. But it was kind of a rough writing process, and it’s an unusual [one] … unusual for me. I didn’t expect to be doing the IP [Intellectual Property] thing, it kind of fell into our lap. How are you thinking about that project, even now.

BURNES Well, that’s a good question cause as I said, I don’t love the IP process cause I’m not a part of it and I don’t have a way of getting into the work. But I really like Amanda and as you say, this is a business of relationships. And she called me and said, “I love Sarah Enni and I would really like to do a project with her.” And actually she’s, I think she’s read a draft of BRIGHT LIGHTS.

ENNI Yes, she did.

BURNES So, she just seemed like somebody who we wanted to be in business with, and that that was a relationship that I wanted you to have. So, the IP work flow – I kind of feel alienated from it – but I know that it’s the right thing for you.

ENNI It was funny rehashing the emails and being like, “Oh my gosh, that’s right. I did four rounds of revision for you before we went on sub.” TELL ME EVERYTHING was such a wild thing and there was no time because I was having such a hard time with it, I just wasn’t able to give you time to look at it before. Which was crazy.

BURNES Right exactly. But I do trust Amanda and she seemed liked somebody who understands the market. But it’s also very writer driven and so that was… that was gonna be a really good [experience]. I hope that was a really good experience.

ENNI It was! It was a really good [experience]. I feel like the reason I’m talking about it so much is cause I’m breaking it down. I’m processing it a little bit before it comes out. And I’m excited to talk about it and I really love the book. But to me, more than anything, I’m so happy I went through that process and I think I learned a lot from it. And I’m excited now to turn to the stuff that I’ve been wanting to work on. And has been put on pause for the last year or two.

BURNES I think that you… the thing I always think about is that all the work that you do, is the work you do along the way to the thing that will work [both laugh]… that was very articulate! But, I think TELL ME EVERYTHING will be… what’s apparent to me, reading the new pages of BRIGHT LIGHTS, is that you have grown so much as a writer through that process. And you have the kind of joie de vivre, and humor, and emotional connectiveness is still very much on the page. But there’s a kind of assuredness which is really apparent to me know. Which was really gratifying to read.

ENNI Well, thank you so much. Again, not digging for compliments… but I will take them. I will take them. So, a couple of broad questions and then I will end with asking for advice. But a broad question – very broad – what do you wish authors understood better about the agenting process. Or, your job as an agent?

BURNES Oh, that’s such a good question. It’s funny, I was at a conference once, and I said, “Just remember that agents are people too.” And there was like a gasp from the audience [laughs].

ENNI [Laughs] Oh my god, like, “What?”

BURNES So, I think I would remember that. I think the thing to remember about agents is that there are so many different kinds of agents and agencies. There are big agencies and small agencies and sole proprietorships. I’m a sole proprietor in a boutique agency. Everybody does it a little bit differently and as a writer the thing to think about is what is it that you, as a writer, need? And there will be a good match for you out there. And when you find that match, trust that. Because you don’t have to be somewhere really famous or… just go with the person who you think is gonna be able to literally represent your work in the way you want it represented.

ENNI It is kind of wild too… it’s not only finding a match for someone who responds to your work. That was so gratifying to see that you responded to your work, but then the first year of being like, “Oh my gosh, she’s having conversations with people, that I don’t know, about me.” And I just had such an innate trust in how you were gonna do that, it was so clear to me that you were gonna be great and be [pauses] all those little things that you don’t [think about]. Like showing up on time. Being courteous. Being someone who’s going to look out for my interests… stuff like that. You’ve always been professional with me. There were levels of trust about how you were gonna interact on my behalf in the world. And that’s a really important thing for people to think about.

BURNES Thank you!

ENNI I wouldn’t even name the agent if I could remember, but I did have friends go to a conference many years ago, and there was a young agent who showed up in pajamas – basically.

BURNES [busts out laughing]

ENNI And it was like, “Well, you know, there’s casual and then there’s unprofessional.” It was a thing where everyone was taking note. It matters.

BURNES Right. That’s interesting, cause for a long time I thought like, “It’s not about me. It’s not about me. I am representing my writer’s work.” And the only thing that’s slightly shifted with that is… Twitter. Because I find that there are things that I need to say, “That Sarah Burnes!”

ENNI [Laughing] Your Twitter name is still the number of the difference between the number of Hillary Clinton voters and Trump voters – which I appreciate.

BURNES Which is a positive number!

ENNI Uh-huh! Uh-huh, it is.  A quite large number. And that agents are people, and that agents are gonna have lives and needs as well. And are on the other side of any email. You know, frantic emails that you send – take the time to be thoughtful and gracious at the same time! That’s a good thing to keep in mind.

BURNES I don’t know if I can say this on the podcast, but I have a “No-Asshole” rule.

ENNI [Chuckles] Yes! You absolutely can say that.

BURNES Cause I love all my clients and I feel so proud to represent them.

ENNI Yeah, can you imagine dreading the person that you have to work for? That would not be fun. Then a last question before advice is a broad market thing. So, this is not going to come out until closer to when TELL ME EVERYTHING comes out, so we’re about six months out as of this recording. But even on a year-to-year level, what are you seeing with the YA market right now even from a year-to-year level, what are you seeing? How are you thinking about YA right now?

BURNES When I first started representing children’s fiction, the market was expanding as I said. The retail environment was expanding, publishers were expanding their lists, and that’s just not the case anymore. The publisher’s lists are clogged, the retail environment is extremely hard, and what I hear is that there’s kind of a tilt now towards middle grade, because those books tend to stick in the marketplace for longer.  

As Don Weisberg, who is now the head of McMillan, says “You’ve got a new crop of fourth and fifth graders every year to sell those books too.” But the market will turn again, and I just try to represent work that I really believe in… wherever it is. That I think I can make it work.

ENNI And then there was the spate of really big deals for books that may or may not get the support that was going along with those numbers. And I felt like that was a scary thing to me as a writer, cause you want to sell. You want to get paid,  but you also want it to be someplace where they’re actually gonna follow through with you and believe in your work.

BURNES That’s right.

ENNI That felt scary for a while.

BURNES Yeah, yeah. I think that because of the consolidation all over the place. The children’s market used to be less hit-driven than the adult side, and it’s because of these huge phenomenon it is much more hit-driven now. But the bread and butter of any publisher’s list are the books that will endure.

ENNI Stick around.

BURNES Yeah, stick around.

ENNI Well, that’s heartening. Just write really good books guys!

BURNES Yeah, write really good books!

ENNI That’s the deal. So, last thing is just advice. How about advice for authors who are querying? Or, who are looking for agents?

BURNES My biggest piece of advice is, hold onto your work for as long as you can. Use your network to have other people, your peers, read it and give you notes. Join a writing group. You want to keep that book out of the professional realm for as long as you can. Because, and I will say, sometimes I think that people use the querying process as a kind of writers group. Which is not a good idea, not a good idea. You want to use your writers group as your writers group. Really polish the work as much as you can before you go out with it. Because you only really get that one shot at that one time.

ENNI That’s really great advice and that’s not actually what people hear all of the time.

BURNES Really?

ENNI [Takes a big breath] Well, just to have it ready but I actually think it’s important to say like, “Give it time.”

BURNES: Give it time, oh absolutely.

ENNI Well, this has been such a joy. Thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with me.

BURNES Thank you so much. This was really fun. I’m so proud of you.

ENNI Thank you so much Sarah.

[background music plays]


SUBSCRIBE TO FIRST DRAFT WITH SARAH ENNI

Every Tuesday, I speak to storytellers like Veronica Roth, author of Divergent, Michael Dante DiMartino, co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender, or John August, screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Together, we take deep dives on their careers and creative works.

Don’t miss an episode! Subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. It’s free!

RATE, REVIEW, AND RECOMMEND

How do you like the show?

Please take a moment to rate and review First Draft with Sarah Enni in Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Your honest and positive review helps others discover the show -- so thank you!

Is there someone you think would love this podcast as much as you do?

Please share this episode on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or via carrier pigeon (maybe try a text or e-mail, come to think of it). Just click the Share button at the bottom of this post!

Thanks again!