I got to know Sarah LaPolla because she handles all the foreign rights stuff at Curtis Brown Ltd., but she's also building her own client list, and tweets regularly about publishing. She kindly agreed to let me interview her about why she's an agent, and what that means to her.
1) What attracted you to the agent side of the business, as opposed to editing or publicity or writing?
When I started interning at agencies in 2007, I thought “this is a nice way to kill time before I become an editor.” I had no idea what an agent really did. I love editing, and I think I’m fairly good at it, but I’m so happy I didn’t keep that line of thinking. Being an agent combines talent scout, editor, publicist, lawyer, and all-around protector into one job. I can’t see myself doing anything else right now. As for writing, I do write. I wrote before I moved to New York, before I started working in publishing, and then… I stopped. I finally started it back up again last year, but that’s pretty much all I’ll say about it. It’s definitely not going to be my career! Agenting will always come first.
2) You're still building your client list, and you have fairly particular taste when it comes not only to genre, but a novel's specific flavor. Has this helped you to build your list, or made it harder?
Well, I am definitely going to start using “flavor” to describe books from now on! I never thought of my taste as being particular before, but I suppose in terms of building a client list that might be true. I love literary fiction, but it needs to have a plot and a commercial hook. I still look for paranormal, but it really, really can’t be vampires, werewolves, angels, or zombies. That has less to do with taste and more to do with what I’ll be able to sell. What I enjoy and read on my own isn’t always the same as what I take on. Realistically there are just certain things I can’t sell right now, so I have to close myself to them. This time next year, I might be saying something else. Since I keep a small list, I think not taking on everything has been helpful. I don’t have the time to work on something I don’t 100% head-over-heels love, so it makes what I do find that much more special.
3) What genres are you focusing on, when it comes to representing an author?
I will always have an affinity for the contemporary and the literary, on both the YA and adult side. That’s what makes up about 80% of my list right now (which I’m quite happy about and hope I continue to see). I’ve been itching to branch out and take on more genre fiction though. Specifically, dark/scary mystery (not the cozy kind), thriller, and sci-fi. Plus I’m always looking for magical realism. Again, for both YA and adult, but I will always put the quality of the writing first. If something can impress me stylistically, while the plot keeps me on the edge of my seat, then you won me over.
4) What's the right (or maybe best) way for an author to build a career in the current marketplace, in your opinion?
The quick answer is “social media,” but there’s more to it than that. Writers should be online to meet other writers in their genre and, more importantly, to connect with their audience. You don’t want to constantly shove publicity for your book in people’s faces, but you want to build a relationship with people that will become mutually beneficial. People buy books from people they like, not people who are only trying to sell them something. It’s also a good idea to build your audience with two or three books within the same genre or age group before moving on to a different project entirely. With every new genre you break into, you’re like a debut author all over again. You want readers to know where to find you in the bookstore, and once they know your name they’ll seek you out in other places.
5) Favorite novel you read last year? Favorite novel from childhood?
I only got to read a few non-work-related books last year, but I think I have to go with SHATTER ME by Taherah Mafi. Her writing impressed me so much, and Juliet blew me away as the tortured anti-hero. I think what made me appreciate it even more is that it found a way to get me interested in a supernatural dystopian, which I was growing tired of seeing. If a book can get me to forget/ignore/love things I usually don’t seek out on my own, then it gets a lot more bonus points with me.
6) Are you a hands-on agent when it comes to revising before submission, and why?
Yes, I am a hands-on agent in terms of revision. I usually don’t offer representation without asking for a revision first, and try to give as detailed notes as possible if I’m especially interested in a manuscript. I don’t usually ask to see a revision unless I think there’s a good chance I’ll want to take it on. With my clients, I usually do at least one round of revisions before submission, and more if needed (but they usually aren’t). I’m not involved step-by-step, and prefer to see a finished product. I generally steer clear during the author’s actual revision time and let them work, unless they have a question about something specific.
You can find Sarah on Twitter at @sarahlapolla and her blog, Glass Cases. Thanks, Sarah!