An Interview with Literary Agent Sarah Davies
Sarah Davies is one of the many accomplished literary agents featured at the Writers’ League of Texas’ 2013 Agents and Editors Conference. Sarah founded The Greenhouse Literary Agency in 2008, a transatlantic agency which aims to nurture and grow the talent of exceptional writers. Here is an excerpt from the Greenhouse website:
What Sarah is seeking: Fiction by North American authors, from MG through YA and across all genres (note: she also reps picturebooks by clients whom she’s initially taken on for older fiction). She loves strong, hooky plots, writing that has literary quality but is also commercial, a strong/special voice, emotional heart. Loves both adventurous and classic MG, especially for girls, and has much experience in developing/selling twisty, dark crime/mystery YA thrillers. Most of all she wants to see something she’s not seen before, so think big!
Sarah was flying off to London when we spoke, but was so generous to answer some questions about her agency, what she looks for in a manuscript, and a little about herself before she left. For more information on Sarah and other agents, visit our Featured Agents page.
Could you describe The Greenhouse Literary Agency?
Sarah Davies: I founded the Greenhouse in early 2008, after 25 years as a British publisher of books for young readers. I wanted to pull in every facet of my experience in the industry to create an agency that would be dynamic, innovative, editorially creative, and very collaborative with both writers and publishers. I wanted to create an atmosphere of energy, integrity, supportiveness between clients, and built on a big vision of an international marketplace. I also wanted us to communicate in ways that were as kind and open as possible.
Most of all I wanted Greenhouse to be an exciting force for good – helping writers to develop, bringing quality writing and good books to the world. I’m very idealistic, as you might perceive, and I don’t apologize for that one bit! I work very hard, I’m extremely determined, and that’s what I also ask of our clients. We’re on a shared journey, with shared risk and effort – and that’s what makes every day different and exciting.
What are the benefits of having a transatlantic literary agency?
SD: The children’s books world reflects our increasingly globalized culture and marketplace. Publishers from Brussels to Brasilia, Manchester to Moscow, want the Next Big Thing (though they may interpret that in different ways). However, the biggest market is English language, and there are two sides to that in publishing terms: US/Canada and UK/Commonwealth. My own experience as a Brit who has lived in the USA for six years, enables me to see both sides of the publishing Pond with particular clarity, and as an agency we’ve been very successful in maximizing transatlantic deals, which can be very financially advantageous to the client. Not all books ‘travel’ with ease across the Atlantic (for reasons of theme/voice/cultural accretions), but many do, and Greenhouse is in an ideal position to exploit that. My colleague Julia Churchill is in London, John Cusick and I are based in the US, and we talk every day, sharing pitches, ideas, knowledge. I’m also back in the UK every three months or so.
In addition, we do a lot of deals in translation, and these are handled by our sister company Rights People, which is made up of five rights-selling experts. My motto is this: The world is our marketplace. And we’ve proven that to be true!
Why did you become a literary agent?
SD: As I’ve said, I was a publisher for two decades before moving to the USA. People always ask me why I made that big move and there are two reasons: Love and business! A great combination, right?
As I rose up the publishing ladder (in my final years I was a Director and on the management Board), my time was increasingly taken up with issues that had little to do with stories or writing craft. I hungered to get back to that. The two sides of the books business I’d always loved the most were 1) editorial development with authors and 2) negotiating deals. I love being a part of making great books. And I love making money for people; sprinkling the fairy dust that enables writers to achieve their dream.
The common denominator of those passions is agenting. On top of that, I have discovered that I’m an entrepreneur at heart. Creating a business, going out and making it happen – especially in a market the size of North America – has been incredibly exciting; being able to stamp a personality on the agency. There are always challenges to that, but we’ve tried hard to hold on to our values. One of the greatest rewards has been seeing how our clients are so mutually supportive to each other, promoting and helping each other in ways that show so much generosity of spirit. That’s what I always wanted to happen and why I chose the name Greenhouse – it’s where writers grow!
What is the first thing you look for in a piece of fiction? How do you know if it has the “it” factor?
SD: I’m looking for two main things. 1) A really original and arresting premise that I’ve not seen before, or which brings a fresh twist to a genre. 2) A mastery of craft and voice to bring that premise to life. Sometimes these elements can be quite rough, but I spot the potential, and we can do a lot of work to develop that. Plot and character can be expanded, enriched – but you can’t create a voice which doesn’t exist.
I read in two ways. Firstly, as a ‘regular’ reader. Does the story engage me, hold my attention, keep me turning pages? Does it make me laugh or cry? How does it affect me emotionally, because if it doesn’t touch me in the heart I’ll never persuade an editor to acquire it.
Secondly, I’m reading through a kind of market ‘lens’. I know what editors are acquiring, what they’re seeing too often, what might have a premium value for them at that time. The story/writing can’t just be ‘nice’ or to a certain standard. I have to be able to see how I will SELL it, in a very competitive and tough marketplace.
What is your favorite book and what effect did it have on you?
SD: There have been certain books that have had a pivotal effect on my life. As a young teen, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings profoundly changed how I saw the possibilities of fiction. I hadn’t really known that a writer could build such a rich and complete world – a world that I could inhabit on a grand scale over a longish period of time.
Many of the books I read as a child – largely British classics – have stayed with me, and I can still feel the awe of reading them. I also have very strong memories of my local library where I would sit on the wood floor taking out the maximum number of books on each visit. Isn’t it incredible that I can still summon up the smell of that building? A potent mix of wood and plastic book covers; it was the smell of excitement.
What’s the strangest pitch you’ve experienced?
SD: It was a paranoid, rambling train of consciousness from someone with major mental issues. Let’s just say it involved a certain part of the male anatomy, a gun, and the destruction of the world. I still worry he’s going to come looking for me!
What advice would you give a writer in search for their literary agent match?
SD: Look for someone with a good sales track record (though there are new agents around who will go on to be good), who genuinely seems to like your work and has creative and insightful thoughts about it. Are they editorially sharp-eyed? Can they talk knowledgeably about contracts and subsidiary rights? Are they experienced at negotiation and mediating the publishing world? And very importantly, will they be responsive to your calls and emails (obviously, within reason – they have other clients too). You can often ask to be put in touch with an existing client who can give you the flavour of their relationship with the agent, and that can be helpful.
If you get multiple offers? Do your due diligence. Approach the decision in a businesslike way. Then trust your gut – and jump!