Like our workshop, these faculty interviews focus on youth novels. To read all years’ faculty interviews, see our Directory.
Stephen is a senior agent at Writers House, one of the largest literary agencies in the world. He’s interested in a wide range of middle-grade and YA genres. His clients include John Corey Whaley, Printz Award-winning author of Where Things Come Back and National Book Award finalist for Noggin. Additionally, Maggie Thrash, staff writer for Rookie Mag and the author of Honor Girl. Plus, on the adult side, Brooke Shields, actress and author of the New York Times bestseller, There Was a Little Girl.
With an English degree from UCLA, Stephen brings strong editorial skills to his agenting—as well as insight and wit. Enjoy the interview below!
I. GENERAL TOPICS
Why did you become an agent; what do you enjoy most about the work?
After graduating from UCLA, I flew to New York with the goal of becoming an editor (and riding the carousel in Central Park). The truth is, I didn’t even know that agents existed, and my understanding of editors was based entirely on Robert Downey, Jr.’s portrayal of Terry Crabtree in “Wonder Boys.” He works for a fancy NYC publisher and flies into Pittsburgh (wearing a big, comfy looking East Coast coat) to coax a second novel out of his troubled but brilliant author. Hijinks ensue.
That sounded pretty swell to me, but during six months of interviews and internships, I realized that while I still wanted the coat and the authors, I was far better suited for the role (so to speak) of their agent. Editing is my favorite part of my job, but the chance to be creatively encouraging at the primordial ooze stage of a book is why I was drawn (and then cemented) to this side of the desk.
Approximately how many MG and YA novels do you sell per year? What percentage (or how many) are debut authors?
About six to eight novels per year, half of them debuts.
Which novel genres are you soliciting?
I’m willing to be won over by anything—controversial, crossover, crayon, you name it.
What’s the outlook on YA novel trends—or is YA evolving past trends?
You’ll have to pardon me, but I’m trying to start a trend where we don’t talk about trends!
Name two MG/YA novels you’ve sold in recent years. Which aspects of each novel appealed to you from the query and/or manuscript’s first lines?
Mystery Club by Maggie Thrash, the first in a totally bonkers, totally devious YA series that embraces and teases convention in equal measure, like Pretty Little Liars colliding with Inherent Vice.
Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker by Shelley Johannes, launching a young (and heavily illustrated) middle grade series about a plucky third-grader whose topsy-turvy point of view turns the world sunny-side up.
In both cases, the characters were immediately irresistible and confounding (in a good way!) and wholly original.
Queries, Craft and Critiques
Many publishers are closed to unsolicited submissions. Do you consider unsolicited queries; i.e., those without a referral (not a workshop attendee, etc.)? What are your usual response times?
I most definitely consider unsolicited submissions—all you need to query me is a stamp or an internet connection or an elevator that we both happen to be standing in. I tend to respond to queries within 120 hours (a more suspenseful way of saying “five days”) and to requested manuscripts within 40,320 minutes (a stupider way of saying “four weeks”).
Are query letters peripheral for you, or are they an important reflection on the author and manuscript? What makes a query irresistible?
If you can make me like you in a letter, there’s a decent chance you can make me like your characters, too (at least the ones I’m supposed to like and not the murderous pirate types, etc.). The manuscript is the judge, jury, and executioner, but a friendly, disarming query can inspire me to read with surplus hope!
How many pages do you usually read in a manuscript before deciding to continue reading, request a full, or reject the manuscript?
The bridge from 25 to 50 pages is the ricketiest part of the journey. That’s usually where a manuscript will either lose me or carry me to the rest of it.