By Kerry Schafer
Last month I had the privilege of posting an interview with Lucienne Diver of the Knight Agency. Today, I’d like you to meet Sue Brower, another fabulous agent, who works with the Natasha Kern Agency.
Sue Brower loves finding and developing authors and connecting them with the reader. Book publishing has changed dramatically over the past several years and it’s no secret that the novels that create buzz through their unique writing or concepts are the ones that become bestsellers. Over the past 25 years in publishing, Sue has done marketing, editing, story development and acquisitions for Zondervan, a division of Harper Collins Publishers. Most recently, she was Executive Editor and had the privilege of working with New York Times bestselling authors Karen Kingsbury, Tim LaHaye, Stephen Carter, and Terri Blackstock and was named ACFW’s Editor of the Year in 2010. And now she is fortunate to partner with Natasha Kern at the Natasha Kern Literary Agency. Sue’s been an avid fiction fan since childhood and loves the way stories are able to change lives, heal hearts, and bring joy to readers. Today, she wants to read and acquire women’s contemporary fiction, any kind of romance, suspense, mystery and historical novels. She would love to discover the next breakaway author in any of these genres.
Kerry: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, Sue. I’m looking forward to meeting you in Colorado! But first things first. Your bio tells us that you are interested in acquiring women’s contemporary fiction, and also romance, suspense, mystery, and historical novels. Could you tell us a little bit more about what gets you excited?
Sue: I like stories with strong characterization and a well-paced plot. One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: “…fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind.” I want to be so engrossed in the story that I am disoriented when I close the book. I do not acquire based solely on genre because publisher and consumer trends change so quickly. But give me a well written book and I think I can pitch it anywhere, anytime.
Kerry: What was the last book you read for pleasure and what did you love (or not) about it?
Sue: I have been on an odyssey the last six months or so to read beyond my normal favorites. Unfortunately, that left a lot of books unfinished. Probably the most memorable book I’ve read recently is Reconstructing Amelia. It was a little dark and had some themes that put me off, but it was compelling and I still remember many of the characters. The best book I’ve read that feeds my love of romantic fiction was Julianne Donaldson’s Blackmoore. I loved that it drew me into an era that I read a lot about, yet this felt new and refreshing.
Kerry: Now that I have a couple of new books to add to my towering To Be Read pile, could you talk a bit about how you view the author/agent relationship? This seems to be a hot topic for writers these days.
Sue: I view the author/agent relationship as a partnership. As a former editor and marketer, I tend to be very opinionated, so the writer needs to be open to input on their writing, where they should be spending their time, and how they should brand themselves. Notice I said “input.” I want to be available to help an author to succeed at building a writing career.
Kerry: I think that input is one of the things that makes an agent so important to a writer. Things have changed a lot in publishing over the last few years, and it gets overwhelming trying to figure out where to spend your time. Another question writers often have involves what you see as your role in publishing, and how do you help your clients navigate the slippery territory spawned by Amazon and self publishing?
Sue: I see my role as coach, career counselor, advocate, listening post, and biggest fan. Editors today do not have time to acquire projects that just have potential. The editorial staff has more and more to do and there are fewer of them doing it. It’s my job to make sure that what I send out truly represents the writer’s best abilities. With regards to the various ways that a writer can be published, I think we, as agents, should be aware of the pitfalls of self-publishing and coach the writer to make the best choices for their career goals.
Kerry: I see that your agency is closed to unsolicited manuscripts—do you have any advice as to how a querying author could still get your attention?
Sue: There are a number of ways that a writer can get their manuscript in front of me. The best ways are through referrals from current client authors and through conferences. I would also say that if you respond to a blog or online class that I am a part of, I would be open to talking with you about your manuscript.
Kerry: Could you tell us a little about what happens when writers pitch to you at a conference?
Sue: When a writer pitches to me at a conference, they need to have a completed manuscript ready to be reviewed. I want the writer to tell me what their story is about and anything about their research or background that supports why their book is fresh or unique. I will look at a one-page, but I want to hear the writer to engage in conversation with me. If I am interested, I will ask for a proposal, synopsis, and three sample chapters to be emailed to me. If that looks good, I will ask for a full manuscript. Writing conferences are a great way to reach your preferred agent or editor since most will not accept unsolicited manuscripts. I would absolutely ask for anything that interests me.
Kerry: If you are considering a project that doesn’t immediately shout “pick me pick me” – what tips the balance toward acceptance?
Sue: I don’t usually consider projects that don’t shout “pick me up.” I have too much to read and too many queries to follow up on. The things that tip the balance for me are usually in the writing. If I am intrigued by a project, but the writing isn’t quite there, I will look for possibilities. Are they willing to revise? How much work will it take to get it ready for the publisher? If I am interested in an author, I usually want to have a phone chat before making an offer. If I see that they are not open to constructive criticism, or are reluctant to do the work, I will pass on the project. Also, if there is just too much work that needs to be done, I will have to put it aside. I usually make a few recommendations including finding a critique group or editor and I offer to look at it one more time.
Kerry: Are you open to authors pitching their books to you if they see you out and about in the hallways or the bar?
Sue: No. The worse pitch I ever received happened when I was leaving a dinner on the last day of a conference and I was obviously worn out and sick with a cold, but the writer wouldn’t let me politely decline a conversation. It’s never good to approach an agent when they are heading to a meeting or relaxing with colleagues after a long day. It’s absolutely forbidden to approach them in a restroom!
Kerry: I’ve heard horror stories. Personally, I can’t imagine the desperation that would drive a writer to the bathroom pitch, but I know it happens. Would you prefer writers keep to the boundaries of scheduled pitch sessions entirely?
Sue: I think that depends on who the agent is. If I am sitting in a common area (lobby, for instance) and not already talking to someone, I am open to a writer starting a conversation.
Kerry: Last and most importantly, what is your beverage of choice? Just in case we do find you hanging out in the bar and would like to show our appreciation for spending time with us at Colorado Gold.
Sue: My favorite drink is Diet Coke. I am particularly open to this approach when the venue is Pepsi only!
Kerry: Excellent. I’m a Coke fan myself, so if the venue happens to be misguided I will try to snag you a drink from somewhere. Thank you again for taking the time to answer my many questions.