Pooja Menon joined Kimberley Cameron & Associates as an intern in the fall of 2011, with the aim of immersing herself in the elusive world of publishing. She soon realized that being an agent was what she was most drawn to as the job was varied and challenging and satisfied her craving to work with books. In the fall of 2012, she began taking on her own clients. As a relatively new agent, Pooja is looking to build her client list and is eager for submissions by debut novelists and veteran writers. She represents fiction and non-fiction for both Adult and YA markets, and is searching for writing that has an easy flow, timely pacing, unique perspectives, and strong voices.
In Adult fiction, she is looking for upmarket women‘s fiction, literary/commercial fiction, thrillers, mysteries/suspense, historical and multi-cultural fiction. In YA, she is looking for strong voice-driven contemporary fiction (from the light/romantic variety to fiction dealing with darker themes and subjects), horror, mysteries/thrillers with psychological twists, fantasy, historicals–all of which need to be uniquely spun, fresh, with voices that are strong and multi-layered. She‘s also looking for multi-cultural fiction that is either set abroad or is set in the US with characters from a different culture or background.
Pat: Welcome to the RMFW Blog, Pooja. Could you start by telling our conference attendees (and potential attendees) about your educational background and experience and what specifically led to your literary agent position?
Pooja: Of course! I went quite the linear way to be honest. I always knew I wanted to work in publishing. At the time, I envisioned more of an editorial role when I thought of jobs. I planned on moving to NY and trying to get into one of the Big 6 (at that time) and working my way up. So I did my BA in English Literature from England and then, because I loved to write, I did an M.F.A from Otis College of Art and Design in LA, which was really great because it’s a small program and we’re all very collaborative (the professors and the students) and they have a publishing module/program where they release a select number of literary books each year--each of us learnt what goes into publishing a book while working on these.
Once I finished, however, life changed direction and I got married and my husband’s job required me to be in the Bay Area. So I began looking at other options and found Kimberley Cameron & Associates. I’ll be honest, until that point I didn’t know much about a literary agent and nor did I consider it a career option because I had thought of something else all along. But once I learnt more about it, I applied for an internship with Kimberley and I interned and assisted with her for a year. I realized that the job offered me a ton of freedom with the kind of projects I wanted to work on, offered me the freedom to work with the kind of people I wanted to work with, and I got to do more than an editorial role. Agents wear a lot of different hats and I enjoyed learning about all these various hats. Then in the fall of 2012, Kimberley asked me to join and I jumped at the chance.
Pat: Have you attended many writers’ conferences since you became an agent? If so, tell us a little about your conference experience, what you like most and least. If you haven’t been to many conferences, please describe your expectations, especially about the author pitch sessions.
Pooja: I did, actually. This year has been conference heavy! I attended a couple of local one day and weekend conferences, went to San Miguel in February, Houston in April, Boise in May, this July it will be my second time at the PNWA conference in Seattle, my first at Colorado Gold (so excited), quite frankly, I’ve attended quite a bit and really enjoyed them. I love meeting new writers who come to me bursting with ideas for their projects; I enjoy talking to them about their work and how far they’ve come and where they got their inspiration from. I love hearing about how active in the writing community they are—attending conferences and writing critique groups, doing readings, learning up on the industry, etc (this kind of a writer makes me a very happy agent). It’s really great.
What I like the least is when I meet people during pitches who’ve come to talk to me about their work but won’t take a word of criticism/suggestion/advice without getting irked or defensive. This industry requires people to be open and willing to learn and edit and revise, requires people to be tough skinned when getting critiqued. It also bothers me when people don’t respect the idea of space. I’m very aware that they’ve spent money to be at conferences and they’re eager to learn, but when an agent goes to the restroom or finds a moment to have lunch (unless it’s a lunch/informal pitch session), that definitely is not the best time to pitch your work. Respect boundaries and space. That’s what I think authors (definitely this is a minority) can work on.
Pat: The bio at the beginning of this interview has a pretty long list of fiction genres that you might be interested in representing. RMFW is all for and about fiction writers, so please elaborate a bit on your favorite genres, what you hope to find in the pitch sessions, and which genres are least likely to excite you. Are you interested in the New Adult genre?
Pooja: In terms of what excites me the most, I’m very fond of multi-cultural fiction that deals with family, love, boundaries, etc within a larger framework or plotline. Think of Khalid Hosseini or Jhumpa Lahiri or Adiche Chimamanda or Isabel Allende or Amy Tan or Ann Patchett or books like Shadow of the Banyan Tree and The Tiger’s Wife. Literary fiction that has strong commercial appeal. Now, by all means, not all stories have to be set in multi-cultural settings. I enjoy literary fiction and commercial fiction of any kind, set anywhere as long as the concept is fresh and unique: The Night Circus, The Orphan Train, historical fiction by Sarah Dunant, mysteries or thrillers by authors like Tana French and Kathy Reich’s, or ones that are off-beat (Gone Girl, domestic thriller that’s off-beat and dark and set in a suburb or Alexander McCall, polar opposite, for instance) from the norm.
Frankly, aside from romance, epic sci-fi and fantasy, military fiction, and light frothy beach reads (not overly fond of these), I’m open to anything unique and different. I’m hoping to be surprised and meeting authors’ at pitch sessions is usually the perfect way to be surprised. Many a time, even though I might not generally read books in a particular genre or category, I might make an exception if the writing and the characters are THAT strong and have moved me in some big way. So be ready to bring me your best work!
Pat: What advice do you have for the authors who pitch their work to you at conference?
Pooja: Be calm, be professional and courteous, and prepare your pitch and practice it before coming to a conference because agents would prefer you to pitch them face to face in a conversational manner as opposed to, a) reading off a page b) rambling on and on about your story in an attempt to tell us your whole story in four minutes.
Prepare a one minute pitch, a three minute pitch, a four minute one, depending on the pitch times for the conference you’re attending. One minute pitches regardless because if you’re pitching to an agent over drinks in an informal setting, you want to capture their attention at once, then a strong, intriguing one minute or shorter pitch would be the key. Also, practice on your spouse or friend or parents or partner until they think you’re doing it organically and until you think you are confident enough.
Lastly, we’re just people looking for an amazing story. We’re there to meet you because we want to be and because we want to find stories that make our hearts race. So don’t be nervous. What’s the worst that can happen, really? Practice makes perfect and if you didn’t click with one agent or made mistakes at one conference, there are plenty more for you to try at or learn from. It’s never a waste!
Pat: What changes is your agency experiencing because of the rise in self-published books? Do you see any differences in the quality and genre of submissions you receive?
Pooja: First off, I have to say, the explosion of self-published books hasn’t affected us as much. Mainly because books that are self-published and have sold millions of copies have been the exception, not the norm. We get queries all the time from people who’ve gone the self-published route and then learnt that a lot goes into it to take it off the ground and they would rather focus on writing and have agents take care of that bit, Unfortunately, once a book is put out and if they don’t garner enough sales or attention, there isn’t much an agent can do for them.
In the case of books that do well, people have asked us why they need an agent, and my answer is that if that’s the case, we can still get them a better deal. For instance, if an author has millions of e-book sales, an agent can get them a great print deal with a big publisher, better distribution and packaging deals for print books, movie or TV deals, work on getting an aggressive deal on other subsidiary rights, so many things an agent can do for that author while allowing the author to keep the rights of the e-books he’s sold on his own. So, in essence, agents move and evolve with the industry and our roles get more and more complex, but never less necessary or important.
Pat: The website states your agency is open to emailed queries that include a one-page synopsis and the first fifty pages of the manuscript. When you open one of these queries, what most encourages you to read on, and what makes you stop reading and reject the submission?
Pooja: A stellar query makes me want to read more. Even if a query isn’t so stellar, I still do read the first ten pages at least if I feel like the story has potential or perks my interest in some way. It’s all based on the writing for me, if I feel like the story doesn’t capture me from the first page, I would still read a few more pages in, but if I still feel like I have to force myself to keep going, that would be an easy decision for me to make. When we go through the edits with our clients, we sometimes end up reading that manuscript a dozen times! If I struggled to read it the first time, it will be a painful process indeed to get through it even a second time around.
Pat: When you like what you hear during a conference pitch session, what would trigger a request for the full manuscript?
Pooja: Usually I stick to asking from 25-75 pages based on how well the pitch is put forward or how intrigued I am by the story. I never request a full because I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts fall apart in the middle, so I prefer the cautious and bit by bit approach.
Pat: We know that literary agents spend a lot of their “spare” time reading manuscripts, but what else do you do for fun? Do you have any interesting hobbies, quirky pets, or unusual weekend activities?
Pooja: Ah fun! Well, there was a time when I used to work every day even through the weekends and quickly realized that’s a recipe for disaster. I was getting burned out and my family wasn’t too pleased by it. So I’ve scaled back a lot.
I love reading for pleasure, so I still try and find time for that. We do a lot of hiking with my dog (my quirky goldendoodle) and meet up with friends and watch plays/musicals/movies, I try and fit in working out in there somewhere despite my dislike for it, I do love dancing so I’ve been toying with the idea of signing up for classes. Ditto with wanting to learn how to bake and cook Thai/Ethiopian food, though I have to find time for it. Love to travel, so we try and do a lot of local trips if we can and go outside once a year at least. I also love trying new cuisines so we go around in the city and out of the city in search of food.
Thanks so much for answering our questions, Pooja. We look forward to meeting you at Colorado Gold.