I have a treat for all of you! Not only has the charming Chelsea Gilmore from Maria Carvainis Agency granted me this interview, but also, she has agreed to stop by the Sisterhood blog to answer any questions our readers may have! So what are you waiting for? Set your fingers on your keyboards and type away!
Chelsea, welcome to the Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood!
Q: How did you get your break in publishing?
A: I often joke it was dumb luck. While I’d always dreamed that there was some magical job that paid you to read, I never actually thought it existed! I’d been working at a legal recruiting company for about a year, (which was not at all what I wanted to be doing) when I saw a posting online for a position at Oxford University Press. I submitted my resume, got an interview, and was shortly thereafter hired as the Assistant to the VP/Publisher of the Higher Education Group. I held that position for about a year, and then moved over to Editorial, where I worked for over two years. It was a truly fantastic experience—I got to dabble in editorial, marketing, sales, etc. until I found my “niche.”
Q: What genres do you represent?
Women’s fiction, literary fiction, middle grade/YA, historical fiction (and romances), mysteries/thrillers—just about anything and everything! The only genres I don’t deal with are science fiction, children’s/picture books, and inspirational stories.
Q: What type of Women’s Fiction (or any of its subgenres) appeals to you the most?
A: I definitely gravitate more toward literary projects, but I’m a huge fan of women’s fiction in general, so I’m happy to look at just about anything.
Q: Back when you were an editor at Avalon Books you had to acquire books that didn’t have any graphic violence, sex, foul language or extramarital affairs. Are you following the same parameters for the books you take on as an agent?
A: Absolutely not, and I couldn’t be happier! While there is certainly much to appreciate in terms of the “family friendly” writing that Avalon publishes, I love being able to read anything I like, without any specific “rules” or guidelines dictating what’s OK and what’s not.
Q: What are your top three authors of all time? What are your top three books?
A: This is an extremely difficult question to answer! I think I really have phases when it comes to authors and favorite books—it really depends on my mood. Three authors that I continually come back to are: John Irving, David Sedaris, and J.K. Rowling. To keep things interesting, I’ll choose three books not written by any of these folks. She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb; Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann; and The Help by Kathryn Stockett.
Q: Please tell us what a day in the life of a literary agent is like.
A: My days typically consist of reading, emailing clients, doing research on publishing houses and editors, and keeping abreast of the dailies from sources like Publishers Lunch, Mediabistro.com, etc. I look online for exciting and popular blogs, big news stories and articles, etc. Of course, each day is slightly different from the day before, depending on what’s on my plate. I also attend conferences throughout the year, participate in the judging of contests, do guests blogs such as this, and generally try to keep my name out there.
Q: Please tell us about Maria Carvainis Agency. How many agents and interns work with you?
A: Maria and I are the only two agents. We have a fantastic assistant, Lyndsay, who helps with everything from query vetting to manuscript reading to filing royalty statements. We also currently have two incredible interns: Aviva and Tali, who help us out immensely. Martha Guzman is our sub-rights and contracts manager, and she is wonderful—extremely detail oriented, thorough, and always busy!
Q: About how many submissions do you receive per week? What do you look for in a query letter and what is the best way to submit to you?
A: On average, the agency receives about 250 queries per week. Of that, we probably request anywhere from 10 to 20 full manuscripts per week. In terms of queries, I’m mostly looking for solid, clear, and intriguing writing. An ideal query letter should focus mainly on the book itself, with a bit of personal info about the author. An indication of genre and audience, as well as a summary of the main characters and overall plot are the most important, key elements. The best way to submit your query is through good, old-fashioned snail mail. Send a query and up to ten sample pages to:
Maria Carvainis Agency, Inc.
1270 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Q: What is one of the most common problems you see in the manuscripts you receive?
A: There is not one specific problem that I would say is common. Generally speaking, the version of your manuscript that you submit should be as clean (i.e. free of grammatical errors/typos), and well-written as possible. Sticking to a format of single-sided and double spaced is also very helpful. Also, try to be consistent with things like character names, tenses, etc.
Q: Would you take on a client based on his/her potential even if the manuscript is not ready to be sold?
A: It really depends. As a general rule, I only read completed manuscripts and prefer that the novel be as perfect as possible before signing. I am more likely to offer an author suggestions for revisions to see if he/she is capable of taking direction and notes for a re-write before offering representation.
Q: What do you think is the ideal/manageable number of clients for an agent? And how many do you aim to have?
A: I don’t think there is a formula to agenting in terms of number of clients. Maria and I pride ourselves on giving each of our clients individual attention. I think it is important for any agent to not overextend themselves to the point where they are unable to do their utmost for each client. That said, we currently have about 40 or so active clients, and I think we do an excellent job of handling each one.
Q: Could you tell us what the process is like from reading a query letter to signing a client? Have you found any clients at conferences?
A: After reading a query, if we like your work we’ll request your full manuscript. If we find your writing strong, and feel that we can sell your work, we then inquire as to what other projects you have lined up. Ideally, we want to work with writers who have plans for a long career, with multiple book ideas. If we like not just your current novel, but the plans for future work, we will then send you an agency agreement and begin the process of submitting your novel to various editors/publishers. I have found clients at conferences—it’s quite rare, but it does happen!
Q: How often and how do you communicate with your clients?
A: All the time! For clients with projects currently out on submission, there is a lot more day to day contact. For clients who are in the process of writing (or re-writing) a novel, I am here for support, to be a sounding board, etc. As I said before, Maria and I pride ourselves on giving each of our clients individual attention—we’re here when they need us, and keep the lines of communication open. Most communication happens over email and phone calls.
Q: How much marketing/self promotion is expected from a writer aside from internet interviews/blogs?
A: It really depends on the writer. I think it’s particularly important for new writers to have a solid presence online—in blogs, on Twitter, Facebook, etc. I think every author, regardless of popularity/success, needs to be capable of self-promoting. This can be in the form of book signings, blogs, book trailers, etc. Because competition is steep, and our attention spans are waning, every author needs to be diligent about keeping their name and novel(s) out there. One bit of advice that I often give in terms of blogging is that only blog if you can commit to writing a minimum of twice a week. If you feel that your schedule only allows you to update a blog once a month, it is probably better to not have one. It is also incredibly important for non-fiction authors to do a lot of self-promoting and marketing. Your platform as a non-fiction author is your lifeblood, and therefore maintaining a solid online presence is an absolute must.
Q: How are the International/Film Rights handled in your agency? Do you have someone who specifically deals with that area?
A: We do have someone who handles our foreign and other sub-rights (including film)—Martha Guzman. The agency has a very successful record of international sales. While film deals do not happen often, they are a handled by the agency.
Q: Is it true that advances are getting smaller for first time authors? In your experience, do authors more often than not exceed their advances with debut novels?
A: Yes, this is true. Advances are getting smaller in general, and especially for first-time authors. It is difficult to say whether or not authors exceed their advances with debut novels—sometimes yes, sometimes no. While big advances are great, the more important factor is staying power—do you have a publisher that will help grow your career? Will your publisher solidly promote and market your work, thus trying to keep you from getting stuck mid-list?
Q: There seems to be an ongoing controversy over the “chick lit” genre. Do you have any insight/opinion on the subject?
A: Not really. I love solid chick lit as much as the next gal. I think there are a few trends happening at the moment—middle grade and YA fiction are hugely popular, paranormal is still hot, and literary fiction is on a slight upswing. I think that it is easy for a lot of folks to look down their noses at so-called “chick lit,” and demonize it for lack of substance, being superficial, etc. But in fairness, a lot of chick lit encompasses the thing many readers love best about a good novel: escapism. When faced with a recession, political drama, etc., a lot of readers just want to disappear into the pages of a novel, and chick lit can be a real balm in that aspect. Trends come and go, and no one can predict what will be popular next, so if you have a chick lit novel that you’re dying to write, by all means write it! You never know what might appeal to an agent, editor, or reader on any given day.
Q: Finally, does your agency have a website and if not, are there any plans to build one?
A: The agency currently does not have a website, but we are certainly considering creating a very basic one with information on submissions. I’ll keep you informed of any progress!
Thank you, Chelsea, and best of luck to you in all your upcoming projects!