Sunday, January 30, 2011

Interview with Agent Chelsea Gilmore

Dear Readers,

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,, 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:

Chelsea Gilmore
Maria Carvainis Agency, Inc.
Rockefeller Center
1270 Avenue of the Americas
Suite 2320
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!


  1. Amazing/informative interview! Awesome stuff! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Extremely informative! Thanks to Sister Lorena for her finding and to Chelsea Gilmore for her time and the huge amount of data she shared with us.
    Two questions for Chelsea
    1. Would your agency be willing to take clients from overseas?
    2. Is there any subject matter that you would not touch? Are there still taboo matters in the industry?

  3. A very thorough interview, Lorena- it really does an excellent job of transmitting Ms. Gilmore's enthusiasm and professionalism.

    Thank you both for having taken the time!

  4. Thank you so much for the interview! Chelsea sounds like an amazing person to work with. I don't have a question, I just wanted to say thanks! :)

  5. Great interview. I found it interesting that finding clients at conferences is rarer than finding them through the pile.

  6. Thank you Lorena and Chelsea for such an informative interview! I do have one question, and I think Chris already touched upon it. I also find it interesting that finding clients at conferences is rare. After all, as writers we are pushed and coerced into attending conferences. So here's my question for Chelsea:

    Do you think it's worth a writer's time and money to attend a conference, especially if a writer's main plan is to only go meet agents (meaning the writer is at a point where he/she doesn't really need the input of the conference sessions)?

    Thank you both for sharing this interview with us.

  7. This was a wonderfully informative interview. Thank you for sharing this.

  8. Hi All! I'm terribly sorry I wasn't here yesterday to answer your questions, but let me make up for it now!

    To Violante: 1. Yes, the agency is more than happy to represent authors from outside the U.S.
    2. Not so much subject matter as genres--I don't handle science fiction, children's picture books, or inspirational/religious stories. As far as taboo topics...hmmm...I'm sure that there are some, but I cannot pinpoint any off the top of my head. One thing to keep in mind is that this is an extremely subjective industry--you're dealing with tons of folks' personal preferences, peeves, etc. In other words, what might be taboo for one agent or editor might be precisely what another is looking for--so send out your work, and see what kind of feedback you receive!

  9. Mary Mary, I think conferences are very worthwhile. Even if you're beyond the point of really needing the workshops, conferences are excellent places to network, meet other writers, pick people's brains, etc. At larger conferences, odds are there will be a number of writers who are represented by the various agents in attendance (ditto for editors). This is a great opportunity for you to speak to these authors and ask them about their relationship with their agent/editor, their agent's/editor's interests, etc. You can also look at it as a means of getting to "test drive" agents, too. You'll have a chance to speak with them, ask them questions, see them participate in panels, etc., which can give you great insight as to whether or not you think you might be a good match. I think that perhaps your time might be better spent by attending some larger conferences with a higher volume of editor and agent attendees, so that you're increasing your odds of connecting with one you like, and not spending your time twiddling your thumbs while everyone is in workshops.

    Of course, sending out queries is super important, as is doing your homework to make sure you're submitting to agents who work with your particular type of story. I hope that helps!

  10. Thank you all for your kind words, and for checking out my interview! I'll check in throughout the day to see if there are any further questions. Thanks again, and happy writing!

  11. I just want to say thank you Chelsea for your helpful input. It's always great to be able to pick an agents brain.

  12. Chelsea, I really appreciate what you've said about conferences. I have been attending a local conference for three years and am currently toying with the idea of attending a larger conference in an even more metropolitan locale, nearby. I've met some of the nicest people at conferences, yourself and Lorena among them, and believe your words to be spot on.

    Thank you, again, for your insight and have a lovely week!

  13. Great interview, ladies! Tons of great information here.

    I'm not sure if Chelsea's still taking questions, but just in case she is, here's another: You mentioned you weren't interested in science fiction, but when you say science fiction, do you mean spaceships and intergalactic warfare and the like? What if the science fiction isn't so heavy-handed? What if it deals more with new technology, but all the action still takes place on Earth in a futuristic United States of America?

  14. Chelsea, thank you very much for your answers. I was reading several articles on Historical Romances and how they have evolved, and noticed a general distaste (in readers) for age-difference, especially when the girl was underage or in her teens. However, we know that a century ago girls married/matured younger than nowadays. Would that be a reason to reject a manuscript? Even if it is historical fiction?

  15. What a fantastic interview. Thanks so much Chelsea and Lorena!


  16. An amazing interview! Thank you, Lorena, for solid questions, and thank you, Chelsea, for solid answers. I learned much.

  17. To Krista V.--I suppose something that was just dealing with some rather futuristic, new technology wouldn't quite be what I consider true "sci fi." I think it's probably something I would have to know a little more about to determine whether or not I'd be comfortable reading it. To be perfectly honest, the reason I don't request science fiction novels is because I know very little about them or the market and audience. I know there are all kinds of "rules" in terms of world-building, etc., and I simply don't have that knowledge base. If you would like to send me a query and some sample pages, I'd be better able to tell you if it's a project I'd feel comfortable reading it its entirety. Hope that helps!

  18. Violante, I don't think that an age difference is a real "deal breaker," but it depends on how it is handled. For example, if we're talking about a 14-year-old girl being unwillingly married off to an 80-year-old man, I'm not sure that would go over super well... However, if we're talking about a girl who is 17, married to man in his early 30s, but they actually have genuine love and affection for each other, that is not problematic. It's quite difficult to really say one way or the other without knowing the actual details of the plot and more about the characters, so if you would like to send me your query along with some sample pages, I'll feel more confident telling you whether I think your premise might be problematic.

  19. Dear Chelsea,
    To be quite frank, I was asking out of curiosity, I never expected such a tempting offer! I completed this novel about five years ago, and eventually shelved it for several reasons. It would mean so much if an expert could take a look at it and give me an honest appraisal. My deepest gratitude in advance for your time and input.

  20. Violante, it is absolutely my pleasure!

    Thank you all for stopping by and asking me such great questions. I am thrilled to have been asked to participate, and delighted that you all found it helpful. I wish you all much success and happiness with your writing careers! Thank you!

  21. I would also like to thank everyone who stopped by and commented. My deepest gratitude to Chelsea for being so generous with her time and for giving us such thorough responses!

  22. Chelsea, thanks for your answer! And thank you, Writing Sisterhood, for hosting such a great interview!

  23. Chelsea is my agent and I can tell you honestly that she is terrific to work with! Thanks, Divine Secrets, for interviewing her!

  24. Linda and Krista: thank you both for stopping by!

    Linda, you are very lucky to have such a great agent! (I stopped by your website and I have to say I love your artwork!)

  25. Enjoyed this. Chelsea requested the full of one of my novels last year, was great communicating with her--so cheerful! She did turn it down (it happens!), so when another novel became a short-list finalist for 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom contest, I immediately thought of her, pitched it, and was rewarded with another full request. That was yesterday. There's no guarantee she'll take it, but her enthusiasm makes a huge difference! I just hope she loves it, and I live a good ways from the US, in Borneo!

    In 2006 I did attend the Maui Writer's Conference, and just being around the calibre of writers and editors and agents was worth the expense (two were judges of Faulkner-Wisdom contest this year and I met them!). Hooked up with some other writers, and one met his agent at Thrillerfest. Two of his books came out last year and two more are due out this year. It happens.

    Another of my friends, who I critiqued and exchanged novels with in Malaysia 7 years ago, had no agent in February, got one, her book went to auction by end of March. Persistence pays off. The writing has to be good!

  26. 'Persistence pays off. The writing has to be good!'


    Best of everything to you, Borneo Expat.

  27. Wow. You're far! Good luck with Chelsea, Borneo Expat. Let us know what happens.

    PS. I've met Chelsea in person twice and she's wonderful.

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  32. Why is it better for a writer to not have a blog at all if he/she isn't going to write in it twice a week? What if the writer doesn't deem anything blog-worthy at the moment, and prefers to blog by inner compulsion so as to actually interest readers? Isn't it a matter of quality rather than quantity? And what kind of blog is she referring to? Any and all blogs, including ones on Blogspot?

  33. Rayme, thanks for joining us. I can't speak for Chelsea but I assume this tip applies to writers who are looking to use blogs as a self promotion/marketing tool and grow a big following, which is not the aim of every writer. Some seek to express themselves or belong to a community. In such cases, I don't think it matters how frequently you post something. The thing about consistency and frequency is that your followers know when to check your blog and it can become a habit (which may build a regular readership and make your blog grow). Otherwise, they may forget you. Having said this, I've been reading lately a lot of conflicting opinions about blogging (some agents/editors are now saying that blogging doesn't make a difference for unpublished writers unless you have a HUGE following.)

  34. Oh, so she's saying not to have a blog at all (unless writing in it regularly) because if you don't write in it, say, twice a week, it won't make a difference in terms of self-promotion. I thought she meant it would actually hurt the self-promoting writer to have a blog that they don't write in that often. That's what confused me.


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