Sunday, March 23, 2014

Interview with Agent Christa Heschke

Hey, writers! Looking for an agent to represent your YA/NA/Children's book? Agent Christa Heschke of McIntosh & Otis, Inc. is still open to new clients, and she has kindly agreed to answer my questions about her preferences and the current state of the publishing industry. Check out what she has to say and get those query letters ready!

Hi Christa, welcome to The Writing Sisterhood!

Q: Writers are always curious about what goes on behind agencies’ closed doors. Could you share with our readers what a day in the life of a literary agent is like?

A: Every day is very different, as we’re a full service agency, so we handle pretty much everything for our authors personally, such as contracts, foreign rights and other subsidiary rights (some agents have different people at their agency who do these types of things for them and don’t handle personally). Each day generally starts with me going through my emails, answering questions, checking in with editors on submissions, payments etc. then throughout the day I’ll have phone calls, meetings and lunches with editors, negotiate deals, work on contracts etc. Of course, all of these things don’t happen every day, so this is just to give you an idea of what may cross my desk.

Q: About how many submissions do you receive per week? What do you look for in a query letter? 

A: About 75 submissions a week, sometimes more. Well, first thing I look for in a query is that it’s a genre I am currently looking for. My current wish list is on my blog and on the M&O website under Agents.  Next, I look to see if it’s something that’s new or different. If you send me something that sounds like a knockoff I likely won’t read on. Make sure your letter is professional and not too conversational. I’ll also look to see if the project is a standalone or a series and if the author has written anything else or has a website so I can learn more.

Q: Will you be open to adult fiction in the near future? 

A: No. We have two great adult agents here. If I ever were to fall in love with an adult project I would co-agent with one of my colleagues. The adult world and children’s world are very different and working in children’s I’m not regularly meeting adult editors or expanding my contacts there.

Q: What is one of the most common problems you see in the manuscripts you receive?

A: I still see a fair amount of projects that are trying to chase trends. If you’re writing something only because you think it will sell a lot of copies because it’s similar to Twilight and Twilight sold a lot of copies you’re often hurting your own chances. Writing for trends can lack passion. When you have an idea for a novel and can’t get it out of your head, that’s passion. You’re not thinking of the endgame, just that you need to write it. Those are always the best books, if you ask me, and you can feel it when you read. Writing for trends can be formulaic and it’s often too late. Books take 18-24 months to publish on average and if there are already 10 books on mermaids and you’re only now writing one, many editors may have already had their fill of it.

The other problem I see a lot is a story that reads like a first draft and isn’t fully realized. Find critique partners or have a friend read your novel before sending it out. It’s best to send a project that has gone through revisions and is as good as you think it can be before sending to agents.

Q: Would you take on a client based on his/her potential even if the manuscript is not ready to be sold? 

A: Yes! I have never instantly sent out a manuscript after taking on a client. We always at least do a bit of tweaking. I wouldn’t take something on though that needed a lot of work. If I liked it and saw potential I’d likely ask for a revise and resubmit. It’s important to make sure an author is good at revision before taking them on.

Q: Why do you think YA fiction has become so popular in the last few years? There also seems to be a preference for fiction with supernatural/fantastic elements. Do you think these trends will continue for much longer? 

A: YA fiction is often hopeful. It’s about teens who are at the beginning of their lives. There’s so much promise. It’s about growth and becoming who you’re meant to be, first experiences and making mistakes. Anyone can relate to that even as adults. It’s just so accessible and often more fast paced than an adult novel. Depending on who you ask, the response will probably vary, but those are some of the main things. Paranormal and dystopian is on the way out; we’re seeing ends to series mostly in these genres now and I can’t think of too many editors or agents looking for it. In fact, many are specifically saying they aren’t considering it.  Not too many standalones or beginning of series these days.  I think everything is shifting back towards contemporary, but I also think people are trying to figure out what the next big thing will be. Magical realism is pretty highly sought after. There’s been some sci-fi, horror, thriller and light fantasy that has been doing well and editors and agents are still looking for those genres.

Q: Writers are often times frustrated with how difficult it is to get the attention of industry professionals. What do you think is the most effective method for a writer to get noticed: conferences, blogs, query letters, contests? 

A: That’s a hard question. Meeting an editor or agent at a conference certainly helps as we generally will put priority on those submissions.  Networking is always helpful. Join writing groups or book clubs with other writers. If any of the writers are published or become published they may recommend you to their agent. Referrals always get priority. Send your best work. It likely won’t be that first novel. Many writers have several novels under their belt before submitting to agents or editors. You keep getting better with practice. Make sure the book you submit is polished and as good as it can be. Have friends and critique partners give you opinions. Sending an agent every project you have isn’t going to get you noticed. Most agents frown on it unless they specifically ask to see more work.  Send the project you think is the best fit for that agent. An online presence is nice to see but it doesn’t sway me either way unless it’s particularly negative towards editors/agents/the industry. Try to keep your online presence professional and positive.   Contests are good too. I’ve found some of my clients that way.  It’s hard work to get noticed and you really have to dedicate yourself to it and not let yourself be troubled too much by rejection. It’s all about finding that right person to champion your work and it may take some time to find them.

Q: How do you feel about writers posting excerpts of their unpublished novels and/or creating websites for them? 

A: I think short excerpts are fine.  It can help get you some readers/fans who will buy your book once you are published.  I don’t think an entire website dedicated to an unpublished book is necessary. I’d stick to an author site or blog and you can talk about your work there. But, be wary as there are people out there who steal ideas so I’d say less is more.

Q: Do you think e-books present a threat to traditional books or they can happily co-exist? 

A: They can happily co-exist. I think there was some worry about it, when they first started becoming popular, but I hope that there will always be those book lovers who enjoy holding a real book. It’s such a different experience.

Q: Finally, what are your top three authors of all time? What are your top three books?

A: That is so hard to answer! I have a lot of authors and books I really enjoy. I always was a big RL Stine fan (Fear Street specifically), I loved Corduroy as a kid and The Teeny Tiny Woman (it’s an early reader). My parents said that I would act it out while I was reading it.  The Hobbit is another favorite. I also am a big Bruce Coville and Garth Nix fan.  Oh and can’t forget Jane Austen!

Thank you, Christa, for those very insightful answers!

For more information about Christa and what she's looking for, check out her blog and her agency's website.


  1. What excellent insights into the life of an agent. Thanks Lorena for inviting Christa today.

  2. Great interview of a great agent!! Of course, I am biased. :)

  3. Great interview! Good point about YA being hopeful. I read a lot of YA and even the darkest dystopians tend to end on an up note. I just read a very unusual YA: "All the Truth that's In Me" by Julie Berry; it's set in Colonial America! It starts off as a trauma-survival tale and is fairly dark, but definitely gets brighter and more hopeful as it progresses and the protagonist gets her strength and voice back. Interesting how many YA themes were played out within that unusual context. Maybe historical YA will be the next trend. That would be refreshing.

  4. This is great info! Glad I stumbled across it this morning. Good luck to those who submit!!!


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