The Annual League of Utah Writers Conference is over and what better way to ring in our new chapter website than to have an interview with Literary Agent – Elise Capron.
Elise is an agent with the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency and was one of the agents attending the conference. Michael Gordon, our new Chapter President, met with her and she graciously agreed to let us do an interview. (FYI – Dijkstra is pronounced dye-ck-struh . . . the “j” is silent.)
On a personal note from Michael about this experience with Elise:
“Some see agents as intimidating or they get really nervous around them, but Elise, while very passionate about what she does, was full of grace and class. Any fears or nervousness I personally had about agents left. The interview with her was a refreshing experience. I found her so down to earth and genuine.”
You can follow Elise on Twitter @EliseCapron The transcript is below, enjoy!
M: Today we have Elise Capron with the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. Thank you for letting us interview you.
E: Happy to be here.
M: Well I know you’re busy so we’ll provide your bio later to people so we can just jump straight to questions.
M: First, just common questions and confusions people have. For one, many people hear horror stories of being rejected because of mistakes they’ve made when submitting their work to an agent. What are the common mistakes people make and can avoid when querying an agent.
E: The common mistakes to avoid when submitting to an agent? There are so many.
M: *laughs* Oh dear.
E: I would say – on a most basic level – not following that agency’s guidelines. There are some agents who, when you don’t follow the guidelines, literally won’t look at your project. I like to think that most agencies are more open than that, but it is still important to me (and most other agents) that the project arrives in the format I’ve asked for etc. Big mistakes also include: A lot of typos, misspelling the agent’s name or addressing the submission to the wrong person. Also, sending the submission to multiple agents at the agency, which is typically frowned upon. These are the little detail things that may not kill your project straight away, but they definitely don’t help your cause when you are querying. Another . . . sending an agent something they obviously don’t represent; a frequent problem that a few minutes of research would have avoided. Also, sending any agent your entire manuscript with your query is generally a no-no. And, while it sounds obvious, being offensive in a query letter will get you nowhere. You’d be surprised, but these kinds of things happen all the time. If you do get a response from an agent, responding to their rejection with a rude or defensive response doesn’t help you, either, on the relationship-level.
M: So like Dylan Moran’s character, Bernard Black?
M and E: *laughing*
M: Not a good idea then?
M and E: *laughing*
M: *Getting composure back* So you mentioned research. How much does it really matter for you as an agent when somebody actually has a personal touch towards you as an agent? Like they know stuff about you, it’s obvious they’ve done some good research.
E: It means a huge amount to me if I can tell that someone has done even 5 minutes of research.
M: But do you actually want that shown in their query?
E: Yes, even if they’re just quoting something I said in my bio on the website, that’s fine. Then I know you went to our website and you looked at what I’m looking for. If you mention that you read a book that I represent and you really liked it, I’ll love you forever.
M and E: *laughing*
M: That’s good to know.
M and E: *laughing*
E: It really does mean a lot to me. And because you have spent a little bit of extra time looking at my life and my professional experience and my interests, I’m going to give you that same special attention when I look at your project.
M: Excellent. So one of the other questions that I frequently get and I answer it as best as I can, but it’s so much better to hear it from an agent in literary fiction. Where’s the boundary when you are no longer literary fiction and when you are? Because some people say “well my book is literary, but it kind of isn’t,” and they never really know. *Elise Agreed* Do you have the specific things you notice when you reading something and suddenly it hits, “OK, I asked for literary fiction and this is not it.” -Things that really kind of tip the scale for you?
E: Gosh, it’s a really hard question to answer.
M: Yes, it is.
E: Yeah, it’s like the impossible question because it’s one of those things that you know it when you see it. But, for me, my first love is literary fiction and so it really is about voice and about character. But this is where it can get complicated, I mean, because a literary fiction book can still be driven to an extent by plot, but it’s not the primary force. Like, a romance in the book is not the primary driving force, as it would be in a romance genre novel.
M: So it’s the internal struggle within that Romance for example?
E: It is the internal struggle, yes. So I guess at the end of the day, if what you’re really counting on is that character’s personal development, then it’s probably literary fiction. *Laugh* That’s a terrible vague answer but *laugh* it always is.
M: Well here is why the question comes up. I’m finding when I talk to many people that they don’t want to approach or are confused by Literary Fiction. Mainly because they misunderstand how broad it really can be.
M: So it would be fair to say “Do approach literary fiction,” because if you have somebody who writes, and they do have plot elements but it has a massive amount of internal struggle and internal conflict blended with it . . . that is still something you would consider or most literary fiction agents would, even if for example it’s set in a non-traditional setting like a futuristic world or–
E: Oh Definitely. I think there are Sci-Fi writers who are very literary. The Martian Chronicles, for example, being a deeply literary work (and a book I happen to love). So I certainly think there’s a great deal of cross over.
M: I hope that helps clarify Literary Fiction better for people.
E: Me too, but in the scenario we talked about it comes down to how you as the author want to be seen. If you’re writing genre fiction and that’s the audience you want to speak to in particular, then it’s good to go ahead and recognize that and label yourself as such.
M: Good to know. Let’s switch gears now to some more business topics.
E: Okay. Sure.
M: Traditional publishing and agents. With changes in the industry, meaning, more options for self-publishing in eBooks, Print On Demand, and so forth; some are saying that agents and publishers roles are diminishing, since virtually anyone can publish their work in some manner. I’ve even heard and read some people go back and forth in debate, with questions being raised such as “Do I need an agent anymore?” How would you answer that question?
E: Well, publishing in many ways is still a very old school and traditional industry despite some of the changes that are going on. In particular, my agency leans toward “old school,” but we are certainly reaching into the e-book front. For example, we are now starting to put older backlist titles up as eBooks on behalf of our authors, after we revert the rights. So we’re doing that kind of thing. There are some agencies now that are really, as you know, changing their identity and are becoming more of career consultants and are even helping their authors self-publish. So here are the different ways you can go. If you decide you really want to go the traditional route, which is still very, very, important for a lot of authors, then obviously the agent is important. She or he is the person who has the connections, who knows how to get to the right people, who’s going to get their attention, who then is able to sell the book for (hopefully!) a decent amount of money. They also negotiate your contract and protect your book throughout its life. If you choose to go the other direction, then I still think that it can be really important to have an agent who understands how to guide you through that process.
M: You know it’s interesting you say that, because so many doubt or deny it. When I hear the debate about publishing and agents, things comes up but I am seeing so many self-published authors still wanting to land an agent. In fact, a person I know here at this conference just told me they signed with an agent and they were completely independent before that.
E: It’s true. There are some agents now who are even offering things like editorial services, which you would not get otherwise, who may even put together a cover for you, who are going to help you navigate the eBook world and help to make sure that you can get onto all the different platforms and not just Amazon. They are there to make sure your book is accessible to a wide audience, and they will be able to connect you with publicists, because when you’re self-publishing completely on your own, you have to take into account that you are taking on the responsibility of what a whole team of people would normally be doing. And that’s really, really, hard. So if you have some kind of agent/consultant, they can, in my opinion, help make the whole process a lot more productive.
M: So basically allowing you more time to write or have a life outside of writing?
E: Yeah, well—
M: Well at least significantly easier, I guess.
E: Yeah. And also you can understand how the process is going to work a little bit better so you don’t end up selling 27 copies and then your book is dead, you know? I think what it will do is help transition that whole self-publishing process to become more and more viable and to allow people to have real success with self-publishing, whereas right now, it’s still pretty tough.
M: Excellent answers. Thank you. Just a few more questions.
E: No problem.
M: For those that submit to an agent and the agent wants to represent the author, during the representation agreement, in today’s world obviously some authors may be self-published with their own eBooks out there or blogs or whatever. In that negotiation process, is it a deal breaker if they don’t allow those books to come under the agent as well? Is this a big deal?
E: No that’s not a problem at all. Every contract is different and it depends on the writer’s needs; for example, we represent a lot of journalists and so we only represent their book projects, obviously, not their articles. Sometimes we have cases where authors only want us to represent one book and nothing else. So no, it would not be a problem for us at all. I can’t imagine it being a problem for any agent, frankly.
M: Is there anything that is a deal breaker essentially?
E: In a contract?
M: Yeah, with the representation agreement/contract?
E: Probably only if the author for some reason wanted us to take a lower commission. We just don’t do that. There’s a standard industry commission for agents (15% for domestic sales). We work very, very, hard to earn our commission.
E: What else would be a deal breaker? Let me think.
M: By the way, you guys deserve what you get.
E: *laughs* Oh, thanks.
M: It’s true. I don’t think some people understand it. It’s hard to understand what you don’t see and easy to forget what it means for you guys if a book doesn’t sell.
E: Yeah that’s true. If a book never sells, we’ve put in dozens or even hundreds of hours for nothing.
M: Exactly. I hear how much you guys work. Weekends and your “off time” is spent catching up on queries. You have to love what you do to be an agent. Hopefully more aspiring authors will see this.
E: I hope so too. I love being an agent and I hope people see us for what we are and what it means when we take someone on. It really does mean that we believe so strongly in your works, that we are willing to put in a lot of time even with no guarantee of making anything from it.
M: Oh and sorry for the tangent . . . I really didn’t give you a chance to think.
E: Hmmm, as far as anything else being a deal breaker? I don’t know, I guess just if there’s any like really weird demands that we know aren’t realistic, but I’m not thinking of what those would be at the moment.
M: Okay. Last question.
M: Do you have anything that you are looking for or any last bits of advice for anyone submitting to your agency?
E: Oh, I’m looking for a circus novel!
E and M: *Laughs*
E: If you have a circus novel, I’m your girl. *Laughs*
M: Alright, there you go, more people will know now.
E: As far as query tips to us, I just think that if you’ve read a couple of our books and appreciate our taste as an agency, it makes a big difference to us and, well, really to any agency. In fact, if you are going to submit a query to any agency, read at least a few of the books/authors that the agency has recently represented.
M: Excellent advice. Well thank you for your time Elise. It was a pleasure.
E: Thank you. It was nice to talk to you too, Michael and also Utah Valley Writers.
Elise Capron is literary agent with the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. SDLA was established nearly 30 years ago and is known for guiding the careers of many best-selling fiction and non-fiction authors, including Amy Tan, Lisa See, Maxine Hong Kingston, Chitra Divakaruni, Eric Foner, and more. A graduate of Emerson College, Elise holds a BFA in Writing, Literature and Publishing, and served on the editorial staff of the Emerson Review there. After internships at Harcourt and SDLA, she joined the latter full time in 2003. Some of Elise’s recent and soon-to-be-published books include Tiphanie Yanique’s “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” (Graywolf), Maureen McHugh’s “After the Apocalypse”, a “Top Ten Best Books of 2011” by Publishers Weekly (Small Beer Press), Courtney Brkic’s “The First Rule of Swimming” (Little Brown), Rikki Ducornet’s “Netsuke” (Coffee House), Jonathon Keats’ “Virtual Words” (Oxford), and Jack Shuler’s “The Noose: A History” (Public Affairs).
What she is looking for: I am interested in serious character-driven literary fiction that has unforgettable writing, a terrific narrative voice/tone, and memorable characters. I love novels with an unusual or eccentric edge, and am drawn to stories I’ve never heard before. On the nonfiction front, I am looking for narratives with many of these same qualities, i.e. fascinating true stories told in a compelling way. I aim to work with writers who are getting their work published regularly in magazines and who have a realistic sense of the market and their audience.