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Agent Spotlight: Jennifer DeChiara

By Author Mary Yuhas, who has over 49,000 reads on Scribd of the first three chapters of her memoir, Quit and Be Quiet, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother.

Jennifer DeChiara

Jennifer DeChiara

Mary interviewed Jennifer DeChiara of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency in New York City, a full-service literary agency founded in 2001 and named one of the top 25 literary agencies in the country by Writer’s Digest.

The agency represents children’s literature for all ages – picture books and middle-grade and young adult novels – but also represents high-quality adult fiction and non-fiction in a wide range of genres.

Q.    Jennifer, you host small groups of writers who meet one-on-one with editors from major New York publishing houses. How have these Meet the Editor events been going?

Jennifer: There’s a great demand; people love them, and we’ve had a few writers end up with editors/book contracts as a result.

Q.    There have been enormous changes in publishing in the last ten years.  Much of that has come about because of the Internet.  What changes do you anticipate in the next ten years?

Jennifer: I predict that in the next ten years things will come full circle, with everyone in publishing having learned important lessons.

The changes I’ve seen in the fifteen years that I’ve been an agent have been positive, for the most part. Things that used to move at a snail’s pace happen a lot quicker now – everything from email exchanges instead of phone calls, making it easier for people to connect (and all over the world), to emailing manuscripts instead of physically packing and mailing them (saving a lot of time, energy, and money), to being able to find information about agents, editors, and writers with the click of a few computer keys, to writers being able to promote their own books using social media and to use the Internet to connect with other writers for advice and support, to the fact that excitement over a great book can spread much more quickly and lead to greater sales   . . . I could go on and on. Authors, and readers, have more options than ever before, and all of these options, in my opinion, will help bring the joy of reading to more people.  And with all of the technological advances (e-books, most specifically), I can only imagine all of the new developments that will happen in the next ten years.

However, with all of these positives come negatives. With self-publishing, anyone can get published. Yes, a lot of good writers who maybe wouldn’t have had the opportunity for publication have gotten attention, and that’s a great thing. But writers who aren’t yet ready to be published and should still be working on their craft are jumping the gun and trying to self-publish instead of focusing on being the very best writers that they can be.  Agents and editors are valuable to writers in many ways, and writers who go it alone are missing out on more than they know. Yes, agents and editors are gatekeepers, but gate keeping is essential for quality control. As a reader, I want that; we should all want that.

So after all the hoopla, I think things will settle down. Publishers will make changes that give authors greater control and a bigger slice of the pie, and writers will realize the value of agents and editors in their writing careers. Publishing and self-publishing will still be options, but, hopefully, in ten years’ time, everyone will have developed the wisdom to learn the differences.

Q.    How has the role of a literary agent changed during that same time frame, and what changes do you see for agents in the future?

Jennifer: With so many changes happening so rapidly, agents have to stay on top of everything so that they can be the best advocates for their clients. In some ways, the Internet has made  my job easier because of the speed and facility with which I can conduct business, from all over the world. But because of all the developments with e-books and a lot of other issues that we’re all learning about, contracts have become a bit trickier. And with the economy’s struggles, agents have had to take on jobs previously done by now-overworked editors, from editing their clients’ books to helping their clients with book promotion. My agency has always been a full-service agency, but I’m sure that a lot of agents have had to change the way they do business, and I suspect that this will continue in the future.

Q.    Is it harder today for a writer to get a literary agent to represent him or her than it was in the past because of these changes?

Jennifer: I think it’s easier today. If a writer has self-published and the book is selling well, and/or if a writer has created a presence for himself on social media, then these are a couple of examples of things that will get an agent’s attention.

Q.    Are publishing houses printing fewer books and, if that is a trend, do you expect this to continue?

Jennifer: I do think that publishers are more cautious these days, and this means more modest print runs and, therefore, more frequent reprints. Another side to smaller print runs is that the expected sales are slightly reduced as well. From my point of view, a good sale for a first YA novel used to be 20,000. I would say that 10,000 is now considered solid for YA.  Of course, everyone wants a bestseller. It may take longer for a book to reach the bestseller list these days. Also, it used to be that all books had a paperback edition a year out, but now publishers are being selective about which books have paperback editions, or e-editions, etc.  Nothing is taken for granted.

Q. Everyone talks about platform today.  What are the best ways for a writer to build a platform?

Jennifer: All of these things are great, but, ultimately, it’s about the writing. Most writers these days spend too much time worrying about their platform and not enough time working on their writing, and that’s a mistake.

Q.    What is the biggest mistake writers make?

Jennifer: The biggest mistake writers make is not doing their homework before sitting down to write a proposal, write a book, search for an agent, query an agent, use social media, etc.  There’s an abundance of material – in books and online – on just about every topic a writer might need, but most writers don’t take the time to do their due diligence.  They end up making stupid mistakes that ruin their chances. There is an impatience out there to be published, and an expectation that because you’ve worked hard on a manuscript and really, really want to be published, that you should be, and that’s ridiculous. Talent, anyone?

Q.    What is the most interesting new trend you see developing in the industry?

Jennifer: I’m excited about all of the new developments with enhanced e-books, which will give readers richer, more unique experiences.

Q.    Your office receives hundreds of queries every day. Can you remember the best and the worst?

Jennifer: The best: writers who have clearly done their homework – addressed me by name; targeted me because I represent their kind of book or have expressed a desire for books in that genre; proofread their queries for typos; and told me about their book in a professional, compelling way. The worst: writers who have clearly not done their homework — sent out mass queries where I’m one of a hundred agents targeted; gone on and on about how great their manuscript is without telling me anything about their book; predicted that their book will be a bestseller; and not bothered to read through their letter for mistakes.

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