This is Part One of an Agent/Author interview. Elana is Part One and her client, Eli Stutz, author of Pickle Impossible (Bloomsbury USA, 2010), is Part Two and an upcoming Author’s Notebook feature.
Elana Roth is a literary agent with the Caren Johnson Literary Agency in New York City. She began her career at Nickelodeon Magazine, which made her fall in love with children’s publishing. Afterward, she spent nearly five years as an editor at Parachute Publishing, a packager specializing in children’s book series. Elana is a graduate of Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she earned degrees in English literature and Bible.
The Whole Megillah (TWM):What excites you when you read a manuscript?
Elana Roth (ER): Honestly, I’m always a sucker for an element of whimsy, or a cool twist on a theme I’ve never seen before, or just a point of view I feel like I haven’t read a million times before. It can be dark, or funny, or sarcastic, but manuscripts that excite me are the ones that have something fresh about them.
TWM: What makes you not want to read past page 1?
ER:Oh, this could be anything, but usually it becomes pretty obvious from the first few sentences that the writing just isn’t going to live up. Stiff dialogue. Flat narration. No voice. Those are the real issues that kill a manuscript dead.
TWM: Do you have any favorite genres?
ER: I will read across the board, but I do love my dystopians lately. (Secretly, this is because I really do think the apocalypse is going to happen.) I was a fantasy junkie when I was a kid, and have always been a sci-fi nerd, but these days I don’t like the old-fashioned approach to either of those. I want the next generation of those genres. We keep saying sci-fi is dead, but I basically feel like dystopian is really the new sci-fi. So I’ve signed and sold several of those in the last 2 years. I’m starting to yearn for other kinds of things, since I don’t want to be pegged as the dystopian agent exclusively.
TWM: It seems like it’s getting tougher and tougher to get published, whether it’s a first book or the tenth. What advice do you have for writers to deal with that?
ER: It still comes down to craft. The beautiful books get attention from agents, and those books get published more easily. So much of what I see just isn’t up to par, so I think more people either need to spend more time with their butt in the chair writing, or they need to rethink whether they are writing to get published at all. That’s not an easy thing to tell people, because sometimes it really just is a matter of persistence and timing. But not everything that gets written deserves to get published, so it’s on the writers to make sure they are constantly improving and writing the ones that are worthy.
TWM: How did you get started as an agent and what attracted you to being an agent?
ER: I worked at a packager for 5 years. Packagers are basically like independent producers in Hollywood…they come up with proposals, hire the writers, and then sell the properties to publishers. Agenting is very similar. So after learning everything I could learn there, I decided I wanted to work with authors directly on their books, and do the same thing.
Being an agent is great like that. I can use my editorial training to help writers polish their work, but then play matchmaker and get their book in the hands of the right editor. But it’s definitely not a job for the faint of heart. It’s a lot of hours, for not a lot of pay, and you have always balance the short-term against the long-term. But I like a challenge as a general rule. It gives me something to always get better at.
TWM: What attracted you to Eli and his manuscript?
ER: Eli had exactly that element of whimsy that I am looking for. I think my reaction to his query was, “Pickle competition? That’s hilarious.” And his book didn’t disappoint. He threw in the funny little details and fanciful details that made his book stand out from the bunch. And he also has a sentimentality to his work, and an honesty about what it means to be a kid that feels so authentic. He’s a great storyteller.
TWM: When you’re not reading manuscripts, what do you like to read?
ER:I have time for other reading? Just kidding. Sort of. Well…all kinds of things. I like to read some adult non-fiction, usually more pop-science like Steven Johnson or Mary Roach. Anything on a cool topic. And I’m a sucker for Raymond Chandler’s noir mysteries. Mostly I just like to mix things up so I don’t get burned out.