In a career spanning 15 years, Jenny Bent has made a practice of making bestsellers – either by spotting new talent or developing careers for multi-published authors. Her list is varied and includes commercial fiction and nonfiction, literary fiction and memoir. All the books she represent speak to the heart in some way: they are linked by genuine emotion, inspiration and great writing and story-telling.
Bent was born in New York City but grew up in Harrisonburg Virginia in a house full of books where she spent many lazy afternoons reading in a sunny window seat. She received a BA/MA with first class honors from Cambridge University. After graduation Bent worked in magazines, bookselling and agenting, most recently at Trident Media Group, before founding THE BENT AGENCY in 2009.
She now lives in Brooklyn in an apartment full of books and while there are not quite so many lazy reading afternoons, she manages to fit one in now and then.
LS: Did you read a lot as a kid? If so, did that love of reading influence your decision to seek out a career in publishing? What was your favorite book as a child?
Yes! I read all the time, in fact I had to be forced to play outside. All that reading definitely influenced my decision—when I heard that there were jobs that involved reading, I figured I couldn’t ask for a better set-up. And I had so many favorites, it’s impossible to pick just one. I loved (and still love) all the books by E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, Lloyd Alexander; also: Hail, Hail Camp Timberwood by Ellen Conford, The Cat Ate My Jumpsuit by Paula Danziger, Anne of Green Gables, The Boxcar Children series, The Bobsey Twins, Nancy Drew, The Borrowers, the list goes on and on.
LS: How to did you make your way into agenting?
In college I took a class in magazine editing and publishing and learned there that I wanted to be an agent. After college I was lucky enough to get a job assisting Raphael Sagalyn, a very good agent based in DC. From there I went on to representing my own list.
LS: Many writers seem eager to query before their manuscripts are ready. What are the top five elements you believe writers should assure their manuscript has before querying?
I think you can’t overestimate the importance of a great opening line and a great opening chapter. The opening line of your novel should basically be the best sentence you’ve ever written—there is so much riding on it, and it’s the moment to capture the reader so writers need make the most of it. I also find that the first 50 pages of most novels are kind of slow, there’s too much set-up and not enough action and conflict. I think often it’s been necessary for the author to write those pages to get a grasp of character and backstory but then those pages are not always essential to the finished novel and can be cut radically. Then character development is really key, making sure that the emotion and inner thoughts of the character are on the page. I think that writers hear so often that they need to show and not tell, and it’s true that we want to see character revealed through action rather than introspection—but as that action unfolds we need access to the character’s thoughts and feelings or the action doesn’t work to illuminate anything. Finally, I find that endings are often very rushed. Writers should make sure that their readers don’t feel cheated by the ending—that there is full resolution of internal and external conflict, or that if not completely resolved, explored in a satisfying way.
LS: What’s the biggest mistakes querying writers make?
Not following querying guidelines, which is so basic, but you’d be amazed by how many people don’t. Every day I probably get three or four queries sent to the wrong address, for example. And then I think the next one is writing a dry, boring letter. I completely understand this one because I think authors want to be careful not to offend or do anything wrong, but I’m a big fan of the query letter that demonstrates voice and personality.
LS: Your segment ‘It’s not WHO you know, it’s WHAT you write in your query’ on Bent on Books is an in-depth view of successful queries. Have you notice a difference in the queries you receive since beginning this series?
Well, I just started it. But I certainly hope so! The primary goal is to show people that a good query letter is more important than “who you know” in the industry. I like to give hope and inspiration whenever possible because I know the business can really get people down.
LS: Do you think, because of self-publishing, there’s been an influx of writers who seem more concerned with the ‘business of writing’ rather than the importance of a great story? Can these people ever truly sustain a career?
I don’t think so, actually. For one, I think it’s great that authors are concerned with the business of writing, although of course we want that balanced out by the craft of writing! But I don’t think that self-publishing has somehow attracted people who are less serious about writing as an art form. I think rather it’s just provided more opportunity for people who, for whatever reason, didn’t find that traditional publishing was a good fit.
LS: What impact has/will self-publishing make on traditional publishers? How do you think will this change impact literary agents?
I think that self-publishing has made a real and positive impact in terms of getting publishers to think about pricing and also demonstrated to publishers the power of online grassroots marketing. In the long run, however, I don’t think it’s going to hurt agents—self-publishing is an alternative to traditional publishing and a good one. But it doesn’t replace it. There will always be authors who prefer to traditionally publish for a variety of reasons and they will still need agents. And even people who prefer to self-publish need assistance with subsidiary rights and other issues that can arise and many of them will want to use an agent for that as well.
LS: What questions should writers ask potential agents prior to signing?
-If they see film potential
-if they see foreign rights potential
-who will the primary contact be, the agent or agent’s assistant
-will there be edits and what will they be (in general terms)
-will the agent share the submission list and all responses from the editors
The AAR website has a good list of questions as well.
LS: What’s the one thing you wish writers knew before they begin the query process?
This is a hard one, but maybe the ability not to take rejection personally? Sometimes a project just isn’t right for an agent for very subjective reasons, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a “bad” book, or not marketable. I’ve passed on many books that I knew to be of a very high quality just because I knew I didn’t have a strong enough affinity for them to sell them successfully.
LS: What are you reading right now? And what’s your favorite “guilty pleasure” read?
I just finished THE CHAPERONE by Laura Moriarty. And I don’t think anyone should ever feel guilty about reading anything—all reading is good as far as I’m concerned–so I don’t have an answer for that second question! :)
Thanks so much, Jenny for chatting with us and for supporting LitStack!