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LitChat: Holly Root, Waxman Leavell Literary Agency
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LitChat: Holly Root, Waxman Leavell Literary Agency

“My favorite part of being an agent is the thrill of discovery. Being the first to experience a new world or a brand-new author simply never gets old. Couple that with the joy of sharing that wonderful book with editors and eventually readers and you’ve got the reason I truly love my job.” Holly Root […]

holly root

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“My favorite part of being an agent is the thrill of discovery. Being the first to experience a new world or a brand-new author simply never holly rootgets old. Couple that with the joy of sharing that wonderful book with editors and eventually readers and you’ve got the reason I truly love my job.” Holly Root is currently seeking middle grade and young adult fiction, women’s fiction (both commercial and upmarket), urban fantasy and romance. She also represents select nonfiction projects. Prior to joining the Waxman Literary Agency in 2007, Holly Root worked at the William Morris Agency and Trident Media Group.

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LS: Holly, thank you so much for stopping by to chat with us. We’re so happy to have you here. Has publishing always been in your career game plan? What led you into agenting?

Thanks for having me! I didn’t even know my job existed until after I had already started working in publishing, so agenting was a happy accident for me. I started college as an English-pre-med double major, but quickly realized I could just cut out the middleman (I had this vague notion of being a doctor who wrote? Which is hilarious, because a) you do not need an MD to write a dang book, and b) you literally could not pay me to write a book now) and take the path that involved 100% less calculus. My first industry job was in Christian publishing, with a division that didn’t work much with agents, but once I was in the door I figured out that the agency side was the best match for my strengths and abilities, and once I moved to New York I switched teams, did my time as an assistant to learn the ropes, and here I am today.

LS: So much of what we read, especially when we are young, impacts our literary interests when we get older. What book from your childhood informed your reading habits today? What was the one book that you remember most vividly?

I was definitely shaped by what I read as a kid, which I think it part of why I love representing books for young readers. My first love was definitely Laura Ingalls Wilder. Then Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley (Super Specials forever). And I was a huge Anne McCaffrey fangirl as a kid. I think that one particularly informs who I am as a reader now. The blending of SF & fantasy in Dragonriders of Pern is for sure reflected in my present-day love of stories that blend genres or blur the lines of what’s expected. Beyond that, I always say if I had to identify one book that encapsulates young-me as a reader, it’d be A WRINKLE IN TIME.

LS: Your clients’ genres vary. Are there any queries you picked up that you may have not normally been drawn to but ended up loving?

Because I do work across so many shelves, it’s rare that there’s something I’m just out and out closed off to. I will say some of the most fun things I’ve done have come out of authors diverging from what I originally signed them for. I really respond to voices, which means I’m usually pretty game to go wherever an author I love wants to roam.

LS: As someone whose career is focused on great stories, are you ever able to read a book for pleasure without editing it?

Oh yes. I am not that kind of reader at all–this is one of many reasons I didn’t pursue a career as an editor–I am incredibly game, a willing audience. I will go wherever the story takes me, so long as the telling is good. Now, at the end of the journey I may sit back and go, Huh, nope, that doesn’t work after all, or the writing may lose me along the way–that happens all the time–but I really don’t edit as I go. I have to sit back after the fact to do that kind of critical thinking.

LS: Publishing has changed so much just in the past five years with the ease of book distribution and the influx of independent authors emerging, seemingly, every week. How has this impacted your role as an agent? Where do you believe the book industry is headed in terms of independent vs traditionally published authors?

My job hasn’t really changed, I just have more factors to consider for certain kinds of authors. Publishers can still move the dial in meaningful ways that remain largely inaccessible to an individual author, and for a lot of kinds of books the road to reaching a meaningful number of readers still leads through their doors. I have some authors who are making awesome cash by leveraging self-publishing alongside traditional contracts to build a hybrid business, and I support that completely (and have no problem telling such an author that a traditional deal doesn’t make sense to take when it doesn’t!). But self publishing is a really particular skill set some people are well-suited for and others aren’t, so it doesn’t come up for every author. And much like any form of publishing, there are no guarantees of success no matter what road you choose. I’d say I’ve felt the change most in areas like romance, where sales are really impacted by trends and you have an incredibly plugged-in, voracious readership.

The move to digital is a no-brainer for those readers, as is the desire for lower prices, so everyone who works in that space, whether with a house or as an indie, is constantly having to adjust to what that underlying market shift means for capturing and keeping readers’ attention. But I would argue if anything meaningful distribution has gotten harder, not easier. More books being created each year means more competition–for attention and promotion in digital retail, and for physical distribution and promotion as well–so being up to date on what’s working in those spaces is as ever an essential part of the job.

LS: Has the shift in the industry changed who you will and won’t represent?

Not really! In the last year I have signed authors with existing name recognition created via self-publishing, freelance writing work, and traditional publishing success, and also other authors you could barely even find proof of existence for online. It’s all about the work and the market expectations of its category. I can’t do anything with a work of nonfiction without a platform. But if you’ve written a truly extraordinary novel with a great commercial hook, it can speak for itself in a different way.

LS: What’s the best advice you can give to a new writer wanting to be published or a self-published author wanting to transition into traditional publishing?

Write a book it’s impossible to ignore. SUPER SIMPLE! You’re welcome. 😉 No, in all seriousness: I think authors can really twist themselves up over this stuff, but if you think about it from my perspective, I’m just looking for things I can sell, preferably for good money. And I like working with pleasant people who are really talented and thoughtful, because there is no reason to be miserable while we make money together and super-talented thoughtful people are likely to produce multiple things I can sell, which is just more efficient. So be a good human, write something great, then find someone who thinks they can sell it.

LS: How does Waxman Leavell Literary Agency differ from other agencies?

Because we represent such a wide range of projects, there is rarely a circumstance that arises that someone here hasn’t dealt with. I love that I can get input from my colleagues that will be informed by their successes in different areas from the ones I’m seeing. As an agency we’ve seen what publishers can bring to bear for a huge celebrity project they’ve fought for in a heated auction, but we also know what it looks like to cultivate a ground-up success for a debut author, because we’ve done both. That above-the-treeline vision, seeing what’s working across the industry overall, really contributes to how we advise clients. Also, it might seem obvious, but I think we’re also particularly focused on making sure our books actually work, out in the marketplace where it matters for authors’ long-term success. Some agencies seem really focused on the sale and then they’re on to the next; of course I like doing deals, but that’s only the beginning of the job. We are all deeply engaged in the daily work of building careers brick by brick here at WLLA, and so much of what we talk about internally is the minutiae of accomplishing greater success for our clients.

LS: What do you look for in a book as a reader that makes you take a second glance? Is this the same for all the genres you represent?

Voice, voice, voice. And pacing.

LS: What are you not seeing enough of in terms of genres and what would you love to see in your Inbox?

I never know what I’m hungry for until I see it. I love to be surprised by people’s creativity. To that end, I’d be interested to see more adult fiction with speculative elements, whether it’s literary or commercial, full-on SF/F or just genre-inflected. Other than that, I probably have the most room right this second for commercial women’s fiction. But I never say never to any area I rep, because you just never know when lightning will strike and I definitely want to be the one getting (metaphorically) zapped.

Thanks for chatting with us, Holly!