Emma Patterson, Literary Agent, Brandt & Hochman
From Emma Patterson: I grew up in New Jersey as an avid reader and the daughter of a literary agent. My mother had her office in our house, and I loved helping her read manuscripts and organize her bookshelves. After attending Kenyon College in the Ohio cornfields and graduating with a degree in history, I joined The Wendy Weil Agency, where I stayed for eight years until joining Brandt & Hochman in the January of 2013. I live in Brooklyn and enjoy cooking, re-watching old episodes of “The Sopranos,” and spending quality time with my new – and delightfully chubby – niece.
LS: I know that you were born into a family with roots in the industry, but did your decision to go into publishing also stem from a love of books as a child? What was your favorite book when you were growing up?
Loving books and reading is really what drew me to publishing. I remember staying up way past my bedtime to obsessively finish the newest Nancy Drew mystery, Judy Blume novel, or a book in the Babysitters Club series. I think my most cherished book growing up was Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. It was the first chapter book I can remember reading and having that head-over-heels feeling; it was the first book that made me cry, the first book where the imagery would play out in my dreams (the island, the animals, and that amazing cave she slept in), the first book that had an ultra-special place on my bookshelf.
LS: Did you always want to be an agent? I know your academic backward is in history, but you ended up in publishing. Why the switch?
Despite my love for reading, I didn’t always want to be an agent. When I was young, I remember going through phases of wanting to be a veterinarian (I love animals) or a teacher (I liked the idea of talking to students about books all day… and honestly, I always loved writing on chalkboards, so I thought it was perfect). In high school, I found that I loved science as much as I loved my English classes. When I applied to Kenyon, I also applied to a major biology scholarship, which I didn’t even come close to getting, and when I think about it now, I can’t believe I thought that was a good idea – I wound up really struggling in my biology classes in college. Eventually, I found that I was most drawn to history not only because they were by far my favorite classes at Kenyon, but also because it combined my love for three things: research, reading, and writing.
I found that, somehow, studying history was more transporting than anything I felt in any other discipline. Beyond that though, I didn’t know what I could actually do with a history degree, so when Wendy Weil offered me a summer internship during college, I thought it couldn’t hurt to spend my summers around books and reading, and I wound up just loving it. She eventually offered me an assistant position after I graduated, and I really never looked back. How’s that for a roundabout way into publishing?
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 have before querying?
• The tightest, most polished version of the manuscript possible.
• An absorbing story.
• A strong, distinct voice.
• Willingness to take constructive criticism. (That’s something that I hope the writer has rather than the manuscript, but it’s important, so I’m throwing it in.)
• A first chapter that’s so engrossing there’s no way I can put the book down.
LS: What’s one question you wish potential clients would ask but never do?
This might be surprising, but I think an important question that’s often overlooked is “why did you love my project?” I find that when I’m talking to a potential new client for the first time, I’m so excited at the prospect of introducing their book to the world, and they’re so excited to find representation, that sometimes, the conversation just jumps to the nitty-gritty, or the ins and outs of how the submission will work. But really, the connecting element between me and the potential client is the work itself – and it’s the best part! When I’m passionate enough about a project to be taking on a new client, I could talk endlessly about their motivation for the book, their writing style, how much I loved this one character, how the ending made me cry, etc. All clients should be completely positive that their agent cares about them as a writer and is deeply invested in being a book’s best advocate.
LS: Are you seeing a certain trend in terms of what editors are looking for? If so, what are they?
Unfortunately for someone who is drawn to quiet and/or dark stories, I see that editors more and more are looking for some sort of really strong commercial hook – both in terms of fiction and nonfiction. These days, it’s not really enough for an editor to love a book, they need so many people on their side just in-house that a submission needs to have some sort of marketable draw. That could be anything from the writer’s credentials, a really suspenseful story, an element that could be linked to current culture, or great blurbs. And on the young adult spectrum, I keep hearing that editors are veering away from paranormal and are really looking for more realistic, literary fiction and nonfiction.
LS: The distribution of self-publishing seems to have changed the dynamic of publishing somewhat. What do you think the future of publishing holds and how will these changes impact agents?
This is The Eternal Question. As someone who is not only part of the publishing industry, but also loves being surrounded by physical books, I have to hope that people will always be reading actual books. Despite that, I understand the importance of e-readers and I have one myself (and use it daily). Ebook sales are often outnumbering paperback and sometimes hardcover sales, and I think the industry is still figuring out how that will really affect the marketplace. As agents, we just try to be aware of the ever-changing publishing roadmap and aim to protect our writers from the potential negative effects of that – as well as capitalize on the positive effects – as much as we can.
LS: What are some of your grammatical pet peeves?
The obvious misspellings: their, there, they’re; too, to, two; the difference between breathe and breath (for some reason, I see that one a lot!). Content-wise, my biggest pet peeve is how many people start their novels with descriptions of clouds or drops of dew on grass in the first paragraph.
LS: What do you enjoy most about being an agent?
I love working with writers – I love reading a book and not being able to put it down, I love talking to writers about all the amazing parts of their work, I love having an editorial back-and-forth with writers to make their book the best possible book it can be, and most of all, I love the pride and admiration I feel for the writer when other people adore their book as much as I do.
LS: What type of books do you like to read for pleasure and what are you reading right now?
I like to read the same sorts of books for pleasure that I do for work – literary and commercial fiction and narrative nonfiction. Right now, I’m reading Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, which, so far, is extraordinary.
LS: Finish this sentence if you would: “I’d love to represent the next______.”
Ann Patchett or Nicole Krauss.
Thanks so much for chatting with us, Emma!