LitChat Interview: Samantha Wekstein, Writer’s House

 

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Samantha is a Junior Agent at Writers House.  She graduated from the University of Maryland in 2012 with a B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing.  She interned at Rowman & Littlefield and Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency before landing at Writers House in 2013 with an internship. There, she was the assistant to CEO, Amy Berkower and then to founder, Al Zuckerman. She also briefly worked as an assistant at The Agency Group. She has been lucky enough to work with a variety of best-selling and award-winning authors across all genres. She is now in the process of actively building her client list.

Samantha’s passion is YA fiction. She loves creative and epic fantasies in the vein of Sarah J. Maas or Leigh Bardugo. But she is also drawn to contemporary YA with multi-dimensional female characters like those of Rainbow Rowell, Julie Murphy and Melina Marchetta.

She also loves middle grade of any kind, but especially books that deal with themes of friendship, adventure, or encountering tragedy for the first time. Her favorites are Sharon Creech and Gail Carson Levine.

In adult fiction, she is looking for historical, romance, women’s fiction, fantasy, and sci-fi.

She doesn’t have a huge interest in nonfiction, but is open to humor, and pop culture.

LS: Samantha, thanks for joining us. We’re so happy to chat with you. I read that you began your career as an intern at Writer’s House. Did you always know you wanted to work in publishing? How did you get your start?

I did not always want to work in publishing!  From pre-school through my sophomore year of college I thought I wanted to be a lawyer (both of my parents are attorneys).  And I used to tell people that I was going to be a lawyer, but what I secretly wanted to do was read books for a living.  Finally, I decided to switch tracks and follow my dreams.

I had two publishing internships while I was still in college, one in the publicity department at Rowman & Littlefield and another with Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency under the lovely Jessica Sinsheimer.  After I graduated, I tried to find a full-time publishing gig, but was struggling to secure an entry-level job. So I took a temp job at a hedge-fund and kept interviewing everywhere.  That’s when I decided to apply to a third internship at Writers House.  This is a crazy story, but believe it or not, on my second day, my supervisor was diagnosed with tuberculosis and had to be quarantined. I was given the chance to fill his shoes for a few months under my current boss, Al Zuckerman.  After proving myself, it was easier to find a full-time position at another agency, before happily returning to Writers House.

LS: 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?

Absolutely.  I never grew out of loving children’s books. Middle grade and YA are still my favorite genres and most frequent pleasure reading choices to this day.  And the books that I read as a child are still my all-time favorites and I’d love to acquire some similar titles.

My favorites growing up were Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Bloomability by Sharon Creech, and of course, Harry Potter.

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?

  1. A highly polished first fifty pages without typos or confusing explanations.
  2. A focus on the emotional interior of your characters.  Let us know what they are thinking and feeling on every page. If you aren’t describing what they are feeling physically, and constantly checking-in with your characters, then it will be difficult for a reader to identify with them/understand them.
  3. A unique premise.  If it’s been done a million times, or I have a project that is too similar, I won’t be interested.
  4. A clear world.   One of my number one reasons for rejecting is a confusing introduction to the world.  If I can’t understand your setting, I definitely won’t be able to follow the action!
  5. A plot that clearly introduces a character with a goal and then lets us know the obstacles the character needs to overcome to achieve that goal.  I like to see a manuscript that introduces high stakes, and then raises them! Ask, what does your character stand to lose?

LS: Are you seeing a certain trend in terms of what editors are looking for? If so, what are they?

In terms of trends, I think every YA editor with whom I speak is looking for magical realism, and diversity–including own voices.  Representation is so important and I’m glad publishing is moving in that direction. On the adult side, a few editors are interested in the interior lives of women, feminist narratives, and historical plotlines that have modern relevance.

I think everyone is looking for high-concept stories that can be described in elevator-pitches.

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?

The good thing about being an agent is that as long as traditional publishing exists, there will always be a need for our editorial skills and our negotiations.  We have a lot of versatility and choice in the types of projects we take on, so we can be flexible as the business changes.  I’m not sure how self-publishing will impact the landscape in the future, but we typically act as the gatekeepers and weed out the books that we feel are less than stellar and work hard to improve the projects that have potential. I think that type of work will probably always be necessary in some fashion.

We also handle sub-rights and foreign rights in-house, which are important ways authors can exploit their books to the fullest potential and self-publishing will never have that level of service.  So I don’t expect that agents will be going extinct any time soon.  That being said, our agency now has a growing self-publishing business, mainly for established authors who want to republish their backlist, but also for new works.  So in some ways, we’ve diversified to adapt to these large-scale changes.

I’m optimistic.  People are still buying hardcover books and millennials are avid readers and the largest group of library goers.  As long as people are reading, there will be a demand for the kind of work an agent does.

LS: What type of books do you like to read for pleasure and what are you reading right now?

I mostly read YA of all stripes for pleasure.  I tend to love creative and epic fantasies, but also love quirky or heartfelt realistic YA.  I’m always pulled in by really well-drawn characters and have a soft spot for unique magic systems. My pleasure reading tastes are very similar to the types of projects I’d like to add to my list.

Currently I’m reading A STAR TO STEER HER BY, a new adult romance by my colleague and friend, Beth Anne Miller.  On my TBR pile are THE HATE YOU GIVE, THE TALE OF PROSPER REDDING, THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON and in September, the newest Sarah J. Maas book.

LS: Would you consider yourself an editorial agent? If so, what is that process like, particularly when you’re working with a debut writer?

I’m extremely editorial.  In fact, before I offer representation, I usually have a lengthy conversation with prospective clients about the types of changes I’d like to see in his or her manuscript and how they feel about making those changes.  I’m really proud of the projects that I take on and want to collaborate to make them the best they can be.

I usually start my process by writing a long editorial letter that addresses the big picture issues that I feel could be reworked. These reports are super prescriptive with creative solutions to plot problems.  I do a lot of brainstorming.  I also usually get a second reader at my agency to give feedback in a written report that I share with my authors.  Once the author has made these larger changes, I go through the manuscript again and make comments in the margins and do small line-edits.  And we go back and forth until we have a polished manuscript that we both love!

LS: What’s the best advice you can give to a debut novelist?

Getting published is a lot of work and it doesn’t end when the book goes on sale.  If you want your book to be a success, you’ll need to be really involved in promoting it on your end.  Publishers only have so much time and energy to devote to one project, so the author needs to pick up the slack.

I’d also say not to get too attached to anything.  Plotlines change, titles change, pub dates change, etc.  Everyone they work with is doing the best they can for the author and his or her book, and sometimes that means making changes.

LS: What should querying writers expect from the relationship with their agent and what should these writers ask prior to signing with an agent?

Every agent is different, so I can’t speak in general terms.  However, I hope my clients have come to expect an open and collaborative relationship with a highly editorial agent.  We are the representative for our authors so they should feel like they can come to us with questions and concerns and they should know that we are working behind the scenes to advocate for them to publishers.

Authors should definitely ask questions about how payments/commissions work, about the process of submitting a manuscript, about what happens if their agent ever changes companies or leaves publishing, about what they can expect in terms of sub-rights, foreign rights, and film, and they should also let the agent know about their goals and expectations to make sure everyone is on the same page before signing.

LS: Can you finish this sentence for us? “It would be my dream to represent the next__________.”

J.K. Rowling!  Duh.  Of course I’d love to work on the next Harry Potter series, but I’d also like to represent authors like Sarah J. Maas, Leigh Bardugo, Alex Bracken, Susan Dennard, Rainbow Rowell, and Melina Marchetta.  I have so many favorites! Right now at the top of my manuscript wish list is a YA female sports book (preferably featuring  a soccer team, but I’m flexible).  And I’m always looking for books like Ella Enchanted or The Books of Bayern by Shannon Hale.

Thanks for chatting with us, Samantha!

 

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