LitChat Interview: Sarah Davies, The Greenhouse Literary Agency

Sarah Davies, The Greenhouse Literary Agency

Sarah Davies is based in Washington DC and heads the North American side of the Greenhouse.  Sarah has more than 25 years’ experience of children’s publishing, moving to the USA from London in 2007. She started her career at Collins (before it was HarperCollins), followed by a spell at Transworld/Random House. In 1994 she joined Macmillan Children’s Books in London as Fiction Editor, rising through the editorial ranks to Publishing Director (and member of the Management Board), a position she held until 2007 when she left to start Greenhouse.

In her publisher incarnation, Sarah worked with and published many high-profile writers on both sides of the Atlantic. As an agent she has shepherded many debut (and several previously published) authors to success. She has considerable experience in contract negotiation, marketing and rights, as well as a strong understanding of digital developments. Excellent publishing contacts in both the USA and Britain, and homes in both countries, have given her an unusually transatlantic view of the children’s books industry, enabling her to represent authors directly to both markets. Sarah makes regular trips to New York and London, meeting publishers and keeping in touch with the book scene.

A member of AAR and SCBWI, Sarah is an experienced speaker on issues connected with children’s books and creative writing and attends international bookfairs, American writers’ conferences, and industry events throughout the year. She loves talking to writers about their work and says, ‘Everything you need to know about Greenhouse is embodied in its name.’

Married to an American, Sarah has twin sons who are more-or-less grown-up now, and who taught her much of what she knows about young people and reading.

Thanks for chatting with us, Sarah!


LS: Have you always been interested in the publishing industry? How did you find your way into agenting?

I’ve worked in the books business since I left university many years ago. Let’s just say, I’ve been in the industry for around 30 years, most of that time spent in children’s books, though with a short foray into adult fiction too. I worked my way up the editorial ladder in London publishing, finally spending several years as Publishing Director of Macmillan Children’s Books where I was on the management board.

In 2007 I moved to the US and ‘crossed the desk’ from publisher to agent, creating the Greenhouse Literary Agency with the backing of my parent company, Working Partners. I had always been interested in agenting because it pulls together some of my favourite parts of the business – working very closely and editorially with writers, and doing deals.  The Greenhouse is perfect for me because it enables me to utilize all my transatlantic experience as well as my passion for developing new writers. Plus, having a strong and successful parent company means we have terrific infrastructure in terms of foreign rights, finance, legal, and contracts support – all of which are essential for a really good agency.

LS: Did your desire for a career in publishing come from an early love of books? If so, what were your favorite books as a child?

Yes, I can definitely see a straight line from my early love of reading to my publishing and agenting careers. I grew up in the UK, so my favourite books were English classics – THE SECRET GARDEN, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN.  I also loved a series by Willard Price – really formulaic, totally thrilling adventure stories with titles like LION ADVENTURE, TIGER ADVENTURE – and I think that helped sow the seeds of my  love  for commercial concepts and high-stakes plotting.  I was very lacking in confidence – and pretty lazy –  as a child and early teen, but it was discovering my ability with words and writing/reading that led me to a conviction of what I wanted to do with my life, and the belief that I could do it if I made the effort. It was quite a journey of self-discovery – that I could overturn the very limited expectations people had of me – but honestly, I owe it all to literature.

LS: What has been one of your proudest moments as an agent?

I have had so many proud moments it’s hard to know where to start! I guess it has to be getting the deal for my client, every client, after huge amounts of work by both of us. Often my clients do  major revisions or even rewrites after I’ve signed them, and I’ve seen so many debut authors grow and develop in their ideas and their craft before the manuscript goes on submission. That makes me very proud – as if I’m seeing my child grow up into a fully-fledged author! Whether a deal is large or small in financial terms, it is so often the culmination of a long-held dream for that individual and it is a privilege to be alongside as that happens. I want my ‘children’ to wave me off at the school door as they set out into their new lives as authors. That for me is a job well done.

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

Good question! I’m sorry to say that I’m a terribly obsessive editor. I’ve even been known to edit my family’s fridge notes with a red pen.  I’m the same with the plotting of films – I’m always thinking ‘Does that work? Would he really do that in those circumstances?’ because much more of my time as an agent is spent on the ‘macro’ of plot than the ‘micro’ of line editing. All that said, if I’m reading a great novel I will forget about the editorial stuff and be swept along in the experience. Maybe that’s the acid test for me.

LS: What makes the manuscripts you take on stand out? What are the elements of your “perfect” manuscript?

I’m looking for a few core ingredients and those rarely have anything much to do with genre (aspiring writers tend to get very hung up on genre – what agents are/ are not seeking). First and foremost, I’m looking for something I’ve never seen before – that might be a voice, a concept, a unique spin on a premise. It’s got to make me sit up and take notice, even if the plotting or characterizations aren’t quite ‘there’ at this early stage. I can work with many elements, but I can’t create something that absolutely doesn’t exist.  Once I can see that uniqueness in a manuscript, that strong ‘hook’,  I’m really looking for a combination of strong crafting and voice; the story that it delivers,  and how that is achieved.

LS: What questions should writers ask potential agents prior to signing?

Writers quite correctly look for an agent who they think will be committed to them, their work, and who is able to secure them a deal.  A personality ‘fit’ is, of course, important too (we should like and respect each other). But knowing what I know about agents, I think these questions are also really important:

How do you handle subsidiary and translation rights?

Who negotiates your contracts and how much experience do you have in doing that?

What is your editorial background and do you have a proven track record in  shaping fiction to take it up a large extra notch?

What proportion of manuscripts that you take on do you actually sell?

LS: Is there a specific trend that you’re tired of seeing?

I’m still seeing tons of paranormal fantasy and dystopia.  Both are really tricky now – there’s just so much that’s already been acquired, including further titles in trilogies/series that are yet to publish. I’m also starting to see tons of sci-fi – that seems to have become the new kid on the submissions block. Some sci-fi is selling, but I’m not convinced it’s going to become the next really big thing in the way that, for example, paranormal did.

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?

Honestly, I try not to get too hung up on this issue because it actually doesn’t hugely impact my day-to-day business life. My experience is that aspiring writers still really want the affirmation and support of a ‘traditional’ publishing house, and there is still wide acknowledgement that for most writers that is where they will find the strongest editorial guidance, design and marketing support, and distribution.  Sure, there will be others whose experience is different, and good luck to those who come through to great success (or even modest success) via the self-publishing route, but very often it’s a hard furrow to plow.  I really hope there will be room for both approaches. But I can say that from the moment Greenhouse signs a new client, we are working our hardest for them in all ways, and that goes for the publishers we work with too. That’s a lot of fire-power to have on your side. I see the future of publishing being a mix of formats and a variety of routes to market.

LS: Many writers seem eager to query before their manuscripts are ready. What would be your advice to authors preparing to submit?

Yes, I agree that many writers are a little too trigger happy in submitting. It’s human nature – waiting is hard!  But it is worth really making sure your manuscript is as honed as you can make it. That might mean enlisting seriously good critique partners. It might even mean taking a deep breath and starting over. If there’s a big nag at the back of your mind that something isn’t quite right in your manuscript, then you are probably correct, so try to be really honest with yourself. The same goes with your query itself. I know some new writers get terribly hung up on ‘How to write the perfect query’, and that can be unhelpful – it’s an art, not a science. But still, it’s worth looking around for good examples, and certainly worth doing multiple drafts of your pitch before committing to one. Writing pitches is a skill and it takes time to master that skill. A strong pitch, a great hook, will help you hugely.

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

Beautifully written novel with a strong and unique concept, which made me laugh and cry, and which ultimately showed me more about what it means to be human in this terrifying but beautiful world.


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