Wednesday, July 27, 2011

In the agent's chair with CHRIS RICHMAN

I can tell you this. Having an agent in your corner and on your team is like being able to eat lunch with Han Solo and Chewbacca everyday. 

If that means nothing to you then you need to eat lunch with them and you will understand. Basically, it's freakin awesome! Speaking of awesome. I had the opportunity to speak with out-of-this-world agent, Chris Richman, from Upstart Crow Literary about his task of being an agent in the best sector of the literary world - children's literature. This post is not about what he is looking for or how you can submit manuscripts to him - that you can find on his site here. This is about being an agent and what happens on a day to day basis. 

How involved are you with your writers (from editing, notes, story development), and how important is this for you?

CHRIS RICHMAN - I’m typically very involved with my clients when it comes to editing, notes, and story development, especially on projects which are not under contract. I’ve yet to have a project go out on submission without doing at least one round of revision with the client first. For new clients, we can sometimes do several rounds of revision, from both big picture issues to pacing and character development. With existing clients, I weigh in on the marketability of new projects they’re considering working on to make sure the new work has a home in the market. In truth, I’m happy to help out in whatever way is most helpful for the client, and have done a little bit of everything.
When a project sells, however, I step back and let the writer work more directly with the editor, since that’s where the meat of the development takes place.

Put me in the agent chair, what are some of the day to day hurdles of being a lit agent? What do most people/clients not know about the hard work you do?

CR - Oh, there are loads of hurdles: dealing with writers who get mad at agents who don’t respond to unsolicited submissions quickly enough; having to break bad news to clients; finding the most effective ways to manage the hours in a day to be the most efficient. One of the biggest hurdles, however, is the fact that most agents don’t make a dime unless a project sells. So that means a lot of the auxiliary duties that come along with the job, from taking the time to send notes along with passes on queries, to giving advice, to doing blog interviews, never leads to any sort of financial return. But when a project does sell, it can of course be very gratifying.

Writing these days is not just about turning over a manuscript and hoping it sells. What do writers need to do these days to really help make a career of writing?

CR - Making a career in writing can be extremely difficult. Heck, making a career as an agent is difficult, too! Writers need to remember, however, that very few authors are able to pull in enough income  to make writing a career. To make it happen, though, they need to remember to treat it like a business, and have ideas beyond the one they are trying to get published. They need to also know that if they are able to make a career, it’s not going to happen quickly. The old adage about publishing being a slow process couldn’t be more true. It takes time, it takes dedication, it takes persistence, it takes spouses, friends, and family who understand their passion. But if there’s talent there, and good ideas, and a terrific work ethic, it can happen.

Writers, for the most part, are a lonely lot and need a lot of encouragement. I know many of them that need a daily download from their agent to see how things are going. I want to flip the table and ask what the writer can do to help their agent do their job? How do we writers become better clients?

CR - Speaking personally, none of my clients needs a daily download. Perhaps that’s because I’ve been able to find very level headed clients, or perhaps I’ve been lucky. Some things writers should remember when it comes to communication from their agents, however, is that if they haven’t been hearing news, it’s likely because there IS no news to share. One of the most important things I can preach to all writers out there is patience. I know it’s exciting; I know you’re personally invested; I know you (and me and everyone involved in creative pursuits) can get a little crazy, but we all have to remember to be patient, to know there will be failures and successes, and try to roll with the punches.

I have conversations with people about writing for children and I get a lot of "so you take what you you would write for adults and dumb it down" comment. Can you tell those people who want to write for children what they really need to know?

CR - Well, as many of us who read and write books for children already know, the idea that children’s books are simply dumbed down adult books is ludicrous. So what, you take a gritty cowboy and replace his six-shooter with a water pistol and presto? Writers who want to write for children must first be well-versed in what already has worked. Then they must be aware of what the current market is calling for. Then they must learn to respect their audience, and give them something that will challenge them, or speak to them, or make them laugh. In many ways, writing for children is more difficult than writing for adults, I feel, and doing it exceptionally well is even more difficult than that.

What are some of the biggest shifts in publishing that you see today? How are E-books and authors jumping to self publish effecting our world?

CR - We’ve seen the shift happen more slowly in children’s books than our colleagues on the adult side have experienced, but it’s definitely shifting. When I entered the world of publishing just over three years ago, no one was taking E-books seriously, but obviously that’s changed quite a bit in a short amount of time. We can’t deny that kids are becoming more and more comfortable with technology, and it’s exciting to think of new ways of reaching them using resources other than ink and paper. Three years ago, too, we could count the amount of self-published authors worth paying attention to on one hand. Now things are shifting, and some people are able to find success without going the traditional route. No matter what happens with technology, however, stories will continue to be necessary no matter what medium is used to reach them, and great writing will always be paramount.

If you could be any literary character through out time, who would it be and why?

CR - Ha! I like ending on such a fun question. So who would I want to be...I suppose I wouldn’t mind being Charlie Bucket from CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. I mean, sure, the kid had a rough start, but he came out of it owning a marvelous chocolate factory and being able to take a trip into outer space in a great glass elevator. And what’s the worst he has to deal with? Some cranky Oompa-Loompas? Seems pretty awesome to me.

Chris, thank you so much for hanging out at the Asylum and sharing your in the chair stories. I can't tell you how valuable it is for writers to know how important your job is beyond reading manuscripts and fielding calls and being a therapist too. We are forever grateful for your wisdom. 


  1. Great interview, Matt! It was great of Chris to do this, although I think he significantly underestimates the creepiness of Oompa-Loompas. ;)

  2. Awesome interview!! And wonderful insight! Thanks, Matt! Thanks, Chris!

  3. It doesn't get better than lunching with Chewie and Han. Great interview, thank you D.M. and Chris. It's interesting to get a glimpse into the different levels of agent/client, agent/editor interactions. It seems a lot of agents aren't as editorial as in the past. Nice to see that is still a big step in the process with Chris.