Book Broker – an interview with Carlisle K. Webber
Agent: Carlisle K. Webber
Preferred genres: I’m looking for all genres of MG and YA except epic fantasy. For adults, I’m looking for mystery, thriller, suspense, horror, contemporary, and women’s fiction.
Bio: Carlisle Webber refused to major in English in college because she didn’t think there was anything fun to read on the required lists. No Stephen King? No R. L. Stine? No thanks! After college, she took her love of commercial, YA, and middle-grade fiction to the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences, where she earned a Master of Library and Information Sciences. She worked as a public librarian for years before deciding to move to the business side of publishing. She attended the Columbia Publishing Course and holds a Professional Certificate in Editing from UC-Berkeley.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
I’m always impressed by query letters that leave me wondering how the main character is going to solve their biggest problem. Writing a query letter is tough, no doubt, but all it really has to do is make me want to read the book. I like to see strong comp titles, because it shows that the author knows their audience. For the opening pages, I usually want to read more when the writer creates a mystery for me or presents at least one of the major problems that the main character will have to overcome or solve.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
One of the most common warning signs is that the manuscript doesn’t begin in the right place. It either takes too long to set up, or it jumps right into action without getting the reader on board with who the main character is and what they want.
3) What advice can you give to writers who are submitting their work?
Follow all the submission instructions on the agent’s website. It seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people think the rules don’t apply to them. Write an actual query letter, not a note that says, “I don’t know how to write a query letter, so here are my pages.” If an agent asks for sample pages, always send the opening pages (unless you have a prologue and the agent specifically says they don’t want prologues).
In terms of the writing itself, I will say this: I always know when a writer does or doesn’t read in the genre they’ve written. Sometimes the best thing to do as a writer is to put your manuscript away, read a book for the same audience, and come back. Know how your book fits into the marketplace.
4) What typically draws you deep into a manuscript? What common snags are likely to break your narrative immersion?
I’m most likely to stick with a manuscript if I feel swept into the voice and story. The setting has to be solid, and I want to have a clear view of the stakes and how the main character intends to solve their problems. I need to see solid pacing, believable conflict, and feelings that are true to life.
In terms of snags, one of my big ones is too much sitting and talking at the beginning of a book. This is too often used by inexperienced writers to fill in background information, but it’s not effective. There needs to be tension and mystery at the opening of a book. Even though we sit and talk with people all the time in real life, it’s not exciting to read. Other major snags: plots that sag or slow down too much in the middle, children’s books that lean more heavily on imparting a moral than telling a good story, and characters who make only bad decisions. I know bad decisions make for good stories, but I don’t want to read about someone who can’t learn at least a little something from a past mistake.
5) Approximately how many query letters do you receive per year? Of those, how many will you respond to with a request for a full manuscript? And of those, how many are likely to receive an offer of representation?
I’m rounding the numbers here, but I get about 5,000 queries a year. I might respond to fifty or so with a request for a full, and of those, I may offer on ten. A lot depends on what I’m looking for and what kind of room I have for what books on my list, but those numbers don’t vary far in one direction or the other.
6) What is your strategy for a client whose manuscript isn't selling?
It depends on why the book isn’t selling. If editors are all passing on the book for the same reason, I might have the client revise. If the book turns out to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, I may have them try writing a new book, even try a new genre or audience if they’re interested. My philosophy is that I represent authors, not books. Sometimes an author may just need an extra brain to talk about ideas and gain a greater understanding of what the market demands. If that’s the case, I’m happy to help. I want all of my clients to have long, fruitful careers.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
The best book I’ve read lately is Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. It’s really a perfect balance of literary and commercial. The language is what first drew me in. It's elegant and erudite, but the way Turow creates the character of Rusty Sabich, it’s also perfectly believable, never melodramatic. I was hooked by the pacing as well as the language. Turow never dwells on one scene for too long, which really keeps the pages turning.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
J. Todd Scott’s Lost River is coming out June 23 from Putnam. Todd is a DEA agent, and he brings his expertise on the opioid epidemic to life. All of Todd’s work is set in real places and modern times, but at the same time every book has an element that feels otherworldly. He’s also the type of client every agent likes to work with. He’s full of ideas, writes every day, takes editorial direction well, and is willing to try his hand at anything in terms of style and genre. His previous books include The Far Empty, High White Sun, and This Side of Night.