Book Broker – an interview with Chelsea Eberly
Agent: Chelsea Eberly
Preferred genres: Commercial and high-concept literary middle grade and YA fiction and nonfiction (all genres within, though not the best fit for horror), graphic novels, illustrators of picture books, and upmarket women’s fiction.
Bio: Chelsea Eberly is an agent at Greenhouse Literary Agency, which she joined after over a decade as an editor at Random House. There, she edited numerous award-winning and #1 New York Times bestselling authors. She has a deep understanding of how publishers think and is an expert advocate for her clients. Chelsea is also a Publishers Weekly Star Watch Honoree, which recognizes “the rising stars of the US publishing industry.” A Midwesterner turned New Yorker, she regularly presents at writing conferences across the country and enjoys teaching craft. Follow her on Twitter at @chelseberly.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
Voice and a high-concept, unique point of view are essential for me. A compelling voice will hook me—and shows that the author understands craft—but I also need the story’s concept to feel fresh and Big Book in some way. I love ambitious creators who think about what they’re bringing to the table as individuals and who put that perspective and/or an interesting structure into their work to create something new and exciting.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
If I feel like I’ve read this story before, that often means that the author isn’t bringing enough voice and specificity to the page. I can also tell a manuscript isn’t ready when an author doesn’t balance exposition and scenes for successful pacing. Usually this is when a story feels like it is doing a lot of telling and the scene choices feel jarring, confusing, or arbitrary. Reading a lot and studying successful authors’ pacing choices can help build this skill.
3) What advice can you give to writers who are submitting their work?
Read and revise and then research. Read current titles in your genre and books outside of your category. Study the author’s craft to analyze what makes each book successful. And be willing to revise your work. A first draft is just for you. Don’t put any pressure on it beyond existing. Second, third, fourth, etc. drafts are for you and your critique partners. Submit your work after you’ve polished the book as much as possible, and don’t be afraid to get space from a project in order to come back to it with fresh eyes while revising. This isn’t a process that should be rushed. When you’re ready to query, do a lot of research about the agency and agents to whom you submit. It’s often better to have a tailored list of agents you feel will be a good fit than to try every single agent who may or may not represent your genre.
4) How do you weigh the importance of each submission component (query letter, synopsis, writing sample) when determining whether you will ask to read a full manuscript?
The writing sample is always the most important component to me. I have to love your writing ability to want to represent you! A strong query letter can help to grab my attention, though. The query letter helps me understand your vision. Who do you see as your competition in the market? This is also why reading current titles in your genre is so important. Is your concept compelling enough that you can boil it down into a sentence or two as an elevator pitch? I love when a query letter includes an elevator pitch. I don’t need a synopsis; I care more about the concept and the execution than about the details of how the story gets there.
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 receive thousands of queries a year. I’ve requested fewer than a hundred, and I have offered representation on a handful of talented authors and illustrators. I’m currently building my list and looking to represent more exciting projects, but I’m also highly selective. Greenhouse is the kind of agency that values quality over quantity.
6) What is the average length of time it takes to place a manuscript with a publisher, and what is your strategy for a client whose manuscript isn't selling?
It varies depending on the project. I’ve sold books in less than a month, and it’s always a good sign when editors respond quickly. But some projects take more time to find the perfect home, and that’s okay, too. If a manuscript isn’t selling, then the feedback in the rejections would help determine the conversation I would have with an author. Should we revise the manuscript with this feedback in mind? Should this project be put in a drawer as we pivot to something new? Communication with a client is key.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
I’ve read two non-client books that completely wowed me. FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang has a fantastic middle-grade voice that pulled me in immediately. All of the characters are richly portrayed, and she skillfully navigates big themes of racism, poverty, immigration, and injustice through the eyes of a ten-year-old Chinese girl. The story felt universal and highly specific at once, which is the sign of great writing. I also loved CIRCE by Madeline Miller. I am always attracted to new takes on old myths, particularly if they’re told through a feminist lens, and this retelling showed a great deal of research and a willingness to carve her own path. I couldn’t put it down!
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
I’m excited about all of my authors! I would love to shout from the rooftops about each client’s projects, but today I’ll mention one that is available right now.
Graphic novelist Ngozi Ukazu has created the hilarious and heartwarming series CHECK, PLEASE!, which stars Eric Bittle, a former figure skating champion, vlogger extraordinaire, and stress baker experiencing the highs and lows of college life as a new recruit on the Samwell University hockey team. Terrified of checking and eager to prove himself to his team, he’s also on a journey to come out to his teammates, especially when he falls in love with Jack, the handsome but moody team captain. Think the frat-boy humor of SLAP SHOT meets the sweet coming-of-age story of SIMON VS. THE HOMOSAPIENS AGENDA in a GREAT BRITISH BAKE-OFF world without toxic masculinity. And I’m thrilled to say that CHECK, PLEASE! BOOK 2: STICKS AND SCONES recently hit the New York Times bestseller list!