Book Broker – an interview with Rach Crawford
Agent: Rach Crawford
Bio: Rach Crawford joined Wolf Literary Services as an agent in 2015. She represents authors in both the U.S. and Australia, and represents U.S. rights on behalf of select Australian publishers and agents. Previously, she was MacKenzie Wolf’s foreign rights manager. Before moving to Wolf, Rach worked in rights at Fletcher and Company, at Sterling Lord Literistic, and as a publicist for a small press. Rach’s clients have won Walkley Awards, are Fulbright Scholars, have been shortlisted for the Stella Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, a Lambda Literary Award, nominated for Pushcart Prizes, and appeared in Best American Short Stories. Rach represents literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, with a particular interest in LGBTQ+ perspectives across topics.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
In a query letter, I’d say personalization—when I’m reading queries, letters really do pop when they are clearly addressed to me as a person and where the writer demonstrates a familiarity with my wishlist (beyond simply quoting verbatim from our website) or authors.
(On not quoting directly, think about what part of your story you can point to that speaks to the agent’s wishlist—for example, instead of saying to me, “I’m querying you because you’re looking for social horror,” you could say, “I’m querying you because my novel has undercurrents of horror, using the macabre to explore the politics of the body.” This hasn’t quoted me directly but I know exactly what part of my wishlist you’re referring to—it’s much more engaging, especially when a high proportion of queries are simply quoting directly. If you do this successfully it also shows right off the bat that you can write!)
In terms of the actual work, it’s often clear in the first few pages of a sample when I’m seeing a manuscript that is ready—it may show through crystal clear, precise prose; it might be a distinct voice that establishes character from the get go; it may be a proposal overview where the author conveys expertise through clear communication of their topic. Usually when an author is making decisions in regards to style and can demonstrate a control of said style, that leaps off the page and I want to read more.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
Two things: If there’s a lot of “scaffolding.” Oftentimes writers write their way into a story and include a lot of backstory and character development on the page, which is a good way to get yourself situated, as a writer—it’s the work that goes around the story, holds it up while you build. The trick, then, is to know what is there for you, the writer, and what is there for the reader—so, once you’ve written your story, going back through looking for extraneous backstory and description and taking it out, leaving only the parts that are necessary for your reader. Oftentimes if a lot of this scaffolding remains, the pacing feels off, and the story can feel as though it’s moving more slowly than it needs to/should.
The second thing, and this is related to the above, is when the story starts in the wrong place. Ideally the inciting incident is going to take place in the first chapter, and we, the reader, will not have to do a lot of work to get there. If you’re writing a query letter and the description of your plot begins with something that happens in chapter three or four, that’s a good sign that you may be including too much preamble (scaffolding!) in your early chapters, and you might think about restructuring/making some cuts.
3) What's at the top of your manuscript wish list right now?
After many years of working in translation rights as well as building my list, I’m now solely focused on agenting, which means I’m actively looking to grow my list. Right now I’d love to see voicey millennial crime/mystery (like if the TV show Search Party were a book); genre crossover, so books like The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris; literary/upmarket novels set within a particular social milieu, like The Animators by Kayla Rae Whittaker, or The View Was Exhausting by Mikaella Clements and Onjuli Datta; all especially so by writers whose voices have been historically marginalized. I’d love to see more lyrical nonfiction in the science/nature space like Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
4) What do you love most about being an agent, and what do you find the most challenging?
There’s so much I love about this job!
The most challenging are the business realities of working in publishing/the arts—high workload, insecure finances, potential for burnout.
My favorite part of my job is advocating for my clients and seeing them succeed. There’s no better thing than witnessing an author realize a long-held goal, be it professional or artistic, and feeling like I’ve played a small part in helping them to get there.
5) What typically draws you deep into a manuscript? What common snags are likely to break your narrative immersion?
As above, stylistic control is important, and so are stakes. I need something propelling me forward in the story, and I need to understand why I should keep reading on a really visceral, emotional level.
6) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?
Diversity at every level of publishing, and fair pay–a living wage–for entry level and early career employees.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
I would never have believed it until I read it, but I fell completely for Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. On the surface, this was not a book for me: I’m not a Shakespeare nut. I don’t tend to read historical fiction. I’m not a mother and didn’t necessarily think I was interested in narratives of mothering (I’ve since adjusted that perception!). But I was completely swept away by the book.
The thing that led me to picking it up wasn’t all the praise, which has been near universal, but an interview I heard with the author where she talked about the central character, and her deep connection to the natural world—she keeps bees and a falcon—which is a trope—outsider nature lady—that I love. I think this speaks again to the value in personalizing your pitches; you can pull out the thread that may not be significant enough to make the cover copy/query letter, but which you think will be personally convincing to the agent you’re pitching to, and it can make the world of difference.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
It’s hard to pick just one, but most recently Megan Milks has published their debut novel Margaret and The Mystery of the Missing Body, which is a genre-bending, queer rollercoaster ride of a book, along with a reissue of their groundbreaking short story collection Slug and Other Stories, which had gone out of print, both with the Feminist Press. I am so excited their earlier work is available again, and that there’s a new, brilliant book for readers to fall in love with.