Book Broker—an interview with Rachel Altemose

Book Broker—an interview with agent Rachel Altemose from Salky Literary Management—query letter advice and manuscript wish list (#MSWL) suggestions

Book Broker—an interview with Rachel Altemose from Salky Literary Management—query letter advice and manuscript wish list (#MSWL) suggestions

Agent: Rachel Altemose


Preferred genres: Literary fiction, memoir, YA, MG, PB.

Bio: Rachel Altemose (she/hers) is a junior agent and has been with Salky Literary Management since its inception in 2019. Prior to SLM, she interned at Eden Street Literary Agency and attended the Columbia Publishing Course. She has a burgeoning list of picture book, MG, YA, narrative/serious nonfiction, and literary fiction authors and also assists Jesseca, Eryn, Kate, and Charlotte with SLM and CSLA clients. Rachel is a lifelong lover of storytelling and graduated from Vassar College with degrees in English and drama. She is interested in a diverse array of genres (children’s through adult) and is particularly keen on narratives with unique voices, diverse perspectives, immersive settings, complicated familial relationships, young/twenty-something protagonists, magical realism/surrealism, or experimental style.

1) What stands out in a good submission?

For me, it's all about the voice. I've read manuscripts with so much potential—intricately crafted plots, emotional character arcs, complex worldbuilding—but at the end of the day, none of that matters if I don't enjoy how these elements are communicated. While this is often discussed when it comes to adult fiction, I think it's neglected when it comes to children's books and nonfiction proposals. A picture book should feel as alive as literary fiction. Even though it's 32 pages of mostly illustrations, I still want to feel the author's language and intentions leap off the page. As for nonfiction, while you need to tell us the facts of the book, make every aspect from the "Overview" to the "Author Bio" to the "Chapter Summaries" highly readable. Your chapter summaries should read like the chapters themselves. Don't just tell us about the story, show us how you are the best possible vessel for the narrative.

2) What's one thing you wish querying authors knew about your job as an agent?

Sometimes selling a manuscript is really, REALLY hard. At the end of the day, we will do whatever we can to make it the best it can be, but authors need to bear with us. I've struggled with authors who sign with us and then are surprised that we request another two or three rounds of editorial revisions, even when we make our editorial thoughts clear upfront. I think a lot of authors believe that finding an agent is the golden ticket to publication and that they'll find a publisher within a few weeks. Sadly, this is not always the case. I wish authors knew that this is a long process, and while we only take on manuscripts we believe in, it doesn't mean we think their book is ready to go as soon as the author joins our list. Patience and willingness to collaborate are key. We have a lot of clients, and we try to give 100% to each and every one. Just because we require more revisions, or just because we take a while to get back to you, please know we only want to give your manuscript the attention it deserves.

3) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?

When we ask the author, "What are you hoping to say with your book?" and they don't have an answer. Of course, each reader will have a distinct take on your manuscript, but an author should always be clear when it comes to a message, idea, or theme they want to share. When you start writing, it might take you months or years to realize what you're really trying to say. That's completely okay! You don't even need to have a SparkNotes-style breakdown of every theme, motif, and nuance by the time you're done writing. Just have a sense of something bigger—of that thing your reader could take with them at the end of your journey together. When a book is meandering and trying to tackle too many ideas, it's much harder for us to pitch and for an editor to acquire.

4) What's at the top of your manuscript wish list right now?

I would love some literary fiction about dance (ballet specifically), experimental YA (in the style/realm of CRANK by Ellen Hopkins), or a minimalistic but very quirky picture book (think the OLIVIA series).

5) When you sign a new client, to what extent do you work through additional revisions together before their manuscript is ready for submission to publishers?

I am a very editorial agent, so I will go through as many rounds as necessary to make it a strong contender for submission. The amount varies based on the project and availability of the author. Sometimes, especially for picture books, it can be one or two rounds that take a month or so, but I've had literary fiction that's taken over a year and four or five rounds of revision.

6) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?

It's difficult to watch so many of my passionate, insanely talented colleagues leave the industry before progressing past entry-level positions—especially when it's not due to a lack of enthusiasm, but a lack of support and chance for upward mobility. With such high turnover, it has also made it significantly harder for young agents and editors to make those crucial connections that more experienced agents and editors rely on for their book deals. From unions to young agent/editor events at publishing houses, there have definitely been recent attempts to counteract this. However, I would love to see even more effort from publishing superiors to ensure that their pupils will have the same, or better, tools to progress and succeed as they did.

7) How has technology changed your approach to agenting?

As someone who has only been in the field for the past four years, I can't say I've experienced much overhaul in systematic operations when it comes to technology in the industry. However, with recent conversations around AI and ChatGPT, I'm sure my answer to this will change in a matter of months. What I will say, though, is that the centralization of a database has been invaluable, and it's hard for me to imagine a time without something like that. Using the Atlas system, we can track the payments, submission lists, subrights, etc. for every project all in one place. The digitization of contract routing during COVID has also been extremely helpful and much more efficient than the pre-pandemic protocol.

8) What red flags in a query letter are enough to cause you to pass on a project without looking at the writer's sample pages? What percentage of submissions would you say die with the query letter?

The claim that your book is "unlike anything else on the market." When I see this, it tells me the author/artist hasn't done their homework, and they ultimately won't have a good understanding of how to market their own project or who their audience is. I also tend to overlook queries that haven't been formatted or copyedited extensively. You definitely do not need to send a perfect, error-free manuscript, but I'm surprised how often people send a 500-word query that seems like a very first draft. I really value authors who have taken their time and submitted something that feels polished and well thought out.

I would say 30-40% of queries die with the letter. A letter is as critical, if not more, than the manuscript itself. Take your time, recruit beta readers, and make sure your pitch accurately encompasses the story you are telling.

9) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?

I've been obsessed with LONG DIVISION by Kiese Laymon. Truly one of the best first pages I've ever read. Within the first ten sentences, Laymon paints a phenomenal portrait of his protagonist using only the protagonist's judgment of a fellow character. It's hilarious and a brilliant way to incorporate exposition without an information dump. I was laughing before I had to turn a single page.

10) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?

This feels akin to choosing a favorite child! I have so many incredible authors who all do such different and exciting things, but one project that has been in the works for a long time is NO ACUTE DISTRESS by Bria Adimora Godley (Algonquin, 2024). This was the first project I had the pleasure of selling, and while it's been a long editorial process (Bria is writing most of the book whilst completing her psychiatry residency at Yale), I can say with full certainty that it will be worth the wait. She has one of the most dynamic voices I've ever read, and the immediacy of her storytelling is riveting.

Read more about Rachel's publication deals here

Interview with book agent Rachel Altemose from Salky Literary Management—query letter advice and manuscript wishlist (#MSWL) suggestions

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