Book Broker – an interview with Sarah Davies
Agent: Sarah Davies
Preferred genres: Middle-grade and YA fiction and non-fiction (all genres considered); adult female-oriented suspense fiction by referral.
Bio: Sarah founded the Greenhouse when she moved to the US in 2007 after a long career as a UK children’s publisher, working with many internationally celebrated authors. She now divides her time between London and New York.
Sarah has been an editor most of her life and has considerable experience in contract negotiation, marketing and rights. Excellent publishing contacts in both the USA and Britain, and many years spent living in both countries, have given her an unusually transatlantic view of the children’s books industry, from both sides of the desk. A member of AAR, Sarah has crossed America and Europe talking about children’s books and writing craft. She says, ‘Everything you need to know about Greenhouse is in its name.’ Follow her on Twitter at @SarahGreenhouse.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
I’m always looking for the two “C” words – concept and craft. Which means I’m hooked by a strong and interesting idea that I’ve not seen before, and then I look for the writer’s ability to create and explore that concept on the page, in such a way that I’m drawn in by the writing. Voice, characterization, dialogue, a sense of place are all important. But if you put it all together, it’s really about discovering a story I could get lost in, and a keen feeling that I want to turn the page.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
If a manuscript isn’t ready, that is often already clear in the pitch, which may feel vague and without a clear sense of a compelling arc. Moving on to the writing, there can be a lot of “telling” in the early pages or perhaps a feeling that the author isn’t quite sure of their direction. Over-writing (loading the writing with lots of adjectives and adverbs) is often a sign of a new author who is still finding their voice and confidence.
3) What advice can you give to writers who are submitting their work?
Make full use of your critique partners and be willing to revise and revise before you submit, so you always send out the best work of which you are capable. Also, research your agent choices as much as you can, so you send appropriate material with a carefully crafted cover email to agents who are a good match for what you are writing. You might be amazed at how many queries we receive for material which our website clearly says we don’t represent!
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?
They are all equally important! Like any job application (which a query is, in a sense) you want to give a good account of yourself in all ways. However, I will admit that I do love a good pitch (rather than a synopsis, which we don’t ask for in a query). If you can a create compelling short pitch (3-4 paragraphs max) that makes me excited to read your sample pages, then that’s a great help and already gives me confidence that you know the story you are going to tell, and why it might stand out in the market. The best pages tend to follow a well-crafted pitch, so it’s a great skill to learn.
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?
As an agency we receive several thousand submissions per year. I already work with a fair number of authors, so I have occasional periods when I am closed to queries. I probably request about 20-40 manuscripts per year and take on about two or three new clients annually.
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?
Every situation is different. In an ideal situation, we will get strong interest several days after a submission, and in that instance we can have a deal done in days (or even with a preempt, where a publisher offers fast to take it off the table). But it’s not always like that, and some of the most satisfying deals come after a great deal of effort. Sometimes we don’t get a bite from the first round of editors, and we’ll do more work and send it out again, which means we could get an offer several weeks after the manuscript first went out – or even several months. If a new client’s manuscript doesn’t sell, we would look at the responses we got and think through why it didn’t hit the spot. Is there a recurring theme to the rejections? Was there something in the crafting that we overlooked? Then we would start thinking about other story pitches and what the author might do next. It does happen sometimes that the first manuscript doesn’t make it, but the author gets there with something else.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
I’ve enjoyed two books recently. On the adult (and teen) side, I adore psychological suspense and I read everything Ruth Ware writes. THE DEATH OF MRS WESTAWAY grabbed me from the first page and, as always, kept me guessing. She is terrific at intricate plots, a creepy sense of place, and at depicting interesting women who are grappling with some demons of their own. Perfect pandemic reading! On the younger side, I’ve just read PAPER TOWNS by John Green, which somehow I never got to before (the reading pile is always so big!). I marvel again at his ability to portray such vivid and nuanced characters, and to explore the bigger issues of life and growing up. Here, the idea that Margo (who goes missing) is not the person all her “friends” thinks she is – that they are all seeing her in “mirrors” – really interests me. It’s that sense of a character having layers, secrets, a complex inner life.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
All my authors are exciting, and I’m not just saying that because I should! It’s very hard to pick just one, but I’ll mention Elle Cosimano, who is having quite a moment right now. Her glorious YA fantasy, SEASONS OF THE STORM (June 23, 2020; HarperTeen) is about four teens who become the living embodiment of the four seasons, each destined to kill the preceding season – unless they can break free of the deadly cycle. It is riveting, pacy, and an amazingly good read.
But as if that weren’t enough, Elle is also developing a parallel career as an author of witty, gloriously murderous crime fiction for adults. FINLAY DONOVAN IS KILLING IT (February 2, 2021; Minotaur Books) is about a struggling crime novelist and single mom whose fiction treads dangerously close to the truth when she becomes tangled in real-life murder investigations. It’s clever, funny, and smart. I just love it – and I adore the jacket!