Book Broker—an interview with Sera Rivers
Agent: Sera Rivers, Speilburg Literary
Bio: Sera Rivers is a Literary Agent at Speilburg Literary. She holds an MFA in writing for children from Simmons University. She represents middle grade, young adult, graphic novels (author/illustrator only), and select picture books. Check out her MSWL and submission guidelines at SeraRivers.com. Prior to agenting, Sera worked as an editor in educational publishing for seven years. Follow her on Twitter: @writeloudly.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
First and foremost, the voice! Give me a compelling voice, and I'm hooked! In addition to that, I look for strong characters, a compelling plot, and an immersive setting.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
I can tell a manuscript isn't ready for submission when the opening pages are full of backstory or exposition that doesn't set up the plot or move the story forward. For picture books, a tell-tale sign is word-count. I often see picture books that are promising but are much too long. Picture books should be 500 words or less, unless they're nonfiction or historical fiction.
3) What's at the top of your manuscript wish list right now?
My full MSWL is available on my website SeraRivers.com, but two things that I would LOVE to see would be a modern-day BIPOC retelling of The Westing Game and a queer retelling of The Little Mermaid, where Ariel falls in love with Ursula.
4) What's one thing you wish querying authors knew about your job as an agent?
My clients are my top priority, so I can be slow to respond to queries. I review every query that comes in, and I want to make sure that I give each query the time and consideration it deserves. That takes time. I do respond to every query I receive via Query Manager, so please nudge if it's been more than eight weeks in the queue.
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 an editorial agent, so I will work on revisions with a client until the book is ready for submission. Sometimes, that's one round of revision; sometimes two or more. Similar to writers querying agents, I have one shot with editors. So, I want to make sure that I send a client's best work.
6) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?
While there is a growing awareness about uplifting diverse voices, there's so much more we can do, especially in the children's book space. My passion as an agent is to champion books where children can see themselves and their peers reflected in the narrative, that uplift historically excluded voices, that tackle real-life challenges and traumas, and that celebrate the diverse world we live in.
7) How has technology changed your approach to agenting?
Video conferencing allows me to connect face-to-face—albeit virtually—with clients, editors, agents, and other publishing professionals all around the world. This really helps strengthen professional relationships and makes this mostly solitary career less isolating. I also really love my iPad and Apple pencil. It makes it super easy to mark up manuscripts as I review them, which makes writing editorial letters to clients more proficient!
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?
Two of the biggest red flags for me are queries that include hate speech or harmful content and/or genres that I don't represent (for some reason, I get a lot of adult detective mysteries/thrillers and I do not rep books in the adult market whatsoever). I would say I pass on about 80% of submissions at the query stage. However, it's not usually because of red flags. I've passed on many high-quality books that are just not right for me, specifically, but may be right for another agent.
9) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
Homeland: My Father Dreams of Palestine by Hannah Moushabeck, illustrated by Reem Madooh. I love everything about this book! It shares an important history that is easily accessible to children; it incorporates humor, culture, strong familial relationships, heartache, healing, love, and more! The illustrations are absolutely beautiful and the text is lyrical. While the story is autobiographical, it shares the universal message of longing for home and family, and feeling a strong connection to your homeland, even if you've never visited. I strongly recommend this book to everyone—children and adults alike!
10) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
I'm working with so many exciting authors and projects! However, I've only been an agent for two years, so I'll share the first two book covers on my list! The first is my client Brooke Hartman's Klyde the Kraken Wants a Friend, illustrated by Laura Borio (Hazy Dell press, April 2023). The second is my client Mariana Llanos's Benita and the Night Creatures, illustrated by Cocoretto (Barefoot Books, September 2023).