Book Broker – an interview with Stephen Fraser
Agent: Stephen Fraser, Senior Literary Agent, The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency
Preferred genres: Picture books, chapter books, middle grade, young adult, nonfiction.
Bio: Stephen Fraser has been a literary agent with the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City for sixteen years, after working for more than twenty-five years at seven major publishers including Harper-Collins, Simon & Schuster, and Scholastic. His clients have won the Newbery Honor Medal, both the Edgar and PEN awards, and received multiple starred reviews. He is graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont with a degree in English Literature and has a Master’s Degree in Children’s Literature from Simmons College in Boston. Stephen is a popular speaker at writer’s conferences throughout the country.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
It’s always the language that stands out. You can have a good concept, but if it isn’t delivered with compelling language, it can fall flat. Every word in a picture book should resonate. A novel needs to capture your interest from the very first page and then keep you interested.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
An banal opening is a sign that a manuscript isn’t ready. For a lot of amateurish manuscripts, if you chop off the first paragraph (and usually the last paragraph), invariably it is better. But it shows that a writer isn’t careful with their narrative style. Every word matters. Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard said you should underline your best sentences and then delete all the rest. Rewrite to bring the rest of your sentences up to that good level.
3) What advice can you give to writers who are submitting their work?
Be sure that this is your best work. You are presenting yourself to the world. Writing that hasn’t gelled doesn’t make you look good. And it’s all about image. Your first impression is very important. I have seen a lot of submissions that seem rushed and not well-crafted.
4) What are the three most overused opening scenes that you encounter in submissions?
“Nothing every happened in this boring town.” You have already lost your potential reader. “There was a monster under the bed.” I see this about once a week. Next! “It was a rainy day in Boring Town.” Sound familiar?
5) For writers without prior publications, what can they say in their "about me" query paragraph to catch your attention? Does it help to know if the manuscript has gone through workshopping or developmental editing?
If you haven’t been published before, don’t apologize. Everyone starts somewhere. However, I wouldn’t mention "developmental editing" or workshopping. Let your writing speak for itself. In fact, if the submission isn’t strong, it makes an editor or the workshop look bad. Maybe mention your schooling or what kinds of things you like to read.
6) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be?
I would make "track record" a non-issue. It used to be that editors wanted to keep publishing an author even if their previous book didn’t sell all that well. Now, things are very bottom-line-oriented and that’s very challenging for people with long term careers to publish their next book.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
Anything by the wonderful Jonathan Auxier. He is a true storyteller in the best tradition of Charles Dickens and George MacDonald. His novel SWEEP (Abrams, 2018) is gorgeous. I have quoted it in speeches around the country. It just came out in paperback.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
One of my long-term clients, Claudia Mills, has written extensively for the second- and third-grade level with series like the Franklin School, the Nora Notebooks, and After-School Superstars. She just completed a stand alone, slightly older middle grade novel called THE LOST LANGUAGE (Holiday House) which is superb. When it comes out next fall, it will probably put her on the map and win awards. I feel as though Claudia has written forty years’ experience into this book. It made me weep it was so good.