Book Broker – an interview with Whitney Ross
Agent: Whitney Ross, Irene Goodman Literary Agency
Bio: Before joining Irene Goodman in 2018, Whitney Ross worked as an editor at Macmillan for nearly a decade, culminating in her role as a senior editor for Tor Teen, Tor, and Forge. Over the course of her career, Whitney has had the pleasure of editing many talented authors, including Susan Dennard, Cora Carmack, Eric Van Lustbader, Steven Erikson, Katie McGarry, Ann Aguirre, Dan Wells, and Stacey Kade.
Whitney represents middle grade, young adult, and adult fiction across all genres, with an emphasis on historical, SF & fantasy, romance, and contemporary fiction. She is also open to non-fiction submissions in the areas of design, cooking, and fashion.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
So many things! But for me, the first three items I look for are:
- Professionalism—following query structure guidelines and our particular agency requirements
- A unique premise or hook
- A strong voice
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
Lack of professionalism is the first item on the list. As an agent, you want to see that a potential client takes their writing seriously and is intentional with their career. But on a manuscript level, poor pacing, extremely long word count, or stilted dialogue are quickly shown signs that demonstrate the author needs more revision work or craft study before they are ready for representation.
3) How do you feel about personalization in query letters? Can you give an example of effective personalization?
While this may vary from agent to agent, I very much appreciate personalization in query letters. Ideally, you would open your query by telling me why you’re sending to me specifically. Because I represent ______, or I said I was looking for ________. In essence, you’re telling me why I want to read on, and why it’s likely that I would be excited to request your manuscript!
It doesn’t have to be elaborate. One of my clients said:
Dear Ms. Ross,
I am currently seeking representation for my YA gothic fantasy novel, [title]. Given your interest in retellings and read-between-the-lines romance, I thought it might be a good fit for your list.
Clearly it was a good fit for my list, as she is now my client and her book debuts next year!
4) What are the three most overused opening scenes that you encounter in submissions?
- Transit Scenes. Traveling in a car, being stuck in traffic, or other methods of transportation are often used as a vehicle (pun intended!) to convey backstory, setup, and info dumps in the very beginning. It’s always best to cut, begin the story once the character has arrived, and disseminate that information organically throughout the novel.
- Mundane dialogue, particularly with a sibling or family member. I personally love to see a catchy first line, but beginning with a family member calling a question to a teen up in their room, etc., doesn’t quite set the tone or voice of the story.
- Addressing the reader directly takes us out of the story and removes the immersive experience. (Quick tip—please don’t write your query from the character’s perspective either!)
5) For writers without prior publications, what can they say in their "about me" query paragraph to catch your attention?
A well-written and intriguing query is enough to catch my attention! But for your bio, I personally find education levels and accolades are less helpful than seeing a little personality included. What (in brief) is something quirky and interesting about you that informs your writing? Again, this might vary from agent to agent, but the agent/client relationship is a long-term, personal one and seeing a bit of your personality shine through gives some great insight.
6) What are the top three things you look for in first-time authors?
- Again, professionalism! By this I mean that writing is a serious pursuit and they are intentional about pursuing publication and improving their craft.
- Any other ideas or concepts they might have in the pipeline. Agenting is ideally a long-term relationship, so it’s important to connect not just on that one manuscript, but on the author’s ideas and concepts for the future.
- Openness to revision and the ability to execute. As my clients’ agent, I edit their work before it goes on submission, and then their publishing house editor will also be asking for (most likely) multiple revisions. The willingness to brainstorm, pivot, and polish their work is so key for success in publishing long term!
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
I really loved The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes! I’ve been reading her books for many years, but this one is particularly amazing. It feels like such a fresh, compelling take on the old classic The Westing Game, with some intriguing romantic elements and (obviously) beautiful writing. I love to see tropes turned upside down, or fresh new elements added to beloved concepts.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
How do I pick just one? What a difficult question! But to limit myself I’ll stick with first in series.
Right now, I’m very excited for readers to get their hands on Wilderlore: The Accidental Apprentice by Amanda Foody, which just debuted in April. It’s such a whimsical, adventures middle grade about a boy who wants nothing to do with adventure but accidentally bonds with a magical beast in a mysterious wood. It’s so so much fun.
Hannah Whitten’s debut novel, For the Wolf, is also amazing, and came out the first week of June. It’s a lyrical adult fantasy for fans of Uprooted and The Bear and the Nightingale about a young woman who must be sacrificed to the legendary Wolf of the Wood to save her kingdom.
Lastly, Gabriella Lepore’s debut YA contemporary, This is Why We Lie publishes September 21st. It’s about a shocking murder in a small seaside town and the teens looking for answers, for fans of Karen McManus and Holly Jackson. Set aside an afternoon to read this, because once you pick it up you won’t put it down until you’re finished!