NEFF: Elise, hi. Sandra Dijkstra Agency is widely regarded as the best literary agency on the west coast. Why does it deserve that reputation?
ELISE: The Sandra Dijkstra Agency, successful for over 20 years, deserves its reputation both for our top-notch client list and our hands-on approach to each project. Many of our best-known clients have stayed with us in the long-term because of the close relationship they have with Sandra and everyone at the agency. Rather than moving projects along as quickly as possible, we approach each wearing our editorial caps, and spend as much time as necessary with a client editing a proposal or manuscript until it's pitch-perfect. We are passionate about the books we represent, and do all we can to make them sparkle before taking them to market. I regularly see evidence of the deep appreciation our authors have for this approach. And though it's certainly in part our client list that attracts new submissions, it is our service that keeps us going strong!
NEFF: Who are some of the top clients represented by your agency? Anyone on the bestseller list over the past couple of years?
ELISE: Some of our top clients in fiction include Amy Tan, Chitra Divakaruni, Maxine Hong Kingston, Anchee Min, Lisa See, and mystery writer Diane Mott Davidson. We also represent many well-known non-fiction writers, including Eric Foner, Gary Nash, Peter Irons, Mike Davis, Chalmers Johnson, Marilyn Yalom, and many others. Amy Tan is our consistent best-selling client, though many others have broken into this realm, as well.
NEFF: Who does the Sandra Dijkstra Agency consider a superb new talent on the literary fiction scene?
ELISE: In terms of our own client list, our newest and most praised fiction stars include Chris Abani (whose GRACELAND (FSG 2004) has won many awards) and Courtney Brkic, who writes fiction and non-fiction. This coming season, we're particularly excited about Adrienne Sharp's her first novel, FIRST LOVE (Riverhead, July 2005), which looks into the passionate and dramatic world of ballet and real-life master choreographer (and womanizer) Balanchine, and an epic novel by Luis Urrea called THE HUMMINGBIRD'S DAUGHTER (Little Brown, June 2005) which follows his award-winning non-fiction book THE DEVIL'S HIGHWAY.
In the broader literary scene, we've shared mutual excitement for Khaled Hosseini's THE KITE RUNNER. I'm personally excited by writers such as Judy Budnitz (her recently pubbed collection of short stories is NICE BIG AMERICAN BABY), and memoirs that read like great literary novels, such as the upcoming OH THE GLORY OF IT ALL by Sean Wilsey.
NEFF: As an agent at Dijkstra, how do you view the market for first novels in the literary mainstream genre? Does the culture at your agency differ from other agencies with respect to giving a serious look at first-time authors?
ELISE: We're always on the lookout for first novels. A new novelist is fresh, has a unique voice, and has the brilliant and exciting potential to become the "next big thing". One of our mottos here at the agency is "find a need and fill it." If an author is a terrific writer and has a voice or perspective or style that's not been seen before, there is a far greater chance it will have a place in the literary market. Though it's true that it can be tough to get a first book published, agents and editors are always looking for the next voice or story.
Many agencies are looking for new talent, which is true of the Dijkstra Agency, as well. We give first-time authors as serious consideration as other submissions. It does help tremendously, of course, to have blurbs by known writers or community figures, or other recognizable names endorsing your work.
NEFF: How many first-time authors has Dijkstra gotten published over the past few years? Any genre authors, i.e., mystery/SF ?
ELISE: We pride ourselves on new discoveries. In the last year or two we've published several first time authors, including Chun Yu, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, and the up-and-coming Tingling Choong. We don't, unfortunately, work often with strict genre-fiction such as Sci-Fi, though we do have an impressive mystery list, which includes new (and successful!) mystery author Susan Kandel.
NEFF: Can you tell us what your duties have been at the agency over the past year? What has it been like working directly for Sandra?
ELISE: As Sandra's assistant, I work closely with her on almost all the agency's projects. Before a project goes on sale I read along with her (for fiction and non-fiction), assist in editorial work, draft pitch letters and submission lists, and work with the author and with Sandy to polish the proposal or manuscript as much as possible. Later, I manage the sale and draft press releases. I also oversee our reading cycle and development list, which tracks the development of projects by various clients and authors we're considering representing. I also handle all first serial sales, pitching our books to national magazines and newspapers, and I represent my own projects.
Sandra is a brilliant agent. I learn from her on a daily basis as an agent, editor, and marketer. She inspires!
NEFF: Your specialties are literary fiction and women's fiction. What's hot and what's not in those genres?
ELISE: For me, quirky narrative voices rule. When I look at literary fiction that's successful on a national scale--Jonathan Safran Foer or Mark Haddon, for example—it seems to be as much about entertaining narration as it is about plot. I'm drawn to literary voices that are unique, new, slightly alternative, sharp-edged, and funny. I want to hear stories I haven't heard before, from characters I haven't seen before.
As an agency, we are particularly drawn to "mulit-culti" work, as represented in our fiction client list. Again, this is about bringing to light cultures, histories, and ways of being that we may not have seen before.
NEFF: Out of the total number of manuscripts you read, how many are unsolicited? Are they the "cream" of the slush?
ELISE: Our agency gets anywhere from 100-200 unsolicited submissions a week. We read every submission we get (often times a submission will get more than one reading, in fact) and divide them up among our agents. I would estimate that about half of what I read each week is unsolicited. (The other half is work I've gone after myself, or work by our clients.)
Because I'm not typically the first person who looks at the unsolicited submissions when they arrive at our door, it's typical that what I'm reading are projects that have already made it past the first cut. Often times, I do second reads on unsolicited projects for other readers and agents in our office. In this regard, then, I would say that much of my unsolicited reading includes the "cream" of the slush.
NEFF: In your opinion, what makes a manuscript stand out from the pile?
ELISE: I look for several things, including:
- A great cover letter. I seek out good stories, interesting situations or angles, something fresh! Convince me that this book belongs in a highly competitive market, WITHOUT over-hyping the project. (It's never a good idea to tell me that your book will be an instant international bestseller. Be realistic and professional about your potential readership/market.) Have you "found a need and filled it"?
- Blurbs from recognizable people—a definite eye-catcher.
- Most importantly, though, I look for good writing. Even the first two or three pages will say a lot for the rest of the book. Grab my attention right away!
NEFF: What was your last sale? Your biggest sale?
ELISE: I'm still developing my own list—primarily fiction—and am currently on sale with an edgy coming-of-age novel set in San Francisco. I am able to speak for the agency, however, since I manage all our sales along with Sandra. Currently, historical/cultural non-fiction dominates in the "new authors" category. The agency's most recent big fiction sale by a new author is work by Tinling Choong, a talented, poetic writer who takes on Asian traditions and American pop culture in her edgy, sensual upcoming novel.
NEFF: Do you see the demand for first novels increasing? Any difference between literary and genre work?
ELISE: There will always be a place for new writers. The publishing world is continually growing—specialty imprints appear regularly—opening up new possibilities to first-time novelists. Though I can't speak for strict genre-fiction, there is potentially less pressure on an literary author to be able to write a batch of books after the first one (as a typical genre series, for example) than there might be for someone trying to get into the mystery or Sci-Fi markets. Though a publisher will certainly be interested in the author's future, literary fiction more often appears as independent books.
Despite publishing being a tough industry to get into, I firmly believe there's always room for growth and new authors.
NEFF: In your opinion, how has the continued dominance of chain bookstores affected the market for first novels, and second novels? Do the stores demand X amount of sales before they will stock a second novel?
ELISE: As a first time novelist, it's far too easy these days to watch your book disappear if it's not publicized well. Since many large chain bookstores highlight titles publishers have paid them to highlight, a new novel without much clout may get buried on a back shelf. Publishers use their marketing muscle on books for which they already anticipate good sales, which is why it's helpful to have an agent pushing for your book and reminding a publicist to keep your book in the running! A potential problem for first time authors is just this: if the book gets buried, it's unlikely to sell well, making it much harder to sell a second book to the publisher.
NEFF: Where do you see the first novel market going from here?
ELISE: I'm very optimistic about the first novel market. Despite the increasingly competitive nature of publishing, agents and editors will always be on the lookout for the next big voice, hot topic, or amazing story. Houses publish more titles each year and I have yet to see a slowing trend. We agents will keep chasing as long as you keep writing!
About the Interviewer
Michael Neff is the Director of WDS and Algonkian Workshops. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org