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Sara Megibow Interview – Part One

I was pretty excited the day I discovered writers were cool enough to have agents. Akin to a bookish James Bond, a literary agent sounded like someone the recluse in me needed to take on the world as a successful author. Between the two of us, we’d face down the evil publishing house and its obligatory white cat, swing across the swimming pool of sharks, and rescue the sexy six-figure book contract just in the nick of time.

Sara MegibowI feel no shame in admitting I still harbour this dream many years later. And while my experience with literary agents in three continents has shown me that many wouldn’t bat an eyelash if my terrible writing and I accidentally stumbled towards those gnashing shark teeth, there have been a few who stood out as special agents. Those who were truly capable of saving the world of aspiring authors everywhere.

One such agent is Sara Megibow, of the Nelson Literary Agency in Colorado, USA. Together with the founder, Kristin Nelson, and slush-pile guru, Anita Mumm, among others, the NLA are my go-to agency for how this crazy process works. These guys consistently go above and beyond the call of duty—not only working around the clock to represent their current clients and take on new ones, but also spending valuable time educating and inspiring the rest of us to be better at our craft.

No stranger to fantasy, representing as she does such wonderful authors as Michael J Martinez (The Daedalus Incident), Jane Kindred (The Fallen Queen), and international-bestseller Stefan Bachman (The Peculiar, and its companion novel The Whatnot—due out in September), I invited Sara to answer a few questions for Fantasy-Faction on her role and how exactly she goes about saving our literary behinds.

First of all, hi Sara and welcome to Fantasy-Faction!

Hi! Thanks for inviting me to this interview—I hope to have some juicy answers for you. And, if anyone has any follow-up questions, feel free to ask me on Twitter @SaraMegibow.

You state that J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit got you into reading, but what led you to becoming a literary agent?

Let’s see… I used to work in corporate America, but when my son was born I stayed home to be a full time mom. I loved it—that year with him was heaven! In 2006, though, I was looking for supplemental income and came across an email from a friend of a friend of a friend who said Kristin Nelson was hiring a part-time slush pile reader. That was back when submissions came to the agency in paper and in the interview Kristin actually showed me a Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa-sized pile of paper. She said, “We read this much every week,” and my response was, “Great, what else do you need done?”

I’ve always been a reader and book lover and I fell in love with the process of helping authors make their dream books come true. I was (and still am) extremely impressed with Kristin’s integrity. She has always been very, very supportive of me and in 2009 encouraged me to start taking my own clients (otherwise known as “become an agent”). It’s a bit of a round-about job track, but that’s how it happened.

And now you represent some amazing fantasy writers! So what do you think makes for a successful fantasy novel?

The word “successful” to a reader means “good book.” The word “successful” to an agent means: I can sell this book for money, a publishing house will enthusiastically support it, audio/film/and foreign companies will want a piece of it, reviewers will love it and readers will buy it.

So, acknowledging that bias in advance, here I go…

Storm Dancer (cover)Some recent (non-client) successful fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed have been: STORMDANCER by Jay Kristoff, HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS by NK Jemisin and ABOVE by Leah Bobet. In all these books, the world, characters, story and narrative voice combined to whisk me away to my happy-reading place. In my professional opinion, each book was packaged beautifully, shelved in prominent locations in my bookstore, enjoyed wonderful reviews and sold to readers who loved them. These are the kinds of books I am looking for in my slush pile. This is what makes a successful fantasy novel.

Many of the submissions I see are good—even VERY good. But, in order for me to label it as potentially “successful” it has to be exceptional. The market is tight, we all know that. And, getting an agent is exciting, but my job doesn’t really start until I’ve landed that new client with a publisher. So, I have to combine what I love to read in fantasy with what I know will sell to fantasy publishers.

Stefan Bachmann came to me via a query letter in the slush pile. So, I know my process works. What makes his gothic steampunk fantasy middle grade so successful? It’s brilliantly written and stunningly creative. I remember the visceral feeling of reading that book on submission because I don’t think I blinked the entire time I was reviewing it. That, and my jaw hit my keyboard in “WOW”-ness. So, another bottom line answer is:

A successful fantasy novel = a really well-written book.

Here are some general tips for what I look for in fantasy submissions (whether fantasy for adults or fantasy for the younger reader—I do represent both):

Exceptional Writing Make sure the mechanics are beyond impeccable. I’m looking for a good balance of writing skills—a skilful use of backstory, plot, character development, dialogue, action, and world-building. It’s not that too much dialogue or too much backstory is the deal-breaker. Rather, each of these tools should be used in balance to tell your story to the reader.

The Peculiar (cover)A Unique World We’ve seen elves and dwarves go on epic adventures to save the world. We’ve seen mystical secret boarding houses for wizards and other misfit youth. We’ve seen magic portals that transport unsuspecting heroines to another world. Be creative and be bold—craft your world and the magic in your world from the deepest crevices of your imagination. THE PECULIAR, while influenced by many brilliant tropes, is a book wholly and completely unique. I can say with conviction that the ravenous consumption of THE PECULIAR proves unique is successful.

[Ed: Having just devoured this book, I wholeheartedly agree. A review and interview with the author, Stefan Bachmann, is coming soon!]

Character Development A timid librarian would not jump into battle with a broadsword unless she had strong character motivation to do so. We want to cheer for your characters, so make them complex and interesting. Villains should be complex too, not one-dimensional evil beings. Flesh out motivation, inciting incident and character traits to make sure the reader wants to join you in the story you’re telling.

Action! Ok, this is more of a preference than a rule. I love epic battle scenes and brave cavalry charges. I’m the agent who prefers conflict to cerebral world building. Just my little insider secret to toss out there. I read THE QUANTUM THIEF by Hannu Rajaniemi in awe, but in terms of style I think THE DARWIN ELEVATOR by debut author Jason Hough (one of my clients) is more my kind of book. I pitched DARWIN as Firefly if it were told by John Scalzi. Action. That’s me.

Is there a one-size fits all approach to being a literary agent or does your role change depending on the author?

Great question! My style is the same for all clients, but my role is vastly different based on what each client needs. For example, I tend to be pretty chatty with everyone—clients hear from me regularly (say, once a week or so) about publicity & promotions, submissions, subrights, planning for our next book, etc. However, some clients want to write four books a year and some want to write one. Also, some clients want help increasing their social media presence and some don’t. My motto is: I work hard to provide the career that each author wants for her/himself. I tailor submissions, contracts and publicity to suit each author. Much of my time is spent explaining expectations and processes which help authors plan their work and manage their nerves. Then, once we have a sense of direction my role morphs into action.

Everyone gets an equal amount of work from me, but it’s in different areas depending on what they need.

In this golden age of email and Skype, does it matter if the writer and agent live in different countries or even continents?

Nope! I have clients in Canada, Switzerland, Australia, UK and Japan. Most of my clients I’ve met in person by now, but it is possible to maintain this relationship even if we never meet. Most of my business is done via email with a solid dose of phone calling.

That’s it for Part I of this interview. In Part II Sara talks in depth about how authors should handle their publicity and how far her agency gets involved, how much work she does on a project before shopping it around, and how exactly she goes about landing that all-important publishing deal for her client.

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4 Comments

  1. Great interview. Can’t wait to read, Part II!

  2. bnther says:

    Great article!

    Many thanks to Sara for the interview. To the ‘aspiring’, it’s really helpful/encouraging to get a little one on one.

  3. […] literary agent Sara Megibow of the Nelson Literary Agency. If you missed Part I you can read it here. Today we talk about publicity and how authors might handle it, how she finds the perfect publisher […]

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