Q & A with Joanna Volpe, head of New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc. and agent to Veronica Roth (Divergent), Leigh Bardugo (The Grisha), and Kody Keplinger (The Duff)
1. What does an agent do? Do I need an agent?
An agent is an author’s advocate, career partner, editor, negotiator, advisor and champion. But that doesn’t mean that every author needs an agent. I will say that at the very least, every author should have some kind of advocate who is well-versed in the publishing industry, whether it be an agent or a publishing attorney. But a lawyer’s job is much narrower: they advocate and negotiate, but they can’t give career advice, edit your manuscript or work on your publicity and marketing plans. So it really just depends on what you need.
2. Is there any way to increase your chances of having your query selected from the slush pile?
Yes, by writing a good query! There are tons of resources online that can show you how to do that.
3. What happens after the query is selected from the slush pile?
After a query is selected, I ask for the full manuscript. And after I read the full manuscript, I decide whether or not I want to have a call with the author and see if we’re a good fit to work together.
4. Have you ever passed on a ms. that went on to do well? If so, what went into this decision?
Absolutely! I’ve passed on plenty of projects that went on to sell and some to sell very well. Many factors go into that kind of decision, and the biggest one is: I don’t offer representation to a manuscript. I offer representation to an author. Sometimes I’ll love a manuscript, but as soon as I get to know the author, I realize very quickly that we don’t share the same career goals and vision for their work. And in times like those, I don’t offer representation. There are also a number of times when I read a manuscript and think it’s great, but I just don’t personally love it enough to champion it through the good times and the bad times. So I pass, and watch it go on to sell with the right agent for that author. There are a lot of reasons, and I have never personally passed on something that I regret.
5. What are the top three common mistakes authors make?
In queries, the biggest mistake I see is that they don’t talk enough about the project. They talk more about themselves and why their book is great, but not enough about the story itself. It happens all the time.
In revisions, underestimating how much time they’ll need to edit a book. Particularly early on in their careers. They don’t want to displease anyone, so I’ve seen many authors set deadlines that they can’t keep. Even if something is going to take longer, just be realistic and honest upfront. It helps everyone else plan around you!
After publication, they read the online reviews of their book. Big mistake, and one that almost everyone makes. I am a firm believer that constructive criticism is a crucial element in honing one’s craft. But there’s no way to filter the constructive from the downright silly or mean things said online. And every author I’ve ever worked with is not prepared for how painful that experience can be. It’s creatively stifling, and very difficult to get over. DO NOT LOOK!
6. How is querying for a picturebook different from a MG or YA title?
When you’re querying as an illustrator, you’ll include links to your portfolio and may include a full “dummy” of the picture book for review. You’ll still need a pitch though!
7. What is your favorite part of your job? The least favorite?
My favorite part of my job is when I get to read a new manuscript that I am enjoying. It is one of the best feelings! Even better if I have time to ruminate afterward for a while. Think on it.
My least favorite part of the job is when I have to part ways with a client.
8. What is a fun fact that few people know about you?
Popcorn is my absolute favorite snack. Particularly movie theater popcorn.