Interview with Literary Agent Stephen Fraser

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This is my very kind and patient agent, Stephen Fraser. I haven’t met him yet, and this is the only picture I’ve ever seen of him, but I know he’s real because I’ve heard his voice on the telephone and he has sold two books for me. The following is from his profile:

Stephen Fraser joined the Jennifer De Chiara agency in January of 2005. Before this, he was an editor for Simon and Schuster and more recently the senior executive editor for HarperCollins. He is a graduate of Middleburry College in Vermont and received his Master’s Degree in Children’s Literature at Simmons College in Boston, MA. He is a popular speaker at conferences.

He very nicely answered these questions I asked:

 I was happy to learn about your graduate degree because to me it meant you really knew and cared about your subject. Why did you decide to get your master’s in children’s literature? What did you expect to do with it?

My undergraduate degree was in English Literature from Middlebury College. I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do with it, except that I loved literature. I had heard about the program at Simmon College in Boston with such esteemed teachers such as Gregory Maguire, Betty Levin, Ethel Heins (who was editor the The Horn Book Magazine at the time). So, I pursued it, not knowing exactly what I wanted to do with it.  I think life is like that: you pursue your passions and then they take shape in an interesting way.  Before I had even completed my Master’s, I had secured a job at Highlights for Children as an editor.

I read in another interview that you have a background in music and theatre. I didn’t know that! What exactly is your background?

I did a lot of music and theater in both high school and college. I studied voice for a number of years. In fact, I paid my way through school with singing gigs at churches and weddings.  Musical theater was my goal.  However, I realized after a while that I loved literature more than theater. Some of my fellow students are starring on Broadway, though!

The first time I heard your voice, it was as an editor on the phone, asking if Serendipikitty (now Serendipity and Me) was still available. (I laughed inside very hard.) Can you tell us about your move from editor to agent?

When I left HarperCollins where I was an editor, I fully expected to find another job as an editor. But there weren’t any positions for an executive editor to be had. Fortunately Jennifer De Chiara asked me to join her literary agency at that point. Funnily, I was her first customer; I bought a novel by then unpublished YA writer Brent Hartinger. I hadn’t really thought about being an agent. I thought they were like Mafia members who mostly scared people! But it seemed to fit my personality and experience. I have worked at a children’s magazine, at paperback and hardcover book clubs and paperback and hardcover book publishers, so I already knew the universe of children’s publishing.

Are there any agents you look to as role models?

I have  known some fine agents like Dorothy Markinko, George Nicholson, Marilyn Marlow. But frankly, I have pretty much followed my own instincts as an agent.  I think someone called me ‘a gentleman of the business’ and I guess that is how I would want to be perceived: someone with good taste who makes fair deals.  At the core of what I do – and it was the same when I was an editor – is to think every day about getting great books to children and teens.

How often would you say you meet with editors? (I picture Dustin Hoffman meeting with his agent in “Tootsie” at the Russian Tea Room. Does anything like that ever happen? Am I living in dreamland?) Is most of your contact by phone or email?

One of the delights of the job is editor lunches, where the editor pays and you get to talk about your clients! That doesn’t happen all that often.  Mostly, I chat with editors over the phone or e-mail them.  I do four or five conferences a year and I love the chance to meet editors I have not met yet at these events. I also knew a lot of editors already since I was an editor at several houses: HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, Bantam Doubleday Dell, Oxford University Press.

I’ve heard you have some unusual stories about how some sales happened. I’d love to hear more about those.

Having been an agent now for seven going on eight years, I do have some great stories. In fact, I have put together a presentation I have done for several conferences around the country called Amazing and True Stories of Daring and Adventure.  I have sold a book in one day and in one year.  I sold a book on the first try and on the eleventh try. I once pitched a book to an editor who rejected then and got sick afterwards, the publisher found the manuscript on the editor’s desk a few weeks afterwards, liked it, and then bought it: the same publisher rejected and acquired the same book!  One of my clients sent me her first novel which unbeknownst to her mentioned my great-great-great grandfather. And it won the Newbery Honor! Another one of my clients sent me the most perfect first novel. I felt something special about this author right away – and it turns out we have the same birthday! So, there is a lovely kind of serendipity about this business.  I don’t believe in competition per se, but I do believe in rightness.  And it has proved to be a successful way to work.

How many authors do you represent currently?

About 45.

What is the best way for an aspiring client/author to approach you? Any pet peeves about queries?

A simple query (with a sample of writing attached) is best. It’s really all about the writing.  I do like to know if someone has been published before, because it does give me a sense of where they are in their career. I don’t like when someone apologizes that they haven’t been published before and then says that their manuscript probably isn’t any good. That isn’t humility, it’s humiliation! I always answer right away. If I don’t, it’s always good to contact me again. Sometimes things go astray in cyberspace. Always follow up.  In fact, keep following up until you have answer. Sometimes someone pitches a book to me in person at a conference and that is fine, too.  I usually know right away if I am interested or not.

The following three questions are from a writing friend:

How do you see the agent’s role in today’s changing publishing scene?

It’s a confusing world out there and the agent’s role is to make sense of it. I don’t see the world of publishing as negative thing and I do try to keep it fun and upbeat.

If you pass on one of your client’s manuscripts, do you mind if they submit it on their own if they strongly believe in it?

It is confusing if the client sends out their own work. A client needs to trust that if the agent feels the work isn’t the writer’s best, then it is probably not good to try to get it out there. I try to be supportive, even if I don’t love a piece of writing, though.

What makes a writer’s work stand out to you?

It is always about the writing.  I love beautiful language and so that gets me every time. A clever idea is always good, something that hasn’t been seen before. But crafted, beautiful language trumps a good concept for me.

Do you keep track of how well your authors’ books are selling? Or is this not helpful information?

I am very interested in how my clients’ books do. I always ask editors for current numbers. I keep an eye on reviews. We post reviews on our website.  It is important for an author to build their career slowly and carefully and reviews are very important. Good sales are very important.

What kinds of manuscripts are you most open to right now?

Everything. I do board books, picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels, young adult novels, nonfiction.  I want to be dazzled.  I guess if a vampire book comes along, or a werewolf novel, I’d probably not be impressed. But if it is great, then I’d be interested in that, too.

Are you on Twitter? The Stephen Frasers I’ve found there are definitely not you.

I am not on Twitter or Facebook.  I try to fly below the radar. With our website, my presence at conferences and e-mail, that provides plenty of access. No one needs to know where I spend my vacations, eat for breakfast, or who my friends are! Plus, there’s barely time as it is, so I try to keep it simple.

Is there anything (besides writing a fantastic manuscript) authors can do to make your job easier?

If an author can write an elevator pitch – a one sentence description of the essence of the book, put it in context of either a current bestseller or a classic book—that can really help the marketing and sales staff when they position the book in their selling efforts.  Also, the more an author is willing to do – set up local bookstore signing, local radio interviews, publicity mailings, that can really help a publisher, too.  One of our clients was so successful promoting his first novel that the publisher sent him on a tour for his second novel.

Is there a question you’re dying to answer but I’ve somehow forgotten to ask it?

How about, What are you looking for right now? Not a high-concept, commercial novel. There is too much of that. Everyone is basically looking for the same thing. I am looking for a lyrical middle grade novel that will win the Newbery Medal. I think that if you make literature with a capital L your priority, you can change the publishing environment. It’s like a huge monster. If you feed it only commercial fiction, that’s all it wants. How about giving it more fruits and vegetables, that is, good writing that has balance, grace, and style. Soon, that’s what will be selling. How’s that!

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About Judith L. Roth

When I was about ten, it occurred to me that books are written by people and I was a person. I could create my favorite things–I could write books! I got a B.A. in English. My first poem was accepted for publication before I graduated. I had some success with poetry, but my real dream was to write fiction for children. My first fiction piece was accepted about 25 years after the first submission. Things you might want to know about me: I know how to persevere. I’m a third-generation California native, living in Indiana. I have two remarkable sons who are now young men,and a husband who’s supported my writing for over three decades. I love cats and currently have three of them. I love being near water–oceans, lakes, rivers all work for me. Chocolate is probably my biggest downfall. I’m exceptionally curious. (Or nosy, as my family calls it.)

10 responses »

  1. Hi Judy! I’m introducing Stephen Fraser at a conference workshop next weekend, and in researching him I came across this terrific inerview. I love his qote about “feeding the monster” with good literature. Would you mind if I borrowed it for my introduction? I’d give you the attribution, of course! Thank you!

  2. Hey, Judith. Great interview. Stephen is also my agent and I, too, think he’s pretty amazing. I did have the pleasure of meeting him in person at a writer’s conference. It was well worth the eight hour drive, as he’s funny and fun. Not to mention a true gentleman through and through.

    Congrats on your books!

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