We have the excellent opportunity to hear today from the literary agent on the other side of a pitching success story. Amanda Ayers Barnett of the Donaghy Literary Group recently signed Emma Nelson, author of the novel Solstice Sisters. Note that while Emma was a contestant in PitchWars, and began pitching through the contest, Amanda herself wasn’t a participant in the contest. Emma had identified a list of agents she thought would be a great fit, and Emma pitched Amanda as per the protocol on the Donaghy Literary Group website.

  • To read Emma’s revision process from the beginning, read this series of POSTS. (You have to page down to start at the beginning -- such is the nature of blogs…)

  • And to read the submitted first chapter of Solstice Sisters, click HERE.

Jennie: Agenting is an apprentice business, where people work their way up to being able to take clients of their own. You’ve been in the business awhile but only recently taken the leap to full-time agenting. Can you talk about what that leap feels like?

Amanda: Yes, I started working in publishing over 20 years ago! I feel like I have seen so many different aspects of the industry by working at such different places: big companies like Random House and Simon & Schuster, a small, start-up publisher, and an editorial services company. Through it all, the one constant has been my editing background which is the place I truly come from. And that, ultimately, is why I decided to join Donaghy Literary Group. Stacey Donaghy was specifically looking for someone who had been an editor at a publishing house, a qualification I had never seen listed before. It told me that she was looking for someone who intended to work very closely with their writers developing both their stories and their writing careers, and that was a place where I could see myself. And I’m so happy I made the decision to come on board.

Jennie: When you were contemplating the move to full-time agenting, what was your vision of the kinds of writers you wanted to represent?

Amanda: One of the reasons I wanted to move to the agenting side of the business was the chance to work on a variety of genres. During the five years, I spent at Pocket Books, I had been able to work on thrillers, women’s fiction, young adult fiction and new adult fiction, so the one genre I was looking forward to adding to this list was middle grade. With three middle-grade-aged boys at home, I guess that’s no surprise! And the fact that I’m interested in such a broad spectrum means I’m likely to be interested in anything my writers want to work on. It’s probably the first question I ask a potential client: ”I’m reaching out to you because I love the manuscript you sent me, but what else are you working on?” Having been on the other side of the table, I know that editors want to work with writers who have more than one story to tell. And it helps a writer emotionally not to put all their eggs in one basket.

Jennie: What is it like to go through an inbox full of queries? Do you approach it with excitement every time? Do you do it on a certain schedule?

Amanda: Well, I was initially shocked by the volume of queries, even though Stacey had warned me. And she also told me that it would take no time for me to fall behind, which of course was true! But editors are constantly juggling multiple projects at completely different stages, so I was used to that aspect. And I do approach it with excitement because there is so much good stuff out there! As for a schedule, yes, I try to stick to one, but I always end up jumping to the ones that intrigue me, which is absolutely true of Emma’s manuscript!

Jennie: What about Emma’s query caught your eye?

Amanda: Let’s just say she had me at “Salem witches”! I loved the idea of a Salem tour guide who finds herself able to commune with the people she describes on her tour. And when she said she envisioned it as a series, with each book centered on a different stop on the tour -- and therefore a different legend from the past -- well, I was in!

Jennie: What about the manuscript itself spoke to you?

Amanda: She captured the colonial time period so well -- her descriptions were amazing! When you’re tackling subject matter like this -- paranormal, historical -- it’s imperative that you make the reader feel like they’re taking this journey with the character, and she absolutely did.

Jennie: Did Emma do anything particularly well that you would encourage other writers to follow suit on?

Amanda: Well, as you know, she put the work in! Sometimes, when I’m rejecting a manuscript-- and feeling really badly about it -- I think to myself that it’s fairly clear the writer hasn’t taken the necessary revision steps -- maybe they haven’t worked in writing groups or with CP’s or mentors--and that is so important. It’s such an amazing, supportive community that some writers do themselves a disservice when they don’t take advantage of it. And Emma also spent a great deal of time researching agents, which helped her immensely. If I could give writers one crucial piece of advice it would be to make sure your submission matches an agent’s wishlist. You’ll save yourself so much time and effort and you’ll greatly increase your chances of getting an offer.

Jennie: What are some things you would suggest writers DON’T do?

Amanda: As soon as I ask potential clients about their other projects, they usually ask what I think they should focus on. And I always say “why don’t you tell me what YOU want to focus on?” Writing is a very tough, very personal endeavor and, if your heart isn’t in what you’re writing, that will become apparent. So I don’t like it when writers work on projects because they’re trending or popular, or drop projects they really believe in because they aren’t. Obviously, paying attention to the shifts in the industry is important, but an incredible story and an amazing main character will appeal to a reader -- and find its home -- regardless. And the process can take so long that, by the time you have an agent who is ready to pitch your project, the trends could have already changed anyway.

Jennie: There has been such a proliferation of Twitter contest and other contests in recent years. What are your thoughts about them? Do you encourage writers to participate?

Amanda: Since I had been freelance editing for a while, both on my own and for New York Book Editors, I was shocked to discover what a large role Twitter plays in the writing community. Who would’ve guessed that a platform that limits you to 150 characters would become such a home to writers? I think it’s great -- there is so much more exposure for writers than there ever was before. I think writers should participate, especially since they can get matched up with wonderful mentors and coaches like you! But they can be overwhelming, for both the writers and the agents! As you know, one of the biggest character traits a writer can have is resilience. So, as long as they go into the contest knowing that it might not lead anywhere -- and they’re prepared for that outcome -- then there’s no downside. Look at Emma! She was selected for PitchWars and didn’t find an agent that way. But because she had worked so hard on her manuscript with you, it still found its home.

Jennie: What is on your wish list right now?

Amanda: Gosh, so much! As I said, middle grade, YA, women’s fiction and I love a good mystery/suspense! I am finding myself drawn more and more to manuscripts with historical and paranormal elements...so I guess it’s no wonder I was attracted to Solstice Sisters!