Thursday, May 20, 2010

Agent Interview: Chris Richman, Upstart Crow

Chris Richman is a relatively new agent with a relatively new agency, Upstart Crow Literary (headed by industry veteran Michael Stearns). The first books he signed will be coming out this summer, and (as you'll hear more about below), he's on the lookout for new authors for his list. Read on to learn a little about him, his taste, his authors, what he likes (and doesn't) in a submission, and more.

Upstart Crow started about a year ago, correct? How are things at Upstart Crow?

Things are really great at Upstart Crow. We actually haven’t been around for a full year yet, but so far it’s been a truly terrific experience. Michael Stearns is a natural fit to head a company; he’s brilliant, he’s funny, he’s dedicated, and he’s serious about books for children, so it’s been great learning under him. Between the four agents—Danielle Chiotti, Michael, Ted Malawer, and myself—we have a nice roster of clients who are creating some wonderful projects.

Next, the Big Question—are you currently looking for new authors? Is there anything in particular you're looking for right now?

I am absolutely seeking new clients. I’m starting to shift completely into new client mode. I’ve been very picky with the material I’ve taken on—in two years I’ve signed only eight projects out of literally thousands—and I’m ready to discover more exciting authors to add to my list. In terms of what I’m seeking, I’m beginning to get a reputation for the “funny boy” books. Part of that is my own background in comedy, and part of it’s because I truly believe there’s a place in the market for these types of projects. I’m a really tough critic, though, when it comes to funny material, so if an author is going to attempt it, they have to make sure it’s really funny, and not merely a collection of fart and burp jokes. Despite my call for boy books, my two most recent sales were for teen girl books. Go figure! I’m mostly seeking standout voices—a teen version of Jonathan Lethem, Annie Dillard, or Kurt Vonnegut—or really terrific and original concepts.

What drives you crazy in a submission and what, if anything, drives you wild?

I’m going to assume “crazy” is bad, and “wild” is good. There are small things that drive me crazy—queries that are obviously sent out to every agent under the sun, queries where a writer promises that their project will be the next bestseller or hit movie—but I suppose queries in which a writer obviously didn’t research me or my tastes at all tend to frustrate me.

I’m wild for submissions that blend a great idea with really solid, careful writing. Although I know it’s difficult since few of the projects I’ve sold are out yet, I do generally appreciate when a writer says they are approaching me because they loved “x” book I sold. Of course, now I expect a deluge of submissions starting with, “I’m writing to you because I read such-and-such…” but hey, if it means people are buying my clients’ books, I guess I can’t complain!

Why do you tweet and blog? What's the advantage for an agent or agency to being active and social online?

Well, unfortunately I’ve discovered I don’t have as much time to blog as I used to, so now I’ll post only when I think I have something worthwhile to say. Blogging is great because it’s important for new agents to get their names out there so authors get a feel for their sensibilities. Let’s be honest—the last few years have seen an explosion of new agents, and there are tons of great blogs full of terrific information. If I can write something that strikes a chord with an author seeking representation, I may have a better shot of landing the next big thing.

As for Twitter, I’ll admit I was a late adopter. Not super late, but I definitely had to be convinced to give it a try. It’s been great! I can get my personality out there a bit, can easily stay connected with my clients who tweet, and I’ve been able to meet writers and editors I may not have met otherwise. I almost feel like I discovered the secret smoking lounge outside the high school where all the cool kids hang out. Am I one of the cool kids? I won’t go that far, but I at least feel comfortable sticking my head in and saying hi.

Will you be attending any upcoming events where writers can meet you? Do you prefer meeting potential clients in person to just receiving queries, or does it matter?

I’ve got a few events coming up. I’ll be on the faculty for the SCBWI Carolinas conference in September, mentoring at this year’s Rutgers One-On-One conference in October, and speaking with the St. Louis Writer’s Guild in November. I’d love to do more, too, and am always on the lookout for great conferences.

I really enjoy connecting with writers. I think it’s helpful for writers to realize that agents are people with our own quirks, styles, and personalities, and not just some faceless name behind a desk somewhere. Now, do these sorts of meetings mean I’m more likely to sign a project? Not really, no. My decision still comes down to the concept and the actual words on the page.

How would you describe your agenting style?

I’m fairly hands-on when it comes to revisions and helping to direct a project toward its final version. I try to be available to my clients, and transparent in my dealings with both them and the editors. I’ll never say something in hopes of wooing a potential client that I don’t mean—I’ll never promise a certain amount of money or sales, for example—but I enter into each relationship with a commitment to the writer and their work.

Would you like to mention some recent or upcoming titles from your authors that you're excited about?

Come on, Alice! I’m excited about ALL of my clients’ titles! It’s like picking a favorite child. It’s actually funny…since I’m still relatively new to the agent game, this summer will be my debut list of releases. The first projects I signed as a green, inexperienced agent will be hitting the shelves, and I couldn’t be happier. The three releases all show different sides of my taste.

Jacqueline West’s THE SHADOWS, the first in the THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE series ( is a classic, spooky middle grade reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s CORALINE. Jacqueline was actually the first client I ever signed, and we’ve been really excited by how much Penguin has embraced the series.

On the same day, Shaun David Hutchinson’s THE DEATHDAY LETTER ( is due out. This is a wild, hilarious teen book in which a kid gets a letter letting him know he’ll kick the bucket within 24 hours, and how he spends his last day on earth.

Matt Myklusch’s first in his JACK BLANK series, JACK BLANK AND THE IMAGINE NATION (, is out this August. JACK BLANK is an awesome middle grade book for boys that follows Jack, who is swept away to a secret land where all the amazing things in the world originate, including Jack himself. It’s funny, it’s adventurous, it’s epic, and it features a really terrifically imagined world unlike anything readers have ever seen.

All told, these three significantly different projects will help give writers a clear idea of the sorts of books that appeal to me.

Please offer my readers some advice on approaching agents and finding the best agent for their work.

It’s important to remember how subjective this business is. I’ve passed on projects that have gone on to sell for huge sums of money, but in every case, I’ve felt that passing was still the right decision based on what I’m looking for in a story. Once you’ve written the absolute best book you can, try to find agents who have represented works similar to your own, if not in concept, then in tone or style. Don’t be discouraged, however, if someone passes on your work. A large part of our jobs is saying “no,” but that makes the times we say “yes” all the more special. And if your first work fails to find a home, know when to put it aside and work on something new. It’s through hard work and dedication that a dabbler becomes a writer.

Find Chris Richman online:


Rena Jones said...

Great interview. I'm currently looking for an agent, so hearing what they like, dislike, and want is very helpful. Thank you.

Vodka Mom said...

Alice- this was GOLD.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for the great interview. I enjoy your blog posts, Chris. Your recent one about pitches was really helpful. I'm looking forward to reading The Book of Elsewhere and also Briar-Bound by Shannon Morgan that you recently sold.

Mari Hunt said...

Thanks for a Very Useful interview.

Shannon Morgan said...

Briar-Bound hasn't sold yet, Natalie, but feel free to cross your fingers and/or send positive thoughts toward New York. I appreciate your anticipation - thanks! :)

Shannon Morgan said...

Oops, and also: great interview, Alice and Chris! Very excited for this summer's debuts.

Nora MacFarlane said...

Thanks Alice! Great interview and information. I look forward to reading all three of Chris' summer releases.