Agent Interview: Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group

I'm thrilled to be able to welcome my agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group, to the blog today for an interview! Alyssa and I have been working together for a little over a year now, and so far it's been a match made in heaven. She's been a wonderful guide as I enter the professional publishing world, and every time we talk I learn a little more about this industry and how I might find my place in it. So of course, I wanted to get her to share some of her wisdom with you! 

Alyssa's clients include Julie Berry (author of ALL THE TRUTH THAT'S IN ME, Viking/Penguin); R.J. Palacio (author of WONDER, Knopf Books for Young Readers); Bobbie Pyron (whose next MG, LUCKY STRIKE, is due from Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic in 2015); and Lauren Barnholdt (whose next YAs are due out from HarperTeen next summer). And of course, me

So without further ado: 

KH: How long have you been a literary agent? What drew you to agenting, and what do you love most about your job? 

AEH: I have been a literary agent for a little over seven years now. Prior to my agent career, I enjoyed a happy life as a young editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. I spent my twenties there and was fully immersed in the entire publishing process, from running production reports for foil on jackets to presenting picture books to executives at Kohl’s for their picture book and plush program. But toward the end of my time there, I found myself wanting a more entrepreneurial position, one in which I didn’t have to toe the corporate line so much. When Trident posted a job for a children’s book agent with the caveat that editors could apply too, I jumped at the chance. While going from being a buyer to a seller was challenging at the beginning, it’s paid off big time. I feel like I’m one part financial planner, one part creative cheerleader, and 100% a strategic thinker in this job. I don’t just toe the party line anymore; I aspire to re-invent it for the good of my clients and their books every day.

KH: What do you look for in a query? What grabs your attention and makes you want to read more?

AEH: I’m a big reader for setting (in certain ways even more than I am for plot), so a query that effectively evokes a sense of time and place will most likely get requested. I also like some comp. titles or another indication that the person has done research about the business and what’s selling at the moment, but not to the point that it detracts from the work at hand. Originality has a way of shining through, and though it’s a bit hard to quantify, I know it when I see it.

KH: We connected through a contest [WriteOnCon's Luck of the Irish pitchfest in 2013]—do you judge a lot of query/pitch contests or do you find most of your clients through the slush pile? 

AEH: I haven’t done many contests lately. I really ought to do more, considering how brightly your query shined, almost as though it were Exhibit A for a perfect query letter! [ KH: Aww, thanks! :) ] I’ve gotten the majority of my clients through referrals, either from publishing colleagues or other authors, but there’s certainly a sizeable percentage that have come through the slush pile, as well as a few that I have sought out through social media because I was drawn to their writing or their brand.

KH: On the day-to-day, nuts and bolts side, how does your time break down? How much time do you spend looking for new clients vs. working on behalf of existing ones? Reading new manuscripts vs. crafting and submitting pitches vs. going over contracts and other materials on the business end? 

AEH: These days, because my clients have had great success, I spend the majority of my time managing their careers. That could be having creative calls about their next projects, or negotiating their new contracts, or perfecting their upcoming marketing plans. However, I’m still looking to grow to the tune of 3-5 new clients each year, particularly in the canon of thought-provoking middle grade fiction and very commercial picture books. Thus, I always try to carve out time each week to keep an eye on submissions and go with what grabs me at that moment.

KH: The past decade has seen a lot of doom and gloom predictions about the publishing industry—print dying out, brick-and-mortar bookstores closing down, publishers taking on fewer debut authors, etc. On the flip side of that, what makes you optimistic about publishing right now? What positive developments and changes are you seeing? 

AEH: On the adult fiction/non-fiction side of things, and to a lesser extent in YA, hardcover print-runs have diminished in the face of e-book growth. But for middle grade and picture books, I’m aware of very robust sales in terms of hard, actual, physical books, as well as a life in digital, and I don’t see the hard books diminishing anytime too soon. Although I was saddened by Borders’s demise, I’ve personally seen the school and library accounts and Indies—as well as Amazon and B&N—support more indie-type books like WONDER and COUNTING BY SEVENS in a major way. I also think the largesse of social media, from Tumblr campaigns to authors with huge Twitter or Facebook followings, can account for big book sales. It’s also exciting that if a YA or MG brand really takes off, authors have the option to do digital novella-length pieces that not only boost sales, but also allow secondary characters to get their voice, or untold stories to be told. At Trident we even have a groundbreaking e-book department that enables authors to publish e-books independent of traditional publisher involvement when it makes sense to do so.

KH: And finally, what's your biggest piece of advice for aspiring authors? 

AEH: For a long time when I started agenting, I found editors asking me for commercial books, i.e. books with sales hooks that they felt could really follow a trend, whether it was paranormal, dystopian, or “high-concept” middle grade. These days I find editors just ask me for “good” books, i.e. the kind that get starred reviews, are original in the way they are told, and that have commercial legs to stand on, but are commercial more because they are doing something novel as opposed to something obvious and safe. I’m encouraged by this turn of events, and really urge authors to take their time both in honing their craft and in thinking of new ideas and/or formats that live a bit off the grid. 

KH: Thank you so much for stopping by, Alyssa!