Agent Holly Root

- by Dara Girard

Tell us about your agency and yourself.

Waxman Agency is a boutique agency; we’re a team of five and every one of my coworkers is exceptionally talented and savvy. I started out in a big entertainment agency, moved to a big lit-only agency, and now am happily settled in the boutique world. I’m originally from the South–grew up in Tennessee, went to college in Arkansas–and after a few years working in publishing in Nashville, I moved to NYC.

What made you decide to become an agent?

I started out as an editor, and when my husband and I moved to NY, I knew I wanted to stay in publishing but wasn’t sure I was meant for editorial, much as I love the actual editing part of the job; agenting seemed like the right call–as time has passed I’ve grown more certain, and I really do love my job. I benefited early on from working with some amazing agents, and it really is the kind of job where learning from the best is the strongest foundation you can give yourself.

What is it about commercial fiction that attracts you as an agent?

I’ve always been a commercial fiction reader, and getting to work with it as a career seems almost like getting away with something. Plus, I think a huge part of the joy of this job for me is finding a book that lots of other people will love too–being able to say, “Oh, you will love this” to my sister-in-law, my college roommate, and my Pilates instructor, and having them all agree.

What is the biggest mistake you think writers today typically make in the genres you represent?

Trying to write to trend, probably. It’s one thing to try a new genre and discover it’s perfect for you, but it’s usually pretty clear when someone’s just trying to do what they think is hot right then. You’re the only one who has your voice, so stick with it.

How much input do you expect to have on a client’s work?

Ideally all I have to do is declare “Genius! You are brilliant! How perfect!” while eating frozen grapes on a chaise. In all seriousness, though, even when something is genius/brilliant I will usually have some feedback for my clients. After all, if I’m preparing to submit a book, and I see something that could disrupt an editor’s read on a ms and I know how to fix it, why wouldn’t I offer up that feedback? I’m less editorially involved once an author has an editor and is under contract–I don’t like to interfere with that relationship unless my opinion is requested/necessary. When it comes to new directions/new projects, generally I like to know what the idea is so I can head off any outright out-of-bounds plays, and then I leave people alone to write, then give a read before we submit. Very little goes out that I haven’t had some sort of input on, although I never want to feel like a client is writing a book just to try to please me or doing it my way.

How do you advise clients who want to venture into new genres or make a departure from their published works?

My biggest concern is that these decisions are not motivated by trends or market chasing. If you don’t read YA or paranormal or historical cozies or what have you, why would you even want to write it?  So for me, step one is a motives-check. But once you’re past that, it does take some trial and error, and careful assessment of where someone’s career is already, before deciding if this is the right move. Authors absolutely can compete with themselves on shelves, oversaturate the market and hurt their numbers if they’re just trying to amass contracts; you have to be honest about where your strengths are and what readers are willing to buy from you. A genre-switch is not a way to hit some arbitrary marker of success–x books per year, or x amount of money. You can’t force it.

How would you prefer to be approached by established writers looking for new representation?

Email query to hollysubmit /at/ waxmanagency (dot) com.

What questions do you wish writers would ask you before becoming clients?

I haven’t really had anything come up I wish we clarified before signing. There’s only so much you can know ahead of time anyhow, once you’ve covered the basics (which to me, for both parties, are: ethical, good at what you do, smart, someone you can communicate with). Each author-agent partnership grows and changes as our careers do. I’m a big believer that you have to be as good as you can, and planning ahead is part of that, but being flexible and nimble enough that when that right opportunity appears you are ready is just as important.

You’ve given great advice to writers about something we should have learned in elementary school: Eyes on your own test paper. Could you elaborate on that?

Can I ever! (making room for huge soapbox) This is maybe the biggest cause of stress for writers, and the biggest avoidable thing for sure. There are completely times where knowing what other people are getting/doing is essential–if we didn’t, there’d be no such thing as “industry standard.” But you can only worry about, work with, move from, play with the hand you are dealt. You. Not your chapter mate, your loop buddy, your Twitter pal.

For starters–some people are well-meaning but misinformed. So (for a silly example) while you are busy working yourself up over why YOUR contract doesn’t have Fermoulli’s Right of Merchandising, and letting that seethe and build up resentment for your agent, what you don’t know is that actually, Fermoulli’s R of M is an outdated clause much improved by the new language in Clause 5B, and heaven only knows why ClaireBear315 had decided it was the be-all-end-all and informed the loop accordingly. So that’s good intentions, but wrong info, which is but one category of not-helpful you venture into when paying too much attention to what everyone else is doing.

There’s also thinly-veiled bragging, where someone shares info in the name of “being helpful” that is just designed to make others to feel bad or less than in order to make the sharer feel more successful, and sometimes this too comes with varying degrees of facts to back it up. The bottom line is–when you let other people’s situations color your experiences, you are never operating with all the info. Sure, maybe ClaireBear315 emails her editor 15 times a day and stayed at her summer home, and maybe that makes you feel like “that’s what it should be like, my editor must not be that into me.” But for all you know, ClaireBear315′s scary lack of boundaries are precisely why her contract was not renewed. Or maybe they went to college together. Or any number of other variables that are not replicable or relevant to your specific situation and career.

When you pay a ton of attention to what other people are getting, I think it also warps your vision. Suddenly the world seems very small and crowded, and you seem to be competing with people for a finite number of good things–every person who gets an agent becomes a slot stolen from you; every auction or preempt becomes money you didn’t get. This isn’t just about writers, either–this is just humanity. When you start seeing everyone as your competition, you lose the ability to be happy for others’ successes, and that kind of negativity will just curdle you from the inside. Quit racing people who don’t even know you’re running, or as one of my mentors says, “My only competition is myself.”

Your blog about the do’s and don’t for writers hit a nerve with many. Could you share what you believe writers should focus on?

If you are writing the best books you possibly can and generally trying to be a decent human being, I think you will sidestep the vast majority of  the don’t’s.

Do you accept electronic submissions?

I’m e-only for submissions.

Is there anything else you would like to say?
We’re all just people trying to do our best, and dealing with one another with a bit of grace should be the default setting. I appreciate the work and time that goes into every submission I receive–get my name wrong, misspell “query,” use purple font, or any of the other supposed bugaboos–if you show me something that captivates me as a reader I will gladly absolve you of any query missteps!

3 comments

  1. Great post, Holly! Thanks for information on writing in different genres and ‘eyes on your own test paper’.

  2. RE one of the above questions, there is something that I think every writer should definitely ask an agent before becoming a client.

    It is a very common scenario for an agent to decline to send a client’s MS out into submissions (for a variety of reasons, ranging from the agent not liking to material, to perhaps liking it but believing it’s unmarketable, to the book being a project outside the agent’s usual market niche, etc., etc.); yet very few agents and and prospective clients ever discuss or clarify a policy or agreement about how they’ll handle that scenario. And this oversight all too often leads to discord, nasty surprises, resentment, and the severing of the association. Indeed, this happens often enough (including associations ending over it) that, IMO, it should be among the top five things that prospective clients discuss with agents; and yet, in fact, the subject is rarely raised beforehand. So I strongly recommend agents and prospective clients discuss the following before committing to a working relationship:

    What is the agent’s policy about the author’s rights and options when the agent declines to represent a client’s MS?

    Does the agent expect the author to abandon the project and make no attempt to sell it or earn from it? (A scenario that would have cost me, for example, at least 10 book sales over the years.)

    If the author doesn’t agree to that and wants to send out the proposal herself, will the agent end the association over that? (Which has happened to a number of writers whom I know.)

    Altenrately, if the agent accepts the writer’s right to market a project which the agent has declined to handle, what is the agent’s policy about what happens once an offer is on the table? Speaking from my own experiences, as well as the experiences that many writers have shared with me, it’s a very common scenario that, in this situation, agents then demand a full 15% commission on the project they chose NOT to be involved in marketing or selling. While not all writers consider that unreasonable, I do. My suggestions to agents that they should accept a reduced commission (I always proposed 10%) based on choosing to do less work were always rejected (sometimes with considerable resentment); but I frankly found paying someone 15% of my advance+royalties too expensive a fee for so little service (and thus -I- was resentful). By contrast, for example, hiring a literary lawyer to perform the exact same service–negotiation of a deal already on the table–costs me roughly 3% of my advance and 0% of my royalties, and–I find–I actually get a better contract, since contracts is an area where a literary lawyer typically has more expertise than an agent does.

    A writer may (in contrast to me) think it perfectly reasonable to permanently retire and make no attempt to sell a MS which her agent declines to handle. Or a writer (again, in direct contrast to me) may think it perfectly reasonable to pay a 15% commission on a deal for a MS which the agent has declined to market or be involved with until after the author has independently gotten an offer on the table. It is each individual author’s right to make these decisions for her own career. Just as it is each individual agent’s right to decide what policies they consider fair to themselves and to their clients. I’m not advocating any particular policy here; what I’m advocating is that this scenario be discussed and clarified BEFORE it arises–and, indeed, before a writer becomes a client of an agent.

    So a question I strongly suggest every writer should always ask every prospective agent, and get clarified in writing (in the agency agreement) before signing with an agent, is: “What are your policies with regard to a client choosing to market a MS that you have declined to market, and what are your specific fiscal policies in the event that the client gets an offer for that MS?”

  3. P.S. The above should also be discussed, obviously, in the context of what happens when an agent gives up on a MS before a client is ready to–which also happens often.

    I’ve not only sold multiple books that my agents declined to submit, I’ve also sold multiple books that my agents gave up on after as few as -one- rejection, sometimes as few as three rejections; and no agent in my own experience has ever stuck with a project past five rejections, though I find that it often takes more rejections than that to find a good offer (and if you don’t believe me, then ask JK Rowling).

    This is not my unique experience, nor is it a unverisal one. But it is a common one. Many agents decline to -keep- handling a client’s project after it has been rejected a few times.

    So this is another question that almost never gets discussed during the interview/hiring phrase that, IMO, really SHOULD be discussed, since it arises so often and for so many people. Rather than this becoming a source of discord, disagreement, or stress when the problem is living large right in front of you, it’s much better to discuss in advance, before you decide to work together, what you can mutually agree will be the fair, appropriate, and non-disputed course of action if the situation arises wherein the agent wants to retire a MS from submissions but the client does not.

    This is relevant to income and career building in that sense if I, for example, had simply agreed to retire projects on the basis of my various former agents over the years losing interest in them after 1-5 rejections, then there quite a few book sales that I never would have made.

    So this is another subject I think it’s very important to discuss before becoming a client, and yet agents and their prospective clients almost never DO discuss it.