Friday, May 16, 2008

New Agent Interview: Michael Stearns...

After nearly 20 years working on the editorial side of things--most recently as editorial director and foreign acquisitions manager for HarperCollins Children's Books, and prior to that, as senior editor, director of paperback publishing for Harcourt Children's Books--Michael Stearns decided to mix things up a bit. Starting last month, he left Harper to become a literary agent at Firebrand Literary.

Stearns brings a wealth of experience to his new role. He has worked on hundreds of books for children and adults including many bestselling and award-winning titles such as A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly, Tangerine by Edward Bloor, The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls by Elise Primavera, Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson, Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge, the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane, and the Chet Gecko Mysteries by Bruce Hale. He has taught a dozen classes on writing, edited three anthologies of original stories, and published a half dozen pieces of his own fiction for both adults and children.

Below, in his first interview as an agent, Stearns talks about his career shift, the kind of material he's looking to represent, his submission policy, his agenting style, and exciting changes at Firebrand.

Why the huge career shift?
I don't see it as that big a change in what I do—but okay: why'd I skip over the fence separating publishing and agenting?

Something terrible happens to the successful: They get kicked up the corporate ladder as a reward for having done well.

I found myself as an editorial director at HarperCollins Children’s Books, as well as the manager of foreign acquisitions for the list. There were obvious benefits to the job—I could acquire with a freer hand, attend all the book fairs, develop a thorough knowledge of UK editors and publishers, line my pockets with gold and faded dreams—the usual. And yet . . .

I was spending more and more of my time attending meetings, and helping my team figure out their books and their publishing strategies; and spending less and less time doing what I've always loved most, which is working closely with talent. Editing, shaping, and bringing books to market is the funnest part of the job.

There is nothing wrong with what I was doing at Harper, but I wanted more hands-on time to nurture writers and their careers. And now I have that.

What types of work for young readers are you most interested in representing?
My list will be 75-80% novels, with the remaining 20 percent made up of picture books.

I'm not against picture books, but I am extraordinarily picky, and I find that most beginning writers tackle picture books because they mistakenly think they are "easier." So there is a higher degree of suckage in most picture book submissions. Rather than plow through that, for picture books I am relying on referrals and am signing only a few writers whose work I know and trust. (This 80/20 percentage is nothing new, by the way; this about equals the make-up of my lists at Harcourt and Harper.)

Okay, picture books are unlikely. But how do your tastes run with regard to novels?
I’m keenest for both teen and middle grade fiction. Nothing makes me happier than commercial novels with literary chops—good writing that isn't afraid of plot—though "good writing" is what everyone wants, I'm sure. What do I mean by “literary chops”? I mean, the writer has skill and voice, and that she recognizes character as a key to all good storytelling.

Genre-wise I flee far and fast from issue novels (hard to sell) and am much more interested in non-Tolkienesque fantasy, paranormal romance, comic coming-of-age, and thrillers (again, all with some literary spin). For whatever reason, I respond well to wit. Not dorky funny but genuine wit. (See authors I’ve worked with such as M.T. Anderson, Frances Hardinge, Bruce Hale, Derek Landy, et al.)

Are you open to unsolicited submissions?
Well, of course. Writers can submit via Firebrand’s website at, which has very detailed descriptions about how to submit. People who have not submitted to and been rejected by Firebrand in the past can submit to me. If it is not for me, they will receive a form "No, thanks," rejection via email. If it is something I want to see more of, I'll invite them to send the full manuscript via email. Actual mailed submissions are not being accepted. (We try to be as paperless and green as possible.)

The website is going to relaunch in a few weeks with a new look, a new logo, and all sorts of unbelievable goodies. Same tender snark as at the old site, but with even more of the qualities that make Firebrand a different animal from other agencies.

What, exactly, are those differences?
Well, it will be revealed in greater detail on the site to come, but here’s a small tease: We are creating an aggressive marketing team to help sell-through for our books and authors—marketing that will complement those of their publishers. And we have a foreign rights agent in myself who, thanks to years spent buying and publishing major UK titles for the United States market, knows the UK market very well—the publishers, their lists, and the editors whose tastes shape those lists.

And there will be more. These are exciting times at Firebrand.

[Here's the agency's new logo.]

How would you describe your “agenting style”?
Oh my god, is there such a thing? “Post-modernist, with a surreal dash of ‘finger painting and graham cracker’ interpretations of Duke-of-Windsor-style men’s fashion”? “Jean-Paul Gaultier sans cones and bad dancing”?

No, no, no. I haven’t the foggiest idea what my “agenting style” is quite yet—I haven’t even been here a month!—though I imagine it will turn out to be much like my editorial style. That is, I will work very closely with my writers to develop their projects and to guide their careers. I love developing projects, and I think of myself as my authors' second head: someone who understands their goals as a writer.

I don’t waste time making nice. I get fired up about a book only when I feel like I've really found something new or exceedingly excellent. I don’t phone it in. If I love something, I’m all about that love. By the same token, I have little time for projects that are just “good enough.” Good enough rarely is.

My utter lack of a poker face is one reason I have the trust of the people I deal with—whether my writers and clients or the editors to whom I sell projects. People know that I can’t fake enthusiasm.

Do I have any upcoming gigs at which writers can meet you and/or pitch their ideas?
The only things that should be pitched are baseballs. (Go, Mets!) Or nonfiction books for adult readerships.

I abhor pitches for children’s books. A worthwhile book lives or dies in execution, on the skill of the writer, and pitches are the complete opposite of that. A pitch boils an idea down to its most basic, but who cares? I want to see what the writer does with the idea.

You can find me at two SCBWI events this summer: a workshop in Florida on June 6 and 7, and the national conference this August in Los Angeles. As well, I will be dropping in on the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children during their summer session.

We'll be posting the appearances schedule of all of the Firebrand agents on our new website. Yet another reason to check it out!

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