Special Events Feature: Q&A With Literary Agent, Sarah Davies

Sarah Davies, founder of The Greenhouse Literary Agency, talks to Events Editor, A.M. Dassu about her role as an agent working across North America and what her agency looks for in a submission.

The Greenhouse Literary Agency
is a transatlantic agency that focuses on nurturing and working creatively with their clients, encouraging them to develop their craft and career. Both agents at Greenhouse have immense editorial experience and a rare perspective of publishing across the UK and America.

SCBWI are thrilled to have Sarah Davies join members in Edinburgh for an in-depth workshop in May, where she’ll talk about concept and craft and how to take your fiction writing to the next level. She’ll also cover how to choose and query an agent (with a little taster of how it feels to be in the decision-making hot seat!), and give plenty of insider tips on the realities of the publishing industry and today’s international market place.

Ahead of the event, I thought it would be great to find out more about Sarah and am delighted to share her insightful and enjoyable interview with you.

Look out for the special SCBWI member mention and submission tips below!

Hello and welcome Sarah!

Q. You were a publisher for 25 years, what made you want to become a literary agent?
I was contemplating a career move after many years in publishing and a lengthy period in particular at Macmillan where I was Publishing Director. I’ve always loved two aspects of publishing: 1) helping to develop manuscripts creatively with authors and 2) strategising and negotiating deals. Agenting offered both, while also allowing me to put aside my corporate jacket and develop my entrepreneurial side. At the same time I was also considering moving to the USA to marry my American fiancé. Everything came together for me to take the ultimate challenge – moving stateside and creating a literary agency that would draw on all my experience of the industry on both sides of the pond. It was crazy, but also exciting!

Q. What’s the best thing about being an agent compared to being an editor?
We are in there at such an early part of the process, scouting for fresh talent and helping to develop the manuscript that may change a writer’s life and make a major contribution to the children’s book scene. That is pretty exciting! It’s quite an intense and important relationship between author and agent and the journey we make together can be a rollercoaster but also very rewarding. We are part of authors’ vulnerabilities and joys in a way that is to some extent concealed from publishers, but I enjoy the closeness of relationship immensely.

Q. You lived in the US for almost a decade. How does UK publishing differ from across the pond?
Yes, I lived in Virginia (just outside Washington DC) for eight years before returning to the UK in 2015. I’m still back and forth to New York a lot. The US publishing scene and the US market are bigger than here in the UK! More editors, more varied individual tastes, more scope sometimes for me as an agent to make that perfect match. Nowadays, the big author “brands” tend to be picked up around the world, but there are still a lot of variables in terms of voice, subject matter and style. Some books work well both sides of the pond and others just don’t.

Q. Do you represent clients from the UK or do you strictly work with people who live outside of the region?
I work very closely with my colleague Polly Nolan, who handles the UK/Commonwealth side of the business. I focus on clients living in the USA and Canada. I do have a couple of Brits on my client list from my early agenting days, but I tend not to sign new Brits now. However, Polly and I are constantly discussing authors and manuscripts, where their potential lies, so we simply try to do what is best for each author and each story and occasionally make simultaneous submissions both sides of the Atlantic. Of course, I also spent 25 years working in UK children’s books, so I have a very transatlantic mind-set and easily fit into either book culture.

Q. Why do you represent children’s books?
Most of my career has been spent in the children’s books industry – apart from short periods in religious books (where I worked on a lot of books about Popes) and adult fiction (where I learned a lot about what constitutes a good sex scene as opposed to a total embarrassment!). However, I quickly found my niche in the world of children’s and teen books. The authors and editors are great, the ideas are often interesting and big and the sector has become such a major player in the media world as a whole. That being said, I do now represent one adult novelist who has moved beyond YA, and as I write this she has just entered the New York Times Bestseller list, which is thrilling. We don’t have particular aspirations to move the agency into adult fiction, but it’s great to know we can do justice to all the writing that our clients bring us.

Q. What can SCBWI members do to ensure they get Greenhouse Literary Agency’s attention?
In a sense it is simple (though not always easy in the execution, I admit). A submission should be clear, concise and well written. We’re looking for a strong pitch with a fresh hook and appealing character arc, and sample pages that draw us in and promise interesting things to come. It’s all about concept and smart crafting. My advice for new writers trying to snag an agent? Focus on reading widely and truly learning your craft. If you write effectively and you’ve got a great idea, we will find you.

Q. Have you received a submission that has stood out of the slush pile for the wrong reasons?
Oh yes, lots! We regularly receive queries misaddressed to other agents/agencies. We get weird fonts, emails that don’t make sense, and bizarre story ideas. My “favourite” was a query from a man who said he’d found the cure for schizophrenia by shooting off a certain part of his anatomy with a shotgun. That was one for the ages. Occasionally we also get very rude comebacks from disappointed writers whose pride has been hurt.

Q. Last year you tweeted about a submission that had you hooked, as you were packing for the Bologna Book Fair. You called the author before you left. Please do tell us more about it. What did they get right?
Sadly, I can’t remember what that was! If I tell you I’ve probably read 10,000 submissions since then, you might understand my memory lapse. We do love to sign a new client or two before Bologna where we pitch ideas to so many British and American editors and scouts. Sometimes that works out, sometimes it doesn’t. When I offer representation, I am often in competition with 10 agents or more so we don’t land every new writer we go for. As you can see, agents also experience rejection – it’s not just the province of writers!

Q. Favourite place to read?
We have a little wooden gazebo in the garden, which is a great reading corner in the summer. The rest of the year I just pore over my Kindle in my office, surrounded by my two Dachsunds who are usually snoring loudly – which can be embarrassing when I’m on the phone to glitzy film people in LA, as sometimes happens.

Q. Favourite character from a book?
That is so hard to answer! So I’ll fudge it and tell you that I’ve recently loved three YA novels which all have fascinating boy/girl relationships at their heart. Obviously, Eleanor and Park (Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell). Natasha and Daniel (The Sun is also a Star by Nicola Yoon). And Theodore Finch and Violet (All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven). I admire the complexity and reality of all these six characters, I loved spending time with them, and all three books are masterclasses on how to build teenage character.

Q. Ebooks or paper books?
Of course I love the tactile nature of books, but e-readers have practically saved the lives of agents and editors. I travel a lot, and now I can pack tons of manuscripts and books on one slim device. It has revolutionized everything and saved a lot of arm strain and overweight suitcases (paper is heavy!). Since I’m usually the last one to go to sleep at night, my backlit e-reader also lets me keep reading surreptitiously under the covers.

Sarah Davies was a London publisher for 25 years, latterly as Publishing Director of Macmillan Children’s Books where she worked with Philip Pullman, Julia Donaldson, Judy Blume, Meg Cabot, Frank Cottrell-Boyce and even a Spice Girl! In 2007, she moved to the USA and launched Greenhouse, a transatlantic agency specialising in books for children and teens. Accolades include three New York Times bestsellers, Waterstones Award shortlisters, a Kirkus Prize finalist, and authors who regularly achieve critical acclaim, as well as international success. Sarah and her colleague Polly Nolan represent young stories upwards through to YA, but also sell picture books, non-fiction and even adult novels by existing clients. Now back in the UK, Sarah divides her time between her new home “somewhere east of Oxford”, London, and New York, and she works with authors across many timezones.

Twitter: @SarahGreenhouse
Website: https://www.greenhouseliterary.com


N.B. SCBWI members attending the event have a fantastic opportunity to ask Sarah questions throughout the event.
So start jotting them down before you forget!



A. M. Dassu is a member of the Words & Pictures editorial team, she manages the Events team and SCBWI BI events coverage. She has written five picture books since becoming a SCBWI member and is currently editing a contemporary teen novel.
Contact her at events@britishscbwi.org
You can find her on Twitter @a_reflective and Instagram @a.m.dassu

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