Interview with Michael Bourret, agent

Michael Bour­ret is an agent with Dys­tel and Goderich, and recent­ly opened their brand-new West Coast office. I’ve heard Michael speak at a few of the nation­al SCBWI con­fer­ences, and it’s always a plea­sure. Don’t miss him at the SCBWI West­ern Wash­ing­ton con­fer­ence this weekend!

L: Wel­come, Michael! Thanks so much for tak­ing the time to answer some ques­tions for me! Your var­i­ous bios and mar­ket list­ings say you accept all kinds of non­fic­tion, and I know you rep­re­sent adult non­fic­tion, but I don’t see any non­fic­tion for kids among your titles. Why is that? Please give us some insight on the juve­nile non­fic­tion mar­ket from an agent’s perspective.
M: Thanks for hav­ing me, Lau­rie! And I’m excit­ed that you’re ask­ing about juve­nile non­fic­tion, and I’ll be real­ly hon­est: I don’t know much about it. It isn’t a cat­e­go­ry that I’ve pur­sued, aside from the amaz­ing pic­ture books of Anne Rockwell’s. I think that juve­nile non­fic­tion has most­ly been left to the aca­d­e­m­ic pub­lish­ers, in part because it isn’t as glam­orous as nov­els. But that may well be chang­ing, as is the very def­i­n­i­tion of cat­e­go­ry. I’m see­ing a lot more inno­va­tion and a new approach, includ­ing more mem­oir and oth­er nar­ra­tive nonfiction.
L: Sev­er­al children’s non­fic­tion titles received quite a lot of atten­tion this year, espe­cial­ly Phillip Hoose’s CLAUDETTE COLVIN and Deb­o­rah Heiligman’s CHARLES AND EMMA. Do you think this will have any effect on the market?
M: Any com­mer­cial suc­cess will have an effect on the mar­ket, and the crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial response to both of these books cer­tain­ly got my atten­tion. I’m not sure we’ll see a flood of non­fic­tion, but I do think we’ll see some smart books com­ing from major pub­lish­ers bet­ter known for their fiction.
L: You don’t rep­re­sent pic­ture books, either—is that a per­son­al pref­er­ence, a mat­ter of indus­try knowl­edge and exper­tise, or a pure­ly finan­cial deci­sion  (or one of the oth­er rea­sons fel­low agent Michael Stearns blogged about here)?
M: I do rep­re­sent some pic­ture books, actu­al­ly, but it’s not an area in which I’m look­ing to grown. The mar­ket is dif­fi­cult, espe­cial­ly for writ­ers, and since they’re the ones I rep­re­sent, it just doesn’t make sense for me to con­tin­ue look­ing for new clients.
L: Is there any­thing you wish would show up your query pile that just hasn’t been there (be care­ful what you wish for!)?
M: As I said in anoth­er inter­view recent­ly, with how many queries I get, it’s hard to say that there’s any­thing I haven’t seen! I’d rather not see books that chase trends, but that said, I love to see how peo­ple can approach well-worn ideas in a new way. I recent­ly signed up a nov­el based on a Poe sto­ry that I’m very excit­ed about, and I’d love to see more dark, psy­cho­log­i­cal thrillers. Some­thing that makes my skin crawl would be great!
L: Tell us about your agent­ing style: Are you very edi­to­r­i­al? Phone or email? Hands-on through­out the whole process or mitts off until the final product?
M: All agents have to be edi­to­r­i­al, but I’m not some­one who’s going to line edit a man­u­script. It’s just not where my skills lie. I do love to devel­op ideas with authors—helping them to turn a vague notion into some­thing that sup­ports a book-length nar­ra­tive. I’m more of a phone than email per­son, but I spend much more time on email! I wish peo­ple uti­lized the phone more; a con­ver­sa­tion has a cer­tain give-and-take that can help get to the point more quick­ly. I’m pret­ty hands on, and as I say to new clients, I like to know every­thing. That way I can antic­i­pate and pre­empt issues they may not even see arising.
L: What aspects do you like most about being an agent? Least? Pet peeves (please don’t say blog inter­views, please don’t say blog interviews…)?
M: I like that every day is dif­fer­ent. I like pitch­ing to edi­tors, I like dis­cussing ideas with clients, I love find­ing new voic­es. I love build­ing rela­tion­ships and match­ing authors and edi­tors. I like dis­cussing big-pic­ture ideas with my col­leagues, both in-house at DGLM and with the pub­lish­ing world at large on Twit­ter and through our blog. It’s hard to say that I don’t like a part of my job, but I don’t like how long things take. I’m real­ly impa­tient. I don’t have any major pub­lish­ing pet peeves, but I do wish we could all be more kind and respect­ful. It’s a chal­leng­ing busi­ness, and emo­tions run high, but we need to remem­ber that we’re all in it together.
L: Besides the man­u­script itself, what oth­er fac­tors do you con­sid­er when decid­ing whether or not to offer rep­re­sen­ta­tion (plat­form, online pres­ence, pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, spe­cial­iza­tion, rec­om­men­da­tions, affil­i­a­tions, etc.)?
M: The man­u­script is what mat­ters. If that doesn’t knock my socks off, noth­ing else mat­ters. In a query, how­ev­er, men­tion­ing a large plat­form, and award win, or even mem­ber­ship in rep­utable orga­ni­za­tions like SCBWI will make me pay more atten­tion. But then it comes back to the man­u­script again. It’s got to be great.
L: Besides care­ful­ly read­ing mar­ket guides, surf­ing the web and send­ing tar­get­ed queries, what can we authors do to ensure a good fit, both when sub­mit­ting and when con­sid­er­ing an offer of representation?
M: If you’re doing your home­work and research in advance, the only oth­er thing you need to do is inter­view the agent. It’s impor­tant for both writer and agent to chat and make sure that they get along and can have a con­ver­sa­tion. If you’re afraid of your agent, the rela­tion­ship isn’t going to work. If you don’t feel like your agent is enthu­si­as­tic about your sub­mis­sion, the rela­tion­ship won’t work. I tell peo­ple all the time that they should wait for a good match and not just take the first offer. It’s hard to do, I know, but I think the advice is sound.
L: I think authors put so much time and effort into find­ing an agent, that then inter­view­ing an inter­est­ed agent feels a bit intim­i­dat­ing. What kinds of ques­tions do you think authors should ask to deter­mine if an agent will be a good match?
M: Authors should ask agents about the edi­to­r­i­al vision for the book, how they work day-to-day and how the sub­mis­sion will work, how often they can expect to be in touch, and then they should dis­cuss the future—what do both the author and agent see for the author’s career down the line? It’s impor­tant that you’re on the same page as your agent about these things.
L: Do you have any upcom­ing client titles you’d like to high­light for us?

The past cou­ple of months have seen the excit­ing releas­es of Eleventh Grade Burns by Heather Brew­er and Gone by Lisa McMann, the release of which got both series onto the New York Times list. The com­ing months will see the release of Restor­ing Har­mo­ny by Joëlle Antho­ny and Shoot­ing Kab­ul by N.H. Sen­zai, two debuts that I’m real­ly proud of. In addi­tion, the fan­tas­tic Suzanne Selfors’s fifth book Smells Like Dog is also out short­ly, along with Dale Basye’s third book in the twist­ed “Heck” series, Blimpo. And that’s just through May!

L: Is there any­thing else you wished that I had asked, but didn’t? Feel free to write your own ques­tion here. =)
M: This has been a ter­rif­ic and thor­ough inter­view. I’ve got noth­ing to add, but thanks so much for think­ing of me!
L: Thank YOU, Michael! I real­ly appre­ci­ate the time and thought you put into this, and we’re look­ing for­ward to hear­ing more at the con­fer­ence this weekend. 

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