Q&A with Literary Agent Emmanuelle Morgen

An interview by Melanie Sipko, Writing Barn Intern

We’re so excited to have Emmanuelle Morgen, along with Katie Bayerl, at our upcoming Literary Page Turner! She was kind enough to give us a closer look at her experience as an agent.

What led you on the path to becoming an agent? What inspired you? Were you planning something different or was it always your goal?

From an early age, I wanted to work with books. When I was a kid, my family moved many times across many states, and books were both a constant and a solace for a girl who was always new in school. In high school, a wonderful guidance counselor helped me find a college not too far from New York City. From there I worked a few publishing internships and eventually got hired at Fodor’s Travel/Random House. After a few years, I decided I wanted a bit more flexibility to choose the kinds of books I’d work on, and moved over to the agency side. I made my first sale the following year and the rest is history!

How do you choose the genres you represent? 

I go mainly by personal interest and an instinct for marketability. I read most of my own queries, though I do also rely on interns to read and vet some of them as well. The first book I loved was the Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and I think because of that I will always enjoy a good fairy tale and anything in the fantasy/SF realm. I also liked reading Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey, John Christopher, Susan Cooper, Jean Auel, and Jane Austen. Later, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ann Leckie, J.K. Rowling and memoirists Caitlin Moran and Jeanette Walls. In practical and narrative non-fiction, anything on psychology, brain science, sociology and anthropology. But back to fiction, since your readers and writers are probably more interested in it, I’d say my interests are more likely to be commercial, though not exclusively so. When I read submissions, I’m looking for that feeling of being passionately involved in a book. Make me feel it. If not, make someone else feel it!

Does reading so many manuscripts make it difficult to enjoy those genres casually?

Nope! It’s refreshing to read published books or “books with a cover” as my colleague Madelyn Burt calls them. It’s nice to be able to let go of the control of the publishing process some of the time.

What kind of things really stand out to you in a query?

In queries, I look for voice and a facility with language to start. I define voice as the author’s ability to communicate his or her ideas clearly, to paint a scene with words, and to connect with readers. Maybe not all readers, but hopefully a lot of them. Not every book or author will speak to every reader, so this is in large part a subjective experience. Luckily, there are many agents, editors, and readers out there. I think the key for an author is in finding his or her particular audience. After voice, I look for a story that’s both high-concept and deep/multi-layered, probably saying something about our world, and characters who reflect the human condition, whose good and bad qualities remind us of ourselves and people we know. The query should have a hint of all this, and the manuscript should be the total package.

What are some reasons you might have for rejecting a manuscript? What advice do you have for rejection?

If every project, and author, is on a journey, then it makes sense that projects (and authors) are at different stages on that journey. Sometimes I see queries for works that are just not ready to be on submission. They need more time to bake. Other times I see queries for genres I don’t represent, like political thriller. But let’s go back to rejection. Agents know plenty about that. We might take on a manuscript and author, send a submission to 40 publishers and not make a sale. So I would say to anyone who has experienced rejection: persevere. You know there is always something to be learned through the process. If you can get an evaluation that makes sense to you, then you can make changes. If you take time away from a project and come back to it with fresh eyes, you may also want to make changes. And remember, there is a subjective aspect to reading, so in short–try, try again.

What do you see people doing wrong the most often in queries, besides not following the guidelines?

I actually see a lot of really good queries. The trouble is that statistically, I can only work on a tiny percentage of the submissions I receive. I sign perhaps 2-3 new clients per year, but I receive 10-20 new queries every day. Fortunately there are a lot of agents out there, including my amazing colleagues at Stonesong. And self-publishing is a good option for entrepreneurial authors. I’ll also share some tips on querying fiction (and discuss more at my workshop in November): first, keep your plot description simple, like the jacket copy or back cover of a book; second, focus on character, and the stakes for such character (avoid a lengthy discussion of themes or your reasons for writing the book); and third, opt for recent, successful (but not wildly so) comparable titles. In brief, keep it succinct and focus on the stakes.

Self-publishing is becoming widely popular, with sites like Amazon offering an easy path to physical and electronic publishing. What’s your opinion of self-publishing versus looking for an agent? 

Self-publishing is an excellent option for an entrepreneurial author who knows how he or she wants his/her book to look and be marketed, and has the time and resources to make this vision a reality. However, for wide print distribution, subsidiary rights licensing, and extensive marketing and publicity, authors are still best served by traditional publishing and agency representation. Only through teamwork and collaboration can a book reach its widest possible audience.

Are there any upcoming projects you’re excited about? What can you tell us about them?

Yes! I’m going to talk about books that are out right now, and then a couple that are upcoming. If you like dark humor, you have to read BITE, by K.S. Merbeth, science fiction about a young girl who falls in with a group of raiders in a post-apocalyptic America and must decide who is good and who is evil in a world seemingly without morals (then read its companion novel, RAID). If you like contemporary YA and women’s fiction, check out EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL IS NOT RUINED by Danielle Younge-Ullman, the story of a girl who must survive a wilderness trip for at-risk teens in order to prove to herself and her family she is capable of making her own decisions. For YA fantasy romance, try RUINED by Amy Tintera, about a princess from a war-ravaged country who must infiltrate the royal family of a neighboring kingdom in order to avenge her family. For middle grade, read THE EMPEROR’S RIDDLE by Kat Zhang, about a little Chinese-American girl who returns to her parents’ native China on a family trip, and embarks on a quest to find an emperor’s secret fortune. For a deep and heartfelt romance about two people on opposite sides of the tracks, try HOPE BLOOMS by Jamie Pope. And for a delightfully heartwarming and funny read, try A DANGEROUS DECEIT by Alissa Johnson.

What do you think defines “good writing”? Is it one specific element, or a combination?

Let’s see… Voice, clarity, a facility with language. A gift for finding the right word. The ability to craft a beautiful metaphor. As an example, check out Alexandra Christo’s TO KILL A KINGDOM coming out March 2018. Her beautiful writing leaps off the page… Also, good writing includes a fantastic story: the ability to plot, to create tension through great pacing, and to generally to convey your truth about the human condition. For a wonderful example of excellent plotting, read Amy Tintera’s REBOOT, still one of my favorite teen SF action-adventure novels.