An Interview with Stephen Fraser

There are agents and there are agents. Then there’s Stephen Fraser. He’s one super agent. Stephen Fraser is a literary agent with The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. He is a graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont and has a master’s degree in Children’s Literature from Simmons College in Boston. He started his career with Highlights for Children and went on to work as an editor at Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins. Stephen represents a wide range of genres in both children’s and adult books. One of his clients is Margi Preus, the Newbery Honor winner of Heart of a Samurai.

Meet the man and the agency.

You’ve been an agent for six years. Can you tell me what makes The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency stand out among others?

Every agency is unique. We have just two agents – well, actually, now three. (We just added a new agent.)  But we are something like a boutique agency. There are agencies which are very much bigger. But small and mighty, we do everything. We have a foreign rights director who is very successful selling in all languages and we have solid contacts in Hollywood.  One unique quality is that we stick with writers throughout their careers and help their careers.

We had our first New York Times bestseller recently and our first Newbery Honor. Last year, we had a PEN award winner. For two years in a row, we had “Flying Start” authors profiled in Publishers Weekly. This is the agency’s tenth year anniversary!

Before becoming an agent, you were in the publishing industry for many years. Did your previous experience help you transition into becoming an agent, and what do you see as your strengths as an agent?

I guess that’s why some people are drawn to me as an agent. I have more of an editorial sensibility than someone whose background is marketing or sales. Also, having worked in all the various editorial areas — a children’s magazine, book clubs, paperbacks, and trade hardcovers – I already knew a lot of the publishers and what they were looking for. I have established some happy relationships with editors over the years. There was one agent I used to deal with as an editor who was so scary that I literally would run the other way when she called. My aim is to NOT be that kind of agent.

How do you go about meeting editors and establishing a good rapport with them?

Because I was in publishing for more than twenty years, I already have a relationship with a lot of fine editors. My job is to learn who the new editors are and to stay in touch with established editors who may move around. All this involves office visits, lunches, attending publishing events, and writers’ conferences. Someone called me “a true gentleman of the business.” This honestly means a lot to me.

Are there certain editors/publishing houses that are eager to see more from you?

Well, that is what one hopes. An agent should cultivate a certain cachet. One hopes that the response sounds something like: “Oh, Steve. He always has good projects.  I like hearing from him.” Of course, I can’t really control this. But the intent is to have projects with both artistic integrity and commercial appeal. And to present them with a certain grace – and also enthusiasm!

What genres do you represent, and do you prefer to see one over another?

I handle all genres: picture books and board books; chapter books; middle grade; young adult; both fiction and nonfiction. I adore picture books, even though they are having a hard time now, so I’ll never say no to a great picture book text. I have to say that I especially love middle grade. What I would like to see more of is chapter books (series).

Many writers are on a quest to find an agent. If you could have the perfect client, what characteristics would that client have?

Having an agent won’t make you a great writer.  It means you are one step closer to getting published. Some people have fine careers without agent at all. But an agent can be a wonderful support to a writer. He/she brings all the composite of years’ experience to bear on a writer’s career goals. And truly, an agent doesn’t care if you’ve been published before or not; it’s all about the writing.

Some writers are so used to selling books on their own, they don’t really relinquish the trust to an agent. And that can be a problem. The only client I had to let go was always saying, “My friends tell me this… my friends say this…” It became clear that this client’s friends were getting more support than I was.  A good client is respectful of my experience and my time.  Remember, an agent isn’t paid for what they do.  The only payment comes with the commission made through a sale or through royalties. So an agent gives of his/her own time, passion, energy, etc. Writers need to be appreciative.

What are some of your personal dos and don’ts for those writers trying to get an agent?

Special courier package deliveries and manuscripts offered on silver platters. This doesn’t work. Nor does special dark chocolate enclosed.  Well, maybe the chocolate…Seriously, it’s all about the writing. I like a simple query and sample writing. I like to know who someone is and how they see themselves developing as an artist.

How should potential clients contact you?

Either in person at a conference – I do several a year across the country – or via e-mail. I need to read a completed manuscript that I like. And I always ask to see at least one more piece. I need to know the writer has a career motive, not just one good book. For instance, I often ask, what kind of writing career do you see yourself having? What kinds of books do you want to write: only picture books? picture books and novels? only young adult? I don’t mind if someone wants to do more than one genre. In fact, I encourage it.

Can you explain how your author/agent relationship works?

My job is to get manuscripts to the right editors. Sometimes it happens quickly; sometimes it takes a bit longer.  I always let clients know when I have submitted a manuscript and when I hear back. Offers are always approved by the client, of course.  I am always glad to have a client bounce ideas off me. I don’t need to only see completed manuscripts. Some chapters are fine, a work in progress is fine.  My job sometimes becomes cheer-leader, minister, parent, therapist.  But I love it. And I love all my clients. I want them all to succeed.

How has publishing changed in the past few years – especially with the economic downturn? Does this make your job harder?

The only real change is I have noticed that publishers are more cautious. I have had an editor say to me, “Steve, a year ago I would have acquired this book.  The market is just too tough these days for this kind of book.” But honestly, we have had the two best years in our agency’s history. So, I can’t complain. We have had only a few books cancelled by publishers, a by-product of difficult times.

But, you can’t really take in the dismal picture. In the creative environment we all work and live in, there is no economic downturn. There is joy and potential. I have to pop up everyday ready to work with the expectation that I’ll sell a book. If I have to work harder, I will.  I guess the change is that greater patience is required. And, by the way, I see things improving already.

What are the best and worst parts of being an agent?

The hardest part for me is the money. I don’t really like talking about money. There is a right price for each project, based on the writer’s track record, the current market, the number of publishers interested, and the potential audience. The challenge is to hold firm but not be greedy. I guess another hard part is the waiting. Both for the agent and the client. Of course, it takes time for editors to read a novel and decide if it is right for him/her. Then, they have to do the paperwork and present the book at an acquisition meeting. Having worked at several big houses, I know how time-consuming and stressful this can be!

The best part is being able to call a writer and say, “We have an offer (or two) for your book.” The other joy is finding a new talent. A great new book, one that makes me want to sing and dance (and I do!)

What’s your best piece of advice for writers?

You become a professional writer the second you begin to act professionally. Have a truly humble assessment of your own ability and the integrity of your writing. Keep a record of where your manuscript has been sent and when you have followed up. (Don’t let more than a month go by without following up. If you don’t, it’s essentially like abandoning a child.)

If you have an agent, stay in touch every six weeks or so. When you have sold a book, make sure your dealings with editors and publishers are professional and courteous. I have seen a couple of authors sabotage their own careers by unseemly behavior.  Remember, it’s all about image. And publishers don’t forget bad behavior.

Is there something that you’d like to share that not many people know about you?

My degree is in Children’s Literature.  One of my professors was Gregory Maguire. Interestingly, when I was at HarperCollins, I edited a book of animal fairy tales that he wrote called Leaping Beauty.  We had fun working on that together. And it sold really well!

Stephen Fraser is a super agent. He’s well-respected in the business, and he’s supportive and upbeat when it comes to his clients. He’s what I would call a quiet kind of dynamite!   

This agent likes bow ties!

Stephen is always looking for new talent and someone who wants to develop a career. To contact Stephen, check the submission policy at www.jdlit.com.

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