Beth Phelan, Literary Agent

PHELAN-photoGetting to know the agents you pitch gives you an advantage, whether you’re adding a query to the slush pile with fingers crossed or pitching face to face at a conference like JRWC. We’re excited to announce that literary agent Beth Phelan from the Bent Agency will be joining us at this year’s James River Writer’s Conference. For those who want to know more about this agent eagerly looking for new writers, read on to see her interview with JRW Board member Kris Spisak.

QUESTION 1: The publishing industry is changing rapidly these days. What are the biggest challenges that writers face in this new era? What are the biggest advantages?

People rely on the internet more than anything to discover new things or find out more information, so it’s essential that an author maintains a strong social media presence. For debut authors, and even for some published writers, writing a great book isn’t enough anymore. You have to come prepared with your own platform or at least a willingness to build one. This new prerequisite is tough for some authors who don’t know how — or don’t care to — assume some of the marketing responsibility. But it can be a huge advantage for authors who grew up with social media or learned how to embrace it. Publishers and agents will find you from that built-in customer base. It’s worth making the commitment!

QUESTION 2: When you look at middle grade and young adult manuscripts, what is the difference between a good story and a great one?

It starts with the voice, and then it’s all about pacing. First, I need to fall in love with the protagonist; it’s the only way I’ll read past page one. I need humor mixed with some naivete that is never condescending. After I become invested in the character’s story, I need little things to keep me turning pages with gusto, and not just mild curiosity (sort of like breadcrumbs). Even if the plot is totally predictable and I know what’s going to happen, if I care enough about the character and the breadcrumbs are spaced just right, then I want to keep reading!

QUESTION 3: What kind of adult fiction are you drawn to?

Well, I like a good family dramedy with quirky characters. I recently read Maria Semple’s WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE? and was obsessed. It was a slow burn that I didn’t even notice at first. When things start going downhill for Bernadette, I found myself feeling really indignant on her behalf — as if I actually knew her! I am still coming down from that book.

QUESTION 4: Writers hear a lot about needing a “platform,” especially in the non-fiction world. What do you look for in a non-fiction writer outside of the strong book concept?

Platform is definitely important in nonfiction, but your book also needs to fill a hole in the marketplace in a way that is long-lasting. Beyond having a concept with demonstrated success, you have to offer something more than what’s already available. A lot of blog-to-book projects fail in this area because they’ve already peaked; their book doesn’t bring enough new material and doesn’t bring it to the next level. The idea has to be sustainable, and the creator must be adaptable and willing to make changes.

QUESTION 5: The writer-agent partnership covers so much. What do you wish more writers knew about your role and the relationship you are looking for?

Editorial revisions are painstaking, but rewarding for an agent — at least for me, personally. It’s satisfying to figure out the issues and then fix them. But this doesn’t mean we delight in the author’s agony over revisions! My goal is to polish a project as best as possible and I’m not lazy about it, so I want authors who will work with me to that same end. It’s natural to feel defensive about your work, but I think a lot of authors end up taking it too personally, and their work often suffers because of it.

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