Okay guys, buckle in because we have a special treat for you all today! Our first agent interview on Writer’s Block Party. And since it’s such a special treat we had to get an ah-maz-ing agent for y’all. So, of course we went straight to one of our favorite agents, Beth Phelan of The Bent Agency! Beth is an amazing agent who not only champions her clients but has created an inspiring event to boost diverse voices, DVPit (She’s also helping to make two of the WBPers dreams come true).
Kat and Mara were lucky enough to sign with Beth and interviewed her about agenting, diversity, DVPit and more!
Kat: Beth! Thank you so much for agreeing to an interview for our blog! I’m obviously super biased, but I’m so happy you decided to become an agent.
Mara: I’m so happy! We’re the two happiest writers in all the land.
Kat: 🎶 We’re the three best friends that anyone can have!🎶 Can you tell us how you became an agent?
Beth: Thank you both so much for having me! I am ALSO happy that I became an agent (thanks to clients like you!) and took a pretty straight path here. I’d always loved to read and preferred books to most people. I would read during class, in the car—once during family vacation, my dad even found me hiding in the hotel room closet in the middle of the night, a flashlight hanging from a jacket sleeve, reading a book I’d decided was more interesting than sleep. He was the first to suggest that I find a career in publishing. At first I’d figured I would be an editor, but then got an opportunity to intern at Levine Greenberg (now Levine Greenberg Rostan) and decided agenting was more my speed. You could take on the projects that you wanted and didn’t really have to get permission from anyone to put your time and effort behind an author and a story that you really believed in. I loved that.
Kat: OMG, I love that your dad found you reading a book in a closet. It reminds me of when I was younger and snuck books into the bathroom to read, hehe. Obviously our pairing was meant to be! Can you tell us what your favorite part of being an agent is?
Beth: I think my favorite part about being an agent is probably that—the freedom to choose to represent someone (although of course the author has to choose you too!) and then seeing it through. We take a lot of things on faith, and work for free until and unless the book sells. Sometimes it does sell, and sometimes it doesn’t. But in a way, you’re in it together.
Kat: It’s so nice that as an agent every project is a passion project, as a writer it’s such a wonderful thing to hear from her agent! But I have to admit I’ve always wondered what some of your personal processes are for reading slush. For example, do you always read first pages? Do you read query first always? Are there some auto-request topics that you don’t even need to see pages for? etc
Beth: I’m not good at grazing. I have to sit down and decide to read through all my submissions, get in the mindset of looking for potential, and then sticking it out until I get a decent amount done. I don’t always look at the first pages if it’s very obvious that the project isn’t for me (like if the project is in a category I don’t represent), but most of the time I do. I’ll read the query first and then check out the first pages to see if it clicks. It’s really all about my gut with submissions: sometimes the query isn’t strong but the pages are, or the pages need more work but the concept is clearly amazing. Sometimes, both the query and the pages aren’t there yet—or sometimes they both are but something still isn’t resonating. So, regardless, it always comes down to my gut feeling: Do I want to read this? I can’t really explain what goes into that want, just that I know it when I see it. Or rather, when I feel it.
Mara: I think we’ve all been there, even if it was just browsing for something on the bookshelf, not looking through a massive query inbox. It’s hard to pin down the mystical X factor that makes us fall in love! So we obviously know you are a great editorial agent. What made you decide to work so closely with your clients on revisions? Do you have an agent philosophy?
Beth: I think it’s more of a life philosophy, to be honest? That sounds cheesy, but I am a bit of a control freak and I don’t like making avoidable mistakes, so I try to do everything in my power to polish manuscripts for submission. Being an agent is an incredible responsibility; I have someone’s years of work, sometimes life’s work, in my hands and I have to take that very seriously. I want to hold up my end of the bargain by selling the thing, and that means I have to do what I can to get it ready, within the creative boundaries set by the author—it’s their work, after all.
Kat: And we are very grateful for all the work you do to prepare our manuscripts! Even though I fainted a bit when I saw the word “submission.” So, when I wrote my query letter for you I did it intro/why I want you to be my agent–>query/synopsis–>personal bio. Is this how you generally like to see your queries? (aka, the question where Kat needs her past decisions validated)
Beth: Pretty much! You can also start in with just your story blurb and leave the intro stuff for later. I personally like having context with my submissions, but I also recognize that not all agents are okay with that. They want the story first. (Which is fine and definitely makes sense! And I do believe that’s the strongest way to go.) I’m pretty flexible when it comes to queries, so I defer to the agents who are firmer in their preferences.
Kat: Yay! I love that, it’s so nerve-wracking trying to understand what the “standard” is when really every agent does have their own personal taste. I love that you’re flexible, it definitely takes the pressure off! Okay, let’s move on to something that’s near and dear to my heart, DVPit! How did you come up with DVPit?
Beth: Back in January 2016, I decided to run a query contest during which authors who identified as being marginalized or from a marginalized or underrepresented background or community were invited to send me their submissions (as long as it was in a category I represented) with “diverse voice” in the subject line, and they would receive a personal response. Over the course of 24 hours, I received over 100 submissions. And I signed someone amazing! (Hi, Kayla!) The quality of those submissions was incredibly high so of course I was overwhelmed too. I’d promised personal feedback and advice to everyone, plus five 10-pg critiques and a 50-pg critique for the strongest submissions. It took me 2 weeks to get to everyone because I really wanted to give everyone solid, actionable feedback. And like I said, a lot is just gut feeling so I needed to dig deep to put words to those feelings and offer what advice I could. There were so many projects that were so great, just not for me. And I figured it would be good to have some help, to have more agents looking at all this excellent material.
Kat: OMG, I love Kayla! (Waves frantically) Okay, sorry for the interruption, please continue.
Beth: So I took that “diverse voice” idea and turned it into #DVpit. I reached out to agents and editors, and people and orgs with platforms, to help spread the news. And then the authors came, and really made it what it is.
Many people in the industry have been fighting this fight for years, decades—and we’ve still got a long way to go. It’s not going to fix everything, but I hope it adds to the conversation and helps continue moving us in the right direction.
Mara: And I definitely think the success of DVPit has proven what we already knew–that marginalized people are writing their stories and people want to read them (and pay like, millions of dollars in advances for them, yo). Also, frankly, as a jaded Twitter pitching veteran who thought I couldn’t be impressed by a Twitter event, I was so impressed by the turnout that happened and the level of enthusiasm! How do you think DVPit has grown since it was created a year ago? And how would you like to see DVPit grow?
Beth: It’s been pretty amazing to see how many signings and book deals have come out of #DVpit since the first round in April 2016. There is a really solid group (shout-out to the #DVSquad!) that’s come out of it and I think that may actually be what I am most proud of: that the authors rallied and made connections and found a way to support each other—and that I have absolutely nothing to do with it. That someone took something that I started and evolved it. That kind of growth, that expansion, tells me that something here is working. It’s not just me hammering away by myself; it’s a number of wonderful people coming together and helping to grow it with me, and finding ways to improve it that I didn’t even think of.
The sense of community is what I’d really like to see grow further. But I’m also very interested in finding ways to provide more information and services between #DVpit events to those authors who plan to participate. I want to make sure that authors feel ready going into it, that they are able to access help if they need it, and that the help is, you know, helpful. Things like creating a network to finding CPs and beta readers, to workshops and scholarships. I’ve connected with so many publishing insiders who are eager to get involved so I just need to figure out the best path forward to make all that a reality.
Mara: Having the right people around you on the publishing journey can go a looooong way. Also, I love the idea of expanding the DVPit community to the pre-contest stage, because the time you spend preparing your manuscript and honing your craft is arguably the most important of all. Your work has gotta hold up once you get all those wonderful agent requests! Can you give advice for people who want to partake in future DVPits or other pitch contests?
Beth: Definitely look at the resources page on the website! There are links to blog posts full of advice, YouTube videos, and a list of extra events you can check out to help get you ready. We’ve done a #DVChat (Q&A with past #DVpit participants who found agents and/or publishers) plus #askDVpit (Q&A with a panel of publishing professionals) and #PreDV (pitch practice!). Although these have already happened, you can still search the hashtags on Twitter to get caught up! We have also run critique giveaways and have a list of people who are willing to critique your pitches privately, which will be available again before the next #DVpit.
Kat: Yes, as a past participant, I agree! I think going back through the all the hashtags are so useful. Even going through #PreDV and seeing other pitches as well as advice given by the volunteers would be an invaluable resource and tool!
Beth: Absolutely! There’s still so much you can take away from those tweets even if you’re coming in late. The advice still stands! As for my personal advice to you ahead of this #DVpit that is upon us now: seek out the community. I can’t stress this enough. There are never any guarantees with publishing, whether you try out a pitch event or contest, or stick to querying, or submit directly to smaller publishers. #DVpit is a great opportunity but not just because you can find an agent; it’s because you can also use it to build a community of support. So even if you’re not ready to pitch, just check out the feed. Cheer on others. Take notes and consider participating next time. Keep track of the agents who participate and put them on your list to query later. Reach out to an author and tell them you like the sound of their book. Support the books and authors that come out of it. Get involved. There are endless connections waiting to happen that aren’t contingent on you pitching (though of course I hope you’ll pitch too).
Just want to say thanks so much again to Writer’s Block Party for having me on their blog to talk about #DVpit! If you have questions about #DVpit or are looking for more information, please visit www.dvpit.com.
Beth Phelan represents authors of middle grade, young adult, and select adult fiction (including contemporary romance, suspense/thrillers, and upmarket fiction), as well as the occasional cookbook or pop culture/humor project.
Beth Phelan is a literary agent for the Bent Agency, living and working in Brooklyn. After graduating from New York University, she found her way to the Waxman Leavell Literary Agency (formerly the Scott Waxman Literary Agency) and then spent some time at Howard Morhaim Literary before landing at TBA in 2013. She is the creator of #DVpit, a Twitter pitch event for marginalized and underrepresented voices, which launched in April 2016.
Most of her time is spent reading, editing, cuddling with her two dogs, and trying new recipes that end in either disaster or total bliss (it’s pretty 50/50). These experiments can be seen on #EATTHEBOOK on Instagram, where she pairs new releases alongside food that looks like the book’s cover.