Monday, February 20, 2012

Interview with an Agent: Stephen Barbara of Foundry (plus a giveaway!)

Today I am thrilled to welcome to the blog Stephen Barbara, an agent at Foundry Literary + Media (who just so happens to be my agent). Despite the approximately one-bajillion things Stephen has to do in a day, he graciously agreed to stop by and give us a peek into his life as an agent. He's also offering a giveaway of a fantastic-looking middle grade book. So welcome, Stephen! Shall we get started?

Lisa Graff: Okay, the first one's an easy one! How long have you been an agent?

Stephen Barbara: I got into publishing in 2004-2005, and sort of stumbled into a few early jobs—editorial assistant at HarperCollins, intern at an agency, and later assistant at a literary agency. But I wasn’t really an agent myself until 2006, when I joined the Donald Maass Agency as Contracts Director and began building my own client list. So you could say I’ve been an agent for six years now, and counting.

LG: How would you say the industry, and your role as an agent, have changed since you got into the business?

SB: I think a lot has changed. For one, there is more pressure on agents. People were just waking up to the commercial possibilities of YA and middle-grade in the mid-2000s, and it wasn’t yet the all-out craze for blockbusters it is today. There was maybe more of an exploratory, speculative mood. You would find a good project over the transom, sign it up, and send it out to a few editors, and someone would call you a couple of weeks later and say, “It needs a lot of work, but will you take $15,000 for it?” That would never happen now. Agents are expected to do a lot of development work prior to a submission, and most editors would be too nervous to bring a half-baked manuscript to their acquisitions board.

There’s more of an emphasis on performance, on finding books that will sell and meet financial expectations. Children’s publishing has become a lot like adult publishing, basically. You look at Bookscan numbers, obsess over the first week sales, the bestseller lists, the first printing, the publicity and marketing plans, the social media presence, all things that perhaps weren’t scrutinized as carefully before.

The other change we’ve had to adapt to is the rise of e-books. Publishing has been caught in the cross-hairs of these giant technology companies—Amazon, Apple, Google, and so on—who are changing the way Americans consume and read books, and agents have had to figure out how to protect their authors’ interests in the midst of this upheaval. On the whole, the agent community has not done a very good job. The current e-book royalty rate authors are getting from publishers, 25% of net proceeds, is a scandal. So there are these pressures, these major changes, agents are dealing with now.

LG: I feel like (from my experience as a former editor) there's always such a push and pull in the publishing world, between wanting to latch on to a "sure thing," something that fits in with our idea of what will always sell, and wanting to be the "next great thing," something that will blow everyone's minds with its inventiveness and then take off on its own terms. Where would you say you fall on that scale, in terms of the projects you chose to take on? Do you simply pick things that speak to you artistically, or is it somehow a more calculated process than that?

SB: One reason I might take on a new client is that their writing speaks to me so strongly I just have to represent them. That’s the easiest case, when I know someone fits my taste perfectly and that there’s going to be a good match. But often there are other factors at play as we consider new clients. It’s so important for me, and for all of the agents at Foundry, to be selective with who we sign up and to have a client list where writers have the space to be special, and to get the level of attention they deserve. Sometimes a good project comes in and I might like it, but I’ll worry about if it’s different enough, if it’s fresh enough, if it competes with other projects here. For instance, you have all these trends now in YA—dystopian, dead girl, post-apocalyptic, and so on. How many dystopian series should an agent represent? How many books should you represent on the same topic? These questions come up a lot. And we don’t feel like we have to represent every work in every category. We’re not volume agents, we’re very careful in what we take on.

The other thing now is that you have to be clear on how you’re going to talk about a book. It’s not enough to like it and think you might be able to sell it. How will you position it? Who are the best editors for it? You sort of need an idea of where the book fits in the world, whether it’s a bestseller, an award winner, something with a chance to be a backlist success, a critical success, or whether it’s just so delightfully weird and offbeat that you want to take a chance on it. The world is full of talented people, but talent isn’t necessarily a decisive thing in our business. There are street basketball players who can do the same thing Kobe Bryant can do with a basketball—but can they do it at the Staples Center, before a TV audience of millions? That’s the challenge for an agent, to figure out how to take a talented person and make their talent effective in the world. So that’s a big part of our thinking—where does this new writer fit on our list, in the marketplace? Do we have an idea how we can help him or her succeed? That kind of thing.

LG: What are a few of the projects you're working on right now who you have especially high hopes for? Was there anything specific about those books that drew you in?

SB: There are a lot of great books coming out from our authors in 2012. Lauren Oliver’s PANDEMONIUM, the sequel to her New York Times bestseller DELIRIUM, comes out the end of this month. She also has a truly creepy middle-grade coming in the fall I’m excited about, THE SPINDLERS. It’s my favorite book of hers so far. Laura Amy Schlitz, who is an exquisite writer, has a sort of magnum opus later this year—SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, a big Victorian Gothic she spent six years writing. Lots of exciting debuts, too: Kate Ellison’s THE BUTTERFLY CLUES, a literary thriller which already has two starred reviews; former Penguin editor Jess Rothenberg’s THE CATASTROPHIC HISTORY OF YOU & ME, a novel about a girl who dies of a broken heart and finds love in the afterlife, is a Spring ’12 top ten Indie Next pick. And lots of middle-grade, too: M.E. Castle’s hilarious POPULAR CLONE. Jack Ferraiolo’s sequel to his Edgar Award nominee THE BIG SPLASH, THE QUICK FIX; Lisa Graff’s adorable DOUBLE DOG DARE, in April [Ed note: Yay!]; and this fall, F.T. Bradley’s DOUBLE VISION, an action/ adventure debut which Harper is publishing.

I guess you could say I have a lot of client books I’m excited about this year. There are others, and I haven’t mentioned any of the great YA projects my colleagues here have coming out, either, like Gen Albin’s debut fantasy CREWEL, which Mollie Glick represents and FSG is publishing, or Aimee Agresti’s ILLUMINATE, which my colleague Stéphanie Abou represents, soon out from HMH. Foundry is only four and a half years old, and I hope I’m not bragging here, but we really have a lot of great stuff—lots of lead titles, lots of books getting attention, making bestseller lists, getting foreign sales, and so on. And it’s great to be at a place where there’s so much excitement.

LG: It sounds like you have a lot of authors with a lot of books to celebrate! Speaking of authors with many books, do you think it benefits an author to write across a variety of age groups and/or mediums (e.g. an author of funny picture books who also writes chick-lit YA), to reach a wider fanbase? Or do you think this has the potential to hurt an author's career, to dilute his or her "brand," so to speak?

SB: I think that most writers, judged by their actions, probably aren’t looking at their careers in strategic terms. They want to write what they want to write, and they try to piece together a living doing it, and at the end of the day some of their books were good and others maybe not so much. I’m fine with that. It’s your career, of course. Certainly, we would never tell anyone to not follow their passions or inclinations.

But I do think if you want to have a great career, there are some options available to you, some things you might try. It helps to have a good agent, someone who is connected to the best editors and who can handle your subsidiary rights and other important minutiae. It helps to be a house author—to have one publisher totally invested in you. In some ways, success is really all about this one thing, consistency, which is not something that’s seen as being very sexy. It’s working with the same people, regularly producing books that are satisfying to your audience, practicing, fine-tuning, constantly studying what works and what doesn’t work and learning through observation. Success is boring, you could say. From the outside, it seems amazing and glamorous to be a repeat New York Times bestseller. But what’s that writer’s life like? It’s a lot of the same. It’s grueling. It’s hard to be on top for a long time and to sustain the demands of a big career. But does that kind of commitment make a difference? Yes.

LG: I think you make consistency sound very glamorous! Okay, last question: If you weren't an agent, what career do you think you would have chosen for yourself?

SB: Probably I would be like Gabrielle Marcotti or Simon Kuper, living in some city like Paris or Rome and writing about European soccer for a newspaper. I did a little bit of sports writing for the Wall Street Journal after college and that was fun. But then of course I got into publishing. And I do love it now. But there’s a passage from J.D. Salinger I think about a lot: “Sentimentality is loving something more than God loves it.” You could say that I love my clients even more than God loves them. But publishing, editors? Just as much—but probably not more.

LG: Thank you so much for visiting with us, Stephen! I feel like I've learned a lot.

Stephen is graciously hosting a book giveaway, but before we get to the details, I have a question for our readers. In the past few months I've been interviewing various professionals from the children's publishing world (such as publicists, designers, and quite a few editors), and I'd like to know what interviews you all would like to see next. Are you interested in hearing from librarians? copyeditors? something I haven't thought of yet? Or are you sick of interviews all together? Please let me know in the comments section! (P.S. I have an interview lined up for next month which I'm super excited about, but I'm going to keep it a secret for the time-being, in the name of suspense!) Okay, that is all. Now on to our giveaway...



Stephen is giving one copy of M. E. Castle's POPULAR CLONE to a very lucky blog reader! Here's a synopsis, via Amazon:

Meet Fisher Bas: 12 years-old, growth-stunted, a geeky science genius, and son of the Nobel Prize-winning creators of the Bas-Hermaphrodite-Sea-Slug-Hypothesis. No surprise: Fisher isn't exactly the most popular kid in his middle-school, tormented daily by the beefy, overgrown goons he calls The Vikings. But he senses relief when he comes upon the idea of cloning himself--creating a second Fisher to go to school each day while he stays at home playing video games and eating cheetos with ketchup. It's an ingenious plan that works brilliantly, until Fisher's clone turns out to be more popular than him--and soon after gets clone-napped by the evil scientist Dr. Xander.

Um, I super want to read this one (so if you guys don't snap it up, I will!). To enter the giveaway, simply send me an email at graff [dot] lisa [at] yahoo [dot] com with the subject line "POPULAR CLONE." The winner will be chosen at random on March 1st.

The giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to our winner, Tricia!


  1. Thanks for visiting the blog, Stephen! And I LOVE your interviews, Lisa--especially with pub insiders like Stephen!

  2. Hi Stephen!

    Thanks for the interview, Lisa!

  3. Great interview with Stephen!

    Also, I'd love to see an interview with a copyeditor.

  4. Thanks, guys! (And thanks again, Stephen!)

  5. Great interview, Lisa! I'm always so proud to be in the Foundry family and all of Stephen's responses were so well-articulated.

  6. Great interview! Thanks for the agent insight.

  7. This was wonderful reading. Thanks Stephen and Lisa.