Publishing Profiles: Suzie Townsend, Literary Agent at New Leaf Literary & Media

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Suzie NCL Agent Photo 1 (1)YPG recently sat down with Suzie Townsend, Literary Agent at New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc. to talk about her start in the industry, what she’s learned since then, and how she’s been a part of shaping the New Adult genre.

YPG: How did you begin your career? Did you know you wanted to be in publishing right out of college?

ST: I didn’t necessarily know that agenting was a job that I could have. I think I had this vision that very literary people became editors, and then once they’d been an editor for a long time they might decide to be an agent. I actually became a high school English teacher for six years. Then my sister started working as a textbook editor at McGraw-Hill and I thought, that sounds really cool; I could do something like that. At the time I was a little disillusioned with teaching so I thought, you know what, I am going to pack up my car and my dogs and I am going to move to New York and try to get into textbook publishing. I got out here and it was right at the beginning of the recession, so no one was hiring. I had about six months’ worth of money to live in the city (which at the time I thought was, like, a year, but it was only about six months), so I took an internship [at Fine Print Literary Management]. I found it on—I just applied [online].

Everyday when I’d come in, [Colleen Lindsay, then at Fine Print Literary Management] would have two or three manuscripts which I would read and write reports and in that first week I was like, Oh my god, I can’t believe this is a job. This is what I want to do. This is where I was meant to be. Thankfully other people at Fine Print agreed, so they hired me—I worked for Peter Rubie [Fine Print Literary Management, CEO] and Janet Reid [Fine Print Literary Management, Agent].

YPG: Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?

ST: So many things! This job is one of those jobs where you can learn a lot from watching your colleagues and being in an office. I think there were things that I watched other agents go through that were invaluable, but at the same time there’s just nothing like actually doing it.

It pays to have really great colleagues and really great mentors. I learned at least half, probably more, of what I know from Janet Reid and going into her office and being like, This just happened, what do I do? I think that’s something that’s even more important in the changing landscape of the industry—situations come up and you have to say, All right, wait a minute. This is what I’m thinking. What is everybody else thinking? Having that kind of team, that’s something I really love about New Leaf—we’re all a pretty close team.

YPG: How do you stay engaged with and informed about such a large industry?

ST: One of the best pieces of advice I got was when I was an assistant and I was thinking of doing a publishing program and whether it would be worth it for me. I have my masters in teaching, so my boss said, I don’t really think you need that, but I think what you should do is spend your money on books. Buy books that hit the list. Buy books that win awards. Buy books that people are talking about within the industry—and read them.

You want to keep reading published books so that you know what’s out there, and you also want to keep reading published books so that you don’t burn out. You get into this because you love reading, but then you read so much, and you do so much editing, that sometimes it’s easy to feel like I’ve forgotten how to sit down and just enjoy a book. I actually read one published book a week, or try.

YPG: What advice do you have for young professionals on the publishing house side of things, especially when working with or trying to get to know agents?

ST: When I was first starting, it was probably Janet [Reid] who told me, Just reach out to people whose books you like and ask if they want to get coffee. That was really nerve-wracking for me at first because I don’t meet people very well and I’m kind of shy. I was a little bit nervous about it and also I was new, but it was so easy to talk books with people who also like books. I made a lot of really great connections just doing that from the beginning.

YPG: What is your favorite part of the job? Your biggest challenge?

ST: I’d say they’re the same. Working with authors is probably the coolest part of being an agent. You’re working with people and you’re contributing to this thing that they’re creating, which is a great thing. But it’s also that you’re working with people, and you’re working with artistic people who sometimes have really strong opinions—which they should, because they’ve put all of their feelings into this work. But as a result there are sometimes frictions or discussions, things that take longer. You’re looking out for the author, but you’re also looking out for them to make sure that they don’t get in their own way, in a sense, so it’s also tough.

YPG: It’s hard to call any day “typical,” but what does yours typically look like?

ST: I would say that the bulk of what I do during the day is answering emails and phone calls. There might be a long or short coffee meeting or something thrown in there. If I’m really lucky and it’s a slow day, which is almost never, I might have time to open up a document and read a little bit while I’m I the office, but I’d say that that’s really rare. I do most of my reading at home over weekends.

YPG: If you could choose one book for all young professionals in the publishing industry, what would you recommend?

ST: JELLICOE ROAD by Melina Marchetta. I love her so much, she is amazing and I think all of her books are so wonderful. It’s a book that takes so many different story lines and connects them at the end, and I just don’t think anyone could ever do that any better.

YPG: What kind of material do you like to read most? Does that correspond to the kind of material you most prefer to work on?

ST: I go through phases. I’ve certainly had my young adult phase where all I want to read is YA. I’d say my go-to escapist genre is historical romance, [especially] Regency romance, which I’d love to represent. I just signed one last week. Also I’m really into listening to either literary fiction or up-market thrillers on audio.

YPG: New Adult books have become a part of the book world relatively recently, and their place in it, while strong, seems to have been a bit fluid. How do you define New Adult, in particular against young adult and women’s fiction?

ST: I really like Cora Carmack’s definition. It’s the idea that, if young adult is a coming of age experience, New Adult is taking the characters who have come of age and now they’re looking around going Now what? How do I fit in this world? I’m an adult, but where is my place? At the same time, I think that more and more recently the New Adult that’s doing really well is the very sexy, contemporary romance. That almost feels like just another contemporary romance, it doesn’t necessarily feel completely like its own thing. I’d love to see New Adult branch out into other sub-genres and to really expand and do things a little differently, because I feel like if it doesn’t expand, it will just turn into romance.

YPG: When and how did you get interested in publishing New Adult titles? How did you pitch the first New Adult title you sold (presumably when the genre was less recognizable)?

ST: For a long time I kept saying, New Adult’s not a thing, because at first it really wasn’t. Writers were writing New Adult, but as an agent there was no place to pitch it. It was really a marketing conversation that hadn’t happened yet. Thankfully, Cora Carmack had not seen my hesitation, and she queried me with LOSING IT. She had self-published LOSING IT and had sold 5,000 copies in four days—it’s a great concept; it’s a great book.

It was the day after The Times’ list had come out. I called editors and said, Hey, I have this project, it’s New Adult. Or it could be adult romance with crossover appeal, and it was self-published, and it just hit the New York Times Best Seller list. Most editors that I talked to had seen it on the list and thought, What is this? I think I was really lucky that that was the first one I was going out with, that it was so good, that it had been self-published, and that it sold so many copies.

It was also a really good time in publishing. The fanfiction sort-of-trend had just happened, and people on the adult side were asking, What’s next? What’s going to be the next big thing? So I was really lucky that that was my moment to be like, This is the next big thing.

This article was contributed by YPG member Brigette Torrise. To learn more, visit our contributing writers page.

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