Kyra: Interview with Secret Agent Stephen Fraser of the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency

Stephen Fraser joined the Jennifer De Chiara agency in January of 2005. Prior to this, he was an editor for Simon and Schuster and more recently the senior executive editor for HarperCollins. He is a graduate of Middleburry College in Vermont and received his Master’s Degree in Children’s Literature at Simmons College in Boston, MA. During his time as an editor he worked with a large variety of creative talents and continues to do so now as a literary agent. He has written many children’s book reviews for The Christian Science Monitor, Five Owls, and Publishers Weekly, and is a popular speaker at conferences.

Steve Fraser is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. The second time I went to NYC with mom he brought us flowers for our hotel room, he took us to lunch at the raddest place ever {Can’t remember the name…} and then we went shopping! It was a lot of fun.I loved doing this interview with him! I hope you guys all enjoy, because there is a lot to learn just from reading this.

I know that you used to be an editor–how did you wind up at Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency? What was your path?
I was an editor for years, most recently at Simon and Schuster and HarperCollins. Some of the authors I worked with were Gregory Maguire, Brent Hartinger, Daniel Pinkwater, Mary Engelbreit, and Ann Rinaldi. As you can see, I liked working on a variety of books, from picture books to middle grade to young adult. I get bored otherwise!

When literary agent Jennifer De Chiara started her own agency, I was her first client, buying the landmark y. a. novel Geography Club from her. When I left HarperCollins, she asked if I’d like to join her. We are dear friends, so it seemed like just the perfect opportunity. As it turns out, my back-ground in publishing, from children’s magazines, book clubs, paperback, and then hardcover books, was perfect training for an agent.

What kind of books do you look for when you’re reading through the submissions pile?
I am never looking for anything specific, but I am looking to be dazzled. Good use of language always gets my attention. I have to say, I don’t like books that are too dark. I like imagination, a sense of fun, real drama. And most of all, a fresh voice. Even Cinderella, of which there are more than seven hundred versions worldwide, can be told again in a writer’s fresh voice. I mostly look for children’s books but sometimes I represent an adult novel. I agented a book of photographs this past fall which I was quite taken with.

What are your top three books coming out this year that you represent?
Well, I have many great books that I am excited about. One is a picture book coming out in June called Drum City by Thea Guidone (Tricycle Press). Picture books are hard to sell these days because the market is so slow, but this is destined to become a classic. There are two fantasy novels, The Clockwork Three by Matthew Kirby (September, Scholastic), that is poised to become a bestseller, and The Owl Keeper by Christine Brodien-Jones (April, Random House), that is so beautifully evocative. And most of all, Carol Lynch Williams’ novel Glimpse (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon and Schuster), a very powerful y.a. novel written in verse. I remember reading the manuscript in a Starbucks, sipping hot chocolate, and deciding halfway through that I wanted to represent this startlingly-talented writer.

What’s your favorite part of being an agent?
Calling an author and telling them I have an offer from a publisher – the author, of course, always has to say yes before we accept the offer – is the best part of being an agent. Second best is reading a wonderful manuscript by someone new and starting them on the path to publication. To feel you have some small part in literature making it out to the world is such a joy.

What’s the hardest part of being an agent?
Dealing with money is the hard part for me. Certainly, there is a fair price for each book. One doesn’t want to be greedy, but an agent wants to do what’s best for the writer. Plus, most people don’t know it, but an agent isn’t paid any kind of salary, so when an agent signs someone up as a client, it is done entirely on the agent’s own time and energy and love. I think if people knew that, they might be nicer to agents!

What’s something someone should never do when looking for an agent?
Being overly intrusive is a no-no. For instance, sending a whole manuscript without any kind of query letter is annoying. Or sending along a manuscript by special delivery when I haven’t even heard of the person before is also bad. Simple courtesy is always best. And if an agent politely says no, they usually mean no.

Why have an agent?
No one strictly needs an agent. Sending manuscripts to editors is not that hard a job. However, as some editors only want manuscripts already screened by a professional agent, that is where the need comes in. And it does take time to broker one’s own work. An agent can take care of all the business aspects of a writer’s career so that the writer can spend his or her time writing. Isn’t that nice?

An agent takes on other roles, too. For instance, since my background is editorial, I can often given editorial guidance on a manuscript or even a sample chapter if a writer seeks help. As an agent, sometimes I am a cheerleader, counselor, therapist, minister, friend – all wrapped into one.

What kind of books do you enjoy reading on your own time? Or do you have free time?
I make myself read at least half an hour every night. I love good nonfiction, like that wonderful two-part biography of Henri Matisse by Hilary Spurling (Knopf). And I usually read a second book at the same time – again, I get bored – so I’ll read a novel like the recent National Book Award Winner, Let the Great World Spin by Colin McCann (Random House). One of my worst habits is reading a line or two aloud, if I really love the language. Some of favorite writers are Ethan Canin, Anne Tyler, Julia Glass, anything by Virginia Woolf, and Colm Tobim.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I am a movie fiend. I try to see two or three movies each week. Living in New York, I am spoiled and I try to see movies the day they open. My favorite movie of the past year was Jane Campion’ Bright Star about the poet John Keats. I saw it three times.

What the best advice you could give a first time writer?
Never be apologetic or falsely humble. Respect your talent. Think of yourself as a professional writer already. Make sure you always act professionally, when you are submitting a manuscript to an agent or an editor, when you are working on a revision. If you act professionally, you will find yourself becoming a true professional writer.

My mom wants me to ask you this question–Did you love it when she and Cheri sang Secret Agent Steve to you?

Honestly, I was mortified. It is funnier in hindsight. But it is something I will always remember. Unfortunately, other people will, too!

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Kyra: Interview with Secret Agent Stephen Fraser of the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency

  1. Thanks Kyra,
    Great Interview! It was like peeking in on a conversation between you and Steve.

  2. Carol

    (Sigh)
    I heart my agent so much.
    And this interview sounds just like him, too.
    Good job, Kyra. Excellent questions.

    PS Everyone, if I can get a bit of Cheri and me singing to Steve, I’ll put a bit on here.
    If Steve doesn’t object, that is. :)

  3. Dear Stephen Fraser,

    This whole writing process intrigues me. Thanks for taking the time.
    I’m wondering if you purposely described the beautiful Carol with an ‘ly word?
    “Startlingly-talented writer,” she is. And if you used that just to ruffle her, well,
    I like you.

    p.s. Please don’t object to Carol’s request. No-one can ever have enough of the Cheri and Carol duo.

    Dear Kyra,

    Again, you impress me. Thanks.

    • Carol

      Cutie Lucinda–
      I do not mind ‘startling-talented writer’ at all.
      I fully approve that ‘ly’ word when coming from my agent!!!

      • Beautiful Carol-
        So does 3 excalamation points mean you’re yelling at me? (j/k)
        And look, you left off the ‘ly’ in your quote. ha ha I’m just saying.

        P.S. I’m glad you heart your agent. Let him know I’m getting my CDL so I can drive your Tour Bus when the zeros come in. Then also I could be a Trucker if this whole writing thing doesn’t work out. It’s a win, win.

  4. Pingback: A couple of fun links « Northwriter

  5. Rick Walton

    We tend to be more sensitive about what others think of us than we need to be. Watching “Secret Agent Steve” made me and everyone else like Stephen Fraser even more, as did his willingness to do karaoke before the whole group.

  6. Steve would be the most fun person ever to hang out with in New York! (please correct grammar at will) (like I had to say that)

  7. Stephen Fraser is a true GEM! He’s championed my book from the first day he read it, and I’m so fortunate to have him for my agent!
    I can certainly believe that Steve’s favorite part of being an agent is calling an author and telling them he has an offer. He was every bit as excited about The Owl Keeper as I was!
    Terrific interview, Kyra~

  8. Cheri Earl

    Yeah, Steve. You know you loved our tribute to you–all the way up until you couldn’t find the fail-safe button to push on the podium, that is. All the way up until that.

    You’re a good guy, and Carol and I are lucky, lucky. Luckily lucky (for you, Carol).

  9. Kourtnie McKenzie

    Would you happen to know an email address I could query Stephen Fraser at? I’ve tried both an ATT and Verizon one floating around, and I’m getting rejections. I’d love to get in touch with him about possibly representing my novel; I’ve heard nothing but great news every interwebs-crevice I look!

    I am glad searching brought me to this blog. This is full of a wealth of information and fun reads for young adult writers! :)

    • Sheila Lewis

      I’m glad my search landed me to this delightful interview with Stephen Fraser, who seems refreshingly honest and helpful. We are all in this together, and agents also need the inspiration that writers seek!

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