She’s done an experiment in microgravity for NASA. She runs for fitness, and for fun. She has a publishing podcast, Shipping and Handling, with fellow agent Jennifer Udden. All that, and contracts, too!
And yet, agent Bridget Smith is sure that there is no other career she’d be more suited for.
“Being a literary agent is a dream career for me, and I feel very lucky that I didn’t have to do much meandering before I got here,” said Smith. “I love finding great new writers, I love working with them, I love making other people love them too. I love being on their side.”
Of course, there is more to being an agent than championing clients. “Agenting also means spending most of your free time reading things that you won’t fall in love with, and then rereading things that you love madly until words lose all meaning. It means learning to be interested in the nitty-gritty of royalty statements, of contracts, of subrights.”
Being an agent means having to accept and find joy in the monotony.
“Every job has its boring paperwork to deal with, but the details of that paperwork are the most important part of being an agent. You can’t just deal with it. You have to care deeply about it. So while I love being an agent, that’s something to keep in mind when considering it as a career.”
One of the main reasons why Smith loves young adult literature in particular is its lack of boundaries.
“I love how few restrictions there are, genre-wise. There are always trends, of course, but because YA is an age and experience category rather than a genre, it doesn’t have the same long history of conversation and expectations that, say, science fiction does. There’s more room to play. So I’d love to see less trend-chasing and more ground-breaking.”
Another reason is her own teenage years.
“Like many of us book-folk, I didn’t have a particularly easy teenage experience, and books were my great solace,” admitted Smith. “Being a teenager is so intense and so isolating, and YA is all about capturing that feeling while also telling readers, ‘You are not alone. I feel what you feel. You are not alone.’”
Smith was fortunate enough that her love for teen literature has been nurtured by her time in Dunham Literary. Founded in 2000 by Jennie Dunham, the agency’s reputation was built on picture and pop-up books. To Smith, it was the perfect place to find her roots.
“[Jennie] also represents a wide range of fiction and nonfiction for both adults and children. While her taste skews younger than mine, our interests are similar enough that it’s been a great fit for me right from the start, and she’s been a supportive mentor for me. One thing our list is lacking is a lot of YA, so we are both definitely looking for more!”
Smith has already started working on cultivating a YA list. Her first client, Emma Mills, will debut from Henry Holt in 2014, with the YA contemporary First & Down. Smith pitched it as “a funny, warm, and eminently lovable combination of Pride & Prejudice and Friday Night Lights with a narrator who leaps off the page. You’re going to want to watch this author – and you can, literally, on YouTube!”
Smith is also actively looking for new talented clientele, from middle grade to adult. She represents a variety of genres, including fantasy & science fiction, historical fiction, and upmarket contemporary, and looks for compelling characters, skilled and engaging writing, and stories that take her somewhere.
“I prefer stories driven by the characters and their choices rather than by the things that happen to them, and I love a voice that I want to spend time with. I’m especially looking for really great books that increase the diversity of YA, with main characters and writers who are people of color, LGBTQ, disabled, and so forth.”
Smith had plenty of advice to share for those who are hard at work on their queries.
“Know your story inside and out. Know what your characters want and how it drives the story. This is what your query should focus on, and if you can’t put together a clear and comprehensible pitch for it, you might have to work on the manuscript first.”
Smith also added that when she reads a query, she looks to see who the manuscript is about and what conflict they face: character, voice, and about half the plot.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have something else to keep your mind on.
“Once you’re happy with the manuscript and decide to start querying, my best advice is to start work on something else! It’ll keep your mind off the waiting, and it’ll help you resist the impulse to tinker with the manuscript you have on sub. Plus, if an agent decides to offer rep, you’ll be able to tell them all about this great new project you’re working on, and you’ll start that relationship with forward momentum.”
When asked what advice in particular she could give to someone working on their novel, Smith said, “Counterintuitively, I’d recommend reading things other than YA. Any genre can get to be a bit of an echo chamber if that’s all you’re reading, and if you’re writing YA, I assume you’ve already read a lot of it.”
Reading other categories can also be a learning experience.
“Look to other genres: read a thriller for the pacing, read a literary novel for the prose, read fantasy for the world building. If you understand how other genres do the elements of storytelling well, you’ll be better able to incorporate it into your own writing.”
Smith’s enthusiasm for YA definitely doesn’t confine her reading material. She is currently reading Longbourn by Jo Baker, a ‘downstairs take’ on Pride and Prejudice.
“It’s absolutely lovely. Because I love Austen so much, I can be picky about the Austen-inspired works that I like, and this one – like First & Down! – passes with flying colors. It’s exactly the sort of thing I’m looking for, especially in women’s fiction but really in all books: a high-concept premise, beautifully executed.”
When asked what else she’d like to read, she laughed. “Too much to list!”
For more information on Bridget Smith and Dunham Literary, LLC, please visit the agency website.