Marathon, Not A Sprint: Agent Holly Root

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When you mention Holly Root’s name in a room of authors, the responses will most likely be reverent and fond. One of the ladies at the top of the literary agency game, Root is known for her professionalism, her kind nature and her determination to help her clients to pursue their publishing dreams.

But her job is not as easy as it might appear from the outside.

“As far as being a literary agent goes, the tricky thing about the job is that its joys are very public, and its sorrows tend to be very private,” explained Root. “I think it’s easy to look at it from the outside and say, ‘Wow, that looks like fun,’ but the reality is that selling the book is the easy part.”

Being a literary agent isn’t a sprint – it’s a marathon. In a notoriously slow industry, where it can be years to take a title from acquisition to gracing a shelf, she stressed the importance, “a nearly insane faith,” of believing in the writers in her list can become tomorrow’s stars.

Even in the worst moments, there is nothing she’d rather do. Her continued passion, open query inbox, and cheerful nature speaks for itself.

It doesn’t hurt that her current line-up is chock full of writers with promise and dedication. Upcoming YA releases include Monster from fantasy wunderkind Victoria Schwab in summer 2016 and Morris nominee Rae Carson’s new trilogy in August 2015. Other authors include Alison Cherry, Myra McEntire and other names that die-hard YA fans will recognize from their own dog-eared copies. There is no denying that when it comes to talent and gorgeous prose, Root knows how to pick them and cultivate them to their full potential.

“I have no problem bragging on my client list!” laughed Root. “They are pretty much the best.”

Of course, Root didn’t start with stars. She first began at the Waxman agency (now known as Waxman Leavell) and was bemused to find herself working with three other male agents – kind and welcoming, but definitely not in her genre zone.

“They were, and are, exceptional agents who would sell, for instance, a nonfiction book about a president for half a million dollars and that was a regular Tuesday for them. Meanwhile I would come in to staff meetings excited about a boarding school for paranormal teens,” laughed Root.

It turned out for the best.

“Bizarre though it might’ve initially seemed, it turned out to be a brilliant fit – they’ve been wonderfully supportive colleagues who taught me a ton, and our agency now handles a wide array of commercial fiction for adults, teens, and children,” said Root. “We just hired several new agents, including one who’s based with me in the LA office, so anyone in the query trenches should definitely check out the new crew.”

Despite the new agents on her team, Root’s still most fond of championing the YA genre. She hopes that the genre will continue to grow and see more exciting debuts and new developments in what is released to grace readers’ shelves.

“I like to think that now that YA has done its time under the klieg lights of heavy attention from media, Hollywood, and the bottom-line focused execs, maybe a time is coming when we’ll be free to get back to the kinds of stories that first ignited the passion of readers of all ages for this category,” said Root. “I think at their heart, the unifying element in the YA books that sparked the boom is that they were ripe with the flush of firsts–the immediacy and power of stepping out into the wider world, tackling questions of identity and coming of age, surviving your first love and first heartbreak–so it’s exciting to see what the next iteration of those stories will be.”

Readers who might be admiring Ms. Root’s achievements from afar will be thrilled to hear that she is still open to queries – with the caveat that she is choosy about adding to her clientele, and so cannot offer up a concrete wishlist for would-be queries.

“I’m taking on only a few things each year,” said Root. “At this point when I go into my queries, I’m looking for the flash of a great concept married with exceptional writing that can stand toe to toe with the other writers on my list. It helps if the book isn’t directly comparable with a title I already represent, too.”

But no broken hearts. It is important to keep going, working hard, and reading as much as you can in the interim. In order to ply your craft, you must be doing your best to perfect your craft.

“The most important thing you can do while writing is read voraciously, widely, and with intention. Become a student of storytelling–examine how other authors craft the lines that move you, what structure compels you to turn pages,” said Root. “Pop the hood and figure out the parts that make your favorite books motor, and then use those tools in your own work.”

Root wants writers to rid of focusing on a dream agent and beating themselves up when querying doesn’t go as they expected.

The trick? Focus on what you yourself can do.

“You can only control what is within your control,” said Root. “If your query is brilliant, but I’ve got five projects lined up on the runway for submission and nine client manuscripts on my iPad that need reads yesterday, I may not bite right then and it’s not because the book isn’t worthwhile. Don’t take yourself out of the running before you even start by not submitting to someone you assume is too busy or too big, and by the same token don’t blame yourself for things that likely had less to do with you than you fear. Timing plays a much bigger part in any writing career than any of us admit, and querying is really the first baptism by fire into that idea.”

But still, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming big. No matter how unattainable an agent might seem, if they are open to new queries, a writer can still hope and work their hardest – and remember, again, to focus on what they can control.

“I do think the system works, albeit not as fast as perhaps we wish, and you can never know from outside what an agent’s slate looks like, so there’s nothing to lose by querying the agents you’d genuinely like to pursue. Even my biggest, fanciest agent friends are all still eager to find new talent,” said Root.

For more information on Holly Root and the Waxman Leavell agency, visit their website. You can also follow Root on Twitter and visit her Publisher’s Marketplace page.

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About Author

Hebah Uddin

Hebah is a 21-year-old Muslim girl who reads a lot of books, writes a lot more, and wears a lot of (figurative) hats. As a result of being raised on a steady diet of foreign films and BBC period dramas, she now likes to think of herself as Charlotte Bronte + one of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai women. She’ll rap your fingers with her katana if you don’t mind your manners – or your grammar.

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