The 5-Question [Literary] Agent Interview: Elise Capron

by Meredith Resnick

The agent goes into detail about collaboration, the pull inside that makes her say “yes” and the excitement factor in picking and choosing.

Elise Capron is an agent at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, and also assists Sandra with domestic sales and project development. She is most interested in debut fiction, character-driven literary fiction, and short story collections, though she’ll occasionally take on a non-fiction project, too, if it has a particularly strong narrative element (think Devil in the White City). A graduate of Emerson College, Elise has been at the Dijkstra Agency since late 2003. She loves agenting because every day is different, and there’s nothing better than falling in love with a manuscript and helping bring it into the world.

Meredith: Is there a difference between believing in an author’s work and believing you’ll be able to sell it? Can you help us sort this out from your perspective?

ELISE: It does sometimes happen that I will love an author and her work but know it will be a very tough sell. This is when I have to make my most difficult decisions: do I take on that particular project and give it my best shot even if I have reservations about its marketability, or do I pass on it in the hope that another agent will have a stronger vision for it? It can be a really tough call, especially when it comes to fiction, and so it helps for me to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. I have to ask myself: is this writer developing a CAREER (of which this first project is just a stepping stone), and am I excited to be a potential part of that career, even if the first project might take a lot of work to place? Do I get along well with the writer? Do we share a common vision? Do I like and connect with the writer’s potential future projects? It’s essential for writers to be thinking about all these things when approaching agents. Of course, there are times when I like a project but still end up passing on it because it doesn’t feel “break-out” enough to me, or have a really strong selling point. In those cases, though, I try my best to recommend other people if I can, and feel confident that the writer will find the perfect agent for them.

Meredith: What makes you not ready or unwilling to take on a particular client? Can you tell us in simple, ordinary language?

ELISE: I’m looking to work with authors who have great work, are professional, are part of the writing community, have realistic expectations, and who are looking at building a career. I also want to work with someone who understands that the publishing process is a collaborative effort, and who is excited about the idea of that. If a writer shows a resistance to any of these things or if I get the sense early on that the relationship is going to be unpleasant, I’ll be less likely to get involved. I aim for my relationships with clients to be as productive and rewarding as possible to all parties. Remember that publishing is still an industry based on relationships, so the little stuff matters a lot.

Meredith: Now, backtracking a bit…I’ve asked this question to writers about their writing, but I’d like to frame it a different way and ask about your work as an agent: Does your creative selection process—which authors you’ll sign, which you’ll pass on—come from a left brain, linear thinking place, or a right brain, instinctual spot? Can you describe the internal process?

ELISE: When considering projects, it is certainly important that I make wise decisions and take everything into account. This is a business, after all. However, I have to admit that I initially follow my gut instinct. In fact, for pretty much every project I’ve ever taken on, I’ve KNOWN I had to rep that client from the moment I started reading his or her material, even when it’s still needed work. I do almost all my reading on the weekends, so I start reading manuscripts early Saturday morning, cup of tea in hand, and I’m just waiting to open that proposal or manuscript that will immediately capture my attention and heart, either with an amazing narrative voice, a fabulous concept, or some other undeniably special element. There is something at the core of projects I take on that I recognize from the very beginning of the process. And it’s that “something” that carries a project along from my hands, to the publisher’s, to the public’s. For me, that’s really the heart of this industry.

Meredith: Do you make any promises to yourself—and your client—before you make a sales call or visit an editor?

ELISE: I can’t make any real promises because there are no guarantees in publishing, but I always do my best by presenting projects as well as I can, with all the ammunition we have available (reviews, a great proposal, etc) and by sharing them with the most appropriate editors for that particular work. I also aim to keep things moving along; it’s so important to keep up the momentum.

Meredith: Is rejection an issue for agents—personally? How do you view rejection from publishers? What greater purpose does it serve in the creative process—for the writer and for the agent?

ELISE: It can get really personal! I love my projects and I want to see them do well, so getting rejects—as is inevitable—can be hard sometimes. However, rejects can also be invaluable pieces of the puzzle in terms of reshaping a project, getting a sense of the current market, and finding the right home for the book. Some authors want to see rejects, and some don’t, but in either case I always keep good track of them, collecting all responses at the end of a submission period so that we can analyze problems common to multiple editors, and rethink our approach when we go to another round. It’s a good reality check, and ultimately allows us to get a better product.

Elise aims to work with writers who are getting their work published regularly in literary magazines and who have a realistic sense of the market and their audience. Some of Elise’s recent and soon-to-be-published books (to give you an idea of her taste and interest) include Tiphanie Yanique’s How to Escape from a Leper Colony (Graywolf), Rikki Ducornet’s Netsuke (Coffee House Press), Jonathon Keats’s The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six (Random House) and upcoming Virtual Words (Oxford University Press), Ali Liebegott’s The IHOP Papers (Carroll & Graf), Peter Plate’s Soon the Rest Will Fall (Seven Stories Press), and Whitney Lyles’s Party Games (Simon Pulse) and First Comes Love (Berkley).

[Thanks, Elise!]

Back by popular demand: First published 5/2010.

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Alexandra

Great interview! Elise sounds like the kind of agent any writer would love to have at the helm as one navigates the murky waters of publishing today.

Christine

This was really, really informative for me as I search for a new agent (my old one retired). Thanks a lot for this fascinating, in-depth interview.

Kim

This was really informative for me as well, as I’m about to part ways with my agent and go on the search for someone who is a better fit. I always love to hear the agent’s perspective, as getting published remains sort of a mystery in my naive mind. Thanks for this.

Amy Wallen

I imagine Elise as being both a pleasure and smart to work with. I’ve always believed that the right agent is like the right husband–you want to be loved as a writer, and not just be infatuated with the first chapter/first kiss.

MarthaandMe

Very interesting, particularly as to what qualities she wants an author to have.

Almost Slowfood

I’m so pleasantly surprised that you look for short story collections. Thank goodness someone out there is open to them.

This was a great interview. I love hearing from authors, but I find learning how agents work is also such an important and interesting part of the writing process.

Sheryl

Great interview, Meredith. Elise sounds like a dream agent. And I’d never thought of an agent facing rejection before – but of course, they do, just like writers do. I enjoyed her openness and approach to her work.

Sarah Henry

I like Elise’s take on how to handle rejection. Makes good sense to me.

Ruth Pennebaker

Excellent interview, Meredith. It helps to get a sense of what goes on in an agent’s life and head.

Kristen

I like that you focused on something that often gets overlooked in publishing–the relationship between the editor and the writer. It is a collaboration. Her quote–the little stuff matters a lot, keeps running through my mind.

Jennifer Margulis

Cool interview. It’s great to get these insights from an agent’s eye view!

Melanie

I loved hearing about publishing from an agent. It is a career that has its own creativity, but not one that I’ve spent much time thinking about.

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

Nice interview. It’s always good to hear from the agents.

Alisa Bowman

This was a really enlightening interview. Loved the first question (and answer) in particular. But also the part about rejection.

Donna Hull

Interesting to read the agent’s point of view. Elise sounds like she’d be enjoyable to collaborate with.

Melanie Haiken

Love that she’s honest about how personal and intuitive it all is. Also love the idea about taking the long view — is this person someone you want to be involved for many years? Triggered much thinking.

Kris Bordessa

I think Elise’s point about knowing that she had to work with a specific writer – and how intuitive that is – is a great eye opener for authors. Not every agent is going to love us or our voice, but that isn’t cause for getting offended about rejection.

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