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

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.