Elise Capron is a literary agent at the Sandra Dijkstra Agency in San Diego since 2003. She represents many talented authors including Maureen McHugh, Jonathon Keats, and National Book Award Longlist, Cynthia Barnett.
This interview took place on July 31, 2015 via Skype.
* * *
“Did you want video? You’re only coming through as a call.” Elise Capron’s voice is talking to me from my computer.
I’m frantically trying to sort out the recording device on my phone, which I “tested” for three solid minutes before realizing it wasn’t on. “Can you see me now? I can see a picture of you and your dog.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve Skyped—it’s the second. Amateur that I am, I thought I had to be friends with someone for the call to work. We’re ten minutes late for our meeting because I was waiting for her to approve my friend request instead of just dialing the number. Not the smoothest of starts, but Capron is gracious and understanding. Traits I suspect run deep. When the video starts working, I take in the office surroundings, lots of books (of course) and even a few movie posters. I remembered when I heard her speak earlier this year she said her agency has worked with many Asian-American authors, such as Amy Tan and Lisa See. Impressive stuff.
I originally saw Capron in the hallway at Antioch University as she was waiting to give a Writers-At-Work seminar during my last residency. First impression: killer style. She had a badass platinum blonde pixie haircut, radical glasses, and rocked a gorgeous dress. Second impression: even over Skype, she commands a presence but not in a way that would overwhelm or upset. She looks like the kind of woman who could charge into an office and demand an explanation for a book jacket mishap or an ignored comma splice, and then tell you all about her favorite café or secret hiking spots. In short, with over a decade at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency in San Diego, Capron’s exactly who you want representing your book. With her knowledge of comma splices—she wouldn’t be uncomfortable with a red pen and a bleak essay—before there were plans of a career in publishing, she was looking to go into academia.
“I was exploring during college. I was in a great undergrad program at Emerson College that incorporated publishing classes, which schools are doing a little bit more now, but when I was in college, it was a rarity . . . So, I was doing internships during my summers. I interned at the Dijkstra Agency . . . I was struggling with deciding whether to pursue a master’s and go on to teach. Instead, I decided to jump at a job opportunity. I had to see what being an agent was really about. That was almost twelve years ago.”
What do writers do? They write! They don’t get stuck on their one life’s work and forget about everything else. When you’re going through the submission process to agents, go work on a different project. Don’t think about the book you have on submission. Keep doing good work and let the submission process go through what it needs to go through.
For people looking to get into the field, Capron acknowledges that she knows only one agent who actually sought out a degree in publishing. And while courses can be good for getting a foundation in the field, she admits, “One of the biggest benefits of going through a formal publishing program are the connections you make. You get a little groundwork on the business, but it’s hard to know what it is really like until you are working in publishing. So at a lot of those publishing programs, especially in New York, they’re bringing in editors, they’re talking, and it’s those connections you’re making that will probably lead to something down the road . . . For this same reason, if you don’t go through a publishing program, the best thing someone who wants to work in publishing can do is to get an internship.” Internships like the two Capron did with the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.
SDLA is a mid-sized agency. There are about eight people on staff, which is large for a boutique agency but nothing like the few giants. Capron feels this is one of their biggest strengths. Like many small offices, there’s a built-in support network that fosters an invaluable give and take. “Creative problem solving is one of the biggest parts of my job. And the rules in publishing—the way we get to the finished product—are flexible. Every day is different. We have the chance to be creative and, to an extent, invent the process as we go along strategizing for each book. This is a job where you can make it what you want it to be. You have a lot of independence. And we work with projects we really love. How many jobs can you really say that about?”
Capron is vibrant when she delves into every little thing she adores about being an agent. Whether she fell into it or not, authors worldwide would be lucky to have an agent with a fraction of her enthusiasm and joy. “It’s so rewarding to be part of the process of a book ending up in the world. It’s very special.”
At this point of the conversation, being an agent sounds like the only path to happiness. But she confesses that sometimes projects don’t go the way everyone hopes. “Because there are no real rules in terms of what is going to make a book successful, you never know. Sometimes you think you have a sure thing, you know, this book’s going to be easy to sell and will really work in the market, and then it ends up being a struggle. Other times a project you love but imagined might be a small sale can end up surprising and everyone is happy. We’re taking risks on anything we represent. When, very occasionally, a project just truly doesn’t work out, it’s hard on everybody. It can really be a downer.”
Because Capron isn’t working in more commercial, market-driven genres like YA, she doesn’t tend to focus entirely on trends. “I rarely look at a project and say ‘That’s going to be a bestseller!’ I’m thinking more in terms of growing careers.” Capron looks for what the market is missing, not how it’s flush, and goes from there. “I look to build a brand. I like to find clients who are at that beginning stage and I see a lot of potential in the long run. I want to build them over several books.” Good news for all the budding, not-yet-published authors here.
Of course, it’s important to be prepared. No matter how much Capron can offer, it’s irrelevant if an author doesn’t do their homework. That’s the biggest mistake you can make. When you’re “submitting to agents who are clearly not right for you . . . you’re going to get a rejection. Take the extra time to do the research. It will save you a lot of effort, time, and potential heartbreak in the long run. And make sure to not only submit to agents who handle your genre, but take that extra step and target agents who you think will truly be a good fit.”
Then, of course, there is the actual writing—the meat of an author’s existence. “Don’t send out the material or the query letter before they’re ready. That can kill your submission. So can submitting an unprofessional letter.”
Even after endless hours of homework and research, there are still so many agencies and so many places to send work. There’s a pro and con to each type of agency and Capron is a big believer in the benefit of the smaller approach. “We’re in the age of boutique agencies and that is where most writers will end up though there are advantages to working with a large agency. They have entire departments dedicated to sub-rights [subsidiary rights] and contracts, and significant clout when it comes to important, bigger-picture industry issues like e-royalties. You’re also on a much bigger list of titles and authors. Does that mean you’re going to be neglected? No, certainly not, but being at a large agency, you’re a small fish in a big pond. At a boutique agency, we’re keeping a smaller list of books, a smaller list of active clients at a time. You really have the one-on-one direct connection all the time with your agent. [Djikstra Agency] is the perfect size, in my opinion, because we actually have an in-house contract manager, finance manager, and sub-rights manager (many boutique agencies do not have separate in-house people for those functions) while also getting the one-on-one personalized relationship. You’re going to get a little more care on that small list.”
Capron is so casual and friendly while disseminating all this brilliant information that I’m distracted. There’s so much to learn, but mostly I’m wondering if maybe she will accept my Skype contact request so she can be my first Skype friend. Maybe we could Skype all the time. I would do my best not to be that obnoxious friend of the please-help-me-get-published variety. She’s just so enormously charismatic that even when we’re not talking shop I’m enthralled.
“Oh FitBit! I’m obsessed with mine. I’m actually sad I don’t have it on right now.” She gesticulates toward my wrist where my hideous green band is. A gift from my mother that was less in the vein of generosity and more of a last ditch effort to get me to lose weight. But if Elise Capron—my soon to be best Skype contact—likes it, maybe I’m not giving it my all. She slips seamlessly back into our conversation.
“In terms of finding an agent, one of the most important things is making sure that that agent’s been around long enough and isn’t just testing the waters. They’re establishing a real career.” That’s not to say that newer agents should be avoided. In fact, Capron seems to think that can be one of the best bets for an author. “I often get the question of whether a writer should target brand new agents. It can be a great thing! They’re jazzed. Maybe they’ve made their first couple of sales and are actively building their list of clients. They’re going to give you a lot of attention and a lot of their time because they want to help you launch your career. That agent is going to give you her heart and soul. If you’re that agent’s very first client, I know it can feel like a risk, but we all have to have our first client at some point. More importantly, it comes down to getting a sense that an agent is engaged with what’s going on, has a decent internet presence and that you feel confident that she is establishing herself in whatever genre she’s working in.”
Once you’ve done your homework, decided on the type of agency, written and rewritten your manuscript, it’s time to query. Capron has been clear that it’s much easier to avoid the slush pile if you’re using the network you’ve created. In her seminar at the Antioch residency, she recommended getting an author who knows your work to write a blurb for you to lead off your query letter. And as unpopular as name-dropping can make you at a cocktail party, it’s one of the best things you can do for your writing career. “It would be pretty hard to over name-drop in a query letter because that’s where you want to be doing everything you can to sell yourself. That said, don’t name-drop just for the sake of it, because that isn’t productive. I want to know who’s a realist for you, who you can actually reach out to.”
And if you don’t have any working authors who can lend you that valuable blurb, don’t fear. “A strong, professional query letter stands out. After that it becomes, in great part, persona. Do I click with the idea or not? This is why it’s so important to be able to describe your book clearly and concisely in just a few sentences. I want to understand your pitch from the get-go.”
As pleasant and enjoyable as Capron is, finding an agent and getting published can still feel hopeless. But she insists we should press on. “I’m a very optimistic person. We’re in an exciting time in publishing where there are more opportunities and venues and outlets for everybody. There’s a place for every type of writer. There are more agents and publishers than ever. It’s so easy to fall into this feeling of rejection, rejection, rejection. It’s a hard road. It takes a lot of perseverance and belief in your work. Also, it takes knowing when it’s time to put that project in a drawer for a little while and focus on something else. The worst thing that can happen is letting yourself get so bogged down in a project that you spend three years querying and feeling depressed instead of focusing on forward momentum and continuing to produce. What do writers do? They write! They don’t get stuck on their one life’s work and forget about everything else. When you’re going through the submission process to agents, go work on a different project. Don’t think about the book you have on submission. Keep doing good work and let the submission process go through what it needs to go through.”
Sager words have rarely been spoken. We’ve been talking for a while now and I know the conversation is winding down. She has a dog to walk, I have a cat lovingly terrorizing my foot, but she leaves with some final insights. Probably the hardest words to hear for any writer used to toiling away alone in front of a blinking cursor: “Be social. Keep yourself out there and engaged in the community. You never know what it will lead to.”
And she totally accepted my Skype contact request.