Keep Your Momentum: An Interview with Elise Capron
Bright, personable, and professional, Elise Capron is the kind of literary agent you’d want as a friend as well as an advocate. Working with the West Coast powerhouse Sandra Dijkstra, who Newsweek dubbed “the best agent in the West,” Capron has been an agent with the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency (SDLA) since 2003. The boutique agency has a reputation for recognizing emerging writers and maintaining long-term relationships with notable clients through changing careers: Amy Tan, Lisa See, Jordan Fisher Smith, Chitra Divakaruni, Luis Rodriguez, and many other talented, dynamic authors. Elise is quick to point out how SDLA is on the map because of their writers.
“Our success as an agency is all about the amazing work of the authors we represent,” she says, smiling. “I love our list.”
In addition to handling her own impressive client list, Capron oversees the daily operations of the SDLA office. I spoke with her during Antioch’s June 2020 residency, where Capron and I had a Zoom interview.
“I’d be happy to chat about anything that would be helpful to the students at Antioch,” she told me. I knew this would be easy, since we were eager to hear about publishing, representation, and recent changes on the literary landscape. Capron addressed all of these with ease, as well as her admiration for authors, and that all-important query letter.
* * *
Janet Rodriguez: I’m grateful you visited Antioch, and I loved your seminar, The Path to Publishing. Do you normally talk to future authors about the general journey to publishing?
Elise Capron: I really enjoy speaking about the basic process. Obviously, there are so many aspects to it, but I find it’s always useful to give a sense of the whole landscape of publishing. There’s so much misinformation floating around, so I always feel like there’s a need to get concrete, accurate information out there.
For anyone who is a brand-new writer, it’s okay to say you have no publishing credits or that this is your debut project.
JR: You talked about the query letter being one of the hardest things for many aspiring authors to write. You encouraged us to remember three things: the hook, the book, and the cook. Can you elaborate on these?
EC: First of all, I do want to be clear that I did not invent that phrase… (laughs) I’ve been talking about query letters for fifteen years, so when another literary agent, Katharine Sands, wrote about these three things, I thought, “Of course! That puts it in a perfect package!” It’s a great way to think about that one-page letter, which can be so overwhelming for so many writers. Sands breaks the query letter down into three pieces: hook, book, and cook.
The hook is the opening section, and it should contain the most important stuff you want to get across. It includes what I like to call your “signpost information”: the title, the word count, the genre. This is also the place to say why you’re querying this particular agent, and to give the elevator pitch, if possible. It should also contain any pieces of particularly important information, or key selling points, about you—any awards you’ve won, blurbs, publications—the things about you that shouldn’t be buried at the end of the query letter, which happens far too often.
The book section is the biggest part of the letter, usually one to two paragraphs, which includes a short synopsis of the book, and it can also get into the deeper themes and the most compelling facts or ideas about your work.
The cook is really about you, the author. This is your bio, whatever you bring to the table, whether its publishing credits, if you’ve been in an MFA program, like Antioch, what conferences you’ve been to, or anything else that helps define you as a writer. For anyone who is a brand-new writer, it’s okay to say you have no publishing credits or that this is your debut project. Don’t put something in there that feels purely like filler, though, because that’s not helpful to your reader.
JR: You also mentioned that it was a good idea for writers to use comp titles, or twin our books with others like ours.
EC: Yes. It’s good to have comp titles, or comparisons, and, yes, these should also be mentioned in the query letter. The “hook” section of your query is a good place to include comps. The reason comps are helpful is because you’re giving the person reading your letter the tools to understand your material, which is the goal. It helps the author and reader get in the same headspace.
JR: How important is it for authors to say their book is like a recently published book, rather than saying, “My work is like The Odyssey…” or some other classic book?
EC: The most valuable comp titles are from books that have been published within the last five years. I’ve seen people twin their books with classic books, maybe not The Odyssey, but, more commonly, with books that were published twenty or thirty years ago. I get why they do this—these books are good and they’ve stayed with us—but it’s essential to show you really understand the ebbs and flows of the genre you’re writing. If you’re writing commercial Rom-Com, it’s really important to know what’s come out recently. Romance is very trend-driven, so knowing which trends are popular right now, which writers are selling what, is important. It’s just as important in literary fiction and memoir, as well. Someone reading your query letter, whether it’s a publisher or agent, will want to see if you’re aware of the books out now. The market was a different place thirty years ago, so to demonstrate that you understand the version of the industry you’re diving into, it makes sense that you know what books are succeeding, and you pay attention to where you fit on that spectrum.
JR: When we talk about pitches, how many should an author have? I know the elevator pitch is fast—a synopsis for the quick meeting with an agent in an elevator (laughs)—and then there’s the query letter.
EC: I think authors should practice different lengths of book descriptions, or pitches. The reason for this is simple: no matter how you end up using these later on, it’s a good exercise to describe your work on paper, and it can help you figure out what truly are the most essential parts of your story. A lot of writers spend months on their projects, absorbed in a world they’ve crafted, and it can be easy to lose sight of how to boil it down to its essence.
An author should learn to describe their book in one page, in one paragraph, or in one sentence—that tiny little elevator pitch. Once you’re comfortable getting these down on paper, or even saying these out loud to yourself, you can practice saying these aloud to other people. Getting comfortable with talking about your work with others is hugely helpful when it comes to chatting with agents or formally pitching your writing. Whether you call these book descriptions or pitches, the exercise of learning how to describe your project concisely is key. So, when you go to a conference, or if you do a speed-pitch, or even have a casual chat with an agent or publisher, this becomes an invaluable tool.
JR: You’ve been a literary agent for a while. Did you graduate from college and just know you wanted to do this?
EC: I’ve been doing this for sixteen years, and I still can’t believe how it all happened. I literally finished my last class at college—I didn’t even get a chance to attend my graduation—packed up my dorm, flew home, had one weekend at home, and then started working for Sandy Dijkstra, as her assistant, the following Monday. It was actually the week before Christmas (laughs). It all happened so quickly. At the time, publishing was still very new to me, and I wasn’t even entirely sure, yet, if I would make a good literary agent, but I did know that I really loved books.
Previous to that, I had interned a couple of times with the Dijkstra agency, which was a wonderful experience. I had also interned with Harcourt, who let me do pretty amazing things, like draft the jacket copies for the new editions of Virginia Woolf books they were publishing, and as a college intern, it was exciting! As I got near the end of college, I wasn’t yet precisely sure what I wanted to do, but the timing of certain events proved to be phenomenal. Suddenly, Sandy’s assistant left as I was finishing school, and all of a sudden, here was this great opportunity. Sandy is amazing and brilliant, and I knew it would be really hard work, but I couldn’t pass it up. I thought I’d work for SDLA for a few years—but that was sixteen years ago, and here I am (laughs).
What I really appreciate about agenting—and you can’t say this about many jobs in the world—is that my job is to represent authors and projects that I love.
JR: Except now you’re a literary agent.
EC: It’s been an evolution, for sure. I didn’t come into the agenting world thinking, “This is what my list is going to be,” or “This is who I want to represent.” I had to figure out my talents over time, and the types of books I take on now are very different than those I started with at the beginning of my career. What I really appreciate about agenting—and you can’t say this about many jobs in the world—is that my job is to represent authors and projects that I love. I can’t and shouldn’t take on a project unless I genuinely love it. I have huge admiration for the clients I represent. Just to see their books out in the world and to know that I played a small role—it’s really rewarding.
JR: When you take on a project, it absolutely has to be something that you’re in love with?
EC: Yes, I would say so. If I don’t genuinely believe in everything a project represents, then I can’t enthusiastically sell it to anyone. I’ll come off as half-hearted, and there’s a good chance I might not even sell it. So, it makes sense that I only represent projects I love, because those are the ones I’ll really commit to. The path to publishing can be a long haul for some books. So, I need to make sure that I’m fully committed to that journey. If I’m not invested, it won’t work.
When I first started taking on projects, about a year after I came to SDLA, I wanted to represent the “great American novel,” and I only wanted literary fiction. It’s interesting to see how my career as an agent has evolved over the years. I started figuring out the kind of books that I was good at selling. And while I still love falling for a literary novel, my list has expanded in ways I don’t think I ever could have expected back when I was twenty-two. These days, for example, I handle a lot of science and cultural history, subjects I find really interesting. Sandy’s been a great mentor for me because this agency has an expansive list of American history, in addition to our fiction list. I’ve found so much value and enjoyment working with academic historians. I never thought I’d be excited about going to academic historical conferences, but they’re so much fun, and I’ve found the sweet spot for my agenting talents, too.
JR: You mentioned in the seminar how the relationship between an agent and author is like a marriage. You said, “We’re your advocates, guardian angels, and cheerleaders.” Do you want to elaborate on this?
EC: I really think the whole marriage analogy is apt, because there’s the dating, falling in love, building an attachment with each other. Then you have kids together, which are the books (laughs). Hopefully, your partnership will last over many books, but sometimes these relationships fall apart. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the agent doesn’t like your work anymore, but sometimes it becomes evident you’re not the best match. That’s why it’s important to keep assessing the agent/author relationship. If things aren’t 100% happy, keep communicating about it. It’s always best to talk about it right away, and to keep that relationship as open and as honest as you can. It’s a terrible thing for any writer to feel stuck in an unhappy situation—this can really hurt your career—and it’s important to talk about this with your agent. You may be surprised at what your agent has to say, too.
JR: Have you ever had to part ways like this?
EC: Oh, sure. Most agents have done this. Of course, this doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. In cases like these, you have to look at the relationship and say, “Is the energy still working?” Sometimes a writer’s career will evolve in a way that means I’m not the best agent to represent them anymore. Let’s say that a client of mine who writes historical fiction suddenly decides to branch out and write something radically different, like middle grade fiction or children’s literature, a genre I don’t have much experience with. In that case, I may not be the best agent for that writer anymore. Adult literature and children’s literature are truly two different industries, different sets of contacts, etc. That agent may simply not be helpful to the new stage of your career. So, for practical reasons, writers and agents may sometimes come to a mutual decision that it’s time to part ways.
JR: That makes sense. In your seminar, you noted that SDLA is a boutique agency. Did you want to talk about the difference between the larger literary agencies and the boutique agencies?
EC: Sure. A boutique agency can be anywhere from one person in a home office to twenty agents in a large, central building. The majority of literary agencies today are boutique agencies. In my opinion, these agencies are the way to go, because you’re not going to disappear on a massive client list, and the agent who signs you is the agent who will directly handle your work.
JR: What’s a normal day for you at SDLA?
EC: Ninety-nine percent of my day is spent problem-solving and keeping various balls rolling. Agents are career managers, so it’s up to us to make sure that nothing gets stalled, that nothing’s falling through the cracks. I enjoy the problem-solving part of the job, and the fact that every day is a little different.
Part of my job is checking in with a list of clients who have delivery deadlines coming up, which is important because books are typically on a strict schedule. Chasing jacket art, scheduling PR calls with a publisher. Clients call, publishers call. There are problems we have to solve throughout the day just to make sure things are running smoothly. We are an agency that likes to stay involved in sub-rights, too, so we also field queries about foreign rights, or about adapting a title into a play.
Some people have the misconception that agents get to read manuscripts all day, but we don’t. I wish I had the time to do this, with a cup of coffee and my manuscripts, but that stuff almost solely happens after-hours, or over the weekend.
JR: How much time do you normally have to see cold queries that authors email you?
EC: I try to spend the last forty-five minutes of my day looking at queries. This is why I tell emerging authors to do everything they can to make a personal connection with an agent they want to query. The slush pile can get backed up because we all get too much email, we’re all overwhelmed a good part of the time, and it’s easy for “slush” submissions to get pushed to the bottom of the priority pile. Do everything you can to make personal connections, and get your work out there to get your name noticed. That way, an agent might end up writing to you, asking if you might be interested in representation, instead of you chasing them. Keep up your energy and your momentum and keep moving forward. That’s the way you’re going to find the perfect match for you and your project.
That’s one thing that I love about this industry: we’re all in it because we really love the books we’re representing, and we want those books to succeed. We all want to see a book lift off the ground, take flight and be a wonderful success. I know publishing can feel like a hard business to get into, with the so-called “gatekeepers” and all the rejection, but in the end, if you can find your best publishing path and the right team to support you, then you’ll have the opportunity to see your work do really well in the world.