Litdish: JL Stermer, Literary Agent
She uses every square inch of the stage when she presents. She can navigate New York City through rush hour traffic and subway closures. She knows where to shop and where to connect with whom, especially in the ever-changing venues of social media. She is no stranger to hard work. Whip-smart, connected, and able to see upcoming trends, JL Stermer is a literary agent you want to know. Born and raised in New York City, Stermer works with New Leaf Literary, representing both YA and adult categories of fiction, creative nonfiction, self-help, and memoir. Her clients include super-Youtuber Christine Riccio (author of instant NYT bestseller Again, but Better), Zach Wahls (author of the NYT Bestseller My Two Moms), and Lenny Dykstra (author of NYT Bestseller House of Nails). So much is forthcoming for the busy agent that it was hard pinning her down for an interview. When I did, Stermer and I talked about NYC, doughnuts, and fashion—the designer dress she wore to AULA (the one I was secretly coveting) was purchased at Buffalo Exchange, a thrift store— and we discussed the distinct place and purpose of literary agents in the increasing digital age of publishing. Here, JL answers Lunch Ticket’s ten questions for LitDish.
1. Your recent presentation at Antioch was super-charged with energy. When you mentioned that you were originally in theater, it made sense! How has a theater background affected you as a literary agent? As a presenter?
Ha! Love this question! I think studying theater has affected all of my gigs over the years. From coat-checking and being a server in high-end cocktail bars, to working in fashion (retail and wholesale), to today: teaching classes, giving talks, and working as a lit agent—the tools I learned from theater have stayed with me. They allow me to be open, improvisational, and in the moment. I can be creative in how I approach clients and projects. But that energy that you saw—that’s just me, lol. I’m a fan of people and I get hyped when I’m around those who are looking to create, innovate, and have fun.
2. How did you get started as an agent? How long have you been doing it?
After finally getting my bachelor’s degree from Columbia University (I had previously dropped out of both Temple University and FIT)—it felt like I was faced with two options: get my PhD or go to law school, and neither of those felt like a good choice for me. I was thirty and I needed to get on with my life! And I didn’t want to accrue any more debt, thankyouverymuch. I sent out an email to everyone I know saying: “Hello! I am looking to get a gig in the publishing industry and if anyone knows anyone who I could have a coffee with and make some connections, that would be great!” And so, I did some networking, and I applied for editorial jobs online and I was getting some traction, but no real bites.
One night, while I was waiting tables, a really nice couple was seated in my section and we were super chatty and having a good time. Towards the end of their drinks, the guy says to me: “Are you a writer? Because if you are, I’d love to read something you’ve written.” And he hands me his card, and it says: Donald Maass Literary Agency. My brain exploded in that moment because I didn’t even know that literary-agenting was a job—but I instinctively knew that this was a good match for me and my energy. I wound up interning for Don, and then one job led to the next… And that was about eight to nine years ago. I’ve worked at a few agencies since then and it’s a hustle, but I love the freedom this job gives me.
3. When a client pitches you their project, what are the things you are listening for?
When I am thinking about taking on a new client, I do this thing in my head where I am wearing two hats while reading/listening: The JL Hat and The Agent Hat—meaning, I need for someone to make me feel excited and appeal to my creativity, but I also need to know (as an agent) that I can sell this idea because time is money. So, is this author writing about something prevalent in the current zeitgeist? Is their topic on the lips of the media and the general public? Is this something that they are personally invested in, and do they have an original POV? This goes for both fiction and nonfiction.
Most of my fiction writers work with contemporary premises, so this line of thought works well either way. But then I am also paying attention to what pops into my head on the publishing side: are there specific editors who I know will be into this idea? Is this something that I have tried before, but have not been able to sell? Are there any solid comparative titles out there for this project? I used to make decisions solely on my gut (and that still plays a very big part for me), but knowledge of the landscape and which editor is looking for what type of book is very important to me when it comes to signing a new client. I also want my clients to know their market (in books and in general), to be super stoked about their idea, and to maintain a steady level of enthusiasm, positivity, and professionalism—these things are KEY for me.
4. With recent changes in the publishing industry, why is it important for an author to be represented by an agent?
The truth of the matter is, in this day and age, pretty much anyone can do anything on their own. We have the interwebs. We have super savvy, smart people. We have unlimited access to one another. The opportunity is out there! That said, it’s important for an author to think about what they want to get out of the process—what’s their end goal? If they are writing a business book for a niche demo and they do a lot of speaking engagements for this specific community, they might do well to self-publish. If an author has dreams of being published by one of the top five publishers, they definitely need an agent. These publishers, as well as most indie publishers, will not even look at unsolicited manuscripts. You’ll want an agent who has relationships with editors, knowing what they are looking for and how to best pitch them. I love to pair my clients up with an editor who truly gets what they are trying to communicate and respects their voice and point of view. Also, THE BUSINESS. You need an agent who is organized, efficient, and knows how to negotiate your contract. You also want a buffer between the editor and author in case things get off track. As an agent I am (again) wearing many hats: salesperson, mediator, cheerleader, therapist… and more. Getting published is a long process and you want someone with you to guide you and be knowledgeable in the areas you are not.
5. When you accept a pitch and ask an author for the first fifty pages (or whatever), how often do you make it through those pages? In your experience, what are the most common mistakes authors make?
My intention is to read all of my requested pages, but if I’m halfway through and I am not feeling some feelings, I will most often skim to the end. I won’t put it down completely, but I will pick up the pace. And this happens quite often. Here are some of the most common mistakes authors make: 1) giving way too much backstory at the top—I prefer that you weave in pertinent information about your characters as you move the story along. That’s what keeps the pace engaging and fun. Give your protagonist a challenge right at the top and let readers see how they handle it. We can learn so much about someone when you meet them in the midst of a crisis. 2) Having something devastating happen in the first pages without giving the reader a reason to care. When something awful happens at the beginning of a book and I know I should feel bad about what’s taking place, but I don’t, that’s a sign to me that this author did not take the time to establish a character or a theme. And this can be done with very few words, but it needs to be there. 3) Too much throat-clearing. It’s that thing where you know what you want to say, and you’re about to say it, and you’re getting people ready for it, and yes, here’s a hint and… Just get to the point! This usually happens when authors are not 100% confident in what they want to say, or [when they] feel the need to be flowery or impressive. Have confidence and do your thing.
6. How important is that query letter? What are your pet peeves about an author’s introduction?
My personal take on a query letter is that it should be uniform, short & sweet, and—again—to the point. Remember this is a business letter, but you are also showcasing your creativity and ideas, so there is room for some personality. I don’t want to remember the letter per se; I want to remember the concept, the idea, the enthusiasm of the author who knows their audience and is well-versed in their field. You want to do your homework on each agent and address them specifically. You want to go to the Submissions Guidelines page of their website so you know that you are sending exactly what they are looking for. You don’t want to be too familiar (referencing an IG post that’s way deep in the archives) nor do you want to be overly self-deprecating (This is just my first novel… I don’t really have any writing credits). You want to have solid comparative titles/authors that show that you know your market and you want to have a hook that shows why your book is relevant right now.
7. If there is a character quality or personality trait that you are known for (as a literary agent), what do you think it would be?
I don’t know what I am known for, but here’s what I’d like to be known for: having the ability to find and develop projects with thought leaders, forward-thinkers, and captivating authors who are passionate about what they have to say. Being a good listener, being a problem-solver, and being able to successfully pitch (and sell) a project that other agents might shy away from. Having a good sense of humor and a good sense of style. Being a person who does not give up when things look insurmountable. If I know in my gut that there’s a way to get something done—I’m figuring it out.
8. Have you ever represented someone you didn’t like? Have you ever had to break up with a client for personality differences? Had a super-demanding person who couldn’t relax?
Unfortunately, yes. Clearly, I cannot get into the specifics of anything here, but I have had a few of those experiences, and while they were very challenging, I also know that I learned a lot from having to figure those out. For me, it was directly related to the amount of experience I’d had. When you’re new and you’re getting your footing and you don’t have a well-developed roster, you might take on some folks you wouldn’t normally because you need to get things rolling. That said, I did believe that each of these clients had something real to offer readers. My gut told me there was something good and I followed that, but sometimes working styles and personalities don’t click.
This is why I think it’s important to chat with potential clients about their expectations. Authors can bring this up as well. If an agent is offering you representation, make sure you find time to hop on the phone or meet for coffee to talk about how you will work together. You can learn so much about how people communicate when you have these conversations. And always pay attention to how you feel when you’re done talking. Are you feeling clear and excited and ready to go? Or are you feeling rushed, confused, and uncertain? Follow your gut and don’t be afraid to ask more questions if you need to.
9. How important is it for an agent to be passionate about the project they’re representing? Is it possible for an agent to represent a project they don’t really like, but think will fill a demand in the market?
Well, if you’ve gotten this far in the interview, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that I think passion is EVERYTHING. The more excited I am about an idea, a movement, a new expression of an older idea… the more I can sense my client’s dedication to their dreams… the more I can feel connected to these, the better. This is what drives me. No doubt. But I’m only speaking for myself here. There are plenty of agents who (successfully) sell things they are lukewarm or indifferent about. Maybe even something they don’t like. This is a business, and at the end of the day we need to get the deals done. Selling from a place of passion is a personal preference.
10. This is the most serious question: Doughnut-lover to doughnut-lover, what are your favorites to eat? Where do you get them? What is it about a doughnut that is so satisfying?
The Donut Pub on the northwest corner of 14th Street and 7th Avenue. This is the spot. Everything is delicious and they have amazing coffee—nothing fancy, just really good. Back in the day people would smoke cigarettes and drink coffee at a tiny U-shaped counter. Very old school. It has an unpretentious vibe that I love and there is a sense of urgency in there. You walk in, you’re attended to, and they get you on your way. My faves: strawberry frosted with sprinkles, jelly, coconut (toasted or regular), and their black & white cookies are perfection. And I think a satisfying donut is one that has been freshly-made, is just the right size, and is not trying to be anything other than a donut. (I’m looking at you, cronuts. ☺)