Meet the Agents: Michaela Whatnall (Dystel, Goderich & Bourret)

“…what excites me most is knowing that my next great read is right around the corner, and that the literary canon is perpetually expanding and breaking new ground..”  Michaela Whatnall, Dystel, Goderich, & Bourret

Every other year, the Writers’ League of Texas brings 20-25 literary agents and book editors to Austin for its Agents & Editors Conference. As we look ahead to the 30th A&E Conference, taking place June 21 – 23, 2024, we’re happy to share Q&As with some of our visiting agents and editors here.

An Interview with Michaela Whatnall

Michaela Whatnall is an agent with Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, where they have worked out of the West Coast office since 2019. They have a degree in English and linguistics from Emory University, completed the Columbia Publishing Course, and in 2023 they were selected as a Publishers Weekly Star Watch Honoree. Michaela’s background in school and library marketing accounts for their strong interest in children’s literature, particularly middle grade and young adult fiction of all genres, including contemporary, fantasy, science fiction, historical, adventure, horror, and romance. In the adult fiction space, they are particularly seeking contemporary, speculative, and historical upmarket fiction, as well as character-driven, grounded fantasy. They are also open to select narrative nonfiction for both children and adults, graphic novels, and picture books.

Scribe: How would you describe your personal approach to working with an author? 

Michaela Whatnall: My approach to working with my clients is very open and collaborative. I prioritize communication, as I like to make sure that my clients feel comfortable and informed at every stage of the publishing process. I encourage them to ask any and all questions—there’s a lot to learn about the ins and outs of the industry, and I’m glad to be there for my clients as they familiarize themselves with everything that goes into publishing a book!

One of my favorite parts of my job is working with my clients on the editorial side of things. I love having early conversations as they develop new ideas, and I work closely with my clients as they edit their books to get them ready for submission. One of my very favorite steps in the process is reading a new draft, sending my notes, and then getting on a call with my client so we can talk through new ideas for how to take their story to the next level.

Scribe: What do you look for in a debut author? 

MW: First and foremost, I’m looking for a story that I’m passionate about! When offering representation, I prioritize projects that speak to me and that I feel confident I can place in the market. When it comes to working with debut authors, I find it’s great to work with writers who are willing to put in the editorial work to give their manuscript the best possible chance on submission. It also helps to have healthy doses of optimism and realism in equal measure—submission is a stressful time no matter what, but I’ve found that writers who are able to accept that certain parts of the process are out of our control, and who instead focus on what they can control (such as a working on a new project!), are the ones who feel the best about the process.

Scribe: What’s one piece of advice you find yourself giving to others time and time again? 

MW: When it comes to helping your query stand out, I always advise specificity. This means: what is it about your project that makes it different, that distinguishes it from the many other books that I have in my inbox? This can be tricky, because it goes hand-in-hand with something else your query should communicate: where does your book fit in the market? It’s important to be well-read in your category to ensure that your book is in conversation with other books coming out right now. So that’s the sweet spot I advise that writers look for—know where your book fits on the shelf in terms of genre and category, and also be able to communicate what sets it apart.

Scribe: What excites you the most about the publishing industry today?

MW: I love that there is no limit to creativity, which means that for as long as humans exist, we’ll be telling new stories. Books simultaneously speak to the current moment and build on all the stories that have come before. So what excites me most is knowing that my next great read is right around the corner, and that the literary canon is perpetually expanding and breaking new ground.

Scribe: Tell us about a recent book/project that you worked on that excited you and you want everyone to know about? 

MW: My most recently published client book is Women of Good Fortune by Sophie Wan, a phenomenal novel set in Shanghai about a reluctant bride who, along with her friends, decides to plan a heist and steal the gift money from her own high-society wedding. I’m obsessed with Sophie’s book because it does what so many of my favorite stories do—it combines a hooky, fun plot with an exploration of deeper themes. As much as Sophie’s book is about a ritzy wedding heist, it’s also about the bonds of friendship, about the societal pressures that women in their 20s and 30s experience, and so much more. I highly encourage everyone to read it!

Thanks, Michaela!

Click here for more information on the 2024 Agents & Editors Conference, a weekend long event in Austin, TX (June 21-23) that focuses on the craft of writing, the business of publishing, and building a literary community.