Q&A with agent Susanna Einstein of LJK Literary

This week’s Q&A spotlights Susanna Einstein, a senior agent and Director of Foreign Rights at LJK Literary, a literary agency in New York. Susanna will be one of our featured agents at WLT’s 2011 Agents Conference, so check out this detailed Q&A to learn more about her!

How did you get started in publishing?

In 1995, two years out of college and into a career in Chicago theater, I realized that I hated actually working in theater. Unfortunately, I had been a monomaniacally focused child, teenager, and college student, and I didn’t have much else besides theater that I liked or knew how to do. I moved home to NYC, and since the only other activities I truly loved were reading and writing, I met with as many people in publishing as I could find through hitting up my friends and family for names.  Eventually I met with Larry Kirshbaum, who was then the Chairman of what was then called Time Warner Trade Publishing and is now the Hachette Group. He listened to me ramble about how much I loved reading for about five minutes—I’m sure he’d heard the same from many a floundering young person—and then marched me over to his Director of Publicity, Emi Battaglia. She took me on as a department assistant, and after several months in publicity I moved into editorial when an assistant quit. I was at Warner Books in various editorial capacities for six years, and then became a literary scout at Maria B. Campbell Associates, and then when Larry started LJK Literary Management in late 2005, he asked me to come work with him here.

What’s the average number of submissions you receive in a month?

Via slush, probably 150, and via referral, probably 15.

If you could give writers one small piece of advice about the world of publishing, what would it be?

It is a business, and as such, it is market-driven.  This means that sometimes brilliant books are overlooked, and crappy books are published.  Anyone who wants to be a part of the publishing business, in whatever aspect, has to learn to live with that.

Who was your first client?

My first client was a lovely woman named Edith Felber. She wrote wonderful, smart, funny historical romance novels under the name Edith Layton, and wrote a terrific “straight historical novel” (that is, based on an actual historical figure) called Queen of Shadows, under her real name. She was a delight to work with, and was the first person who got me really interested in the romance genre. Sadly, she died in 2009.

What was the first project you sold?

This shouldn’t be a complicated question, but it is. I did a three-book deal for Edith Felber shortly after we started the agency, though I’m not sure that counts since I didn’t have to do much selling as Avon was thrilled to have her back. Then I sold a trilogy of historical novels called Rashi’s Daughters, by a writer named Maggie Anton, to Plume, but I’m not sure that really counts either as Maggie had self-published the first book in the trilogy very successfully, so publishers were eager to bid for the whole thing.  The first project I sold that was a debut novel that I’d actually edited and nobody else had ever seen was a young adult novel called Donut Days, by author Lara Zielin. Putnam Books for Young Readers is still her publisher—we are now doing a contract with them for her third and fourth books.

What do you love most about your job?

I love working on manuscripts. I procrastinate about it and it always takes longer than I think it will, but I love going through a manuscript and figuring out what will make it work better.

What is something that you often see beginning writers doing wrong?

Beginning writers are often too fatalistic. They are not thinking in terms of a long career; instead they are thinking “this book, this book, this book.” But sometimes “this book” is not ready to be published—it’s the book that’s helped them learn to write. Or maybe it gets published but it doesn’t sell very many copies and the writer still has to prove herself. That’s fine. In fact, sometimes that’s preferable—why would you want to be defined by the first book in your career, and not the sixth or seventh?  If your first book doesn’t work, learn from the experience, and write a better book.

What is a little known fact about yourself?

I loved Battlestar Galactica—the remake of the tv series, not the original, which I am MUCH too young to remember clearly—so much that I was depressed for a month when it went off the air.

What book are you reading right now?

I am reading a few: Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat. Betsy Lerner’s brilliant, and newly revised The Forest for the Trees. And I am editing my client Bruce DeSilva’s new ms, tentatively entitled Cliff Walk.

If you could have a beer or coffee with a literary luminary living or dead, who would it be and why?

Just one? This is too hard. Hmmm. Living: Tom Stoppard, because of the cricket bat speech in his play The Real Thing. Dead, I’d like to have several rounds of drinks with Charlotte Bronte, who wrote so brilliantly about intelligent, passionate women at a time when intelligence was not such a prized feminine attribute, and I’d like Robertson Davies to join us so he could tell us marvelous stories about art and religion, and if Damon Runyon could stop by and throw in some choice phrases, that would be delightful.

Beer or coffee?

Dirty martini.

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