Do you see any trends on the horizon?
Publishing moves slowly enough that most agents and editors hesitate to make prognostications about the kinds of books that are likeliest to sell in the future. Most trends we see are in the rearview mirror, to be honest. What’s interesting to me is how much about the publishing business has remained the same, even as it’s been transformed by the advent of e-books and online bookselling. Editors are very susceptible to voice, for example—that’s been true for years. It extends to cookbooks now, a category I handle, which is quite entertaining. I have a client—chef Bonnie Morales—who just turned in her cookbook to Flatiron. The stories she tells about her food-obsessed family, who fled the Soviet Union in the 1970s, are priceless. Editors are also very attuned to the author’s credentials, which include not only their platform, but the way they project authority on the page. What constitutes “credentials” has changed (and become more democratic, actually), now that it’s possible to demonstrate online that you know how to attract an audience. I currently have on offer a gorgeous proposal called Modern Macramé by Emily Katz, an absolute genius when it comes to marketing. The alliances she’s forging with larger brands to help support her macramé evangelism are awe-inspiring—a fact editors have not failed to see. I expect to see that author-driven aspect of what’s attractive to publishers continue to evolve as ways of reaching potential readers continue to change.
What are you looking for?
I’m looking for writing that I’d call “arresting”—work where I feel pinned to the page. I want the chance to see the world through the author’s eyes to feel like a privilege. This applies both to fiction (I handle literary fiction as well as voice-driven mysteries and the occasional piece of commercial women’s fiction) and to narrative nonfiction (often by journalists, who are among my favorite kinds of author). I also like books that are both beautiful and practical, which is why I’m drawn to books on cooking, design, and gardening as well as to quirky gift books. Although most of my authors come to me by referral, we do pay close attention to submissions we receive through my website (www.amsterlit.com), and I’ve taken on a number of authors “over the transom.”
How do you feel about working with first-time authors?
There’s nothing more exciting than going from a promising idea to a finished book. What I think surprises prospective authors is how long it can take. Perversely, one of my favorite things about the book business is how high the bar is. This means it often takes numerous drafts to get something right before I submit it. My favorite kind of client is someone I call the “inspired perfectionist”—someone who cares as much as I do about getting it right.
What’s it like to be an agent on the West Coast?
I was an editor for many years in New York—first at Vintage, then at Pantheon. I became an agent when I moved to Los Angeles in the ’90s. Most of us who work in the West will readily admit that we like our long leash. It gives us a certain amount of freedom to pursue projects outside of the publishing fishbowl. I like the publishing fishbowl, mind you—there’s nothing more fun than having multiple meetings with editors when I’m in New York. To be able to talk about publishing all day long is a luxury. But I know my real contribution lies in my relationship with my clients—in giving them a sense of possibility and then helping them realize their dreams.
Betsy Amsterispresident of Betsy Amster Literary Enterprises, a literary agency in Portland, Oregon. She is a former editor at Vintage and Pantheon. Her clients include bestselling writers Maria Amparo Escandon, author of Esperanza’s Box of Saints (Scribner), and Joy Nicholson, author of The Tribes of Palos Verdes (St. Martin’s); Mary Higgins Clark Award winner Sandi Ault, author of Wild Indigo and three other titles in the Wild mystery series (Penguin Group); James Beard Award winner Kim Boyce, author of Good to the Grain: Baking With Whole-Grain Flours (Stewart, Tabori & Chang); research psychologist Elaine N. Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Child (Harmony); autism authority Dr. Barry Prizant, author (with Tom Fields-Meyer) of Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism (Simon & Schuster); and MacArthur fellow and urban farmer Will Allen, author of The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities (Avery).