What are some upcoming trends?
This is an incredibly difficult question to answer—of course, there are trends (see Gone Girlfollowed by The Girl on the Train), but as an agent it’s not fruitful to chase them. By the time I take on a writer, work with her on a manuscript, and then submit and sell said project, it will stillbe up to two years before the book comes out. What I try to be responsive to, therefore, are issues running through the culture that are of enduring interest to me, and I hope to readers: the role of women in society; how we regard the other (indeed, who even is “the other”); how technology is and is not changing our lives. And, of course, a good story, whether about a vampire, a child born in post-war Naples, or a really fast horse, will always appeal.
I write this 36 hours after the Paris attacks, however, and I certainly hope that one upcoming trend will be books—any category of book—that helps break the power of the narrative that ISIL is building for their supporters. I also write this from Charleston, South Carolina, site of the shooting at the Emanuel AME Church, and I hope that we can also break the narrative power of the National Rifle Association sooner rather than later, too.
What book/genre/topic would you like to see cross your transom?
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me changed the conversation about race in America forever, and I am looking for voices and perspectives that can pick up that thread and expand on it in whatever form feels urgent to the writer. There’s a terrific initiative in the children’s book world called We Need Diverse Books and really—we do! But across all categories and genres.
What topic don’t you ever want to see again?
I could not be less interested in white male post-college malaise. I love white men—I’m married to one—but this trope feels like the height of decadence given the problems the world is facing.
What is unique about your corner of the industry?
When I decided to leave my editorial job and become an agent, Henry Dunow welcomed me by saying: “Welcome to the side of light.” And so it is! I wanted to make my own decisions, rather than adhere to those of a large corporation; and I wanted to support the careers of my writers, no matter how idiosyncratic the path. A particular pleasure of being an agent is that while I am honored to represent established authors, there is nothing like taking on a writer, selling their first book, and launching a career. Malcolm Cowley once commented acerbically that “A writer is someone who has readers”; helping a writer across the divide to actual readers is always completely thrilling.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The book business has always been challenging. Writing is hard, publishing is hard, bookselling is probably the hardest thing of all. While the rise in independent bookstores in the last several years has been heartening, the problem of shrinking physical shelf space endures. But there are so many readers out there who want long-form stories, who want to learn something, who want to engage with another consciousness. The mechanisms to reach those readers have changed tremendously in last 10 or 15 years—book review sections have closed, a major bookstore chain went bankrupt, the internet is as distracting as ever—but there are new mechanisms and the readers are certainly still there. The fundamental challenge of publishing has always been getting books into the hands of people who will love them; a book travels from reader to reader to reader, and even if one of those readers is a critic and the next is a bookseller and the third is a consumer, it’s all about word of mouth. So I sit at the very beginning of the process, but find it very important to be involved every step of the way.
After stints in the editorial departments of Houghton Mifflin, the Knopf group, and Little, Brown, Sarah Burnes became an agent in 2001. Joining The Gernert Company in 2005, she now represents adult fiction writers (Alice McDermott and Tony Earley among them); children’s fiction writers (New York Times bestsellers Margaret Stohl and Pseudonymous Bosch); and journalists and critics (New York Times Magazine contributor Jon Gertner and Freeman’s John Freeman). Her writers have either won or been shortlisted for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Story Prize, the Los Angeles Times First Book Prize, the Whiting Writer’s Award, the Governor General’s Award, the Thurber Prize, and the Barnes and Noble Discover Award; and they have received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. Sarah sits on the boards of the progressive publisher The New Press and the Digital Public Library of America, and lives with her husband and three children in Brooklyn, New York.