Lit Agent BJ Robbins Wants “Something Slightly Quirky and Smart”

By Jeff Rivera 

Agency Owner, BJ Robbins tries to give her clients a more personal approach to their careers. In this interview, she explains what kind of books she’s looking for, how to grab her attention with a query letter, and her concerns with the switch to ebooks.

What job title do you prefer, and why do you think you do a great job for your clients?
I don’t have an official title but I’m the owner of my agency. Because I have a small and select list of clients, I believe I offer them publishing knowledge (from spending more than 15 years as a marketing director, publicity director and senior editor before opening my agency in 1992) and a more personal approach.

What do you think that most agents are looking for today? And what would you be really excited to see, personally?
I don’t think there’s a way to explain what editors are looking for because I imagine we’re all looking for the same thing, which is an exciting story well told. Fiction or nonfiction. For more practical kinds of books I’d say that we’re all looking for new ideas expressed in a fresh way. I’m always on the lookout for something that grabs my attention and won’t let go. Something slightly quirky and smart, emotionally charged but not sentimental, so spectacularly written that I don’t need to edit it at all. Will someone please send me that manuscript? Now?

If a writer thinks that they have “that manuscript” for you, how should they reach you with it?
Email queries are fine as are mailed queries. I like to see a smartly written query letter with a very short description of the work as well as a bit about the writer. I’m finding that it’s helpful if it includes the first couple of pages in the body of the email query (or first 50 or so with a mailed query) which can instantly provide me with a clue as to whether or not I like the writing. I hate it when writers include a long, boring synopsis, don’t address me specifically or indicate in any way why they’ve chosen to query my agency, send me material that’s clearly inappropriate–screenplay writers, I mean you–, and my biggest pet peeve — calling the work a “fiction novel.”

How much do you think that the digital revolution has changed publishing and the publishing industry? What do you think they’ll be able to change in the future?
How have they changed the marketplace? So far I don’t believe these techno devices have impacted the literary world as much as one would think–at least not yet. E-book sales are still a small percentage of overall book sales. I do believe that as the technology improves that this percentage will increase. And I believe anything that increases readership and the buying of books, in whatever format, is a good thing. What I’m most concerned about is piracy, which is a huge issue and something that can have a negative impact on an author’s potential income.

What should authors do to protect themselves from a potential downturn in the industry?
2) What have you done to brace yourself for the economic changes to the industry? What can authors do to avoid eating Ramen noodles and counting pennies?
There’s really no way for anyone to brace oneself. I’ve always encouraged my authors to keep their day jobs unless they’re really able to support themselves completely with their writing. You can’t generate income if you’re sitting around fretting, so the best thing a writer can do is write. But I do think expectations about advances and future sales need to be realistic in this economically difficult environment.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you do in your spare time?
Well, this may not be a particularly big secret anymore, but I play basketball in a Mom’s league. We’re in our ninth year, and I’ve finally learned how to set a pick.