Sunday, November 9, 2008

RichWriters Interview with Literary Agent, Caren Johnson



RichWriters had a fantastic opportunity to talk to one of the most prolific agents in the industry, Ms. Caren Johnson. She is also one of the most respected new agents in the business as well, someone definitely to look out for.





Jeff Rivera:                              So, tell us about your heritage.  You're Latina, right? What's up with your last name?


Caren Johnson Estesen:           Okay. I recently got married so my name doesn't even reflect anything Latin at all. It is Caren Johnson Estesen but my maiden name is Caren Johnson Padilla. My mom is Puerto Rican so she is one of the biggest influences as far as Latin culture for me.


Jeff Rivera:                              And where does the Johnson come from?


Caren Johnson Estesen:           My dad. He is Jamaican and Chinese.


Jeff Rivera:                              Oh, cool.


Caren Johnson Estesen:           Yes. He is Jamaican and his mom is Chinese so it is a very big bag of a mix where everything is thrown in there.


Jeff Rivera:                              That is for me too because African-American and Native American, both of my grandmothers are Native American and then I have got Filipino stepfather which is why my last name is Rivera and then I have got Puerto Rican sisters and cousins and...


Caren Johnson Estesen:           Wow, yes! That is a really good mix.


Jeff Rivera:                              Oh, yes. That is right.


Caren Johnson Estesen:           I mean it is definitely the wave of the future. If you look at Barack Obama, he is totally mixed as well and thank God somebody in a high profile position is now showing that you do not need to be just one culture. You can have many. You are probably more well rounded anyway.


Jeff Rivera:                              I think so, too. You could relate to different races and backgrounds. I think it makes you more open minded.


Caren Johnson Estesen:           Yes, I totally agree.


Jeff Rivera:                              Definitely. So you can no longer feel like you are still a victim because by resources like that.


Caren Johnson Estesen:           I know. I am glad that publishing now is including a lot more people who are not just the same sort of well meaning middle class women that usually run it. So I am really glad that there is a lot more diversity in it.  I started out as an intern at Peter Rubie's agency and then four years after that, I was an agent. So that is five years in all. It has changed drastically which is great because there is lot of different things getting published, a lot of different people getting published, so it is really nice.


Jeff Rivera:                              Right. So let us talk about a little bit like how this all begin like one day, you were a little girl from urban town and then suddenly you are agent. How this transition began?


Caren Johnson Estesen:           Yes. Well, I never grew up wanting to be a literary agent like I have no idea. I thought I was going to be a writer and then I was like, "Yes, writing is hard. I don't think I want to be a writer anymore." So I thought I would be an editor somewhere. I went to City College and my first boss, Peter Rubie, had come to one of my publishing classes to lecture on what he does and he was an agent and he talked about how he would read all day and he would be on the phone making deals for his clients or he would go to lunch with editors and he would basically convince people to buy books that he likes. And I thought, "I can do that. Oh, I can do that. I want to intern for you." So he let me intern for him and then I just never left. I asked, "Is there anything I can do? Can I start agenting myself?" And he showed me how to both be a better reader and a good agent.


Jeff Rivera:                              That is great. So you started out actually wanting to be writer and what was that about the writing parts that you prefer not to do?


Caren Johnson Estesen:           Well, I like the creativity of writing, but writing for yourself is very different than writing to get published. If you are writing to get published, that would be your job. To me, it takes the fun away from writing because if you are writing just to be creative then you are writing to say something, to make a point, whether it be in fiction or nonfiction. That changes if you are sending it out to publishers and editors because you are writing to their standards; it's not a bad thing. It is just something that I do not think I would be comfortable with.


Jeff Rivera:                              And where do you see yourself for the next five to ten years?


Caren Johnson Estesen:           I would probably still be an agent. I started my own company a year and a half ago and I figure with the publishing world changing so drastically, it does not count against me that I do not have 20 years of experience. My experience comes from one, interning and working with Peter and two, working at Barnes & Noble. I worked there for about four years before I started working for Peter; I think that was a great help in showing me one, how people buy books, how they physically go into the store, pick up a book, read the back cover copy and plunk down $20 or $25 to purchase it and two, it showed me why people buy books. I mean there are many, many books but we're all striving for our books to turn into bestsellers. Being at a book store is good training to see how a bestseller is made. What does it take to make a bestseller and just working at Barnes & Noble just working behind that cash register you get to see and hear a lot of things about why people like what they read and what they are looking to get out of it, whether it is for  information or just entertainment.


Jeff Rivera:                              That is actually a great background to do either.


Caren Johnson Estesen:           It really helps. I am pretty new to the agenting world compared to most editors turned agents. They become agents because they either get fired because the market takes a downturn or because they are tired of the bureaucracy but they have a huge body of experience. They have 15 to 20 years to help them. I think that just coming from that Barnes & Noble background and then seeing what Peter did and meeting as many people as possible and listening to them just really gave me that basic training that I needed to play with the big kids.


Jeff Rivera:                              Now, what do you see or let us start it with this. In terms of submissions, what type of products are you looking for in terms of or what type of clients are you looking to represent?


Caren Johnson Estesen:           I really want clients that treat this as a business and it is funny that I have to keep saying that over and over again because writing is a very creative process. You are taking information and distilling it either into a comprehensible body of work that your readers learn from or you are creating entertainment. Most people think because it's so creative, it can't be governed by numbers. As in any business, we're looking to make a profit. Our focus has to be on making each book successful and that sometimes means putting out books that will reach the masses instead of a select few. I want authors to have quality writing but I also want them to understand that I am paying my mortgage with this. I am making my car payments with this. That means my goal is to make the books I send out publishable; it could mean revising a project before it goes out and I need authors who understand that I'm not trying to change their work for the sake of making the change, but to work within the current reading landscape. So I want professionals who are going to treat this as a business.


Jeff Rivera:                              You brought an interesting point because this was endowed on me, I do not know maybe a year ago, but it is so obvious but many agents do not get a salary. They make their money from their percentage that is 15%.


Caren Johnson Estesen:           Right.


Jeff Rivera:                              So they need product to sell.


Caren Johnson Estesen:           Not only do we need product to sell but we need to be constantly selling. That means having a large bounty of projects to circulate. I mean, we all dream of having and discovering the next J.K. Rowling. Even her agent still dreams of discovering the next J.K. Rowling. He did it once and he wants to, of course, mimic it and do it again. People do not usually read as a form of entertainment, we . They usually read as a form of getting information. We are going up against video games and movies and TV and everything else, just reading on the web, getting information there, so it makes it that much harder. It means the advances our clients get are smaller and that makes our cut smaller. So we need volume, we need product, and we need people who understand that.


Jeff Rivera:                              So that is why it is very possible that an agent could have 100 or 200 clients.


Caren Johnson Estesen:           I would say if they have a huge amount and they are not a place like Writers House or ICM or William Morris, I would be worried because you are not going to get a personal experience but maybe you do not need it. Maybe you just want somebody who takes what you have and sends it out to their list of people or sometimes you want somebody who has a smaller client list. I have about 30 clients right now. That means I can go over everybody's work as they send it to me before I send it out, I can make sure it is polished. I can make sure that at the very basic level, every T is crossed, I is dotted, the grammar works, the syntax, the structure, just everything works so that it is polished and it is the best product that can be sent out to an editor.


Jeff Rivera:                              When you are trying to find somebody, what are some things that, obviously I do not expect you to name names obviously, but what are some things that maybe you have seen in your experience or heard from other agents that are big no-no's that you wish that their clients would stop doing?


Caren Johnson Estesen:           I am guilty of this myself, but I am very friendly with all of my authors and it is hard to lose sight of friendship versus a working relationship. Authors need to make sure that you are aware of the boundaries in a working relationship. Say to yourself, "should I make this call to my agent even though it's a Saturday afternoon or should I expect her to email me back on a Monday night at 9pm?" Availability is important, but be reasonable. I had one author who called my home when I was on vacation to let me know she unexpectedly got a box of galleys for her upcoming release even though I was on vacation. It made me realize that she didn't understand what really constituted an emergency because I was allowing her to encroach on my personal time as well as my working time.


Jeff Rivera:                              It is really funny you say that because I do not think I could ever be an agent because I work with writers in different levels and different things and I could just see how needy writers can be and I just, "Oh, my…" I love helping people but goddamn…


Caren Johnson Estesen:           I know. They can be very needy but it is so satisfying when you can call somebody and say, "Hey. I have news. Somebody wants to make an offer on your book." It is the best feeling in the world. It is really, really good.


Jeff Rivera:                              That is great. You are talking about the type of clients that you would like to have but in terms of what type of projects would you like to see more of, and also in addition to that, what projects do you see are really selling a lot right now?


Caren Johnson Estesen:           I do a lot of general fiction, especially romance and mystery and that sort of thing. Right now, I am seeing mystery is a very, very hard market to sell into. The core readers of mysteries are getting older. They are usually the baby bloomers. They do not have as much disposable income to spend on books so it is not a solid market. We need to get that new generation of fans up and running and I think it will be a couple of years before we are going to see that. With romance, I am seeing a lot of science fiction type romance, which is called paranormal romance. I am seeing a lot of romantic suspense but I honestly I want just good, big, sweeping stories with strong characters. That is what I crave the most. My favorite authors are Jennifer Crusie and Susan Elizabeth Phillips, writers like that who just have this fun, interesting stories to tell.


Jeff Rivera:                              In terms of a query letter when writer down and their story, what really grabs you and what turns you off?


Caren Johnson Estesen:           The first thing that will turn me off is if a writer is trying to be too chummy or if they promise, "If you take me on, I will be your New York Times bestseller. I will make both of us lots and lots of money." Do not promise something that you cannot deliver. Eventually you may become the New York Times bestseller, but you cannot promise it straight out of the gate.  I had one writer who emailed me after I sent him a rejection letter. He said, "Well, you obviously are an idiot because this is going to make a lot of money."


Jeff Rivera:                              What?


Caren Johnson Estesen:           That was a couple of years ago and I have never seen his name on a book. It makes me laugh because you have just insulted the one person who is going to be your champion through thick and thin. It is not a good way to start of a relationship.


Jeff Rivera:                              Right.


Caren Johnson Estesen:           So my thought is even if I say no to your first book, that  does not mean I won't look at another manuscript you've written. Don't burn bridges. That is the silliest thing in the world. The thing that would make me sit up and take notice is if the story is new or innovative or just expressed in a certain way that…I heard Richard Curtis once said, he is an agent, I once heard him say in a panel that to write the query letter to an agent, pretend you are writing the back cover copy of your book. Those two paragraphs where you need to grab your reader, what would you say? I thought that was the best advice ever because it makes you boil down your story to the basic point and to really sells it.


Jeff Rivera:                              That is great. Caren, I have just two more questions to ask you. I wanted to ask you about being a Latina in the industry and how does that feel to be called a hero in the industry when there is not a lot of people that happened to also be a Latina?


Caren Johnson Estesen:           It is strange because I do not see myself as a hero. I just see myself as somebody who absolutely adores and loves books. I see myself more as somebody who is going to champion books that may be overlooked otherwise and I like that. It is very romantic notion that I will see something that somebody else will not. I think a good story is a good story no matter what your background is but I like to know that I have an eye towards seeing something that may not have been published otherwise because someone may not understand it due to a cultural difference or may just overlook it because they have a very specific type of book that they are looking for.


Jeff Rivera:                              What do you think that you are doing specifically to help the Latino community in terms of either writers or other people who want to be an agent or editor and what not?


Caren Johnson Estesen:           I think that I am pretty open to any questions or comments from anybody who is interested in becoming an agent or an editor because this business is really based on who you know. It is not based on how capable you are which is a shame but if I could give help to anyone I will give as much help as possible. I think that that is more important building that camaraderie with others.I do not think you have to discourage yourself or be discouraged because you do not fit the mold. I think you are going to be welcomed with open arms because just that you do not fit the mold so people are going to grab you up and bring you in and say, "Okay. Based on where you grew up…" like I grew up in the Bronx, "based on where you grew up, what kind of stories were you seeing? Is it a lot like the book Random Family?" In the area that I grew up in, yes it was but that did not mean we did not go to the library every day after school and read voraciously and ask questions and dreamed about becoming writers or doctors or lawyers. So I would just say to anybody, whether they are Latino or whether they are African-American or whatever, it is basically the most fun job I have ever had.


Jeff Rivera:                              Right. That is great. Thank you very much for sharing your wisdom and experience with us. For more information visit her website: <a href=></a>