A Café Chat with Literary Agent Sean McCarthy, by Lori Ann Palma

Cafe - Photo 1 - SQUIAO

credit: SQUIAO

Today, the Eastern Penn Points Café welcomes Sean McCarthy, founder of the Sean McCarthy Literary Agency, and faculty member for the upcoming 2016 Pocono Retreat. If you haven’t checked out the Retreat yet, you can find registration information here. And as long as you’re surfing the interweb, take a look at Sean’s web site, or say hello on Twitter @mccarthylit. And we also welcome you to add your comments below.

Sean McCarthy - Photo 2

Hi Sean! Thank you for joining us! We’re looking forward to getting to know you better before the Pocono Retreat this spring. Whenever we chat at the Eastern Penn Points café, we ask our guest to choose their favorite reading beverage. What’ll it be?

I’ve been on a big seltzer kick for the past few years, and my all-time favorite beverage is Orange Vanilla Seltzer by Polar. It basically tastes like a melted creamsicle (in a good way).
And because you describe yourself as an amateur ice creamologist on Twitter, we have to ask what type of ice cream you’d like? (Since this is virtual, there are no rules!)
I have zero brand loyalty when it comes to ice cream in the grocery store (as long as it’s cold and on sale, I’m in), but I’m a little more picky when it comes to making my own ice cream. My favorites so far have been a Thyme, Rosemary, and Honey Ice Cream and a Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream. For fancy ice cream, though, nothing compares to OddFellows in Brooklyn—they’re on a whole other level. 
Ice Cream - Photo 3 - MaxStraeten

credit: MaxStraeten

Congratulations on opening your own agency! You focus primarily on children’s lit, from picture books through YA. Can you tell us what inspires you most about these projects? Have you always been drawn to children’s literature over adult fiction?

Thanks! I always knew that I wanted to work in books, but I took a meandering path to get to children’s lit (even though my first real job was in the children’s department of a local bookstore). I started in publishing as an intern at an adult publisher (Overlook Press), and I was eager-slash-desperate for a full-time position in publishing. Right when my internship ended, I applied for a job at Sheldon Fogelman Agency, even though I didn’t know what a literary agent did. Thankfully, Shelly Fogelman didn’t hold that against me, and it turned into the perfect place to learn about how publishing worked, and also how amazing children’s books can be. I quickly fell in love with them and haven’t looked back since. 
What has been the most rewarding aspect of opening your own agency?
All of it! It’s always been a dream of mine to open my own business, and the past couple of years have been the most rewarding for me on a personal and professional level. I love being able to take a direct, hands-on approach to all facets of a literary career for my clientsfrom revision to submission to negotiation to foreign rights and so on. And it doesn’t hurt that opening my own agency and working out of my home office means that I can respond to most emails (and this interview) in sweatpants.
Last month, you participated in a very informative Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on Reddit.During the Q &A session, you mentioned that characters rule your world. Can you share one or two of your favorite fictional characters and why they impacted you?
It will be hard to just pick a couple of characters, but it all starts with Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh andFrank and Joe Hardy by Franklin W. Dixon. Harriet was the first literary character that I wanted to emulate (until I realized that being an author was really hard, and jumped over to the agenting side), and I read an embarrassing amount of the Hardy Boys as a kid (and not just the classic, blue cover onesI read most of the 1980s Hardy Boys Casefiles as well). Although I didn’t get to solve any crimes and thwart any super-villains, I did develop an appreciation for strong characters and a well-constructed plot that continues to inform my taste today.

Hardy Boys - Photo 4


It sounds like sleuthing is in your blood, which is a great quality in an agent! During your AMA session, you also provided a breakdown of what you like to see in a query letter. When reading queries, is there anything that immediately turns you off?
Great question! To start, if it’s addressed to anyone other than me (e.g. Dear Editor/Agent/Sir/Whom It May Concern/etc) – this shows that the author is taking a shotgun approach to finding an agent, and that’s usually not the right fit for me. Using broad generalizations (e.g. it’s Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games!) or dated comp titles is a red flag for me tooit shows that the author may not be aware of the current trade market. I know that it can be hard work and time-consuming for authors to target their queries towards specific agents, but I think that approach works better in the long run.
As a literary agent, you also represent illustrators. Can you share what you’re looking for in submissions? Is there anything particular that is sure to catch your attention?
I come from a writing background (I was an English-Creative Writing major in college), so art for me is a little bit more subjective and more intuitive. Not to sound like a broken record, but I always look for strong character in illustrations, and ideally I’d love to see the same character going through several different emotions (to get a better sense of how an artist can tell a story visually). My favorite one-off pieces (e.g. for postcards and promos) are ones that almost tell a complete story (like this very early illustration by Mark Fearing), and leave me wanting to find out what happens next.
Social media is a big conundrum for most writers, and we often wonder how much time we should spend building that aspect of our career prior to being published. What platforms do you like to see when you’re considering a potential client? Twitter, a solid web site? Additional platforms?
Social media should be a helpful tool for authors and illustrators to reach and cultivate a larger audience. If you’re ambivalent or not at all comfortable with social media use, it may work against you. At this point, I do think it’s mandatory for all authors and illustrators to have a website. It’s OK if it’s super basic, as long as it looks professional and clean. For other social media like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc., it’s often a component of an author or illustrator’s overall appeal, but the actual creative work is far and away the most important thing.
Is there a difference in the platforms you like to see if a potential client is a picture book writer versus MG or YA?
I don’t have any hard and fast rules when it comes to social media use for clients—some have thousands of followers, while others have a handful, and that’s OK. I do think there is a difference, though, in social media for picture book/lower-MG authors vs. YA authors. For YA authors, social media is a chance to connect directly with their teenage readership, whereas most toddlers and younger readers (hopefully!) don’t yet have Twitter, but their parents do. So it’s important to keep that audience in mind when building your platform.
Imagine that an epic blizzard is about to descend and your local bookstore is closing in ten minutes—what three books on your “to read” list MUST you own before being snowed in?
The first is Ulysses by James Joyce. I bought a copy when I was 18, and I still haven’t made it farther than the first 10 pages (though it’s survived every one of my dozen moves since then). I also have a penchant for not reading the last book in trilogies, so I would probably grab Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (no spoilers, please!). And I realize this is borderline sacrilege for a children’s publishing professional, but I haven’t read all of the Harry Potter books, so I’d add those as well (which I realize is cheating, but it sounds like we’re going to be snowed in for a long time).

Bitterblue - Photo 5                 Mockingjay - Photo 6

And now for our lightning round! Tell us your favorite…
Sports fiction novel:
  THE ART OF FIELDING, by Chad Harbach.

Art of Fielding - Photo 7


Book from when you were a child?
 THE WESTING GAME, by Ellen Raskin.

Westing Game - Photo 8

Book that made you laugh?

Any book by Kurt Vonnegut.
Book that made you stay up way too late?
Most recently, The First Bad Man by Miranda July. But it happens more often than I’d like to admit.

First Bad Man - Photo 9


 Place to read:
A comfortable couch during a thunderstorm.
Vacation spot:
Visiting my brother in Zambia and going white-water rafting on the Zambezi river.
Television show:
Game of Thrones or any competitive cooking show.
And last but not least, if you could choose between winning the lottery or the Mets winning the World Series, which would it be?
The odds are probably pretty close for both, but I’d take the Mets in a heartbeat. 
Thank you for spending time with us, Sean! We’re looking forward to meeting you at the Pocono Retreat!
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5 Responses to A Café Chat with Literary Agent Sean McCarthy, by Lori Ann Palma

  1. I’m so excited to meet Sean at the Pocono Retreat! He works with an amazing group of clients so a) he must have great taste and b) he must be do his job well! It was fun getting to know him better. And sometimes it’s better not to read the last book in the series, so you can create your own ending : ) Thank you, Lindsay!

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