Eric Smith is a literary agent at P.S. Literary, where he’s represented titles such as New York Times bestselling essay collection I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying by Bassey Ikpi (Harper Perennial), cookbook Eat to Feed by Eliza Larson and Kristy Hohler (Da Capo), young adult novels Love, Hate & Other Filters (Soho Teen), Internment (Little Brown), and Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know (Soho Teen) by Samira Ahmed and Suggested Reading by David Connis (Katherine Tegen Books), astrology guide Friendship Signs by Brianne Hogan (Adams Media) and the nonfiction children’s book Kid Activists (Quirk Books) by Robin Stevenson, and many others.
Based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Smith has been a literary agent for about four years, after working at publisher Quirk Books and wanting “to move into working on my own books, the sort of stories I saw missing on the shelves of my local bookstore, and the kind of novels I wanted to read as a kid,” he said in an interview. Keep reading to find out how to get signed by Eric Smith for fiction and nonfiction, best practices for manuscript submissions and how social media plays a role in his work with clients.
Smith is also an author of several novels, including The Geek’s Guide to Dating, Inked, and Branded, all published by Bloomsbury, The Girl and the Grove (Flux), and 2020’s Don’t Read the Comments (Inkyard Press), a dual role he sees as an advantage to his clients. “As someone who also writes and has gone through the publishing motions a few times, I know what authors should expect during the process,” Smith said. “I get the anxiety of having a novel out on submission, I understand just how much rejection hurts for the writer, because I’ve gotten it plenty regarding my own work.”
Asked whether there’s a guiding principle behind the young adult novels he represents, Smith told me, “Hope is probably one of the biggest principles for me in YA. A lot of the novels I’ve been lucky enough to work on tackle really serious, heavy topics. If you look at some of the books my authors have coming out in 2020, that’s a pretty prevalent message.” Specifically, Smith cited Surrender Your Sons by Adam Sass (Flux Books), about a gay teen who gets kidnapped and swept away to a conversion camp and has to figure out how to get away, and Julia Ember’s upcoming F/F YA fantasy novel, Ruinsong (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Books for Young Readers), about teens battling for a kingdom’s freedom in a world where magic is sung.
He also recommended Tiana Smith’s upcoming YA rom-com, How to Speak Boy (Swoon Reads), set in the world of speech and debate, and Robin Stevenson and Tom Ryan’s co-written LGBTQ YA road trip novel, When You Get the Chance (Running Press), calling them “books that feel like hugs.”
As for how to pitch Smith, aside from following his agency’s submission guidelines, along with the resources and query tips on his website, one key piece of advice is for writers is to do the appropriate research rather than send mass emails. Smith said he sees mistakes like BCC-ing multiple agents across different agencies in one giant email with the salutation ‘Dear Agents,’ or querying a single agency as a whole, rather than an individual agent, every day. He said, “it’s a shame, because you know these writers are excited to get their work out there, and are maybe just missing the submission guidelines found on agent websites.”
These are the type of mistakes, though, that, according to Smith, “often get a query letter deleted.” Instead, he advised, “Take your time. You took your time with your novel, you spent so much time crafting it and making it beautiful. Chances are, you poured a lot of time into that query letter too. So don’t rush the querying process. Read what agents want you to do. It takes an extra few minutes, sure. But in the end, it’s worth it.”
When crafting a query letter, Smith recommends writers “lead in with a hook that grabs me, that dishes a bit of your plot, gives me the title, and gives me the word count and comparative titles in one sentence. Every author should be able to have some kind of elevator pitch regarding their book in their back pocket, so break it out.”
He also urged authors to remember that “agent advice can be pretty subjective. Everyone has their own way of requesting manuscripts and query letters, and their own tastes. Make sure you’re following and reading tips from others. I highly recommend listening to podcasts like Print Run, The Manuscript Academy Podcast, Shipping & Handling, and Literaticast.”
In terms of social media, Smith is particularly active on Twitter, where he often Tweets advice for writers and news about his authors’ books and other titles he’s enjoyed. Smith said that Twitter “makes agents more visible, and hopefully, makes publishing seem a little less scary and accessible.”
Smith said the social media platform has helped him “quite a bit” in his work as a literary agent, by connecting him with editors, fellow agents, and authors. “Sometimes authors will find me on social media first before pitching me. If I really like a manuscript, it gives me a chance to see what an author is like, what they are all about as a person. A lot of my clients, I got to know them over social media before reading their work.”
However, Smith offered reassurance that social media, and Twitter specifically, are not “an imperative part of the process,” for authors. “I can imagine a few readers checking this article out and worrying that if they don’t have a big Twitter following, they won’t get a deal for their novel. I definitely work with some authors who don’t have a Twitter following. The work comes first. Worry about writing a good book, and less about tweets.”
Additionally, Smith noted that he wants to see submissions catered to his literary tastes. He maintains a manuscript wishlist on his website, which includes detailed descriptions about each of the genres he covers as an agent: genre blending literary and commercial fiction, young adult, middle grade nonfiction, science fiction and fantasy, memoir and essay collections, cookbooks, and nonfiction history and pop culture. The list also includes Smith’s favorite books and authors within those genres as well as specific types of books he’d like to see, such as, within fiction, “I’m dying to find a great book about a cult or a survivalist or a plague… maybe all of them in one?” Smith said in our interview, “I’m always more likely to drop everything and read a book that feels like it’s written for me. A number of my clients, their books were ‘drop everything right now’ books.”
In terms of the young adult genre, while the primary audience is teenagers, Smith said, “we all know a lot of YA is read widely by adults. I think the important thing for writers to remember is that if you’re writing YA books, you are writing for that younger audience. You’re trying to reach them with a story. If you’re really just trying to write for that crossover audience, I don’t think you’re serving the younger readers you supposedly care about.”
Smith harkened back to the message of hope the YA genre offers as part of its widespread and long-standing appeal. “There’s something about the coming of age story that’s always going to be universal,” he said. “Experiencing something for the first time, and finding a way to push beyond it. Seeing the world end, and coming out on top. We’re always going to be drawn to those kind of stories, because we want that hope. It always comes back to that.”
Regarding the other genres Smith represents as an agent, he said, “I have a pretty broad taste in books and like to work on a bit of everything.” He cited his author Mike Chen’s 2019 novel Here & Now & Then (MIRA Books), calling it a “literary/sci-fi novel packed full of heart, about a time travel agent who gets trapped in the past, raises a family, and finds himself thrown back into the future when he is ‘rescued.’ He grapples with wanting to care for his family in the past while figuring out life in the future/present…and then his agency deletes his daughter from history. He has to break all the rules of time travel to try and save her.” Chen’s next novel, A Beginning at the End (MIRA) Books, will be published in January 2020.
Smith also praised client Erica Boyce’s first novels, 2019’s The Fifteen Wonders of Daniel Green and 2020’s Lost at Sea, both published by Sourcebooks Landmark. “Wonders is a literary novel about a man who travels the country making crop circles with a secret society, only to discover he wants a little simpler life on a small farm. It’s a really lush and beautiful story that made me openly weep in a public cafe. I don’t think I can go back there. Thanks Erica.”
Smith also highlighted upcoming novels by client Alison Stein, The Grower and Trashlands, both being published by MIRA Books (in 2020 and 2021 respectively), calling them “stunning end-of-the-world books set in Appalachia.”
Summarizing what the three abovementioned authors have in common, Smith said, “I like literary fiction that does a bit of genre blending, that gives us a little something different in stories that are small and intimate. Basically, I read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandell and have been chasing that high ever since.”
Asked which types of books are on his 2020 manuscript wishlist (P.S. Literary will reopen to queries on January 6), Smith said, “I really want to find more books like the ones I mentioned by Mike Chen, Alison Stine, and Erica Boyce. Literary novels that experiment with genre fiction, bring a little bit of the spectacular into the everyday. Mike’s book is less about the sci-fi, and more about the family. Erica’s is less about secret societies and crop circles, and more about the lengths we’ll go for a second chance. I love novels that can give us that little flash of magic but keep us firmly grounded in reality. It’s a really hard thing to do well, and I’m looking for writers who can do it. In the YA space, I’d love to find more literary novels that do a bit of the same: blend beautiful prose with a bit of speculative.”