It is both my honor and pleasure to introduce Gretchen Stelter from Baker’s Mark Literary Agency. Baker’s Mark was established in 2005 in Portland, Oregon by both Gretchen, the Editorial Director, and Lead Agent Bernadette Baker-Baughman. Some of their main fiction interests are edgy YA, urban fantasy, classic stories re-imagined, and magical realism.
Q: First of all, I must ask. How was Comic-Con?
A: Ah, Comic-Con. It was capes, chaos, and comics, just like it is every year, but it was fabulous as well, just as it always is. Bernadette and I have begun to refer to it as Comic-thon, as it is four days of running from meeting to meeting, often from a booth in one section of the enormous SD Convention Center to a booth in another section, meeting with all the people that we only get to see at conventions. Going to the Con is like a really fun reunion with friends and colleagues where you also get to do business and see people dressed as Storm Troopers.
This year was very different from past years for us. Since Baker’s Mark has been agenting for four years this month, publishing schedules and the sheer amount of time it takes to produce a graphic novel means we have a lot of books under contract with only a handful out. This Comic-Con, we got to see two of our clients promote their book (Chris Ryall and Scott Tipton, who wrote Comic Books 101 for Impact Books) and three others get geared up for their October releases with their publishers. The buzz around Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett (coming out from Abrams Image) was a literary agent’s dream, and it was a different experience for me to see the scuttlebutt develop with the public around the final product as opposed to with publishers around the pitch.
We also got to meet with Dan Elconin, who wrote Never After (coming out from Simon Pulse), and since he’s based in California, it was exciting to see him and for us all to see the ARCs of his book at the Simon & Schuster booth and hear what’s being said about it before its release date in October.
Overall, SDCC was fun, friendly, frenetic, exciting, and completely exhausting, and I don’t think Bernadette and I would expect anything less.
Q:Was being a literary agent always your dream? What inspired you to become an agent?
A: Actually, no. It had to be explained to me what a literary agent was when I was in grad school! I have a B.A. in literature from Ball State University, and I thought I was going to become a professor. I did a semester of grad school in the Master’s literature program at BSU, took my LSATs and considered law school, and actually ended up studying Writing, Editing, and Publishing at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. There, the program focuses a lot on the editing and journalism side of publishing, and while I loved Australia and the head of my department there, I decided to come back to the States and try to find a program where my editing and journalism experience could be put to good use dealing with book publishing instead of professional or journalistic editing.
I would have to give credit for the inspiration to become an agent to my life-long love of books and my business partner. Bernadette and I met in the publishing program at Portland State University, and she had already sold a book written by a fellow classmate to a small, local publisher. She was going to continue as an agent and wanted a partner. The idea of working with authors and being the advocate that helped them get published definitely appealed to me. I love reading, and I can champion books that I have nothing to do with except that I read them and loved them. I knew that writers need proponents, so the chance to work with Bernadette suddenly provided me the opportunity to spend my days doing just that; reading, editing, and convincing people to love the books I love, which is basically my dream job. Let’s just say, in spite of Bernadette’s ability to sell, she definitely didn’t have to rely on those skills to get me on board with Baker’s Mark.
Q: What are some of the benefits of being established in Portland?
A: The creative community is thriving here—writers, artists, designers, zines, literary journals, creators of all kinds. Amazingly, though, there isn’t a ton of publishing infrastructure to support such a vibrant, imaginative culture. As Bernadette and I were already here and working in the industry, we were aware of all these amazing writers and graphic novel creators who had no idea how to pitch an agent, bag a book deal, or negotiate a contract if they already had a contract. When we started the agency, we wanted to be sure that we were providing a partnership with our clients, not just a “service.” Living in Portland, scores of creators suddenly popped up once word got around that we were an agency taking on new clients AND that we were pitching publishing houses in New York. The idea that you can work with major publishing houses in New York without being based there was still a new concept when we started. While we love the editors we work with and wish we could see them more often than we get to, being near the majority of our clients in what is a relatively close-knit city that is so focused on books really fuels our own passion for everything literary. It’s not just the people who work in the industry either; this town is full of book lovers, readers, artists, libraries, bookstores, and people who just generally get having that passion for something creative. Maybe the rain breeds it in us; we’re forced to stay indoors while living out amazing worlds in our heads.
Beyond that, I just love Portland in general: The nature, the bike-friendliness, the general zeitgeist. It’s the only city town I’ve lived in where I’ve just fallen in love with the city as well as the people.
Q: Besides simply not being hooked by the story, what is one/are some of the main reasons why you turn down a partial or full manuscript?
A: Dialogue. I am a stickler for having believable dialogue, especially with YA projects. If you can’t write like a teenager talks, you probably aren’t really in their space and relating to them like you need to be. I can love the plot and feel that the prose is pretty solid, but weak dialogue just kills it for me. As the Editorial Director, I work with our writers to try and get their manuscripts as tight as possible before Bernadette takes it to publishers, and I’ve learned that dialogue is one of those things that you just can’t breeze through and “fix” in a manuscript.
Q: On the other hand, what makes you fall in love with a manuscript?
A: I love a plot that moves, a character I want to be or can at least relate to, and dialogue that is true to the characters. I also love tight prose that really shows the writer not only has talent and uses all the resources within their reach but also cares deeply about what they are showing me. Additionally, I really love a new take on an old story. I recently read What Would Emma Do? by Eileen Cook, and I got quite a ways through it before I realized that it was a YA re-imagining of The Crucible. The editor who gave it to me didn’t even mention this fact, and it wasn’t so obvious that it hit me over the head, and I loved the subtlety in that. That was amazing, and we’ve had some great manuscripts come our way that do that.
Q: Baker’s Mark deals heavily with graphic novels. Are you a big comic fan?
A: Absolutely. I was a huge comic fan as a kid, mainly Archie, X-Men, and Spiderman. Now, of course, I still read tons, but I mainly read graphic novels, not comics as much (DMZ from Vertigo & Polly and the Pirates from Oni are two exceptions to that). If I put together a reading list for someone looking to get a good idea of what graphic novels are all about, or at least why I love them, I’d tell them: Scott Pilgrim, Pop Gun War, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Blankets, The War at Ellsmere, Persepolis, Maus, Jar of Fools, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and Therefore, Repent.
Q: If you could design a dream YA protagonist, what would some of their traits be?
A: They’d be sarcastic, flawed, quirky, eccentric, lovable, real and have striking wit, good inner dialogue, interesting friends and relatives, and a certain amount of self-deprecating humor.
Q: What was your favorite book as a teenager and why?
A: Hmmm, favorite book as a teenager….just one? I’d have to say my tastes fluctuated quite a bit from the time I was 13 until I was 19. In my younger years, I started reading Lois Duncan books and I think I managed to read all the ones that were already published by the time I was done with my freshman year. I became a bit John Irving fan thanks to my junior-year English teacher, Mr. Olmstead (an amazing teacher). Once I got near the end of my high school years I was reading Dean Koontz and F. Scott Fitzgerald. As much as I want to say that I had a huge affinity for a specific YA novel, Lois Duncan’s writing was my only favorite who wrote YA. That’s why I love YA works now: They are true to the ups and downs, the hormones, and the drama—both real and imagined—of being that age.
Q: Do you have any new or upcoming releases from clients that you would like to share with us?
A: Absolutely. I touched on this when I talked about the Comic-Con, but I would love to repeat it! Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett will be coming out from Abrams Image at the beginning of October. It’s a fabulous illustrated book covering the exploits of the amazing Victorian era robot Boilerplate.
Later that month, we have Never After by Dan Elconin coming out from Simon Pulse. We’re really thrilled for this project as well. This is a dark re-imaging of the Peter Pan story written by a brilliant, college student.
Q: Is there any advice that you would like to give to unpublished and first-time authors?
A: This might seem somewhat clichéd, but for unpublished writers, don’t become disenchanted by rejection. It’s not easy on purpose. If you love what you do, do it well, and don’t mind promoting yourself; chances are that you’ll eventually get recognized. Also, it’s important to realize that you need to have someone who is a true advocate for you, someone who truly believes in you, so those agents or publishers that turn you down actually are doing you a favor; if they don’t really get your work, they won’t be doing your career any favors by aligning yourself with someone who isn’t facing the same direction as you.
For first-time authors, after you get a book deal, a lot of people will work on your book during the course of its birthing process, and they all have opinions of what should happen to your work, not necessarily in line with what you originally intended. Listen to your agent and editor because they know what they’re talking about but stand up for issues you think important to the integrity of your work. You, after all, are the creator.
Just For Fun:
Q: If you were chosen to save the world from an impending doom and could choose your own superpower, what would it be?
A: I was always an X-Men girl myself, and while my brother always got to be Gambit and I was Storm when we were kids. Now, I would totally steal my brother’s idea and take Gambit’s powers. Manipulating energy and possessing hypnotic charm—not to mention the cool card throwing—how can you beat that?
Q: Tell us your favorite musical artist, favorite movie, and favorite television show.
A: Right now, I’m listening to a lot of Vampire Weekend and Kings of Leon, but I will always adore Van Morrison and Nina Simone, who I must consider my all-time favs. My favorite movie of recent watching is The Reader; my favorite movie overall is probably The Sting. How can you not love Paul Newman and Robert Redford in a good old-fashioned caper? Favorite television show is easy: Bones.
Q: Are you reading anything for fun right now?
A: Oh, I’m always reading quite a few books, and to be honest, I have fun reading things I “have” to as well, so I’ll give you the list of what I’m currently reading and you can judge if it’s fun or not: Johannes Cabal: The Necromancer by Jonathan Howard, Dear Mr. Mackin by Rev. Richard J. Mackin, and Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with OPWFT!
For more information on Baker’s Mark Literary Agency, their interests and disinterests, and how to submit, visit http://www.bakersmark.com