26 June 2019

New York literary agents Heather Karpas & Zoe Sandler on quality writing and compelling stories

Heather Karpas and Zoe SandlerFrom Left: ICM literary agents Heather Karpas and Zoe Sandler
by Katie Smart From the Agents

We’ve joined forces with major US agency ICM Partners for a special 6-month online novel-writing course starting this September. ICM have been working with the Curtis Brown agency for over 10 years on the UK and translation rights representation of its stellar list of authors. Now we are hugely excited to have Heather Karpas and Zoe Sandler – both literary agents at ICM in New York – join our upcoming 6-month online novel-writing course, with the shared mission of discovering and developing exciting new writers.

We caught up with Heather and Zoe to find out more about the current US market, their literary tastes, what they look for in a submission, and their involvement in our upcoming online novel-writing course …

How did you first start working at ICM Partners and what inspired you to become a literary agent?

HEATHER: I’ve always been a voracious reader. Growing up, it was hard to find me without a book in hand, and so my family called me “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast. I’ve known I wanted to be in the business of storytelling since an early age. In college, I applied for an internship at ICM and since then I’ve never let them shake me! I assisted Sloan Harris, co-head of the Publications Department, then became department coordinator with Zoe Sandler. I was then promoted to Agent, representing my own list of clients.

ZOE: I joined ICM almost eight years ago, weeks after moving to New York to pursue a continued career in publishing after spending three years at an academic press in North Carolina. My first position at ICM was assisting with royalties and foreign rights, which was a wonderful introduction to the agency side of publishing, to ICM’s agents and clients as a whole, and to the numbers side of our business. I then started working for Esther Newberg, who singlehandedly inspired me to become a literary agent. Her client list and career are unparalleled in our industry, and I could not have asked for a better mentor or introductory path to becoming an agent myself.

Can you tell us a bit about the first book you sold?

HEATHER: The very first book I sold was called The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein, an extraordinary story of Sandra Pankhurst who works as a clean crime scene cleaner. It had everything I love in a book: exquisite writing, paired with a deeply human and unexplored world. I represented this book with Dan Kirschen in the US and Karolina Sutton at the Australian ICM offices.

ZOE: The first book I sold actually just published in April, so even though it took a number of years to be released, it remains very representative of my nonfiction list. In Downriver: Into the Future of Water in the West, by Heather Hansman, the author – a river guide turned journalist – explores water rights and the issues surrounding water access that the western US faces, by way of a solo rafting trip down the Green River in Colorado.

What is the best thing about being an agent?

HEATHER: The people! This is a passion-driven business, so I never take on an obligatory project. Each person I work with teaches me something new, inspires me and opens the world in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I’m so lucky. And there’s more! I work with the most ambitious, generous and fun-loving colleagues. They make coming to work each day a true delight while always inspiring me.

ZOE: The joy of pairing an author I’m so excited to represent with an editor who is similarly so excited to publish that author. Making that match and forming a solid team around a project is such a special feeling, and one that drives me on a daily basis.

Which books are you looking forward to reading this year?

HEATHER: I’m anticipating many goodies this year. Some well-known favorites are back: Olive Kitteridge is one of my most beloved characters in literature, so I’m beyond excited to read Elizabeth Strout’s sequel Olive, Again. Same goes for Margaret Atwood, The Testaments as a follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale. Colson Whitehead is a genius—I can’t wait to read The Nickel Boys.

There are also some newer voices in the mix: Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino; Bunny, by Mona Awad; On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong; and The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray.

ZOE: I just started reading the thriller The Chain by Adrian McKinty, which has been getting lots of buzz here and is so far an engrossing (albeit slightly stress-inducing) read. Like much of the world, I’m also eager for Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments to publish. And lastly, I’m such a fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing and will be excited to read his first novel, The Water Dancer.

Can you tell us what debut novels are doing well in the US market at the moment? What is getting American publishers and bookbuyers really excited?

HEATHER: We’re in a change-making moment in publishing, offering huge opportunities for debut writers to release stunning and innovative new stories. The books making the biggest impact on the audience and market right now are siloed and specific stories, which illuminate a world or provoke a discussion about a niche or problem in society. I’m delighted to see more and more space for marginalized voices and portrayals of cultures not often seen in literature.

What always gets publishers excited? Quality. A book that tells a story in the most compelling way. Going much beyond that is overthinking it and the book winds up feeling like a cynical attempt to game the system.

ZOE: Alex Michaelides’ The Silent Patient has been an instant bestseller, an indication that psychological thrillers remain popular amongst publishers and readers alike. Same thing with historical fiction, with the huge success of another debut, Heather Morris’ The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Something that never fails to excite publishers and book buyers is identifying a compelling story behind the story: the author’s background, personal connection to the narrative, anything from the author’s own life that adds to the hook of the novel and becomes part of its selling point.

What’s your top tip for aspiring authors submitting to agents for the first time?

HEATHER: I like to remind writers that the query letter is the agent’s first impression of their writing. If the pages of the book are dazzling, voice-y and energetic, don’t introduce it with a sterile and forgettable email.

ZOE: Be as targeted as possible with your query. Research the agent’s list and background, and mention those details in the query letter. The more specifically meant for me the query reads, the more likely I am to take notice.

Do you have any pet peeves when you’re reading submissions?

HEATHER: I read all my queries, but will stop reading if it becomes clear that I’ve received a generic letter. “Dear AGENT” without a specific name is a non-starter. I want writers to do their homework by the time they come to me. Of all the incredible agents out there, why are you querying me specifically? Some writers spend so much time working on their books, but so little time thinking about getting an agent.

ZOE: Misspelling my name in the query is one, which may seem a small thing, but speaks to the importance of attention to detail.

What types of books are you looking to add to your list at the moment?

HEATHER: I’m looking for books driven by the heart that ignite conversation and connection. I want to help fresh, original voices tell moving, thought-provoking, and boundary pushing stories about the way we connect to one another and our world. I love to journey with a strong character’s unique voice (plus smart humor) and their fascinating take on an unknown world or subculture.

ZOE: Much of my nonfiction list has to do with our relationship with the environment, so I would love to find more fiction that explores that relationship as well, and reminds readers through story what’s at stake as so much of our natural world is under threat. And while I hesitate to ask for outright horror, I’m currently seeking dark fiction that dabbles in that genre.

We’re thrilled that you’re joining us for our next 6-month online novel-writing course, what excites you most about being involved?

HEATHER: I’m honored and excited to be a participant. To me, there’s nothing better than discovering new and emerging voices. I look forward to giving fresh authors the opportunity to hone their craft and solidify their storylines. I hope to encounter a book I’ve never before read—something that shakes my world and that I absolutely need to be a part of. That’s the beauty of this business: every story I get behind I must love with the same fervor as its writer.

ZOE: I’m thrilled as well! The possibility of discovering an irresistible new voice, one that I can help break out, is what has me most excited about being involved in the course.

Applications are open now for our 6-month online novel-writing course led by award-winning author Lisa O’Donnell, with contributions from agents here at Curtis Brown and C&W in London, as well as Zoe and Heather from ICM Partners in New York.

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