Thursday, February 7, 2013

Small Press 411: Agent Jessica Sinsheimer

About Jessica: Jessica Sinsheimer has been reading and campaigning for her favorite queries since 2004. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she went east for Sarah Lawrence College and stayed for the opportunity to read soon-to-be books for a living. Now an Associate Agent at the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency, she’s developed a reputation for fighting office members to see incoming manuscripts first—and for drinking far too much tea.

Twitter: @JSinsheim
Queries: (but check out the submission guidelines first)

Query wish-list: Always on the lookout for new writers, she is most excited about finding literary, women’s, and Young Adult fiction, and—on the nonfiction side—psychology, parenting, self-help, cookbooks, memoirs, and works that speak to life in the twenty-first century. Also, pretty much anything that features food.

How many clients do you typically take on a year? And about how many queries do you get in a year?

We receive about 50 queries a day (including Saturdays and Sundays—I even received a handful on Christmas!), which works out to about 18,200 queries a year. 

 I normally take on around five clients a year—but I don’t have a quota. If I love something, I make an offer; if it’s been months and I love nothing, I don’t. 

 Offers often come in batches. There were seven people in my TBR pile this week who received offers from other agents--which meant that I had to read all of them within seven days. In addition, I have my eye on two other manuscripts. Once I get second reads, I’m very likely to go ahead and make offers on those two. And yes, it’s only February! 

Agent secret: sometimes, when I get something that sounds especially interesting, I’ll think to myself, “Please be good. PLEASE be good” while I wait for the file to open. I know a lot of writers assume agents are doing their darndest to reject everyone, but that just isn’t the case. We need you, too--and not just because we also love to (and, I would argue, need to) read wonderful books.

What do you think is the biggest misconception among writers today in regards to small presses? To bigger houses? To agents? What would you say to correct these thoughts?

I think a lot of writers suffer from all-or-nothing thinking: they believe they get published by a big house, or they may as well self-publish; that they must get a big advance or, otherwise, a publisher isn’t invested on any level—or they worry that a small press isn’t capable of getting their work into the hands of readers. 

This does, of course, vary—some small presses are better than others, and some are great in one area while lagging behind in another. But much of this is quickly obvious to an agent. Small presses expect tough questions, and everyone has been pretty flexible about contracts. I’ve made enormous bullet pointed lists of requested changes and, in one case, had all of my wishes granted. In other cases, we’ve been able to come to an agreement that works for all parties.

Is publishing with a small press a valid option for writers?

Yes, absolutely. The choice between a large press and a small press is often like the difference between an enormous university and a small college. It depends on the sort of experience that is the best fit for the writer.

How do you decide when to submit to a small press? Is it usually a last resort situation?

It isn’t—my submissions are a mix of large and small presses.

What do you think is the difference (if there is any) about what bigger houses are /aren’t looking for vs. what smaller houses are/aren’t looking for?

I think small presses are generally more open to works that may have a smaller built-in audience. They often specialize in one thing and do it well. One of my books, ADHD in HD: Brains Gone Wild (a book about the benefits—and yes, there are benefits!--of having ADHD, and how to work around the more difficult aspects) went to Free Spirit. Their books all focus on improving the social and emotional lives of children which, yes, is very specific. We got a lot of “I love this, but ed board says the audience is too small” responses, and then Free Press came along with an offer, a vision, and a huge appreciation for the author’s unique style. They took the author’s idea and ran with it. We had this wonderful conference call, and the Jonathan and I just knew they were the right fit. 

Not only did Free Spirit adore the him (he’s delightful and bouncy--and, when he came to town, he actually brought out a whole series of impressive dance moves on the subway platform), but they noticed his special skills. Jonathan has an acting background? Great, let’s make videos! Jonathan likes a graphics-friendly layout, so kids with ADHD don’t get bored reading long passages? Awesome, here are three artists to choose from. 

The book looks wonderful, everyone is pleased, and I couldn’t be happier.

Would you encourage a writer to self publish vs. signing with a small press? Why or why not?

It depends on the author. Many writers, while they write alone, do not want to work alone. Many are great at writing but not promotion, or just want more time to write.
It all depends on the author’s skills, resources--and, most of all, interests. How do they want to spend their time?

Are you more or less likely to consider a project that has an offer attached from a small press vs. one that doesn’t?

More likely, though it depends which press it is--if I like that books that press publishes, it’s an added bonus. Publishing is an incredibly subjective business. Any endorsement from another professional in the field is a plus.

Does it matter to you when potential clients sub to small presses before/while they submit to agents?

I’m fine with it, as long as the writer keeps everyone informed if there’s an offer. I prefer at least one week between offer and acceptance, so I’ll have a chance to jump in.

Have you ever experienced a client taking an offer from a small press over a larger house?

I haven’t, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t or won’t happen. I advise my clients to examine all portions of a deal, and often there’s a clear match—an editor who just seems right on many levels for the book.

Does signing with a small press inhibit an author from signing with a bigger house later? What about an agent? Does it help with either?

Signing with a small press is infinitely better than self-publishing your book and having it sell a grand total of three copies (one to each of your parents, say, and one to your cat). Then your work can be (isn’t always, but can be) viewed as a failed experiment. 

Conversely, if the book does very well, no one is going to care who published it. 

Yes, I think having a small press deal under one’s belt can be helpful in securing an agent. You won’t be a debut author, but if you’re writing wonderful things, and selling books, no one will care.

Have you noticed any differences in royalties/advances between a small press and a larger house? If so, what do you think are the advantages/disadvantages?

It depends on the house and the book. In general, yes, large presses offer larger advances; however, small presses are often more flexible about royalties. Assuming the book earns out its advance, at that point, the author can actually end up making more.

Do you notice a difference in the success of a book with a small press and a book with a bigger house?

Very few readers, when in the bookstore, decide to shop by publishing house—many aren’t even familiar with their names or logos. I think readers are more likely to shop by genre, topic, recommendations from friends, and quality of writing in the first few pages. 

There are so many factors that go into whether a book succeeds or hardly sells--we can’t always know exactly what that happens. 

And small presses do get their books on bestseller lists!

As writers, the common view (especially to people entering the writing world in the current market) is: write a book, get an agent, get a big book deal. What are your thoughts on this kind of thinking?

It depends on the project. Sometimes it’s write a book, get a book deal offer, get an agent to negotiate said book deal, get published. Sometimes it’s write part of a book, meet an agent, get a book deal. Sometimes it’s meet an agent, have agent give you an idea, write a book, get book deal...
Everyone’s publishing experience is different.

What’s the most important thing an author should consider before deciding to submit to a small press? Before he/she signs a contract?

If it’s your dream to have an agent, it’s generally best to go that route first—we can help you polish your project until it’s ready. This way, you don’t risk sending a draft that isn’t fully realized yet.
Also, agents know editors personally, unlike most writers—and know who is looking for what projects. Often editors have huge areas of interest that no one would know about unless they’d had lunch with them. 

I’m also a big advocate of having someone go over your contract before signing—ideally an agent, versus a lawyer, simply because book contracts often vary a great deal from standard contracts. As an author, you probably don’t know what’s standard, and what will negatively impact your career.

Thanks, Jessica, for answering these questions! We really appreciate your feedback.

Day three of agent talk and already we're seeing some trends. What are you thinking? What are you wondering? Don't forget to talk to us in the comments, to leave your questions, and to tweet at us at #SmallPress411. 


  1. This is a really great interview. I've often wondered about some of these very questions. So glad I checked Twitter to find it.


  2. What an informative and helpful interview! I've always been uncertain about small presses, but the comparison between a large university and a small college was perfect! Thanks so much!

  3. Great post! And very helpful. I'm published with Harlequin. But I'm in the process of submitting to small presses. Some people think I'm nuts. But the truth is, I want more flexibility in the stories I tell and more input into my titles, my covers, and my promotion. I'm hoping to find that with a small press. Ultimately I think a mix of small press and large press books is ideal.

  4. Wow, so helpful! Thank you Danielle and Jessica for this!