Literary agent Stephen Fraser shared his experiences in the publishing world, explaining that joy should drive the industry more than anything else.
PROVO, Utah (Feb. 24, 2016)—The image of the solitary writer bent over a typewriter is a romantic icon of American literature. But in addition to being technologically out of date, the image doesn’t give credit to the people working behind the scenes to bring books to readers; people who share the author’s love and joy for the printed word.
“Joy is the soil in which books are grown,” literary agent Stephen Fraser said to a room filled with student writers and editors. “From the writer to the agent, from the editor to the book designer . . . and finally from the bookseller to the reader, joy is what makes this wonderful mechanism of book creation operate properly.”
In a visit to campus, Fraser delivered a special presentation, “Finding Joy in Writing and Publishing,” drawing from a literary career spanning more than 35 years. He’s served at multiple publishers – including Highlights, Scholastic, Simon and Schuster and HarperCollins – and in varied positions. But wherever he was or what he was doing, joy has been the most important factor. Whether he was working one-on-one with authors as an editor or championing books to his publishers, passion was vital.
Ten years ago, though, Fraser realized that joy was missing from his work. As an executive editor for a major publishing house, Fraser was responsible for bringing in a million dollars’ worth of yearly revenue. Despite working daily with children’s books, Fraser began to feel that the bottom line, not the books, was driving his work. And though no job is without stress, he decided that a change in focus was called for and resigned his position.
Now working through the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency, Fraser is using his experience to bring new books to the attention of the publishing world. As an agent he is constantly fielding query letters from authors, reading their submitted manuscripts and finding the right publisher for their work. Sometimes multiple publishers will be interested, leading to an auction.
Of course, not every submission will make it to that final stage. Fraser said, “An agent can spot talent a mile away.” Finding that talent – and finding a home for it – is one of the most rewarding experiences of Fraser’s new career.
When Carol Lynch Williams, author and BYU professor of creative writing, learned that Fraser had left his executive editor position to become an agent, she was excited for the chance to finally work with him. The two had met previously during Fraser’s time as an editor, and Williams was struck by his love for books; as a writer, she feels just as strongly.
“We spend too much time writing out just one sentence,” she said. “We love the smell of books. We sleep with them piled up next to our beds. I wanted an editor like Stephen Fraser who cared about books.” She quickly sent him a query letter for her book A Glimpse is All I Can Stand. Thus began their soon-to-be decade-long partnership.
One experience in particular stuck out to Fraser: During the process of selling Williams’s book The Chosen One, he and Williams met with a potential buyer in New York City. The meeting, Fraser said, was unlike any other he’d been in. Over 20 representatives of the publishing house attended – including the editor, the publisher, the senior vice president, the business manager, the sales representative and the designer – and all of them had read the book. Not only that, but they had all loved the book and were excited about it.
That, according to Fraser, is the bedrock for good literature: everyone involved, not just the author and reader, finding joy in the experience. “A book is joy manifest. Think about all the time it took – the effort, the compromise, the patience – everything to get the book to that form. It truly is a joy.”
According to Fraser, the world is need of more books that can communicate that joy. Though he has nothing against the trend in dystopian fiction for young adults, Fraser believes that books can and should try to administer hope, even when dealing with heavy topics. He pointed to his favorite book, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, as an example of what books can do to lift the human spirit, and what he looks for in a new novel to promote. Authors, agents, editors and everyone else involved in the publication process have power to create joy desperately needed in today’s world.
Fraser concluded his remarks with an invitation: “Find that joy and cultivate it. It may take some stillness in your heart to find it. It may seem like everything else in your life is dead or not too exciting. But it’s coming to life. And when you find it, and you cherish it, it will come to life. And when it’s in full bloom, it will be a wonder to behold and a blessing to everybody.”
—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)