Friday, July 6, 2018

Interview with Canadian literary agent Rachel Letofsky of the Cooke Agency

Rachel Letofsky
Note: This interview was originally posted in August 2017. Since then, the Cooke Agency has merged with the McDermid Agency to become CookeMcDermid (see here).  With nine agents, CookeMcDermid is one of Canada's largest agencies. This summer, on August 18, I'll have one of their agents, Paige Sisley, as my guest speaker at a How to Get Published workshop in cottage country. Details here

Rachel Letofsky is an Associate Agent with the Cooke Agency. Headquartered in Toronto, the Cooke Agency has five agents on staff, led by Dean Cooke. Rachel joined the Agency in 2010. She frequently travels throughout Canada and the US to various writer’s festivals and literary events such as Bloody Words, PNWA, CanSCAIP, SiWC, VWF, NorthWords and Quick Brown Fox workshops.
Rachel is actively seeking ground-breaking and heart-breaking middle grade and young adult titles in all genres. She is drawn to works with a whimsical nature or a grounded, gritty edge in equal measure, though in either instance, unforgettable characters and original concepts are a must. Rachel also has a natural soft-spot for exquisite literary fiction.
In nonfiction, Rachel is looking for narrative-driven memoirs, and anything quirky and life-affirming. Rachel is particularly committed to working with previously unpublished authors in a focused, collaborative and hands-on manner.
Rachel recently married and moved to the west coast with her husband. (So it's going to be trickier getting her as a guest speaker for Quick Brown Fox workshops!) She is on Twitter at @rachelletofsky.

Quick Brown Fox: Rachel, a big welcome to Quick Brown Fox, and an even bigger congratulations on your marriage!
Rachel: Thank you so much, Brian! It’s been a wonderful whirlwind. My new husband is a full-time freelance and ghostwriter, so I’m just saturating my whole life with the craft of writing even more these days, if that’s possible!

QBF: Now that you’re working on the west coast, how does that work, being with an agency that’s headquartered in Toronto? And are you still as interested in Canadian authors?
Rachel: Oh yes. I am always actively seeking talented Canadian authors. We also rep authors from all over the world – Barbados, the Netherlands, India, the UK and, of course, the US – so borders and geography don’t keep us from working with any author we take a shine to.

QBF: Do you have suggestions about getting manuscripts in shape before writers start the submission process?
Rachel: It is important that you submit your work when you feel it is in its best shape. You want us to be blown away and unable to say “no,” so submit your best work. Your query and sample material need to be polished and professional – if we spot some spelling or grammar errors in those opening pages, we can’t help but imagine how that permeates the rest of the work. Comb over your submission and be sure to get some other trusted sets of eyes on it as well.

QBF: What sort of books are you especially looking for? Anything you see too much of or that seems overdone these days?
Rachel: I love diverse, authentic voices and unique settings. If you can make me laugh or make me cry, I’m hooked. On the fiction side, I focus specifically on young adult and middle grade for the agency, (with a smattering of adult literary fiction). In middle grade, I’m drawn to whimsical adventures like THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING or THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, and in YA I love high stakes, gritty realism like LIVING DEAD GIRL or GIRL IN THE BLUE COAT… I also promise that I don’t only like books with the word “girl” in the title! 
On the non-fiction side, I’m looking for narrative-driven memoirs that read like fiction. WILD and THE GLASS CASTLE are two of my ultimate favorites. I also like quirky and life-affirming essay collections from interesting voices, like Scaachi Koul’s ONE DAY WE’LL ALL BE DEAD AND NONE OF THIS WILL MATTER or Jenny Lawson’s FURIOUSLY HAPPY.
In terms of overdone trends, I tend not to rule anything out. Just when I say to myself, “I cannot read another zombie apocalypse book, so help me,” is the very moment that an amazing zombie apocalypse book lands on my desk that makes me say, “Well, except for this zombie apocalypse book.” It really is all about the writing and the voice for me. I will, however, caution against writing to capitalize on trends you see working in the marketplace. This can come across as inauthentic and by the time your work gets to the shelves (if you find an agent and publisher for it), the trend will have moved on. Write the work that you have a burning desire to write and let us figure out how to sell it.
QBF: Can you tell us about your process when you’re considering a project.
Rachel: We take a strong team-based approach at The Cooke Agency, so anything that an agent is seriously considering is always read by at least one other agent here. That means that I need to sell your manuscript in-house well before pitching it to a publisher. It helps us really focus our enthusiasm by providing an early glimpse into how we would sell this project and also gives our authors more than one champion at the agency who is familiar with them and their work.

QBF: What grabs your attention when you’re reading a query letter?   
Rachel: I read query letters the same way I have always treated books in the bookstore. I read the back cover or inside flap copy (which should contain a brief synopsis about the work and the author’s bio), then I flip to the opening page (the first four pages of the ms) and start reading. If I am compelled to turn the page, I buy the book (or request the manuscript).
That said, there are certain flags I look for when reading a query letter. The most important thing is to demonstrate that you’ve done your research. Tell me why you’re sending this to our agency and to me specifically. Respect our posted guidelines by following them, and show me that you are someone I’d want to work with.

QBF: Are there things you come across in query letters or manuscripts that will get them immediately rejected? If so, what are a few of them?
Rachel: Query letters that are impolite or extremely aggressive are a big no-no. Stick to professional addresses in salutations and sign offs. Do not use weird fonts in eye-catching colours (if in doubt, stick to black on white, 12 point, Times Roman Numeral font). Consider your query letter like the cover letter for a resume and adopt the same tone. Our authors are our bosses in the very real sense that they pay our salaries (and, of course, we do not get paid unless and until they do), but we are in the position of being able to decide if we want to work with you. Make me want to work with you.
Another thing that can make me immediately raise an eyebrow is citing the wrong word count for your stated genre. If a middle grade novel is 150,000 words long, for instance, it indicates to me that this author has not done the necessary research into their genre and/or the writing process.
In manuscripts, it all boils down to the writing, of course, and there is very little that will make me stop reading immediately. There are, however, red flags or common writing missteps that can add up in the opening pages that indicate to me that the author needs to do some more work on their craft. A few of these fall under the “rule of 3 W’s” … do not open with the Weather, Waking up or What your character is Wearing/looks like. These are very common story openers that we see time and again. Be original from the start. I want to see a strong, authentic, original voice on the page from the very first instant I start reading.

QBF: How do you decide if a manuscript is worth considering?
Rachel: It is very much a gut-feeling. There is a “lift factor” that I seek out. If I am transported off the pages of the work… no longer aware of the physical text in front of me, but lifted into the world of story and characters… then I will fight ferociously to represent the work and its author.

QBF: How many pages do you usually read before you give up on a manuscript?
Rachel:There is no hard and fast rule for me on that, it is very much a page by page decision, as long as your writing keeps driving me through the pages, I’ll keep turning them.

QBF: Besides the writing and publishing credentials – and loving their work, of course – is there anything else you like to know before you decide to represent an author? Does their online presence count? Do you like to meet with prospective authors?
Rachel: Online presence matters more for nonfiction than for fiction, but I do research an author as part of my process – so be aware of your online presence and make sure it captures you in the best light possible.
I always arrange a conversation with prospective clients before taking the next step of signing them. That could take the form of a long phone call, or series of calls, or an in-person meeting if we’re in the same city or at a conference together. It’s very important to have that person-to-person connection to see if we would work well together. It is also important for prospective authors to have a chance to ask me any questions they may have and to hear how I connect to their work before we take any next steps.

QBF: Can you tell us something about how you work with authors?
Rachel: We are a very editorial agency. We work with our authors to ensure that their manuscript is in the best possible shape before we go on submission to publishing houses. My first step, after signing an author, is to provide them with some deep editorial feedback on their work. This usually takes the form of an overarching editorial letter and a copy of the manuscript with detailed notes in the margins. I do a substantive edit, line-edit and copy-edit all at once, so my authors can expect feedback on a plot-level, a character arc-level, a thematic level, a consistency level and a spelling and grammar check-level. I ask a lot of questions as I read and encourage an open dialogue about the work. I always tell my clients that this is ultimately their work, and if I have suggested a change that doesn’t work for them, that’s totally fine… but I want them to be able to defend and articulate to me why they disagree with my suggestion. If they can do that well, their conviction will come across on the page and that authenticity I’m always seeking will ring out.
How much editorial work do you do with your clients?
We’ll undergo as many editorial rounds as it takes, so there is often more than one back and forth communication of the nature I described above.

QBF: Can you tell us something about how you pitch to publishers.             
Sure! Again, we find that personal touch and connection to be invaluable, so we try to connect to editors in person as much as possible. We set up sales trips and in-office meetings at the publishing houses and, if that is not possible, we arrange phone calls to pitch the work to the editors before we send through any material. I just went on a sales trip to New York in May, where I met with over 30 editors in person to talk about three specific projects I had ready for submission. Nothing can convey genuine enthusiasm as well as a lively pitch conversation.

QBF: What writing advice do you give most to your clients?
Write from the heart and be open to receiving feedback. Writing is a process and a craft, it can always be improved and, if your book gets published, it will mean that a lot of people are professionally invested in your work. An open dialogue will only serve to make your work better, so keep an open mind through the whole process.
Is there anything in particular about the publishing industry that you think writers should know?
We are, every single one of us, in the business of publishing because we love books. Inside each of the editors, agents, publishers, marketing heads, sales teams, book sellers and reviewers is the little kid we were when we first picked up that book that hooked us as life-long readers. Publishing is a community that truly values its product and creators. Remember that if you ever feel intimidated when approaching a professional about your work. There is a bookworm in all of us that really wants to geek out with you about our favourite subject in the world…books!!!

Direct queries to Rachel at
In the subject line, you must include “Author Query” to get around the spam filter. Also include your name and the title of your work. Include the first four pages of your manuscript pasted into the email. No attachments. Full submission guidelines here.

Paige Sisley

If you’re interested in getting published, soon or somewhere down the road, don’t miss upcoming How to Get Published workshops on Saturday, Aug 18, in Collingwood with literary agent Paige Sisley (see here) and Saturday, Nov 17, in Mississauga with literary agent Stephanie Sinclair (see here). 
For updated listing of How to Get Published workshops, see here (and scroll down).

And if you’re interested in Writing for Children & for Young Adults, Brian Henry will lead a mini-conference with Yasemin Uçar, senior editor at Kids Can Press, children’s author Kira Vermond, and YA author Tanaz Bhathena, Saturday, Sept 22, in Oakville (see here), a Writing Kid Lit weekly course on Friday afternoons, Oct 5 – Nov 30 in Toronto, and a Writing for Children & for Young Adults workshop Saturday, October 12, in Sudbury (see here).
For updated listings of Writing for Children & for Young adult workshops and for weekly Kid lit classes, see here (and scroll down).

And this summer, don't miss:  You can write great dialogue, Saturday, July 14, in Caledon (see here), and How to Write Great Characters, Saturday, Aug 18, in Guelph (see here).

Come September, Brian is leading a full roster of courses, Introductory to Intense (Details of all six courses here):
Welcome to Creative Writing, Thursday, afternoons, Sept 27 - Nov 9, in Oakville. See here.
Writing Personal Stories, Thursday evenings, Oct 4 – Nov 29, in Burlington. Sees here.
Writing Kid Lit, Friday afternoons, Oct 5 – Nov 30, in Toronto. See here.
And Intensive Creative Writing, offered in three locales:
Tuesday afternoons, Sept 25 – Nov 27 (first readings emailed Sept 18), in Burlington. See here.
Wednesday evenings Sept 26 – Dec 5 (first readings emailed Sept 19), in Georgetown. See here.
Friday mornings Sept 28 – Nov 30 (first readings emailed Sept 21), in Toronto. See here.
See details of all six courses here.

To reserve a spot in any workshop, retreat, or weekly course, email

Read reviews of Brian’s courses and workshops here.

See Brian’s complete current schedule hereincluding writing workshops, weekly writing classes, and weekend retreats in Algonquin Park, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Cambridge, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Midland, Mississauga, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Saint John, NB, Sudbury, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

Navigation tips: Always check out the labels underneath a post; they’ll lead you to various distinct collections of postings. Also, if you're searching for a literary agent who represents a particular type of book, check out this post. 

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