Much like the book industry itself, the role and expectations for literary agents are changing dramatically, and Regina Brooks, founder and president of Serendipity Literary Agency, offers an up-to-the-minute example. Besides managing the careers—conventional and self-published—of more than 100 authors, launching a gourmet tea line, and cofounding a book imprint at Akashic Books, she’s an author as well. This month, St. Martin’s Press is publishing her second nonfiction book, You Should Really Write a Book: How to Write, Sell, and Market Your Memoir.
Serendipity marks its 12th anniversary this year, and Brooks’s team includes agent Karen Thomas, former executive editor at Grand Central Publishing and founding editor of Kensington’s Dafina Books; associate agents Dawn Hardy and John Weber; plus Foladé Bell, digital strategist and international sales specialist. The agency’s author clients, Brooks said, have published between 80 and 100 books, which include several award winners. “I have authors who have won the Newbery, the Michael Printz Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Stonewall Award.”
The boutique agency handles everything except sci-fi, and because her team’s professional backgrounds are so diverse, Brooks is able to offer such services as social media marketing and public relations. She also establishes strategic partnerships with appropriate industries or corporations to help stimulate the sales of her clients’ books. And with the growth of self-publishing, she said, “on a case by case basis” she’s changed her business model to encompass authors who either want to or are forced to self-publish in e-book editions.
Although “black authors who want to work with a black agent look for me,” Brooks emphasized that Serendipity doesn’t exclusively represent African-American authors. “My agency is 50/50 [black and white]. I love to unearth gems. I have a balanced portfolio of pet projects plus less challenging ones. I train my authors to be bold and bodacious, but not obnoxious.”
“Part of what I do to brand the agency is to provide resources that help [my clients] develop themselves as authors,” Brooks said, explaining the benefits of writing her own book. “I want to be the go-to person on how to write for certain genres.” You Should Really Write a Book is her second how-to title and is aimed at agents as well as authors; her first was Writing Great Books for Young Adults: Everything You Need to Know, from Crafting the Idea to Landing a Publishing Deal (Sourcebooks, 2009). “It came out right after [the end of] Harry Potter and was specifically for the YA genre,” she said. “A lot of agents had adult clients who were seeing that YA books were getting six- and seven-figure advances, but they didn’t know how to represent that market. So it was a book for both agents and authors who wanted to tap into that market.”
Brooks said that her new book was inspired by the pitches she hears as a conference speaker. “Nine out of 20 were for memoirs. If I’m hearing those [pitches], so are other agents. So we read over 400 memoirs and broke down what you need to do to sell in each of those categories: incredible writing, a strong hook, and a platform.”
Ever the entrepreneur, she’s also launched a branded gourmet tea line tied to her writing and publishing businesses. Called Possibiliteas: Master-Brews for Creative Minds, the line offers a suite of three cleverly packaged blended teas that signify a “trilogy of inspiring teas” for creative people. “Ideas are easy; incredible ideas are hard. So I wanted to offer something to help spark those ideas internally.” The teas are sold in bookstores, online (possibiliteas.com), and soon to be at other retailers.
Before becoming an agent, Brooks held senior editorial positions handling technical titles at John Wiley and McGraw-Hill—she’s the first African-American woman to receive a B.S. degree in aerospace engineering from Ohio State (1993) and worked as an aerospace engineer for NASA. And yes, she said not quite joking, she still intends to become an astronaut.
In addition to agenting, for years she’s taught a course at Harvard University for doctors interested in writing books. She is a partner in Open Lens, a copublishing venture between Akashic Books, literary agent Marie Brown, and Hue-Man Bookstore owner Marva Allen. But her focus is on developing authors and publishing professionals. “Most of the people who’ve come to work here, either I’ve reached out to them or they’ve asked to be trained. I take on interns and they decide if they want to be in editorial or agents. If they choose editorial, we train them—and then I find them a position in a publishing house,” she said, laughing. “It usually works—then I have them in the houses, where I can sell them books!”