Chelsea Eberly is a literary agent with the Greenhouse Literary Agency, where she represents authors of middle grade, young adult, and women’s fiction, as well as illustrators who write picture books and graphic novelists. As a former Senior Editor at Penguin Random House, she edited award-winning and #1 New York Times bestselling books, working with authors such as Tamora Pierce, Leigh Bardugo, Marie Lu, Sarah J. Maas, Matt de la Peña, Jessica Cluess, Kim Johnson, Tae Keller, and Mark Siegel to name only a few. She has a deep understanding of how publishers think and is an expert advocate for her clients. Chelsea is also a Publishers Weekly Star Watch Honoree, which recognizes “the rising stars of the US publishing industry.” A Midwesterner turned New Yorker, she regularly presents at writing conferences across the country and enjoys teaching craft. Follow her on Twitter at @chelseberly and discover more about her taste at greenhouseliterary.com.
What lead you to children’s book publishing and becoming an agent?
I have always gravitated toward children’s books. I’m forever interested in their big emotional truths and coming-of-age storylines. I first discovered this love at The Reading Railroad, an indie children’s bookstore in my hometown of Toledo, Ohio. I got to know the staff, and eventually they started putting books behind the register for me. There’s nothing quite like an indie bookseller knowing your taste and recommending fabulous reads. They used to call my house whenever the next Tamora Pierce book came out. It was my happy place.
Eventually, I began reading the acknowledgments section and realized there were people working with authors to make books. What a dream job! I decided to become an editor and went to college to study English and business. After college, I edited textbooks at McGraw-Hill to gain experience and save up enough money to move to New York City, where I attended the Columbia Publishing Course. It was then that I landed that dream job at Random House Books for Young Readers.
Over a decade later, I was a senior editor who still deeply loved children’s books, but I wanted to work more closely with my authors without the conflict of interest of also representing a publisher. I was spending too much time in meetings and feeling disconnected from the work itself. When Sarah Davies, the fabulous founder of the Greenhouse Literary Agency, called me about an opportunity at the agency, it felt like a sign. The right person reaching out at the right time. As an agent, I love bringing my editorial skills and knowledge of the conversations publishers have behind closed doors to advise my clients and help their careers grow.
When you read a submission, what keeps you turning the pages?
Voice. I am a sucker for a unique voice. I know that I can help an author with positioning and plotting, if needed, but voice is something that an author has to bring to the page themselves. I love a read with literary ambition, so please send me the submissions with strong voice right from the very first page. The voice can be funny or gut-wrenching, so long as it is memorable.
Once you’ve read a manuscript that you gravitate towards, what makes you offer representation? How long of a process is that?
If I love a manuscript, I am likely to offer representation. But I do have to feel passionate about the read and have a clear vision for the book and its submission strategy. The process is not long once I fall in love with a manuscript. I’ll set up a call to see if the author and I share a vision and would work well together. In that call I want to answer the author’s questions and find out what they are looking for in an agent, how they like to communicate, what their career goals are, what else they’re working on, and if we agree on any notes that I might have for revision. (It’s okay to disagree on notes, but I wouldn’t want to sign a client who would end up hating the direction that my notes might take the read—the author should feel that I’m helping them achieve their vision.) After I offer representation, I feel an author should let other agents who have the manuscript know that they have an offer and take their time considering any other offers, asking me more questions if they have them during this time. It’s an important decision and not one to be rushed. This period often takes about two weeks, though the timing varies on the project and person. Once we sign together, the author and I take a moment to celebrate our partnership before I roll up my sleeves and get to work on their behalf!
What’s on your Manuscript wish list?
I’d love to see more middle grade in my inbox. Send me your middle grade with an unforgettable voice—I want to be laughing or crying so hard that people on the train move to the next seat over. I’m on the hunt for uplifting contemporary and/or magical realism tackling issues of family, friendship, and identity that will make me cry; stories with animals at the forefront that tackle big emotional truths; a mystery in the vein of The Westing Game or with a surprising, genre-bending twist like When You Reach Me; a commercial fantasy that flips traditional tropes and has non-European worldbuilding; and a humorous voice with a big heart, think Stand Up, Yumi Chung.
In young adult, I’m looking for an unforgettable, high-stakes love story; a fantasy with star-crossed lovers in a unique world with high-stakes conflict; a delightful rom-com filled with banter; a tense thriller in a closed setting and/or with a ticking clock; and a retelling with a voice and perspective that feels fresh, like Brittany Cavallaro’s Charlotte Holmes series. I prefer mysteries that feel grounded in teens’ lives, such as One of Us Is Lying, as opposed to stories where the main character is interning with the FBI or some such. I love when authors are thoughtful about structure and voice, for example, the use of multiple POVs and the tight timeline in The Sun Is Also a Star. I’m always interested in stories that take on toxic masculinity and allow male-identifying characters to be soft.
In the graphic novel medium, I am looking for middle grade and young adult contemporary, romance, fantasy, fractured fairy tales, unique retellings, and select historical/non-fiction projects. I love when authors are sharing their unique experiences in an autobiographical or semi-autobiographical way that feels universal in its specificity. Please send me projects with side-busting humor or box-of-tissues feels.
For illustrators who write picture books, I look for a strong character, a clear conflict, and a voice that is silly and fun and/or emotionally engaging. I love a surprise twist at the end!
In general, I tend to gravitate toward stories that are uplifting, joyful, and empowering. I’m especially interested in stories from BIPOC authors and/or those authors who identify as LGBTQ+, who write books that, as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s wrote, can act as a mirror, window, or sliding glass door to diverse experiences. I am not the right fit for stories completely centered on suicide, sexual assault, or eating disorders. I don’t love horror unless it feels like it’s using the horror genre to explore an interesting topic. My taste is upmarket commercial, and I love authors with literary ambition who are trying things I’ve never seen before.
You can send a query letter to Chelsea during the month of October chelseaE@greenhouseliterary.com