Home » Agent Q&A: Courtney Miller-Callihan

Agent Q&A: Courtney Miller-Callihan

Courtney_Miller-Callihan_250Courtney Miller-Callihan began her career in publishing at Random House, where she spent a number of years in subsidiary rights sales and in contracts before joining Sanford J. Greenburger Associates in 2005. A member of the Romance Writers of America, she is seeking new voices in women’s fiction, romance, historical novels, and literary fiction. Courtney also looks for non-fiction projects on unusual topics, science, personal finance, business, pop culture, lifestyle books, and craft books. Excellent credentials are a must. She represents a limited number of children’s book authors and illustrators.

Courtney holds a B.A. in Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz and a M.A. in English from The Johns Hopkins University. She prefers to receive submissions via e-mail at cmiller [at] sjga [dot] com.

We asked Courtney some questions about herself and her job. Here are her answers.


1. What would most people be surprised to know about you?

I feel like I’m a pretty open book, so to speak. I get nervous sometimes before making The Call to a prospective client. I go to bed thinking about work, and I wake up thinking about work, and I pretend not to look at emails on the weekends. I take pains to be more upbeat and positive online and in person than I really feel a lot of the time, and I know it’s time for a break from the computer when I am not in the mood to read. 

2. If you could go anywhere on vacation and money was not object, where would you go and why?

Money and also the laws of physics? Because I can think of quite a few time travel trips I’d like to take. But for something more realistic, I’ll say either a beach vacation (private hut or cottage, infinity pool, huge stack of books, no wi-fi connection), or some gorgeous apartment in Paris with a view of Notre-Dame, and reservations at a new Michelin-starred restaurant every night.  

3. What excites you about your job?

It’s something different every day. Today, for instance, I worked on a contract (the first print deal for an author who’s held that up as a goal for several years), wrote two submission letters (both for promising debut novels I pitched to editors at BEA and RWA), discussed deal terms for an author whose deal I’m in the process of negotiating, sent a client edits on her proposal, and wrote about a million emails.

The most fun part is working on the books themselves, whether it’s a nonfiction proposal or a manuscript of a novel. I love brainstorming with the author to figure out new fixes for plot holes, or ways to make a character more emotionally affecting for readers. I love helping to make a book better and then finding it the perfect publishing home. 

When a book finds its audience of readers, that’s the icing on the cake.  

4. What would you like authors to know about working with an editor or agent?

That we’re on your team. The speech I always give my clients is that I do a lot of editing but I’m not an editor; my job is to help the editor who works for a given publishing house to see the work’s potential, so that he or she will want to buy the book and help make it even better. A book will always belong first and foremost to its author, but producing your best quality work almost always requires accepting feedback from others. 

It’s easy for that feedback to carry a lot of emotional weight; you as the author will often feel very close to the work, and any perceived or real criticism of your work can feel like criticism of you as its creator. I always encourage people to take a day or two to let an editorial letter wash over you, or to stomp around mad, if that’s more your style. Get your emotional reaction out of the way first, because those feelings are real and valid, and then when you’re ready, go back to the editor’s or agent’s notes and try to take them in the constructive and helpful manner in which they’re intended.

As an agent, a lot of my job is to get the book sold to a publisher in the first place: to help shape the work into something more commercially viable, to send it to the right editor, to negotiate the deal terms and then the contract terms. But my job doesn’t stop when the contract is signed. Some of the most important and invisible work I do is to help smooth the relationship between author and publisher. Sometimes that means asking for an extension on a deadline, sometimes that means finding a nice way to tell the editor or the art department that you really hate your cover design. I really encourage clients to channel all of that sort of thing through me, so that I’m the sounding board for any frustrations during the process. I’m also allowed to complain to the publisher about all kinds of stuff without repercussions, because it’s expected of me as the agent. I can get a lot done on a client’s behalf without damaging anyone’s relationship with the publisher. 

Editors are much the same, but within the publishing house; at most houses, the editor is the author’s primary contact person at every stage in the book’s life. The editor’s enthusiasm for your work is what gets the book sold in the first place, it’s what gets the sales team excited about pitching the book to retail accounts, and it’s what determines, in no small part, the size and scope of the marketing and publicity plans. It really behooves authors to make sure they’re on the same team as their editors– and to let their agent handle it if there’s a disagreement. 

Authors should know that being easy to work with doesn’t mean you accept anything the publisher dishes out; sometimes the proposed cover really IS terrible. Offering constructive feedback and choosing your battles– finding ways to be diplomatic– will give you the reputation as “good to work with.” Being good to work with plays a very real role in whether you’ll get offered another contract with the same publisher; if you’re a delight, that can help to overcome a modest or poor sales record; if you’re a “difficult personality,” your sales better be pretty fantastic. Agents and editors are professionals, and we expect authors to be professionals, too. It’s a job, long before you’re making “quit your day job”-level money. 

Also, I never miss an opportunity to say this: editors really do edit.

5. What would you absolutely love to see come across your desk right now?

I’d LOVE to see more really great romantic suspense, more historical fiction, more erotic romance, more historical romance set in all time periods, and more upmarket women’s fiction. I am often drawn to books that are a little weird or a little quirky, and I always love projects with a really strong “elevator pitch” and terrific writing.