Quressa Robinson joined the Nelson Literary Agency in 2017 after working as an editor for five years. She is originally from San Francisco, but has been living in New York City for over a decade. As a New York based agent, she is eager to build her MG, YA, and Adult lists. When not curled on her couch reading, she plays video games, enjoys too much TV–mostly Sailor Moon and Avatar: The Last Airbender (Fire Nation!), eats delicious things, drinks champagne, hangs out with her very clever partner, and adds another “dramatic” color to her lipstick collection. Quressa was also a member of the 2017-2020 WNDB Walter Grant Committee and holds an MFA in Creative Writing: Fiction from Columbia University. In 2020, she was named one of five PW Star Watch finalists.
Why did you become an agent?
–Publishing talks a lot about gatekeepers. To a certain extent, as an editor I was one, but since I could only acquire with support from the entire acquisition team I found that role ineffective. As an agent I’m in a better position to take on BIPOC authors making their chances of publication that much higher.
What do you like the most about being an agent? What is most challenging about being an agent?
–The best part of my job is finding new voices! I love the idea that I get to be apart of an author’s journey from the very beginning. The hard part is dealing with the unconscious bias that exists in publishing. Too often the decision makers in a room deciding who should be published don’t know how to engage with BIPOC voices. It just makes it that much more discouraging when you find the right editor but they can’t get team support either at ed board or in an acquisition meeting.
How does being a BIPOC affect your job?
–As is often the case, it can feel like you have to work twice as hard to get half as much. It takes a long time to establish yourself as an agent and to build enough sales to make a living so having the privilege to be able to tough it out that long isn’t often the case for BIPOC agents. That means it’s very important to sell quickly, but it can feel like you are taken less seriously, get offered less competitive advances for your clients, and need to have almost printer ready drafts of client MS before going on sub. It’s important to find a support system that understands those issues, so you can have the best leg-up possible when starting out. And it’s also important to know your worth as well as your clients. I know that my clients are talented, should get tons of money and offers of publication, and are going to be huge successes. So that’s the attitude I convey to make sure I’m taken seriously.
What’s the most important thing to you in a query letter?
–I want to know that the author has a solid ability to impart the important bits of their story to a reader. Who is the protagonist(s)? What is the conflict/inciting incident? What paths are before the protagonist(s) and what does their choice mean for them/others? And brevity is key. I feel a lot of times writers give me outlines instead of pitches.
What is on your #MSWL? What kind of stories are you looking for, particularly from API creators?
–Witch stories, especially adult fantasy. The darker the better. Retelling and reimaginings of non-western folktales and mythology (western retellings are okay, too!). Gothic/horror that’s more psychological and creepy rather than graphic body horror. MG stories like Nevermoor, The Girl That Drank the Moon, or that feel like Spirited Away. YA rom coms, contemporary stories that deal with family, life, first love in a more serious way (speculative twists like Your Name, fantasy that immediately draws me in.
What are the trends in the industry at the moment? How do you think creators should navigate these trends?
–I get this question often. Don’t pay attention to trends. Once you see one it’s almost over (books that are pubbed are usually sold to publishers one to two years before they actually come out). And “trends” are often ciclicle. They are always coming back around. Write what you want to write. Write what you’re passionate about. That’s what’s most important. You’ll write the best stories when they are ones you are compelled to write instead of ones you think might sell because it’s a trendy topic or genre.
Do you have any advice for BIPOC creators when choosing an agent?
–I would say look over their list. Is it diverse? Are their BIPOC clients as successful as their non-BIPOC clients? Would you be the first? Have they always repped BIPOC or did they just start when the diversity “trend” hit?
After signing, what does the relationship look like between you and a client? How often/how do you communicate? What can a client expect?
–It’s very collaborative. Clients will share story ideas/pitches with me and I’ll weigh in on which ones I think would work best in the market. I’m an editorial agent so I work with them on refining their stories. When their off writing we usually aren’t chatting regularly, but if we are actively working on edits, on sub, or negotiating a deal we are often in constant contact. I’m also CCd on all correspondence between my client and their pub team so I can stay in the loop and jump in when I need to.