Behind the Book is an exploration into the other side of publishing; we speak with agents, editors, publicists, and other members of the publishing industry whose hard work contributes to the wonderful material we are able to read and recommend daily. It’s an open conversation on their individual careers, the state of the industry and its future potential.
Our first installment is with Cherise Fisher, literary agent at Wendy Sherman. Her career spans over 25 years, including her time as Editor-in-Chief of Plume (an imprint of Penguin Random House). She has ushered into print such recent notable books as Rachel Rickett’s international bestseller Do Better (2021), Tia Williams’ novel Seven Days In June (2021), Maya-Camille Broussard’s Justice of the Pies (2022), Diane Marie Brown’s novel Black Candle Woman (2023) and a host of other spectacular authors.
What was your first job in publishing?
My first job in publishing was as the Assistant to the Editor of Chief of Delacorte/Dell. I started about two weeks after my graduation from college.
Can you walk us through your publishing career?
Well, that’s a long walk! After getting promoted to Associate Editor at Dell, I made a lateral move to the Touchstone Fireside imprint of Simon and Schuster. I spent the bulk of my acquisition career there, publishing many award winning and bestselling authors such as George Lopez, Nelson George, Victoria Christopher Murray, Bil Wright, and Tony Parsons. From S&S, I went to Penguin to serve as Editor in Chief of an imprint called Plume. I left that position in 2011, spent some time as a freelance editor, and started selling rights to book in 2015.
Why did you decide to become an agent?
Actually, becoming a literary agent was my first dream when entering into the publishing world. As I climbed the ladder in publishing, I lost that goal in the mix. When I left publishing after having two children back to back, the universe guided me back to my original intention. I was freelance editing after leaving Plume, and one of my clients, Sadeqa Johnson, asked me to represent her. I told her that I was an editor, not an agent, but that I would introduce her to an agent. I shared her work with Wendy Sherman, who loved it and immediately asked me to co-agent Sadeqa with her. And so the dream I had set aside came back in front of me.
What’s important for you to see in a query letter from a writer?
At the risk of sounding narcissistic, I want to understand why the writer is specifically seeking me out as an agent. What have they seen of me or of my clients that convinces them we would be a good match? After that, if it is a novelist, I want a strong narrative voice. Give me enough of the story that I will whet my appetite for more. If you are writing nonfiction, I want to gain a new way of seeing a relevant and persistent dilemma of life. I also need to see that you have already created an audience for yourself.
What do you look for when selecting a manuscript to represent/publish?
I look for a visceral reaction to what I’m reading. Am I moved to tears? Do I chuckle? Do goosebumps poke up through my skin? Is my mind awakened to a new perspective? I want to feel something when I’m reading a manuscript. The feeling is the foundation of love, and love is necessary to carry us through the process.
Are there any specific things that can make you fall in love with a piece of writing?
Definitely character – if it’s fiction. A person who is multidimensional and in a bind that I can relate to. If it’s nonfiction, crisp, direct writing.
Is the economy and society affecting how you’re reading?
Interesting question. I don’t think it is affecting how I’m reading.
How do you work with authors to develop their ideas and manuscripts?
It depends on the client. Sadeqa Johnson will get a book idea and set an appointment for a two hour phone call. She’ll tell me the entire story –the characters, her inspiration, the bare bones of a plot from the beginning to the end. And then I share my reaction, after which she begins an outline. Other clients bring me a finished manuscript or call me when they are stuck on something. With nonfiction clients, I work extensively with them on their book proposal.
How do you think social media and online presence affect an author’s chances of getting published?
Publishers are prioritizing large social media accounts these days.I don’t think this is great. There are definitely authors with large followings whose books never make the mark. It’s important for an author to develop an engaged audience.
How important is an MFA listing on a query letter? How much are you able to advocate for authors with nontraditional educational backgrounds?
An MFA isn’t important to me, but if you have it, certainly include this fact in your query letter. Most publishers don’t care about an MFA.
How do you balance the business side of publishing with the creative side, and what do you think is the most important factor in a book’s success?
Good question. I suspect more industry folk should ask themselves about balance more often. I tend to lean toward the creative side: uplift the artist, protect the artist, sustain the artistry or the whole thing is for naught. The business side of publishing is to enable the artist to continue. Often if you are producing something for the money primarily, it isn’t genuine and doesn’t thrive.
There are many metrics of success –sales, impact, peer recognition. The first think is to understand which metric is most important to you, and then setting that intention specifically.
There’s been plenty of talk about diversity over the years, especially since 2020. What improvements have you seen in the industry overall and where is there room for more work?
There are so many more professionals of color in the industry from when I started in 1994. That’s not saying a whole lot, but that’s saying something. And there is a lot more awareness on the marketing and publicity side. In 1994, you had to explain what a AKA or Delta was. This is not the case in 2023.
What has gotten easier since you got into the business?
Access to sales information. Access to information, period!
What advice would you give to aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
Give yourself permission to identify as a writer, and spend as much time as you can reading, writing, and in fellowship with like minded people.
And now more about you:
What’s the most recent book you’ve read and loved?
The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Loved it. Devoured it. Telling everyone to read it.
How do you balance reading for pleasure with reading for work?
I don’t. And it makes me very sad. I hardly ever get a chance to read a book for pleasure. Reading more for pleasure is always high on my list of goals. I might try audio books.
What’s your favorite quote from your all-time favorite book, and why?
The first novel I acquired at Simon & Schuster was a book called SUNDAY YOU LEARN HOW TO BOX by Bil Wright. Early in the book, the protagonist’s stepfather is going out without his wife. While he’s getting dressed, she’s banging pots and pans around the house.
“I am going to a Christmas party.” He sounded cheerful, cocky, like he was about to add, “And I’m leaving your screaming butt here.” Mom called him a Christmas party liar and asked him why the hell he didn’t have the guts to say he was on his way to deliver his Christmas bonus to his woman.
He stopped at the door and looked over his shoulder to face her. He smiled as if he was looking at somebody who was going to disappear in a few minutes so it didn’t matter what she said to him.
“Cause you already know that, don’t you?” He turned around, opened the door and kept walking.
“Yeah, but what you don’t know, mister bastard, is that I’m coming with you.”
Once a week, I say that line in my head and I published that book in 2000!
What challenges have you faced as a Black woman in the publishing industry?
For me, being a Black woman is such a privilege, such a superpower, that I can’t really answer that question.
What advice would you give to aspiring Black women who are trying to break into the industry?
Bring your whole self into every room you enter. Take up space. Seek and maintain mentoring relationships with other Black women and power brokers of every hue.
Cherise Fisher (she/her) began her career in publishing more than 25 years ago, spending many years editing and publishing several national bestselling and award winning authors at Simon & Schuster and Plume (an imprint of Penguin Random House), where she was Editor-in-Chief.
She represents novelists who have multiple compulsively readable, impeccably crafted yarns in their head (both historical and contemporary), memoirists who showcase the diversity of human experience, and non-fiction writers who seek to provoke, inspire, and educate. Her intention is that all the books she helps bring into the world are relevant, enduring, and help readers maximize their lives.