Noe Valley Voice November 1998

Meet Your Hometown Literary Agent

By Maire Farrington

Thinking about writing a book? Already writing one but don't know what you're going to do with it when you're done? If so, maybe you should find yourself an agent. Intimidated by the thought? It might not be as hard as you think. You might even find someone who lives right down the street. Take Noe Valley resident Sheryl Fullerton, for instance.

Five years ago, Fullerton left her job as editor-in-chief at a college publishing company, in order to start her own literary agency, Sheryl B. Fullerton Associates. She set up shop in her home of 13 years on Church Street. And five years later, the location still suits her fine.

"There are a lot of people in Noe Valley who work out of their homes. It's very pleasant in that way," Fullerton says. "You see a lot of people working with their laptops and that sort of thing. There are actually a fair number of publishing people who live in Noe Valley."

Martha & Bros. Coffee Company is one of her favorite spots to meet with colleagues or to take a breather from reading manuscripts -- of which she receives around a thousand per year.

"I look for projects that have solid commercial appeal," Fullerton says. "This means two things -- a good, well-researched idea that has a market, and an author who has the expertise and the kind of profile that makes him or her appealing to publishers.

"Because of my background in college textbooks," she continues. "I tend towards books that have a practical component to them. So I do a lot of business and management books. I've also done some psychology. And I love popular culture, so I have some interesting popular culture books."

One such pop culture title ("published just moments ago") is Burritos! Hot on the Trail of the Little Burro. "I call it 'The History, Mystery, and Lure of Burritos,'" Fullerton jokes.

The burrito book was conjured up and co-written by Noe Valley resident David Thomsen, along with Derek Wilson, who lives near Ocean Beach. "These guys were obsessed with burritos. They went on a three-week road trip researching burritos in the Southwest. They ate burritos three times a day every day, and came back practically green," recounts Fullerton. "They also had a nice sense of humor and a light touch, and yet they were really passionate about their topic."

Fullerton has also ushered in the work of another Noe Valley resident. Twenty-eighth Street resident Chloe Atkins' small-format photo book, Girls' Night Out, came out in April of this year.

"I saw her photography and I liked it," Fullerton says of Atkins' work, which focuses on "lesbians out having fun."

"So I asked her if she was interested in doing a book. I don't solicit clients very often, but I really liked her work."

The hardest part of her business, she says, is selling projects to publishers. "For every yes I get, I get a lot of no's. Sometimes by the time you get a yes, you thought you might not ever get it. Also, my writers tend to be a lot of first-timers, and they don't necessarily have the kind of track records that publishers want these days. So there's a lot of work to be done to get the project ready to sell, and then selling it."

When asked if she has any sage advice for would-be authors, Fullerton suggests two things -- one, know thy market, and two, know thy subject.

"There's a tremendous rise in people writing and wanting to be writers, and at the same time they haven't educated themselves about the publishing climate," she says. "They need to do their homework, and know what other books are out there and how their book is different or better or distinctive. The most important thing is to demonstrate that you have a really distinctive idea and that you have the credentials to write it."

The best part of her job, she says, is working with good writers, and when she closes the sale, "seeing their books go out into the world. I like being in that coach role.

"I also love being self-employed," Fullerton reflects. "I like working out of my home and having a lot of autonomy and control over my time."

If hiking up that mountain of manuscripts starts to feel too tiring, she says, she can simply step out her front door and take a relaxing "urban hike" up 22nd Street to Twin Peaks. And maybe stop in for a bite at Chloe's Cafe or Eric's Restaurant on her way back.

Fullerton also serves as vice president of the San Francisco Bay Area Book Council's board of directors. And this month she's helping to organize the ninth annual San Francisco Book Festival on Nov. 7 and 8 at the Concourse Exhibition Center.

"We made a huge effort to make the programming as exciting as possible," says Fullerton of the festival, which is expected to attract 20,000 book lovers.

This year's highlights, says Fullerton, include appearances by Arthur Golden, whose Memoirs of a Geisha has topped the Bay Area bestseller list for months; memoir author Malachy McCourt (A Monk Swimming); and novelist Terry McMillan (How Stella Got Her Groove Back).

"For the sporting crowd, we have sports agent Leigh Steinberg, appearing with Vernon Glenn from KRON-TV," Fullerton adds. "And we have our rock 'n' roll contingent, Grace Slick and Patti Smith."

Slick, whose book Somebody to Love? just hit the shelves, will be in conversation with local music critic Ben Fong-Torres. Smith -- songwriter, poet, and author of Patti Smith Complete -- will appear solo.

Former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, who's now president of the American Association of Publishers, will also speak. "She wrote a book called 24 Years of House Work...and the Place Is Still a Mess,"Fullerton points out. "She's also versed in issues that affect the whole publishing, writing, and bookselling community."

In addition, poet and U.C. Berkeley professor June Jordan, author of the essay collection Affirmative Acts, will be appearing with Belva Davis.

Panel discussions -- on everything from censorship and cinema to storytelling and Buddhism -- also draw crowds, Fullerton says. In her fourth year as the festival's author committee chair, she observes that "the Bay Area is full of very curious people. You can put on all kinds of panels, and people come and they're really interested in them." This year, she says, there will even be a panel for surfing enthusiasts.

New, she notes, is the Kids' Stage, which will include a reading by teen author Apollo (Concrete Candy), a panel of published teen writers, and a teen/adult poetry slam. "The cooking panel this time is equally fabulous," Fullerton says.

For a separate admissions fee, writers can also attend seminars on the nuts and bolts of getting published, such as how to find a literary agent.

Of course, if they've recently written a book on some alluring aspect of popular culture, they might want to drop Fullerton a line instead.

The San Francisco Book Festival will be held Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 7 and 8, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Concourse Exhibition Center, on Brannan Street between Seventh and Eighth streets. Adult admission is $3; 18 and under free. For more information, call 908-2833 or check out the festival web site at