Originally Posted: Dec. 30, 2009
by Andrea Fooner
What are agents who specialize in children’s books actively looking for? What makes them eager to sell your manuscript? How do they work with authors and editors? At the November SCBWI New York Metro Tuesday Professionals Series, three members of the profession – Sarah Davies, head of The Greenhouse Literary Agency, Joe Monti of Barry Goldblatt Literary and Chris Richman of Upstart Crow – addressed these questions.
All three panelists agreed that to grab and hold an agent’s attention, writers need very strong submissions, with great sales potential. Richman noted that of 900 submissions he’s seen in the last four months, he’s signed only one project.
What makes a manuscript stand out? Davies said that YA novels need to grapple with big questions “like the meaning of life.” She added that futuristic stories should be less about hardware and more about universal themes that touch young people. Monti’s example of a theme was “being an outsider.” “Middle grade fiction needs to have great action and to be a fun read,” Davies said. “Fiction for girls needs a great voice. Historical fiction should focus on issues still relevant today.”
Picture books were rarely mentioned; the current market has few openings, the agents said, for new writers and illustrators.
Richman is drawn to a novel premise. With fantasy, he said, humor might be the selling point. He’s less interested in trends than whether the book has “a timeless feel” that readers will relate to for years beyond publication. Monti responds to “an awesome first line,” also to a mixed-race or multicultural point of view (which reflects his own) and to writing that builds a world through precise, many-layered details. He pointed to Smack, Speak and Holes as novels that broke open the YA market, appealed to boys and had strong hardcover sales. Right now, panelists agreed, there’s not enough middle grade and YA fiction for potential male readers.
Davies is always on the lookout for “writing that has an edge,” which will jump out at the agent and hook an editor. “I look for writers who excite me,” she stated, “who are serious about craft, whose every word is purposeful.” These agents take on books they love and that they believe have strong sales potential.
Their acceptance, however, doesn’t mean the writing process is finished. All three say that they will act as first editors for manuscripts they feel could be even stronger. Monti may take a book through three revisions before he’ll send it to a publisher. Davies may work with an author who has a great story and strong characters but whose writing isn’t going to stand out with an editor. Or with one whose writing may be wonderful but whose story structure and characters need work to make them competitive. “I want your book to be the best and most marketable it can be because if I am going to get you a deal, it’s going to be the best deal you can get.”
Responding to questions, the panelists advised writers to be completely clear with an agent regarding simultaneous submissions to both publishers and agents. An agent considering a manuscript needs to know which editors already have that manuscript and which have already passed on it. If an editor has already expressed interest, an agent would have to honor that. Agents’ submission guidelines, which detail such matters as how many pages and in what format submissions should be, are generally available on agents’ websites. The agents emphasize that these guidelines should be followed exactly.
Typically, the panelists said, agents respond in a month or two. If they agree to represent a manuscript, they’ll put together a submission list of eight to 15 editors, based on their knowledge of publishers and editors’ tastes and interests. If more than one publisher makes an offer, the agent will manage the bidding. Once a deal is made, the agent becomes the author’s advocate in nailing the terms of the contract. It is often a lengthy process, Davies said, because “it’s not just about money. It’s about exploiting all your rights.” That could involve other media, the international market and negotiating when the rights to a book return to the author.
Final advice from Davies: “Don’t be obsessed about the market; be obsessed about the quality of your writing and we’ll sell it for you.”
Andrea Fooner, started out writing feature articles for teens on staff at CO-ED Magazine, published by Scholastic. She has served as a reading specialist in two NYC public schools. She began writing for children this year, has developed several picture books and a middle grade novel and appreciates the high-quality support from her SCBWI critique group.
Who Are the Agents on the Panel and What Are They Looking For?
Sarah Davies, head of The Greenhouse Literary Agency, http://www.greenhouseliterary.com, founded her agency in 2008 after extensive work in London as a fiction editor and Publishing Director for Macmillan Children’s Books. Davies represents children’s and YA authors on both sides of the Atlantic. She is particularly interested in young chapter book series, middle grade novels and sophisticated teen fiction. Beyond category and genre, Davies looks for strong talent and an individual voice she can nurture and manage into a successful career. She’s done two “blockbuster” deals and has worked with Judy Blume, Sharon Creech and Gary Paulsen. “I can get excited about small deals as well,” she assured the audience. Joe Monti, recently joined Barry Goldblatt Literary, http://www.bgliterary.com, bringing over twenty years of broad publishing experience, first as a bookseller and children’s book buyer at Barnes and Noble, then as Sales Director at Houghton Mifflin and Editorial Director for paperbacks at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. As an agent, he focuses on children’s, middle grade and young adult fiction, with a particular interest in books for boys, as well as fantasy and science fiction for both young readers and adults. Chris Richman is the new agent at Upstart Crow, http://www.upstartcrowliterary.com. Previously, at the Firebrand Agency, he successfully sold seven debut novels. Chris handles middle grade and young adult fiction, with a special interest in books for boys, books with unforgettable characters and fantasy enlivened by humor.