Wisdom Of The Agents

Originally Posted: January 2013

by Emily Goodman

Three literary agents answered audience questions about the children’s publishing world at the annual Agents Panel of the Metro New York SCBWI professional lecture series, held on November 13, 2013.

John M. Cusick of Scott Treimel NY, Stephen Fraser of the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency, and Rosemary B. Stimola of the Stimola Literary Studio gave advice on queries (“Don’t be clever; we’ve heard every joke a million times already” – Cusick), maintaining an online presence (“Write a great book! Then you can put on a beret” – Fraser), and picture books (“I’ve sold more picture books in the last year than in the five years before that” – Stimola), among other topics.

The agents agreed about many things. All said that query letters and synopses should be straightforward and transparent. Said Cusick, “I want to be captured by the story, not the query.” Fraser agreed: “I don’t like query letters. Dazzle me with your manuscript!” Stimola added, “I consider the query letter a conversation between the writer and me.” All said they found queries written in the voice of the main character or filled with hyperbole (“the next Harry Potter”) or other rhetorical flourishes annoying. Synopses are, according to Stimola, “an overview, just to get a sense of the story,” and all agreed they should range from a couple of paragraphs to no more than a page long.

Cusick gave statistics about the work of his two-person agency: They receive 15 queries a day from children’s book writers, which comes to 105 queries a week or over 5000 a year. Out of the weekly total of 105 queries they request to see about 20 full manuscripts, and of those 20 they usually ask only one writer to do revisions, for a yearly total of about 50 writers that they seriously consider representing. Of these 50, they’ll actually take on 5 to 10 writers as clients.

The conclusion: “It’s important to make yourself stand out.” Cusick suggested that a simple query and terrific manuscript are best for escaping the slush pile.

All three agents said they like manuscripts of any genre with a distinctive voice, strong characters, and a well-developed plot. Stimola said, “The picture book market was overloaded for a long time. Now they’re publishing fewer but better picture books.” On fantasy, Cusick differentiated between high fantasy, which is more about the world and social themes and so has a more adult orientation, and YA fantasy, which is more about the individual protagonist, and therefore more interesting to YA readers. Fraser added that more nonfiction is being published now, though Stimola cautioned that “it often has a textbook-y voice” and suggested that writers need to inhabit the character fully in order for the book “to fly on the trade side.”

The agents all said they edit their clients’ manuscripts and ask writers to revise before sending the manuscripts out to editors. Cusick said, “A manuscript has to be sterling before it can be seen by an editor.” Stimola said, “Revisions are a testing ground to see how ready a writer is to work,” and added that she’s never sent anything out that didn’t have further revisions requested by the editor. Fraser agreed, adding, “Even if an editor asks for revisions, the manuscript only gets accepted 50 percent of the time. It’s not definite.”

On trends in publishing, all suggested that it was most important to write a great book. Said Fraser, “Don’t worry about trends. If the industry doesn’t think it likes something, you be the one to change that. Or dazzle me with something I’ve never seen before.”

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Emily Goodman is the author of the award-winning picture bookPLANT SECRETS, published by Charlesbridge, and is working on a novel.

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