A Night With Three Agents

Originally Posted: January 2014

by Lauren Shapiro

This year’s highly anticipated agents panel was comprised of Laura Biagi of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, Brenda Bowen of Greenburger Associates, and Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary.  The agents introduced themselves and then responded to questions posed by Bridget Casey, of SCBWI.

Introductions:

Laura came to agenting through a creative writing background in college, where her workshop experience led to “loving being part of editing and shaping books.”  She has been with Jean Naggar over four years.  “I do picture books to middle grade to YA, and adult fiction as well.”

Brenda edited children’s books at major houses, including Scholastic, Henry Holt, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins, before becoming an agent at Greenburger four years ago.  She also writes books, under her pen name Margaret McNamara.

Prior to becoming an agent, Bridget screened short story submissions for tor.com, the website affiliated with Tor Books, “So I’m very interested in sci-fi.”  She interned at Don Congdon, and has been at Dunham for two years, where she is slowly building her own list, “mostly middle grade and YA, though I’m also interested in adult fiction.”

Can you give us a glimpse of a typical day?

Brenda:  “I think the role of the agent is 20% the deal and 80% everything else.  The contract details are taken care of very swiftly at the beginning of the book’s life.  The rest of the work is from its gestation to its reaching the shelf.  The agent is on call for all questions, comments, or joys with a book.”  She mentioned Twitter – hashtag #agentsday, as a resource for those wishing to glimpse an agent’s daily life.

Bridget:  “The agent/author relationship should be a partnership, on equal footing. She pointed out, “the author has the final product.”

Laura:   “The roles of an agent include discovering the client, working with the author to create the best book that it can be and then submitting it out.  We know the editors out there and what they might be looking for so we can do that pairing with our authors.  Then there’s the negotiation process, making sure we get the best deal we can, and then following through on the marketing.”

What is the best way to find an agent?

Brenda:   “I recommend The Publishers Marketplace.  A lot of agents list their deals there on a daily basis.  You can easily see who’s selling what, to whom, so it’s a very good tool.  There’s also aaronline.org.”

Bridget:  “The AAR is a way of vetting agents to make sure they’re not shysters.  I recommend it to double check against.  I would suggest picking up your favorite books and looking at the acknowledgements, if your manuscript is similar, but not too similar, and it falls into the same genre.  It’s a good way to get a picture of who handles what.”

Laura:  “You want to make sure you go to the agency’s website.  In my guidelines, I ask for the first page because I want to get a sense of the writing.  Not following the guidelines can put you at a slight disadvantage.”

What does attract you in a query letter – what’s the one thing you wish authors knew?

Laura: “It’s helpful for authors to think of the query as the flap copy, or the Amazon description.  For me, it’s important to see an interesting plot that goes somewhere interesting, as well as characters that have some depth.  Sometimes the characters might seem interesting, but nothing interesting happens to them.  The way a query letter is written is important.  If it’s too short and I can’t get a sense of what the book is about, or too long, so that I can’t tell which plot points or character details define the book, I’m not likely to request material.”  She later elaborated that “a lot of factors go into a decision to request material, and the query is part of it, but not the only deciding factor. There’s also the writing in the sample, the author’s bio, whether something about the characters and/or the plot stand out, etc.”

Brenda:  “I like to feel as though I’m having a conversation with the author.  I get some queries where the authorial voice sparks my interest.  Things I don’t like?  I stop reading when someone says ‘here’s a fiction novel.’  I don’t like rhetorical questions, like ‘what would you do if,’ or ‘have you ever wondered what it’s like?’  My answer is usually, ‘no I haven’t.’  It’s not a good way to start.

Bridget: “I don’t like when queries end with a question – will she succeed in her quest?”  After the panel, she explained to SCBWI: “The answer is usually yes, so there’s no real mystery there.”

Do you respond to queries?

Brenda has a bounce back email, and Laura’s agency has a confirmation page, both saying that if they don’t respond within a certain amount of time, it’s a pass.  Bridget does respond to all queries.

How many new authors do you find at writing conferences vs through the slush pile?

Brenda finds most authors through referrals from editors or other clients.

Bridget finds almost all her authors through the query inbox.

Laura finds authors from the query pile, the conferences and from referrals, including those from a co-agent in the UK.

Turning to self-promotion, how necessary is it to have a platform in order to attract an agent?  What are ways authors can help their careers?

Bridget signed a v-logger with 67,000 subscribers.  “I noticed that.  I would have loved this manuscript even without that, but that made it a much more appealing package.”

Laura: “In the kids book world, illustrators who’ve won awards, writers who’ve been published in magazines or journals,” get her attention.  “I tend to click on links to a blog or website so I can get a sense of how this illustrator illustrates, or how this writer writes.”

Brenda: “For those writing for very young children there really isn’t a great advantage to building a platform.  The children can’t go on Twitter; they can’t do social media.  Teachers may do it.  But don’t think, oh my God I have to find 67,000 followers – just don’t do it.  Work on your book.  If the publisher finds the work exciting enough they will help you build that platform.  Make a website, especially for illustrators, but don’t force it, because a platform is only useful if it means something.  If it doesn’t, it’s not a good use of your time.”

Do you pitch to several houses?

Brenda: “It’s different for every piece of work.  Someone will say I need a chapter book, a girl’s chapter book that’s a lot of fun, so if you have something like that you’ll send it right to that person.”

Bridget: “Sometimes I like to go out to a few editors at the same time to see if they all say the same thing, or have the same criticism.  Then we can revise before we go out to more editors.

Laura: “An agent is in with you for the long haul.  My boss took 10 years to sell a novel, and now it’s doing fabulously.”

What about revisions?

Brenda: “If you’re a first time writer and you’ve revised it and revised it and you’ve been working on it for years, I would advise you to give it up and work on another book.  It can feel very shopworn.”

Bridget: “Sometimes I see things that are too honed, that seem to have had the sparkle revised out of them.”

Laura: “Your writing improves as you keep writing.  But if you only keep revising the same thing, you’re not giving your writing a chance to breathe and grow.”

How would you describe your agenting style?

Laura: “Editors don’t have as much time to do editing work as they might have back in the day, so more and more agents are editing.  Editing is one of my favorite things to do.   I am also mindful of making sure there’s publicity and marketing happening.”

Bridget: “I really like the revision process.  I tend to be really opinionated.”

Brenda:  “I was an editor for a long time, so I can almost always put myself in the head of an editor and think, okay, here are the pressures on this editor that are going to make her respond in a certain way.”  She also discussed long term strategizing, giving the example, “How can we build you as an author?  Your last book was about a train, how about this time you write about the caboose?” and another service is that “Your agent is also there to finesse things.”  She also made the point that, although
“an agent works for you – you literally pay our salaries, but we want to bring our own expertise.  If you write to an agent and tell them who to send it to, it doesn’t make the best use of your agent.”

How are subsidiary rights handled?

Bridget:  “We try to keep subsidiary rights.  One of our illustrators is extremely popular in Asia, so we’ll email them when she has a new book out.  We also have a film co-agent.”

Laura: “We try to retain subsidiary rights.  We have different people within the agency who manage audio, film, e-rights, and we have co-agents we work with internationally.  Sometimes we do direct film submissions.  Agents can often give more attention than publishers can to authors’ subsidiary rights.”

Have you ever fired a client?

Laura: “I have never fired a client.  That could be because I’m relatively new.”  She has however, often observed that “Clients that have been let go tend to expect too much and don’t realize everything that the agent is doing.”

Bridget: “I have not fired a client.  Often what happens is the agent’s and author’s vision of their career has diverged.  Maybe the agent thinks you should write more YA, while the author wants to write PB’s that the agent can’t sell.”

Brenda: “Sometimes authors leave you, and sometimes you leave authors.  People go from one agency to another.  Some authors I have were with other agents previously.” She indicated that for writers and agents evaluating their relationship, “The bottom line is, have I been successful in increasing your income, your visibility?”

How do you handle series vs. stand-alone books?

Laura: “I don’t know that the markets are much different.  What matters is whether that book’s subject matter is compelling at the time.  I think editors are getting tired of trilogies, sometimes only the first book sells well, and the next two fizzle away.”

Brenda: “I think you need to be prepared to change horses.  Sometimes the editor signs three books, and the first book bombs.  What do you do?  Do you go forward?  Is that good for your book – not really.  Sometimes the agent will say, let’s leave that and do something else, because you don’t want to follow a bomb with a second bomb.”

Bridget cited “Bad Kitty,” by Nick Bruel, as a series.   In later conversation with SCBWI, she said, “Bad Kitty wasn’t conceived as a series: the first Bad Kitty picture book is an alphabet book, and there’s little continuity between the books.  Compare this to the trilogies that populate YA, which tell a cohesive story and rise to an overall climax, or the MG series where each book builds on the events of the previous.  It seems the more correct term is “sequence,” a sequence of standalones rather than a series that builds on itself.”

Questions from the crowd

What are your contract terms?

Brenda: “Our contracts are usually dissolvable within 30 days. Some prefer contracts for the life of a book.”

Bridget: “The books we have already sold stay with us, but you’re free to leave and take your next book elsewhere.”

Laura: Typically, we sign up an author to manage his or her whole career, but authors can also go book by book.  Our contracts are dissolvable as long as notice is given.”

How do you feel about self-publishing?

Laura: “I will click on a link and see what people are saying about your book.  If it’s doing great and getting great reviews that can help – and vice versa.”

Bridget: “Unless you’re doing blockbuster numbers, most agents are not going to be interested.”

How involved are you in promotion of a client’s book?

Brenda:  “It so depends on the book.  We’re working with the publisher.  Am I the publicist – no.   Do I get on the publicist if they don’t send out the review books – yes.”  She added, “We do re-tweeting.”

Bridget:   “We do chase people when they aren’t doing their jobs. Part of the role of the agent is to take the fall, so that when you meet the publisher you can be thrilled.”  Bridget later explained, “Part of the role of the agent is to be the bad guy, while encouraging the author and the publisher to get along.  Let us fight for what you want – say, a different cover or a better marketing plan – while you stay out of it.”

Laura: “We’re definitely making sure that everything that can get done for the book does get done.”  As an example, she mentioned, setting up goodreads giveaways.

Do you share rejections with clients?

Brenda: “It’s up to the client.  I like to wait until there’s good news.”

Laura: “I tend to send on the rejections unless the author has a preference not to.”

Do you accept dummies?

Brenda: “I do but I prefer a link or an email. queryBrenda@sjga.com.”  Those at the meeting were given a subject line.

Bridget: “We prefer a query with no samples.  I like to see the first five pages.  We accept by email or regular mail.  query@Dunhamlit.com.”

Laura:  “Query guidelines are on jvnla.com.  You can submit through the website, or email me directly at lbiagi@jvnla.com with a sample illustration and/or one page of writing.”

What about re-submissions?

Brenda: “If you get no response, or a form letter it might be better to try another agent.”

Bridget:  “I don’t mind if it’s been 9 months to a year, and it’s something else.  Maybe the first thing didn’t click with me, and the next one will.  If you don’t get a response on multiple queries then they probably just don’t like your work.  Don’t send multiple projects, because if I like one, but the others don’t click, then I’ll think, I don’t see a career here, and then the one that was interesting doesn’t look so interesting anymore.”

Brenda: “Also, don’t simultaneously submit to twenty agents.  I’ll just delete it.”

Are you seeking multicultural work?

Brenda: “Yes.”

Bridget:  “It’s nice to get something with a different perspective.”

Laura: “We’re very actively seeking it.”

When do you stop editing and send it out?

Brenda: “You can get to where you never stop editing.  You have to reach a point when you think it’s ready and send it out.”

Bridget: “if you’re just tweaking a word here and there, then put it in a drawer and don’t look at it for a month.  Make sure you’re comfortable with it.  It’s frustrating when I get something and two weeks later I get a revised version.”

Laura:  “Don’t just insert people’s suggestions – make it organic.”

What is near and dear to you?

Brenda: “My Heart and Other Black Holes.  It will be coming out in a year.  I sold it at auction for a handsome figure, just as the author was applying for waitressing jobs.”

Bridget: “I love humor – it’s hard to get right; I love “Chime” by Franny Billingsley.  She plays with language in gorgeous ways.”

Laura: “I love “The Tyrant’s Daughter.”  It’s a YA book written by a former CIA agent about a teenage girl whose father has been ousted and murdered, and her family flees to the US.  The girls in shorts and tank tops appall her and she has to come to terms with the fact that her father, who she viewed as a king, is viewed in the U.S. as a dictator.  I also love Fan Girl by Rainbow Rowell and Harry Potter.”

What about freelance editors?

Brenda:  “Anything that helps you with your work is to be applauded.”

If you find a publisher on your own, how does that affect finding an agent?

Brenda: “It’s not an automatic yes, but it helps smooth the way.”

Bridget: “The agent will be saying, do I want to handle the next book – you still have to find the right match.”

Laura: “Agreed.”

Refreshments were served, and brand new SCBWI T-shirts were made available for sale.

———————

Lauren Shapiro is a freelance writer. She has published over 50 articles in diverse publications including Crain’s American Dry Cleaner, Dance Spirit, American Small Farm and WorldandIOnline. Her article on Archie Comic Books and Literacy was published in Education Update in Manhattan, and reprinted in parent papers in Staten Island, New Jersey, Mississippi and Pennsylvania. She is hoping to find a way into the children’s book market.

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