by Ellen Raskin
Heather Flaherty of the Bent Agency, Alexandra Penfold of Upstart Crow Literary, and Alec Shane from Writers House were the featured agents at this year’s Agents Panel, co-hosted with the New School’s MFA writing program and held in November at the New School. The event was introduced by Caron Levis from the New School’s creative writing program and moderated by Gina Carey, a steering committee member of Metro-NY SCBWI, and Co-Regional Advisor Bridget Casey. Questions came from both the audience and the moderators. Here are some highlights:
Is an agent necessary?
All three agents: Yes! It’s a tough business and the complex contracts are usually familiar only to those in the industry. Agents also have unique relationships with publishers and editors. Agents protect writers’ rights so that writers may concentrate on writing.
What are some less typical ways you’ve found clients?
Heather Flaherty (HF) said clients have connected with her through Query Tracker or Twitter.
Alexandra Penfold (AP) has picked up clients from SCBWI conferences.
Alec Shane (AS) advises querying an agent for a reason (you like the books the agent represents) as opposed to doing blanket submissions.
What do you consider when taking on a client?
HF: Can I work with this writer? Will we be friends? Personality comes across in the query.
AS: The author-agent relationship, like online dating, is a two-way street. I anticipate collaborating and working together, hopefully for thirty or forty years, sharing the author’s vision.
What makes a query stand out?
AS: Like a good commercial, the “what” of the story spurs me to keep reading. Writers have very little time to capture a reader’s attention.
HF: If the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, I’m freaking out in a good way, and this is a significant story. If a writer has a great voice, I pay attention.
AP: A strong voice will make me immediately pay attention. If the voice is strong, that will resonate through the whole book.
What do you think about the current craze for diversity?
AS: I think it’s great as long as the diversity is seamless, not forced. When it’s done right, it’s organic and natural.
AP: There’s interest in diversity in many forms. All readers need windows and mirrors.
Any advice on nonfiction?
AS: With nonfiction, the writer’s platform is critical. You must show your unique qualifications to write the book.
Do you take pop-up books? What do you think of rhyme?
AP: Pop-up books are a hard sell because they are so expensive to make. As for rhyme, ask yourself, “Does the rhyme serve the story, or does the story serve the rhyme?” Often the rhyme holds back the story’s expression.
What do you think about self-publishing?
All three agents: Self-publishing is not recommended. If a writer seeks agent representation after self-publishing, it shows things are not going so well. An agent may wonder: what do you need me for? As a general rule, do not give up on traditional publishing just to see your book made.
If an agent makes suggestions, is it all right to resubmit a manuscript?
AP: It is OK to resubmit, but not in just a few days. Take the time to truly revise. Consider: “What is the story I want to tell? Will these suggestions help me tell it?”
– Ultimately, there is no magic way to open industry doors or to write. It is critical to strive to write with your authentic voice. Reflect upon what it is you are trying to say; why do people need to hear about it? Does the book have purpose?
– In querying an agent, be yourself. Don’t try to be funny, for example, if that’s not a strong point. Do your homework; actually read the agent’s books.
– Never write for trends. If it’s trendy now, the trend is already over.
– Do not reach out before the manuscript is done. Have it read by a critique group or at a conference first.
Where do you stand on the “art vs. commercial” spectrum?
HF: You need both. Put art in your commercial project, and make your art projects sellable.
AP: Who is the book for? Why would someone buy this? Think about your reader and who needs this book when you write.
AS: The good news is, agents, in spite of their huge workloads, welcome the arrival of queries. They open up each one thinking, “This could be a magnificent query!”
Ellen Raskin is an artist and author currently working on a picture book.