By Leah Heilman Schanke
For the third consecutive year, SCBWI Metro NY and The New School’s Writing for Children MFA program co-hosted an agents panel held at The New School. Linda Camacho of Prospect Agency, LLC, Susan Hawk of The Bent Agency and Andrea Somberg of Harvey Klinger Inc. were the featured agents. Adria Quiñones, a 2015 winner of SCBWI’s Emerging Voices Award, was the moderator.
The panel discussion began with what each agent is looking for. Linda Camacho said she doesn’t want to rule out any category but picture book representation is limited. Andrea Somberg also expressed a preference for MG and YA and emphasized that “diversity is a key word.” Susan Hawk is very open, joking that “you never know when you’ll read that amazing sports book.” She represents all categories of books for children and is “drawn to writing that is emotional.”
One major challenge for writers is who to query or how to filter down to appropriate agents for one’s work. Publisher’s Marketplace web site and their Children’s Bookshelf publication in which deals are regularly published are good places to start.
Another source is manuscriptwishlist.com or #MSWL on Twitter which as Hawk pointed out can enable a better understanding into agents’ personalities than what’s on the agent’s web page. Hawk also recommended looking at acknowledgements in books; often authors thank their agents there.
What are you looking for in query letter? What snags your attention?
Somberg mentioned the basics: no longer than one page and include the title, word count, and comp titles. She said she often sees mistakes in the body of the query letter. When querying, writers should include:
- Who protagonist is and why we should care
- What the conflict is
- What the stakes are
Somberg recommended that writers give friends their query letters and ask them to write questions; friends should be able to identify 1, 2, 3 listed above. If they can’t, the writer needs to revise.
Hawk advised to keep it short, no more than five paragraphs. “It’s not going to tell the whole story and it shouldn’t – it’s a hook – don’t summarize your whole story.”
Camacho shared that she often sees queries that highlight the theme which is not helpful in assessing whether to request the manuscript. “Focus on the story, not the theme – the theme will shine through.”
Quiñones pointed out, “There’s the danger of choosing a comp title that’s too well known.”
Somberg agreed it’s best to avoid using best sellers as comp titles. “It doesn’t give us a good sense that you know the market.” Camacho added, “It looks like you don’t read beyond the best sellers.”
Is there anything that would lead to an automatic no? Hawk honestly didn’t think there’s anything. “I don’t read queries with the intent to find problems. I like a well written query but agents are people too – we are looking for a great find.”
Somberg advised not to cc a bunch of agents on your email query. “It can take time to evaluate a query – the strength of the writing, strength of the book, similarity to items on the list. Keep querying and steel yourself.’
Openings like Dear Sir or Dear Publisher or statements like “better get in on this, it’ll be a best seller” or “all the other YA out there is trash” are automatic turnoffs for Camacho.
Quiñones asked how the panel feels about exclusive queries, whether or not they want them. None of the agents ask for an exclusive. Camacho said she assumes it’s a simultaneous submission. Hawk feels that exclusives are “not to the writer’s advantage” If Hawk does request a full manuscript, she does want to be informed if it’s with another agent. “I ask for an opportunity if the other agent offers representation.”
Somberg agreed and added, “It’s bad business sense to ask for an exclusive. Most successful projects have interest from multiple agents. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and ask to speak to their author clients. If agent asks for exclusive, tell them it’s already with other agents.”
Turnaround time on a query is generally 1-3 weeks for all three agents. Ideally they respond within 1 week. For Hawk, she asked that queries be resent if no response is received after 4 weeks. Camacho explained that for the Prospect Agency, no response means no interest.
If a full manuscript is requested, it’s appropriate to reach out after 2 months if there’s no response. All agreed it’s never appropriate to call them about a query.
The conversation turned to diversity. Quiñones said she’s heard diversity referred to as a fad. What is your agency’s commitment to diversity?
Camacho shared that half of the staff at Prospect are people of color. “It can seem like it’s treated as a fad, but it’s part of everyday publishing reality.”
All Bent agents are looking for diverse stories and diverse writers. Bent agent Beth Phelan created the #DVPit Twitter event that has taken off. Hawk said, “Editors are interested and committed to finding diverse books for their list.”
Quiñones shared that writers of color hear “I couldn’t relate to your book,” meaning it’s not white culture. “It’s a systemic thing,” Camacho said. “I’m learning about my own blind spots.”
Hawk said, “We need to ask ourselves: What is my reaction to this? Why am I passing on this project? At the end of the day, I’m a reader and need to feel committed to the story. We need to look deeper into ourselves for why that’s happening.”
Somberg expressed a love of reading and seeing other people’s experiences. “The trick is to transcend and talk universally to the reader. There’s a lot that connects all of us; what makes a character compelling is the same across the board.”
Camacho asked, “Why are we saying no to things?” She shared that when completed her MFA, she was afraid to write a character of color, afraid that it wouldn’t sell. “Before the movement, people wouldn’t buy because they thought it wouldn’t sell. The issue of ‘if [diverse] books don’t do well’ doesn’t make sense. If half of the books by white authors fail, the industry wouldn’t then not publish white authors. They don’t know how to sell these books. There are issues on so many levels. It’ll take decades to really change.”
Quiñones: For non-writers of color who feel a pressure to write diverse stories, do you have any message for them?
“If you are writing about a culture that is not your own, questions of authenticity can come into play,” Somberg answered and “sometimes unfairly so.” Hawk emphasized the importance of asking these kinds of questions and having the difficult conversation.
Camacho agreed it’s a touchy thing. “Marginalized people have a lot of history, and some are angry. Just changing names is not authentic diversity. It’s important to have sensitivity readers who can highlight the issues. And listen to them; be open to feedback and not take it as an attack.”
Is there a better time of year to submit a query? All agents answered no.
What advice do you have for dealing with multiple offers?
Camacho advised to ask yourself what you’re looking for. What kind of agent/client relationship, e.g. just business or closer relationship? Somberg again emphasized the right to ask questions and not hesitate to do that. “If you don’t feel comfortable, it may be a sign it’s not a good fit. What’s your gut instinct about who you’re connecting with the most?”
Could an author’s Twitter profile make or break deals?
All agreed it’s problematic if there’s offensive content on Twitter. Writers need to be careful what information is posted on social media because it’s public.
Does it make a difference to have a large number of followers on Twitter?
Hawk advised that if one is not agented, use it to continue to build your community and friendships. “Don’t look at it as a platform to build your readers, at least not when you’re at the querying-agents stage of your career. Twitter also can be a good way to do research; follow agents.”
Somberg shared that “having a large social media following will help you, but it has to be 10’s or 100’s of thousands of followers.”
Camacho stressed the importance of having an affinity for Twitter and wanting to be on it.
Quiñones asked the last question of the evening: “Is there a point you’d like to make or question you wish you were asked?”
For Camacho, it was, “What is the best thing I can do as a writer? Find a community that can support you. The publishing journey is not linear; it’s good to share it with someone.”
Somberg feels it’s an exciting time in the industry and exciting time to be an author.
“You are readers, too; keep reading,” Hawk said. “It will help you and keep you excited about writing. The part in your control is the writing; it’s yours. The rest is a group project. Stay firmly rooted in who you are and the stories you want to tell.”
Leah Heilman Schanke was a finalist two consecutive years in 2014 and 2013 in the PNWA Literary Contest in the children’s book category and was awarded an Andrea Davis Pinkney Merit Scholarship by the Children’s Book Academy in 2014. By day, Leah is an Assistant Vice President of Human Resources. Leah lives on Long Island with her husband and children.