What led you to specialize in children’s books?
I was offered a job at Macdonald Childrens’ Books as publicity and marketing director which was more senior than the one I was doing, at Jonathan Cape on the adult fiction list.
How would you describe your typical working day?
Varied. Other than the inevitable meetings, there’s very little similarity day by day because I am mainly reacting to new texts being sent in by authors or to offers and feedback from publishers. Usually I will spend a third of the day meeting with internal colleagues to talk about budgeting, scheduling and forward creative plans. A third reading new work and talking to my clients; and a third negotiating new contracts, editing or giving creative feedback on client’s texts, and simply answering and keeping on top of department correspondence.
What are the greatest challenges of being an agent?
In this current economic climate, making sales!
In general, keeping on top of the latest information about how a client is affected contractually by new technology.
Trials and tribulations of being an agent: What do you love about your work? What don’t you love?
I will always love finding new work that is original and exceptional. And making the first breakthrough sale for a new author – both of these moments are still punch-in-the-air exciting!
Contract negotiations can be the downside; some contract directors are more pernickety than others, and don’t return their comments for weeks. When you are desperate to go out celebrating with your client, taking months to get the signed contract can seem frustrating.
Do you want near perfect manuscripts or are you happy to work with the author editorially? Would you describe yourself as an ‘editorial agent’?
I worked as an editor in publishing for over 25 years so I’ll naturally always have views about how a mss can be strengthened, but I won’t embark on a detailed line edit because ultimately that is what the publisher editor will want to do and my advice might be contradictory to his/hers. I will advise on basis structural edits – i.e. if the ending or beginning are letting the story down, or if a particular character isn’t working. I can also point out areas that make the story less attractive to publishers – for example, certain themes that will make the book less sellable internationally.
When looking for that new manuscript and debut author what are the main things that grab your attention? What makes a piece of work stand out from the slushpile?
Quite simply, attention to grammar and spelling, double line spacing and clear presentation help. That will alert me at the beginning that the author has a professional interest in their writing. In terms of content, I see a vast number of copycat stories – as soon as there is a bestselling children’s book, we will become inundated with weak copies of it, which never works. Publishers and agents are after the next big thing, not the last one. True originality is therefore very important. There may be a risk taking element at play here – someone who doesn’t automatically think ‘this is for children so we’ll have to have some little animals in it’ or ‘we can’t have a murder mystery for children’ will produce a less attractive text than somebody who has had a compelling story in their mind for years and sets out to make it work for children. As a rule of thumb, children are generally a great deal more sophisticated than debut authors seem to regard them.
When looking for a new illustrator what makes a piece of artwork stand out?
All new illustrators should show a complete range of work in their initial portfolio; it is important to demonstrate that you can illustrate animals, people, buildings and landscapes equally convincingly. A publisher will need to rely upon you to go where the text takes you, even if your particular speciality is one of these things. It’s important to bear in mind that most books are still printed using the 4-colour print process, as well, so your particular technique needs take into account that certain textures and colours won’t reproduce, or will flatten, during repro. It’s generally a good idea to use as broad a colour palette as possible when working for younger children.
What kind of working relationship do you aim to build between you and your clients?
This varies according to the client. Some I have regular contact with and become chatty and close; others prefer to talk to me only when their deal is going through., about the business details. It is helpful for me to know how people tick, so I see and talk to my clients as often as possible.
Would you take a risk on a manuscript that showed lots of promise but needed a lot of work?
By and large this depends on the market. If I have lots of commissions going through and there is other work on my desk that is more finished and more suitable for publishers, I am unlikely to take time out to resurrect something that needs work. Also, as I mentioned earlier, a detailed edit is likely to conflict with the edit that the publisher’s editor will undertake later, so it can be counter productive.
Does an aspiring author/illustrator need to prove they have commitment to pursuing a writing/illustrating career by providing a CV?
It’s not my business to dictate how my authors make their income and I am just as delighted to take on a client who has one perfect mss but hasn’t planned a career in writing, than I am to take on somebody who has studied and practiced writing for years. It is always useful, however, to know something about you and your life.
Do you expect your writers to develop a market brand or are you keen for them to pursue a diversity of stories?
The majority of the most successful children’s characters and series start with one book which does so well that follow ups are developed and planned, so I wouldn’t recommend setting out to develop your own ‘brand’. The publisher’s editor, designers and marketing people will be the ones who can plan this on the most expert basis. The authors’ job is to make their initial story, idea and characters so irresistible that more commissions will develop.
Do you think the publishing industry has/is changing in any major ways? Either due to the global economic climate or the introduction of POD and ebooks?
Publishing is changing constantly, and so it should. It needs to be flexible and evolving to keep books fresh. POD increasingly means that publishers can keep books in print without having to hold large stock, which is a positive step for backlist, Estates and Academic work. The impact of ebooks has yet to bite, although agencies and publishers are putting in a lot of work researching the implications for their authors. Personally I think it is a positive step for books to be made available in as many new formats as possible; and I am a huge fan of my own ebook reader, which makes reading new mss on the train so much easier!
Do you accept unsolicited submissions? What is the best way for an author to approach you?
Yes, we accept unsoliciteds and every one we receive is read. As with most agencies, we post specific submission guidelines on our website and I would urge that you follow these carefully for every submission you make. At present we only accept hard copy post submissions; we get too many unsolicited emails to make sure they are dealt with efficiently.
Do you have any submission preferences or things that annoy you?
I like anything good!
I dislike mss printed in tiny, unreadable font size, letters that state how much the author’s children like their work (it’s unlikely that your children will be your best critic), and submissions which do not contain an SAE or return postage but still demand the mss back.
Words of wisdom and advice to aspiring writers.
It’s wonderful when your first book sells, but if it doesn’t, don’t give up. It could be your second, third or even tenth book that hits the right note and it’s up to you to keep moving on to the next idea.
I would say that I spend 80% of my time in this job saying no – no to new mss or ideas which I don’t think will sell. This is because there are thousands more people out there who want to write than there are publishing slots to fill, so I have to sift out the right ideas at the right time. If you are on the receiving end of a no, assume that it’s just a case of right idea, wrong time and try again. I will be specific if I think you shouldn’t continue writing!
Readers Questions -
David T asks -
I'm finding that publishers are responding to submissions more often with the phrase 'doesn't fit with our current list' which implies contraction of their schedules into more commercial genres and established authors. Literary agents must be on a par with estate agents - a bellweather for liquidity in the market - though less so as they have established authors on their backlists. So, to what extent does this agent feel the contractions in the market affect the perceptions of commissioning editors for YA/older children's fiction, what are the trends, the risk-aversion factors, eg in genres, what weighting might be given to potential foreign rights sales, and other factors?
Each agent will have a different answer to this question, because agents lists vary in size and content; as an agent you might find yourself with too many clients writing for the same age group, therefore you are not looking for others, or you may have made an internal decision that your agency should concentrate on different areas. Or, you may be having a lucky run selling picture book texts and you have decided to concentrate on finding more. These factors mean that you can’t take individual reactions as a reflection on the market in general. All agencies hope for a backlist of established authors, since this is where the reliable income comes from, but established authors become less established as their career progresses and publishers are looking for new talent so we all have to concentrate on spotting and building new talent. As to weighting of foreign rights sales, translation potential is vitally important to publishers so if a text is particularly unsuitable for translation but is otherwise strong, I will give editorial feedback to improve it.
A related question about genres: why is there an aversion to science fiction which is so prevalent on TV and in films?
Science fiction has been unpopular over recent years, but most genres come and go in waves of popularity so we are all fully expecting its return! It is considered quite specialist – many publishing editors wouldn’t feel that know enough about this genre to be able to judge a good one.
Jeannette T asks –
I'd love to know whether there’s interest in historical fiction for kids that doesn't tie in with the national curriculum! I wonder if this is dead and buried at the moment or whether there might be a rebirth on the horizon.
Non curriculum historical fiction has been a tough sell for some years now. The odd one does get through – but usually on the strength of the writing rather than the subject matter.
Lou T asks -
Would you ever consider a proposal for a series from a new author, or do you prefer stand alone books?
As I talked about above, most well known series start with a successful book one, so I would urge concentrating on producing a brilliant standalone rather than working up a series proposal that may not fit with publisher’s long term plans.
Do you get involved in the marketing/publicity of your authors' books?
I will advise an author through the publisher publicity process, and I’ll get involved with any negotiations such as author tour commitments or drafting and releasing press announcements
Does your work spill over into weekends, or do you try and keep work and life separate?
I am reading constantly, and yes, this does spill over into evenings and weekends. As do visits to author launches, Festival events or interview recordings. This is no hardship, though!
Ceka asks -
There has been a lot of talk about the 'age banding' of children's books - what are the accepted age-bands and are they really typed in stone!
I think you will find that everyone has a different interpretation of a text’s suitability for age group. Personally I am not a fan of age banding for this reason, and because children discover different texts at different stages. Professionally, however, I make sure through their contracts that the author has the right to say whether age banding appears on their books.
Jenny asks -
What is the current most popular genre for children’s books in age groups 5/9 and 10/13?
This is impossible to answer; popular in terms of the number of texts publishers are buying, or popular in terms of the number of books sold? Every agent will be selling different numbers in different age groups, but for me personally 8-12 is very fertile at the moment.
Dwight asks –
I am concerned that ageism may be a factor in an agent's readiness to take on a new - and ageing - author, because he/she may have no more than enough time for one or two books. In the current market, does this mean that 'retired' authors have little realistic hope of being published?
As I answered above, I am very open to finding a one-off perfect text so I am not necessarily looking for someone who is planning a long term career. I also have several clients who are retired and their 60s. It is necessary, though, to have some contact with modern children and to understand the themes and interests that they love.
JennyW asks –
Is it worth trying to sell a book at this time, or would we be better waiting till the recession is over?
In the early part of this year I had a boom time for sales, with a whole series of deals especially for younger texts. Things have noticeably become more tricky, though, as the year has gone on and it does appear to be true that this recession has made a major dent on publisher confidence. I wouldn’t recommend giving up altogether during this rocky patch, but I would advocate patience – it may take a good deal longer to get the result that you are after.
A huge thanks to Suzy Penvey for agreeing to be interviewed for the blog and for answering both mine and my readers questions.
Her time, insight, and advice is very much appreciated.