For my final post of 2010, I'm very pleased to welcome
Children's and YA agent Jenny Savill
to tall tales & short stories.
* Hi Jenny and welcome to tall tales & short stories.
Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Hi Tracy and thanks for inviting me to be interviewed.
I’m the agent responsible for nurturing our children’s and YA authors here at ANA.
* What led you to focus primarily on children’s and YA books?
I’ve always loved reading children’s and YA books. When I was a teenager YA wasn’t even a recognised category, so perhaps my future reading habits were conditioned by the paucity of literature aimed at teens back then. It seemed as if I jumped from enjoying Enid Blyton to Jane Austen, Agatha Christie and James Herbert (the latter borrowed from my older brother’s room) virtually overnight... I was clearly looking for Romance (of the seemingly unattainable variety), Suspense and Horror in my reading – pretty much key elements of many YA books today.
In my 20’s and 30’s I worked creatively with children and young people, eventually attempting a novel for 9-12’s and going through the submissions/editorial feedback process. Now on the other side of the submissions fence, my role at ANA gives me the opportunity to represent authors who write books in the genre I have always loved to read. This is a privilege – and it’s a hugely exciting area of publishing in which to be involved.
* How would you describe your typical working day?
I’ll be reading a manuscript on the way into the office – either one of my authors’ or a submission I’m interested in. I deal with my emails, check into my author’s blogs to see what they’re up to, contact any I haven’t been in touch with recently to see how they’re getting on with their manuscripts, or any revisions they’re doing right now, or to update them on the status of their contracts. I’ll often need to check in with our contracts manager about various things. I’ll perhaps need to contact an editor about a project I’m submitting, and check to see if there’s any news that needs to go onto our website, or if any author pages need updating. There might be an editorial meeting with my colleagues here at ANA, most of whom place foreign rights in Europe and further afield. We’ll discuss and update each other on current projects – including children’s’ projects for our own authors – and strategise. It’s always exciting when a proof copy of your author’s book lands on the table at editorial – and especially so if it’s a foreign edition.
On those days in the week when I’m not running to the school gates and can stay in the office later, I may be in touch with editors in the US and I try to read manuscripts, although this is often interrupted so I end up doing most of my reading out of hours, after the kids have gone to bed.
* Trials and tribulations of being an agent: What do you love about your work? What don’t you love? What are the greatest challenges of being an agent?
I love the creativity of the job – not just working with authors (it’s fascinating seeing the different ways in which authors work), but deciding which editors should see which projects and where the perfect home would be for each one – then trying to make that happen. I love telling an author they have a publishing deal. I love it when that first cover idea arrives from the publisher and it’s fab. I love getting all my authors together – something I try to do once a year. I just really enjoy spending time with authors.
I don’t love the fact that there aren’t enough hours in the day and that I feel I’m always behind when it comes to looking at submissions. We get soooooooo many, and I’m niggled by the fact that I may have missed something staggeringly wonderful because I haven’t got to the slushpile quickly enough.
The greatest challenge of being an agent? Holding your nerve when you’re in a big negotiation. I have lost sleep...
* 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 prefer to see a manuscript when the author thinks they’ve honestly done enough and can’t improve it any further. I will work editorially – and intensively over a period of time - if I see the writing is fab and the voice is there.
* Would you take a risk on a manuscript that showed lots of promise but needed a lot of work?
My head tells me there’s just not enough time in my day to allow for this, but it depends – if the voice was brilliant and the concept breathtakingly original, I might be swayed... Usually, if a project has potential but needs lots more work, I’ll advise the author to go to Cornerstones for further editorial advice.
* 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?
And a feeling that, as I’m reading, I’m in the presence of a writer who knows what he or she is doing – that they know where the story is going, they’re not spending ages describing and telling, they’re in control of their craft. If I’m stumbling over plot inconsistencies or grammar, I will stop reading.
* If you could make a wishlist of things you’d like to find in your submission inbox, what would it include?
Brave themes; authentic voices; a serious, professional approach.
* What do you think are the ingredients for a ‘breakout’ book by a debut author?
The breakout book is the book that no-one has anticipated, and that’s what I’m always on the look out for.
* What kind of working relationship do you aim to build between you and your clients? Do you see yourself as a career builder or prefer a more manuscript by manuscript approach?
I’m a career-builder – authors need to be nurtured and guided in order to grow. It’s a huge responsibility - it’s people’s lives and livelihoods – and I take it extremely seriously.
* Does an aspiring author need to prove they have commitment to pursuing a writing career by providing a writing CV?
No. Just a few sentences about themselves and their writing in their covering letter will suffice.
* Do you expect your writers to develop a market brand or are you keen for them to pursue a diversity of stories?
I think writers should write what they are passionate about. They should know the market – if only to ensure that what they are writing has not already been done - but not write slavishly to it. Some of the most outstanding mss I’ve seen have been stories that authors have simply been compelled to write. Some authors are besieged by their own characters until they write them down – and that has nothing to do with the market!
* Do you have any submission preferences or things that annoy you?
I like to see a short, polite submission letter that tells me a bit about the author, a short synopsis – no longer than a page of A4, and the first 3 chapters.
* When reading submissions what would you say are the most common mistakes made by aspiring writers?
I’ve been there and done this and I don’t think it’s necessarily a mistake, but the reason why many submissions don’t make it beyond the Inbox is that they are not ready. So, I advise writers to get their work read – and read – and read again, before submitting it. Get it read by other writers, not necessarily friends, but people who can give honest feedback. If you can, have it looked at by a literary consultancy or a writing tutor and get professional advice. Then, and only then, send it to an agent.
* Would you ever consider a proposal for a series from a new author, or do you prefer stand alone books? If an author is writing a trilogy, should they mention it in their submission?
Yes – they should just say in their submission letter that they are writing a trilogy/series. But, interestingly, often what authors think will stretch to a series or sequel will actually, once it’s boiled down, fill one (extremely good, action-packed!) standalone book.
* How much time do you devote to existing clients, and how much to finding new clients?
It’s fair to say I’m mostly devoted to my existing authors but of course I keep an eye out for new ones. And if a new author comes along he or she will get my full attention. Earlier this year I flew at short notice to Ireland to sign up an author from the e-slushpile, just to make sure I signed him quickly…
* 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?
It is changing for all those reasons, but that’s what makes it exciting and challenging. Nothing stands still, does it? Everything evolves.
* Words of wisdom and advice to aspiring writers?
Know clearly who you are writing for.
Write from the heart.
Show don’t tell.
Avoid overly long descriptions.
Start a scene as late as possible into the action and finish it as early as possible.
Be brave and be yourself.
* Re: The submission letter.* If you've been published in a different area should it be mentioned?
* Should you include writing qualifications?
Yes, but your writing is what matters.
* Should you include if you’ve been shortlisted in major competitions? Some say it shows the work is better than average, others that it wasn't good enough to win so it reflects badly.Yes, you should say – it shows your writing has something, even if it’s not fully developed yet.
* Re: Editorial advice and responses to suggestions and criticisms. Are you looking for authors who might disagree (in a rational and reasonable way) and defend their vision, or, would you prefer authors to trust your suggestions completely?
Most authors do a bit of both and it works fine. I would expect authors to be able to defend their decisions. Often the problem is that they know why they’ve written things a certain way, but they haven’t made it clear in the text to the reader. Once an author sees this, through discussion with the agent, it can be clarified in the text.
* Would you consider representing a children’s poet?
No, sorry, I have neither the time nor the expertise.
* Is it part of an agent’s job to make suggestions for, and help with, promotion? Or is that down to the individual author and their publisher?
It can be, and I would certainly step in if I felt it would help, but publishers generally have this covered. I’ll always try to make myself available if an author asks me to accompany them to a promotional event.
* If an author mentions their website or blog, do you check them out? And if so, what would you like to see?
I would check them out only if I loved their submission. Obviously if their blog were to contain offensive views or bad language, I wouldn’t go near them.
* How far into teen speak/slang should teen characters to go?
Some way, but be careful as this changes rapidly and can date a book.
* Is age an issue? Would you consider representing a YA first novel from an octogenarian?
Age should never be an issue, so yes.
* Is it ever worth mentioning you have children in your target readership age (shows you are in touch with that age group) or is that a no-no on the lines of 'I read it to my family and they loved it'?
You can mention them, but at the same time, that line is one to be avoided.
* Do you read submissions personally or are they given to readers? If so, at what stage would they go to you?
I skim-read the first pages of all submissions. Ones that look interesting I will give to a reader or my assistant. If they love it, it will come back to me and I will read it in depth. Very occasionally I will be so taken with something on the first look that I contact the author there and then and ask to see the whole ms.
* What can an author be doing (apart from writing) to improve their prospects and chances of success? (I'm thinking writing courses, writers' circles, conferences, competitions, forums, blogs - which of these would you consider useful?)
All of those are useful. Getting used to criticism is useful. Reading anything and everything in your market and beyond is the most useful thing. And being aware of what’s going on in the world, social and cultural trends, news stories etc…
* If an author writes for several different age groups is it ok to make several, simultaneous submissions?
Yes, perfectly fine.
Authors represented by Jenny Savill and featured on tall tales & short stories