Sunday, 4 March 2012

Agent Interview: Molly Ker Hawn at The Bent Agency



* Hi Molly and welcome to tall tales & short stories.
Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thanks so much for having me!
I’ve always been a ‘book person’—as a teenager in California, I worked part-time in my local public library, and then at a bookstore.

I graduated from Cambridge with a degree in English, working at the bookstore during my summer vacations, then started my career in the editorial department of the children’s division at Chronicle Books in San Francisco. I went from there to Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group USA. From there, I worked in interactive media, including at a major (now-defunct) teen magazine.

I came back to the book world as the National Program Director for the Children’s Book Council, which is the trade association of American children’s book publishers. I followed that up with a few years of having children, and I joined the Bent Agency last year. I live in southwest London.


* What led you to focus on representing children’s and YA books?

As the legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom said, “I am a former child, and I haven’t forgotten a thing.” (If you’ve never read DEAR GENIUS, the compilation of her letters, stop reading this and go get it NOW.)  I never let go of the stories and characters I loved when I was young, so I was enormously lucky to find an opening in the children’s division at Chronicle.

My long-time friend Jenny Bent opened her own agency in 2009 after many years with major agencies in New York. She’d been suggesting for years that I consider agenting, and last year I started screening YA and middle-grade submissions for her. That led to casting an editorial eye over projects she represented and suggesting houses and editors to pitch to. My time at the Children’s Book Council gave me a good sense of both individual and house-wide tastes, so the step to representing authors myself was a natural one.


* How would you describe your typical working day?

It starts early – before 6:00 a.m. – with a cup of tea and an hour of going through emails that came in overnight. Then I get the children off to school/settled with the sitter, and I get straight back in: more email, talking to editors in London and New York about what they’re looking for, working on pitches, reading manuscripts, sifting through queries, and reading industry news.

From 3:00 p.m. till 8:00 p.m. I’m with my family, and then on weeknights, it’s back to my home office to deal with the calls and emails that have come in from New York. I run out of steam around 10:00 p.m. and collapse into bed with a book (inevitably a YA novel; right now I’m reading ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD).

On weekends, I load my iPad with manuscripts and read while I wait for my daughter to finish her dance class or hockey training. The work expands to fill every available minute—I could work 24 hours a day and still have more to do.


* 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’m definitely an editorial agent! My editorial background is extensive and I really enjoy the challenge of helping to refine a manuscript without compromising the author’s voice and vision.


* Would you take a risk on a manuscript that showed lots of promise but needed a lot of work?

It really depends on my sense of how willing the author is to do that work.


* 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?

Obviously, no two fantastic writers’ voices are alike, but they all have something vital in common: they’re believable. If I read a few lines aloud, they sound natural and authentic, and they make me care about the protagonist immediately. Immediately! By the end of the very first page, I know that I want to read the full manuscript.


* If you could make a wishlist of things you’d like to find in your submission inbox, what would it include? And do you have any favourite genres?

My wishlist:
-Strong sibling relationships and/or believable parents
-Really clever time travel
-Stories about the performing arts
-Boarding school stories
-Character-driven stories set during wartimes real and imaginary
-Fabulous contemporary romance that feels real (I’ve reread Stephanie Perkins’ ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS three times – and I am not a person with time for rereading)
-The British answers to Chris Crutcher and Jack Gantos

I don’t have a favourite genre, though I have to admit that I don’t connect much with horror. I’ve only read a few YA horror novels that have really sucked me in, so to speak. I should also say that if your book is a paranormal romance, I’m probably not the girl for you unless there’s something else in your book that’s special enough to make me look past the vampires et al.


* What do you think are the ingredients for a ‘breakout’ book by a debut author?

Voice, voice, voice! And a new idea – or a truly fresh take on an old one.


* 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 don’t think any agent wants to think of her authors on a manuscript-by-manuscript basis. For me, it’s important that my authors trust me to give them good advice and to find good homes for their books.


* Does an aspiring author need to prove they have commitment to pursuing a writing career by providing a writing CV?

Absolutely not. I mean, I like to know if and where an author has already been published, but the writing will tell me more than any CV ever could.


* Do you expect your writers to develop a market brand or are you keen for them to pursue a diversity of stories?

I want my authors to do what they do best, whether that’s sticking to one genre or not.


* Do you have any submission preferences or things that annoy you?

What annoys me: Not following the submission guidelines posted on our agency website.

Even worse: Telling me you’ve read the guidelines and then giving me your reasons for not following them. Our guidelines aren’t arbitrary, so I don’t care if you’re the next Jacqueline Wilson: follow them.


* When reading submissions what would you say are the most common mistakes made by aspiring writers?

The big one: Unreasonable word counts for the intended audience. A little research goes a long way here. 


* 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?

Series books are so appealing to publishers, I’d be a fool not to consider them. But a proposed series has to need to be a series – I have to feel that the story and characters demand more space than a single novel can provide.


* How much time do you devote to existing clients, and how much to finding new clients?

Since I’m building my list, I spend a lot of my time looking for new clients. But when I consider offering representation, or when I’m deep in edits on a manuscript I’m getting ready to send out on submission, the query inbox takes a bit of a back seat while I focus all my attention on the project at hand. I tend to get obsessed – I offered rep last week to a book I’m absolutely crazy about, and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I’ve dreamt about that book every night for four nights in a row.


* Do you think the publishing industry has/is changing in any major ways? Either due to the global economic climate or the introduction of ebooks?

We all know that the publishing industry is changing every day. A significant part of my job is staying on top of how publishers and booksellers are coping with a marketplace that seems to reinvent itself every year. When I started my career, I was slaving over the fax machine making Bologna appointments, but I spent enough years working in digital media to find change really energizing. And there have definitely been some positive changes – for example, e-publishing allows more authors than ever to find audiences for their work, which thrills me. But it also makes the field much more crowded, so it’s more important than ever to have savvy people on your side to help you stand out and make sure your book finds the right audience in the right formats.


* What is one thing you wish every beginner writer knew?

Write the book you want to read – not the book you think I want to read.


* Any other words of wisdom and advice to aspiring writers?

Do your research. Join SCBWI and learn how the submission/representation/publishing process works.
Pitch agents whose interests align with yours.
Know what’s being published and what you need to do to make your book stand out.
The more you know about book publishing, the more chance you have of success.


READERS’ QUESTIONS

* Re: The submission letter.
* If you've been published in a different area should it be mentioned? Should you include writing qualifications?

Yes. Even if you’ve only written for a trade magazine for veterinary equipment manufacturers, it’s an indication that you understand the editorial process and can meet deadlines.


* 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.

Oh, I like to know.


* 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?

I like to work with authors who have a clear sense of what they want their books to be, but who want the guidance of an industry professional to help them sell those books.


* If an author mentions their website or blog, do you check them out? And if so, what would you like to see?

If I like the manuscript, I definitely look at the author’s website. If I really like the manuscript, I get excited and start Googling.


* 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'?

I don’t usually pay attention to that kind of detail.


* Do you read submissions personally or are they given to readers? If so, at what stage would they go to you?

I read all my submissions myself, though our agency does have some very insightful interns whom I sometimes ask for a second opinion.


* If an author writes for several different age groups is it ok to make several, simultaneous submissions?

Personally, I’d rather see one at a time. If I don’t like the first one, it’s easier for me to consider the second on its own merits if I approach it with an unjaundiced eye on another day.





I'd like to say a huge thank you to Molly for talking to tall tales & short stories.
TB

6 comments:

Ness Harbour said...

Wonderfully insightful interview, so good to read about what an agent is looking for and to read 'write the book you want to read not the one you think I want to read'. A very refreshing interview

Lesley Moss said...

Really enjoyed this interview - thank you.

Sue Hyams said...

Interesting interview. Thank you for posting! Like Ness, I love the quote about writing the book you want to read. So true. And I LOVE Anna Dressed in Blood too!

Nicky Schmidt said...

Really interesting and insightful interview. And I have to agree with both Ness and Sue on Molly's quote about writing the book you want to read. Thanks to both Tall Tales and Molly Ker Hawn!

Sue said...

A fascinating interview with plenty of depth and detail. I particularly enjoyed reading about Molly's working life - it's not easy straddling two time zones.

Thank you!

Lou Treleaven said...

Interesting, candid interview.

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