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If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I recommend kidlit writers secure an agent. Literary agents provide many crucial services that go far beyond selling manuscripts. A good agent guides you through every step of your career—the ups, the downs, the slumps, the triumphs. They are your ever-hopeful cheerleader and your biggest fan (often the smartest one, too). As one literary agent states, “There’s no greater professional joy than championing a book that you believe in and watching the world delight in it.”

Today I’m delighted to interview that agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin. She serves as Senior Vice President of Trident Media Group. 

Alyssa, why (and how) did you get into representing children’s literature?

When I was a second-semester-senior English major in college, I suddenly found myself finding a way to tie children’s literature into all my term papers. I wrote one called “Tip Me Over and Pour Me Out” about tea in Alice in Wonderland. And for my History of India class I wrote another about the British Raj in India as shown in the works of Hodgson Burnett and Kipling. I took this as a sign that I was meant to work in children’s publishing. And later that summer when I attended the Radcliffe (now Columbia) Publishing Course, I found myself making a bee-line for all the kidlit jobs, although nobody really used the term kidlit back in 1998.

In the spring of 1999 I was hired by S&S Books for Young Readers where I spent over seven years as a children’s book editor. And in year six of those seven years, when I decided I wanted to segue into the more entrepreneurial pursuit of agenting, I only ever considered doing so if I could be a children’s book agent. I’ve heard it said that children’s literature is the body of literature people know the first and the best, and that’s definitely true for me! Luckily for me, Trident specifically sought out a children’s book agent in the Fall of 2006 and they were open to hiring someone with an editorial—rather than an agenting—background.

How did the years spent working as an editor influence your agenting style?

I think my years spent working as an editor taught me a lot about the importance of having an editor who is an advocate, someone who can really sell the publisher’s sales force on an author’s book and make them realize they have something really special on their hands, as opposed to just another book in a sea of many books that will fly under the radar.

I always try to make editors realize that they need to pound their drums about the book and get the jacket just right if they want the book to really shine.

I also learned about the importance and transformative powers of revision. If I fall in love with an author’s voice, I will still take on the project even if it means a year or two of editing until the plot and the story arc are in the shape they need to be in order to sell.

Can you pinpoint a particular quality that makes you fall in love with a voice?

I’m a huge sucker for setting so the ability to conjure a sense of place that feels palpable always goes a long way with me. When I think back on the books I love, both front list titles and those that I still hold dear from my childhood, the #1 thing that stands out to me is how much I love the characters. So, when voice grabs on and makes me care, like really care such that I’m still thinking about the characters after the fact, then I know the voice has done its job. Lyrical lovely language that I want to quote doesn’t hurt anything either, of course!

I know agents get asked this a lot, but is there anything specific you’re dying to see? What’s on your wish list?

With the popularity of graphic and middle grade novels, I’m trying to expand my stable of illustrators and author-illustrators at the moment. I’m also very influenced by my rising-4th-grader son’s love of shorter books, so I’d love to find more fictional manuscripts for middle grade in verse or alternative shorter text formats that still manage to tell a full, high-stakes story. I’m a huge fan of nonfiction and history, and while the category in younger MG has kind of exploded already, I still think the market could really use a series like I SURVIVED, but for upper elementary age and middle school readers; there’s a big hole for kids after they finished many of the I SURVIVED and WHO WAS/IS books. And I’m also keen for books that are laugh-out-loud funny, as I never see enough of those in either MG or YA. And I always gravitate towards books with vividly-drawn settings, bonus points for those regional, cultural, and ethnic flavors that I’ve yet to see much of in kidlit before.

Beyond the writing, what else do you look for in a client?

I tend to look for clients who are hardworking, passionate about their craft, and good at marketing. Again, a sense of humor in life as well as in art is a virtue. And also patience is a big plus.

Speaking of patience, can you explain why it’s an important virtue in authors? What do you advise your clients to do during the wait?

It’s rare that things happen exactly as we expect them to. Sometimes books take a long time to sell and sometimes they sell quickly but the contracts due to various reasons take time to be finalized. Sometimes there’s an auction but bidders are on vacation, so the whole timeframe gets pushed back a month. Everyone has their own “dog ate my homework” story when it comes to waiting and publishing. And once the book is sold and paid for, odds are there will be more waiting, whether it’s for an edit letter, marketing plan, illustration sketches, sales figures etc. I always tell my clients to keep busy when their books are on submission: Try writing or outlining new works. Revise your five year goal plan. Get a lot of exercise. Binge watch a worthy show. Spend time in the company of loved ones and dear friends. A watched pot never boils!

Does a potential client have to have a blog and/or a large social media following for you to sign them?

If it’s celebrity- or news-driven nonfiction, having some social media out of the gate holds value when getting editors to read a proposal. But for fiction and more scholarly nonfiction or picture books, it’s certainly not a prerequisite when I go on submission. It’s nice if by the time of publication authors have a way for readers to reach them online. And I’ve had several clients tell me that booksellers have reached out to them on Twitter pre-publication, so again, it does hold value, but I always put the most stock in the book itself.

When you have a client project ready to submit, what steps do you go through? How do you strategize the submission process?

When a project is ready for submission, I love creating a submission list that includes a variety of different editors. Generally, these include a mix of imprints at larger houses and smaller houses, and includes editors at all different career stages. The common thread is that I know these editors to be hungry for this particular type of book. I usually learn who is looking for what by doing research on PubMarketplace and Manuscript Wishlist. And since I’ve worked with a bunch of editors over a number of years at this point, sometimes I also intuitively just know who might like what. Depending on the type of book, I usually submit to be between 8 and 14 editors at any given time. That way, the list is small enough to make each editor feel special. But the body of editors reading is large enough to have a healthy competitive situation if it goes to auction.

Over the course of your agenting career, what accomplishments are you most proud of?

I love seeing client dreams come true, and quite a lot have in my 12+ years as an agent. I’ve had my hands in numerous long-running bestsellers, a major motion picture and the early stages of a Broadway musical. I’ve seen clients win Caldecott, and Printz Honors and Siebert and Belpre Awards. I’ve helped put in motion author tours, conference appearances, and front-of-store promotions, and have been instrumental in keeping titles in hardcover for years. I’ve negotiated offers that doubled and tripled from where they started. But my greatest achievement is overall is not doing anything by rote, and always trying to think outside the box. Because of this, each new situation becomes a wonderful learning experience that often sheds light on the next book…and the one after that.

What changes and challenges in publishing do you foresee happening over the next few years?

Children’s publishing is incredibly competitive with many more agents and one less big six (now big five) publishers in town now, and I wouldn’t be shocked by further consolidation in the future. Clearly bookselling in the era of amazon.com offers up many challenges for booksellers and authors generally. The fact that B&N, after having been owned by one individual for so long, has been recently purchased by an equity firm is leaving a lot of people wondering about the future of book chain retail in the digital age. That said, there are several new kidlit publishers  as well as Indie bookstores on the rise, and I think audio originals and graphic and illustrated books are growth areas. As long as libraries and schools continue to have book-buying budgets and people continue to have kids, I’m relatively optimistic about the future of kidlit publishing.

And lastly, are you open to submissions?

I am open to submissions, five pages in the body of a query letter for longer works, complete PB texts in the body of a query, and any art or illustrations inserted as links in a query letter, no attachments. Email to ahenkin@tridentmediagroup.com.

Alyssa, thank you for an informative and engaging interview!

Good luck with your queries, kidlit writers!

Yes, I’m from Jersey where “lotsa” is a word.

But enough formalities, let’s get on with the prizes!

 

The new blog subscriber winner of the three-picture-book prize pack is: ORTHODOXMOM3!

Congratulations! I’ll be sending you an email shortly!

And now onto the KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON goodies from Ryan Gosling (aka Luke Reynolds)!

First, the winner of the signed book is: MARY ZISK!

Next, the winner of the query critique from Luke is: REBECCA COLBY!

Finally, the lucky person who gets a phone call pep publishing talk with Luke is: SUSAN G. CLARK!

Okay, ladies, try to KEEP CALM!

I’ll send you an email later today!

Congratulations to all! And remember…there’s more giveaways coming in April!

It’s Picture Book Palooza month!

(And obviously exclamation mark month, too.)

Among those represented by the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, Luke Reynolds is known as the *real* Ryan Gosling (you had to be there). Although, I happen to think Luke is cuter, don’t you? Just look at that dimple! And I happen to know he’s a heckuva lot funnier.

He’s also smarter than my Ryan Gosling when it comes to publishing, writing and living.

Luke is the author of KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON: NOTES ON WRITING (AND LIVING) WITH HOPE. And he’s here today to give you that: HOPE. (Plus a copy of his book, plus a query critique, plus a personal “pep talk” phone call!)

Half of Luke’s book includes some reflections for writers on perseverance, hope, humor, gratitude, and work ethic, while the other half includes interviews with writers like Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket), Katherine Erskine, Jane Smiley, and 11 other authors.

Without further Ryan Gosling references, take it away, Ryan! Erm…I mean Luke!

Making a Life

by Luke Reynolds

There are two places where fast, easy manoeuvres and accomplishments are both warranted and worthwhile: 1) In a snowball fight, when your opponents are slinging well-packed cold stuff at you faster than re-runs of Friends episodes appear on TBS; and 2) In getting the kids to bed when they’re already overtired after a long day of snowball fighting.

Most other pursuits in life don’t lend themselves to easy success. And at the top of a very, very long list of Stuff That Takes Forever comes the pursuit of writing. But that’s a good thing—a terribly hard, but fantastically good thing. Because deep down, none of us who love writing want it to be easy anyway. That’s not why we fall in love with something in the first place.

When we were children, people asked us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Very few of us, I’m guessing, responded, “I’d really love to find something easy—something that requires little skill, almost no perseverance, and happens fast.” Instead, most of us said we wanted to fly into outer space wearing massive white suits; or we said we wanted to sing on stage in front of a roaring audience; or we wanted to be pilots or race car drivers or scientists who found cures for every kind of disease or explorers who found distant lands.

Or we wanted to be writers.

Novelist John Dufresne writes in his Foreword to KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON the following: “Writers want to write, not to have written.” Even though the manuscript of Keep Calm had been finished and proofed and was ready for publication, that line from John’s Foreword hit me hard and fast—much like a well-packed snowball or like a child screaming wildly that he isn’t ready for bed. The line speaks so loudly because it captures the essence of this pursuit we’ve chosen: a creative calling that is about making a life, not a living.

We write because we love the small giddy feeling that rises up like regurgitated food after we’ve eaten too much and then laughed too hard. We write because we like the problems (deep down) that our characters encounter, and we like the fact that there is no easy way out—either for our characters themselves or for us as we make plotting decisions. We write because we know that hearing no enough times and going back to our desks, reworking material, forging new work, and venturing back out into the wild, beautiful possibility of publishing makes our hearts beat fast.

So, deep down, we know it’s not easy. Nor do we want it to be. That’s not why we love it in the first place.

Why do we love films and stories about underdogs? Why—for instance—does Atticus Finch inspire me to no end? It’s not because he took an easy case that guaranteed a sure-fire victory with no obstacles. I love Atticus because he took an impossible case that guaranteed a loss but his conscience demanded it and his soul echoed the call.

You love the books and characters and films you do, I believe, because you know that triumph is only beautiful when the journey is difficult, that getting the story right is profoundly moving only because you’ve known the story has been so stubbornly wrong—however slightly—in its previous lives.

The MG novel that my agent, the lovely Joan Paquette, signed me on was originally entitled ATTICUS AND ME. It was a story that came down my arteries and out through my fingertips. The first draft, though, would have guaranteed a speedy rejection from Joan. So she didn’t see Atticus until his fourth revision. And then Joan continued to revise Atticus into a character who was more authentic, more real—a character whose story meant more. Joan raised the stakes in the novel. And after quite a few rounds, Atticus is still growing, still changing.

And various picture book manuscripts are in their own worlds of revision, each entering a fifth, ninth, and eleventh or more incantation of their possible lives.

We write because we want to write, not because we want to have written. As writers, we start to accept the fact that—much like us—the characters that people our stories are going to need second-chances, harder obstacles, higher walls, deeper pain—and that all of this, eventually, leads to greater love. In the writing, for the writing, and through the writing.

So, then, the question remains: if we don’t want writing and publishing to be easy, what do we really want? I’d venture a humble guess: we want support. We want somebody—anybody, the mailman, Grandma, our children, our students, and maybe one day an agent and editor—to tell us that we have what it takes. We want support. We want to know that our work is worth it. That ninth draft of an MG novel or our twentieth time through a PB manuscript that has changed completely and become almost an entirely new book are both pursuits for which support is not only helpful, but essential.

In short, we need someone in our corner, shouting in a voice of accountability, conviction, and faith to keep going. You have what it takes. Get through this draft. Try it from a different POV. Try it from a different character’s perspective. Try the story in present tense. Throw in a cow who believes he is Ryan Gosling. Throw in a turtle who eats books. Throw in a kid who thinks it’s over, until—

Until that voice. Listen it to it clanging inside the damn-near defeated walls of your heart. That voice confirms what you and I already know: we don’t want it to be easy. It’s hard. We know that. What we want is the pluck and the nerve and the faith to keep going—to make a life with our pursuit of writing and the way we embody it, rather than simply a living.

We want more than a contract and some cash. We want to craft the words that get us excited—that get readers excited. Or, as John Dufresne put it, we want to write, not to have written.

So: a toast. (I wish I had wine, but coffee feeds the writer in me more). To the very act of writing—in all its difficulty, stubbornness, painstakingly slow but remarkably beautiful worth. May we all, as writers and as people, keep calm and query on.

Thanks, Luke! Very inspiring. I need a tissue now. *sniff*

And you folks need to comment! Luke is giving away THREE PRIZES!

1. A signed copy of KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON.
2. A query critique.
3. A personal phone call and pep talk to discuss your writing career.

Your comment counts as one entry. You get an extra entry for each mention on social media: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. Just mention it in your comment. Comments close the end of April 1 and winners will be randomly selected on April 2.

Now keep calm and comment on!

Luke Reynolds is editor of the forthcoming book for teens and tweens BREAK THESE RULES (Chicago Review Press, 2013). He has also co-edited BURNED IN: FUELING THE FIRE TO TEACH (Teachers College Press 2011) and DEDICATED TO THE PEOPLE OF DARFUR (Rutgers University Press, 2009). His newest books are KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON: NOTES ON WRITING (AND LIVING) WITH HOPE (Divertir Publishing, 2012) and A CALL TO CREATIVITY: WRITING, READING, AND INSPIRING STUDENTS IN AN AGE OF STANDARDIZATION (Teachers College Press, 2012). He loves garlic bread with passion, and loves children just about as much. He has taught grades 7-12 and he’s now a nightschool teacher and home-dad by day. His writing for children is represented by the formidably wise and oft-inspiring Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Keep calm and visit on at www.lukewreynolds.com.

Remember #QueryFail? If you want to land a book contract, don’t send a letter like this to an editor or agent. Sung to the tune of “Paperback Writer” by The Beatles, here’s a pop parody with a cautionary theme.

♫ Picture book writer (picture book writer) ♫

To whom it concerns, will you buy my tale?
I’m a stay-home Mom with degrees from Yale.
It’s an alphabet book based on Mother Goose,
And I’ve much to teach so I want to be a picture book writer,
Picture book writer.

It’s a didactic yarn of a wise old sow
Chased by vampire ducks and a zombie cow.
I’ll outsell Mo Willems and Dr. Seuss,
I was in movies but I want to be a picture book writer,
Picture book writer.

♫ Picture book writer (picture book writer) ♫

It’s six thousand words, give or take a few,
My cousin’s friend can illustrate it, too.
I have a twelve-book series that’s told in rhyme,
My three kids love it and I want to be a picture book writer,
Picture book writer.

If you sign me right now, you can be the first,
It’s been e-mailed to hundreds, including Hearst.
If you must reject it, please don’t send a form,
I need your critique and I want to be a picture book writer,
Picture book writer.

I’ve pulled together some questions and answers from yesterday’s QueryDay on Twitter. I’ve edited this slightly to make it more readable (there’s more room than 140 characters here). The questions are in no particular order and may not include every response. In fact, I’ve removed answers by writing peers to concentrate on agent advice.

I hope this helps you with your query process. Thanks to all the agents and writers who participated!

Will an agent overlook a title she doesn’t like to request proposal/chapters for a query that otherwise caught her eye?

Rachelle Gardner: It’s all about the writing. The story. Yeah, a title can help or hurt your chances, but not make or break.

What are the rules for resubmitting after lots of revision? (We’re talking years since the original sub.)

Rachelle Gardner: Most important rule on resubmitting after revision: Be honest, say it up front.

Is it best to send a query to a few agents at once or just send them one by one?

Rachelle Gardner: I don’t know of any agents who expect or even want exclusivity on queries. On requested partials, yes.

Scenario: Big publisher has full manuscript. They offer contract. How can one query an agent to represent you in this situation? Is it proper?

Colleen Lindsay: It will depend on the offer. Agents are in it for $$$ too, so if the offer isn’t big enough, we won’t care. It takes as much time to work on a $2000 deal as a $20,000 deal. Not every deal created equally. But you should always have a publishing lawyer look over the contract even if an agent won’t rep you.

Greg Daniel: If I were a writer trying to find the right agent, I’d pay for access to Publishers Marketplace.com.

Regarding requested material: What is it that ultimately kills the YES when you read a partial or full that had potential?

Lauren MacLeod: Actually, it goes the other way. I start with probably no & you can move to yes with great voice & writing.

Rachelle Gardner: TOP reason I say “no” to queries is the story doesn’t sound unique, fresh, exciting. The problem isn’t the query, it’s the book. What kills the YES? That’s where it gets difficult and subjective. Does the story grab me and not let go, or not? What about being told “your writing is good” but still no? Remember–dozens of queries in the pile. Can only say yes to a few.

I’d think it’s better not to compare your book to other books and just let it stand on it’s own, meself.

Rachelle Gardner: Listing comparable books is important, it puts yours in context, shows you know your market, helps agent “get” your book.

Would this put you off – if someone spends years perfecting one novel? Would output be a concern?

Lauren MacLeod: No need to tell me in the first place (nothing to gain), but I expect first novels to have had more polish than 2nd.

Greg Daniel: No, wouldn’t concern me.

Why do publishers/agents even bother with email partials? Why not just take the whole manuscript and stop reading if it’s a dud?

Lauren MacLeod: I ask for email partials to manage expectations. I try and write longer & more involved rejections for fulls.

Having a hard time deciding what genre my novel is, should I leave that part out of query or can you suggest a way to help decide?

Rachelle Gardner: You must include the genre. Publisher, bookstore, consumer all need to know! Find books/websites that discuss genre.

How much of it is really who you know? How much of the process relies on you receiving recommendations?

Rachelle Gardner: Referrals definitely help. That’s why you go to conferences and network like crazy. I appreciate referrals from my current clients, editors I trust, and other friends in the industry.

Elana Roth: Connections help. Half my list is from referral, but the other half is from queries.

Greg Daniel: The only recommendations that make much difference to me are writers who are referred to me by my current clients.

Are most agents from NY or CA? Is it okay to query agents in other places? Are they for real?

Lauren MacLeod: With email and phones agents anywhere can get in contact with editors. First and foremost, pick someone you connect with.

Rachelle Gardner: It’s a good point about agent location. The Internet has made it easier for publishing folks to live anywhere.

Should a fiction writer ever mention their education or academic publications?

Lauren MacLeod: It should be mentioned in your bio, certainly, esp. if you are planning on doing more, but it should be a CV.

I’m worried about being relevant to the market…will the super hero novel I’m writing now still be relevant six months from now?

Lauren MacLeod: A great story with dynamic writing will always be relevant. Write good books, don’t worry about trends.

Do I need an agent to get a great book published?

Lauren MacLeod: Not necessarily, but probably to get it in the hands of the editors at the big houses & to negotiate a fair contract.

What are you looking for when it comes to voice?

Colleen Lindsay: Authenticity.

In my YA query, would you want to know if I’ve been mentored by famous YA author?

Kate Sullivan (editor): YES, I would LOVE to know if you were mentored by a famous, accomplished or great YA author in a query/pitch.

Today literary agents Lauren E. MacLeod and Colleen Lindsay hosted “QueryFail” on Twitter. Several agents and editors joined in by sharing the worst query lines from their slush piles.

The intention wasn’t to mock writers, but to educate them. “I know writing and querying are hard,” wrote Ms. MacLeod. “So my queryfails have been chosen from people who did not follow submission guidelines.”

Originally I had reposted many of the QueryFail examples here. But after hearing from several writers who were upset by the event, I have removed the specific entries. Instead, I’ll focus on what I learned by following QueryFail.

I apologize to those writers who felt disrespected. My intention in reposting was to share what I thought was good information. I still think it’s good information. But if you know me personally, you know I’m an empathetic soul and I don’t wish to cause another writer distress. Frankly, we’re distressed enough.

So onto what I learned, sans examples… 

1. Failure to follow directions is an automatic rejection.

Agents receive hundreds of queries a week. Their submission guidelines help them work efficiently. If you don’t follow those guidelines, it takes more time to read and respond to your query. The easiest solution is therefore not to bother.

2.  Don’t include anything in your query other than what is requested. (Typically a one-page letter and first page(s) writing sample.)

What sells a book? The writing. The same goes true for your query. The writing sample’s the thing. Don’t include food, photos, scented paper, stickers, alcohol or anything else. This distracts from your writing, the one thing that will win the agent’s attention.

3.  An agent makes a living by selling books. If you don’t have a book available to sell, you shouldn’t be querying.

Do not query until your book is finished, polished and ready for sale. Agents do not write for you, so don’t send ideas you want them to complete. Don’t contact an agent if you have something already published but nothing new to sell.

4.  Only include relevant, professional publishing credentials in your query.

If you are writing a middle grade novel, your articles for a food packaging trade magazine aren’t relevant. Neither is adult fiction, unfortunately. And if you don’t have any credentials, don’t apologize. Simply list your membership in a writer’s organization, like SCBWI. Remember, your writing is what matters. Experience is good, but not a requirement.

5.  Submit a novel with a unique idea, not a bizarre one.

You may write well, but is your book marketable? Remember, an agent’s job is to sell books.

6. Don’t toot your own horn.

Confidence is an attractive quality. Arrogance is not. Know the difference.

7. Remember correct punctuation and grammar.

If your one-page query contains mistakes, the agent can assume that your manuscript is flawed, too.

8. Use the correct salutation.

Call the agent by their name. They want to know that you know who they are! If they are agent #47 in an email blast, they know you haven’t done your research. Don’t call a female agent “sir.” And don’t address your query “to whom it may concern.”

After all those fails you may be wondering, what is a Query Win?

  • First sentence hook
  • Wordcount/genre
  • One- or two-paragraph blurb
  • Relevant writing credits/background
  • Polite closing
  • Solid writing sample

If you want to read more, search TweetGrid.com for #queryfail.

One last tip from Query Fail: “If you must scream about your rejection, do so into a pillow, not on your blog.”

7ate9

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As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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June 4, 2019


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Disney*Hyperion
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