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by John M. Cusick

Picture this: you’re at a midtown restaurant and you see two people having an animated conversation about books. You know this is a favorite lunch spot for publishing folk, so you guess (correctly), you’re witnessing one of those fabled agent/editor lunches. No, there are no empty martini glasses rolling across the table—you can just tell from the way one diner is animatedly talking about a new manuscript she’s working on. As she describes the plot, you find yourself pulled in—you’re intrigued by the details, maybe a few of them even make you smile. And just when you think “hey that’s a pretty clever idea,” the speaker presents another twist, another layer of tension of complication, and before you know it, you’re thinking “I’ve got to read this!”

We typically think about agents pitching projects to editors, and it’s true that as an agent I’m presenting new stories and manuscripts to my editor colleagues all the time. But oftentimes, at lunches like the one described above, the person raving about the wonderful new book they’ve acquired is just as likely to be the editor. And that’s great! As an agent, I want to know what my editors are excited about. What are they working on that’s inspiring them? What new book are they dying to share with the world?

I wish aspiring writers could hear how editors talk about their books at lunches and in-person meetings like these. I think it would be such an education for authors looking to generate compelling and commercial ideas of their own. On the one hand, editors speak from a place of pure, genuine enthusiasm—these are the books they’ve already fallen in love with, offered on, bought, reread a dozen times, and thought about for hours on end. At the same time, editors are often able to speak about their current titles with a kind of focus and precision that many struggling pitch-writers could learn from. Not only does the editor know her book inside out, she’s also a) had it pitched to her (by the author’s agent), and b) has had to pitch it herself—to her team, her publisher, her sales and marketing departments.

Firstly, editors often start with a compelling detail (usually with a smile on their face as they recall a favorite image or concept): “So, she’s a roller-derby all-star,” or, “His best friend is his hairless cat.” Instantly there’s something different or unusual to pull you in, snag your interest.

Secondly, there’s a layer of conflict (another opportunity for a unique detail): “She’s got to save her mom’s holistic pottery center” or “He’s finding first love against the backdrop of the Challenger shuttle disaster.”

This is often where most author pitches begin and end— with the set up and the basic conflict. But editors often go further in their off-the-cuff (or sometimes very polished) descriptions. There’s almost always a third layer, the thing that happens as the story unfolds: “She meets her idol who turns out to be her enemy,” or “He gets expelled for something his brother did.” Etc. etc.

The point is, you’ll notice that published books often have interesting details and “hooks” stacked on top of each other. There are multiple ins to the story, multiple elements that can potentially pull in a reader. If the roller-derby bit didn’t catch your attention, the holistic pottery center or star-crossed lovers might.

And my reaction is almost always, “Oh wow that’s cool. Hey that’s even cooler! And THAT happens too!?”

When building your story world, first, get creative and specific with your details. Instead of your main character working at a generic restaurant, why not have your hero be an entertainer at an off-brand Discovery Zone who has to dress as a giant frog (how embarrassing!).

Next, see if it’s possible to layer your “hooks,” giving your manuscript multiple points of interest for the reader browsing their local bookstore. One way to do this is by combining pre-existing ideas. That romcom about the typewriter repairman? Why not blend it with the detective story you’ve been toying with? Now you’ve got a mystery-rom-com about a typewriter repairman who falls in love with the prime suspect against the backdrop of the space race. Layered concepts equals more points of interest, more complexity, and more intrigue.

It can be tricky to stand out in the crowded market, but building in eccentric and memorable details, as well as combining story-concepts, can help your work rise above the static. Writing well is essential, the base line, but it’s only the start. Take the idea you began with and add your own layers of complexity. Tweak the details and embellish the conflicts, and the next time an editor is gushing about their favorite new manuscript over dim sum or lattes, that book might be yours.

John Cusick is a VP and literary agent with Folio Literary Management, representing a diverse list of award winners and New York Times bestsellers. His focus is middle grade, young adult, and crossover fiction. He is also the author of the YA novels Girl Parts and Cherry Money Baby (Candlewick Press), and the forthcoming middle-grade Dimension Why: How to Save the Universe Without Really Trying (HarperCollins). He tweets at @johnmcusick and discusses the craft and business of writing on YouTube at His submission guidelines are available on Publishers Marketplace

John Cusick will be one of the Storystorm Grand Prizes.

No, we’re not wrapping him in a bow and shipping him to you.

At the end of Storystorm, if you’ve completed the challenge and have at least 30 ideas, you can sign the Storystorm Pledge. If you have registered and signed the pledge, you will go into a random drawing for a Grand Prize. An agent will review your best 5 ideas and give you feedback regarding which ideas would be best to pursue as manuscripts.

So, no need to comment below today…but if you would like to, Storystorm loves feedback!


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 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

Alyssa, thank you for an informative and engaging interview!

Good luck with your queries, kidlit writers!

Nathan Bransford’s first page competition was hotly contested, with a multitude of fine, well-written entries.  To demonstrate how difficult it was to narrow down to six finalists, co-judge Holly had initially selected 30 finalists–but only after her third round of review!  The judges deserve our thanks.  And Heather!Anne! deserves congratulations for being voted the most surprisingly essential first page!

For those who were not selected (and there were 639 of us), I remind you that Nathan Bransford is just one agent.  Yes, he has a talented eye, but his is not the only eye.  What he passed over this time might have been picked up by another.  Finding an agent to represent your work or an editor to publish it is a matter of matching interests.  Think of it in no less complicated terms than finding a spouse: you have to sync up on many levels to make the partnership a success.

So to everyone who entered, congratulations for bravely submitting your work.  Just because you didn’t get picked this time, don’t let the word “failure” creep into your vocabulary.  Keep writing, keep working, keep submitting, keep networking.  The successful writer’s most important trait is perseverance.  You’ll find your match someday.

As if we needed another reason to love Nathan Bransford, the superhero among agents blasted through 645 first-page entries in just four days, selecting a half-dozen finalists.  (Holly deserves a giant pat on the back as well.)  None are all that surprising because they’re examples of exceptional work.  Please go read and vote.  Publicize the contest on the Internet, but don’t campaign for a particular entry.  Congratulations to the finalists and good luck!

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