SCBWI Bologna 2006 Agent Interview: Barry Goldblatt

From SCBWI Bologna 2006:

Barry Goldblatt of Barry Goldblatt Literary Agency will be speaking at the SCBWI Bologna 2006 conference in Bologna, Italy, March 25-26, 2006. Other speakers include: authors and illustrators Scott Westerfeld (author interview), Sara Rojo Pérez (illustrator interview), Justine Larbalestier (author interview), Doug Cushman (author-illustrator interview); editors: Victoria Arms/Bloomsbury (editorial director interview), Melanie Cecka/Bloomsbury, Shannon Barefield of Carolrhoda (editorial director interview), Anne McNeil/Hodder (publishing director interview); agents: Rosemary Canter/PDF (agent interview), Costanza Fabbri/Gabriella Ambrosioni Literary Agency (agent interview), Gabriella Ambrosioni/Gabriella Ambrosioni Literary Agency, and Rosemary Stimola/Stimola Literary Studio (agent interview). Hands-on workshops and roundtable discussions. See registration information. Note: there have been some changes in the speaker roster since the schedule was first posted; check the website for latest details.

In addition to the likes of Holly Black (The Spiderwick Chronicles, Tithe (Simon & Schuster, 2002), Valiant (Simon & Schuster, 2005))(author interview) and Libba Bray (A Great and Terrible Beauty (Delacorte, 2003), Rebel Angels (Delacorte, 2005))(author interview), Barry Goldblatt represents 2006 Newbery Honor winner Shannon Hale, who won for Princess Academy (Bloomsbury, 2005). Barry Goldblatt joins agents Gabriella Ambrosioni, Rosemary Canter, and Costanza Fabbri on the panel, “A is for Agent,” at the SCBWI Bologna 2006 Conference. Erzsi Deàk interviewed Barry in March 2006.

Erzsi Deàk: What led you to work in the field of children’s books? Can you give us a brief outline of your career?

Barry Goldblatt: I stumbled into children’s books accidentally, really. I was interviewing for a job in New York, only had two days left before I had to go back home and pack, and was feeling more than a little desperate. Along came the fabulous Donne Forrest, Rights Director at Dutton Children’s Books/Dial Books for Young Readers, who convinced me that a job was better than no job, and hey, maybe I’d even like it. Needless to say, I did, and here I’ve stayed.

It goes like this: rights assistant, later rights associate at Dutton/Dial, laid off, rights manager at the then-named Putnam & Grosset Group, and finally rights and contracts director at Orchard Books. Once Orchard was bought by Scholastic, I took a deep breath and leapt…into self-employment. So was born Barry Goldblatt Literary, now almost six years old.

ED: Some agents like to have a creative role in the relationship between their authors, illustrators and editors while others prefer to deal with the business of publishing. How do you see your role?

BG: I definitely have an editorial role with my clients, as well as the more typical agent one. It’s not so much that I edit—certainly not in the way a real editor will—but I definitely will talk with a client about a manuscript, about what works for me and what doesn’t, and I’ll often send them back for a revision before submitting to editors. The reason is very simple: editors expect submissions from agents to be that much more polished, that much closer to being ready to go, and I have to meet that expectation if I want my clients to be successful.

I’m certainly more hands-on than many agents. I want to be able to send out a manuscript that simply can’t be refused, so I want it as polished as possible before I let anyone see it. I talk through work with my clients, tell him/her what did and didn’t work for me, where I think it could be improved. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t, but the discussion always helps to improve a piece. Once we both feel the piece is in the best shape, then we start submissions.

ED: Do you see yourself as primarily an agent for authors or illustrators? For “older” works (v. picture books, for example), or…?

BG: I mostly work with authors, and right now my focus is on older work, primarily YA. However, I have several illustrators who I keep busy, I’ve got some wonderful picture book writers, and I’ve had some success with some middle-grade fiction as well. The only thing I don’t handle at all is non-fiction.

ED: What grabs your attention and makes you want to represent someone after the first “hit” of the person’s work?

BG: The first thing I do after I read something I love is call the author. I’ve spent two or three hours with writers discussing their work, their goals, their favorite movies. I’m looking for a connection, a meeting of like minds, someone I can comfortably and without hesitation support and cheer on for twenty years or more. If I find that, I’ll offer representation. If I don’t feel that connection, odds are we’re not going to be a good fit.

ED: What kinds of books have you had the most success with?

BG: Young adult fiction is so hot right now, and that’s where I’ve put a lot of my efforts, but I’ve also got several highly successful picture book and middle-grade writers. I like to keep my hands in everything, if I can; I don’t want to get boring or one-note.

ED: What kinds of books do you think travel [between countries/cultures] best? Which books don’t? Do you encourage your artists and writers to adapt to the “global marketplace”?

BG: I think good fiction has the best chance of traveling. Picture books face so many challenges, not just with text but with art, that often prevent a book from truly speaking to the marketplace in another country or culture. But a novel, well, except for historical fiction (which presents its own unique problems), kids are kids, teens are teens, no matter where they live, and there are always themes and feelings that will speak across borders.

ED: What is the role of agents in the co-edition world?

BG: Well, my role is nil, really. I rarely retain rights to picture books, unless I represent both the author and the artist, and even then, I’ll often leave rights in the hands of the publishers. They’re better equipped to handle the expense of shopping picture books around, and if there are going to be co-editions, the publisher is going to have to do the manufacturing, so in my mind, too many cooks and all that.

ED: Are you ever involved in the marketing campaigns for your clients’ work, once published (or once sold to the publisher)?

BG: Absolutely. I have lots of marketing brainstorming sessions with clients, trying to come up with things that s/he can do on his/her own to best get the word out about a new book. I also try to have these discussions with publishers, but I recognize that they’re the experts and also have limited budgets, so I rarely try and force anything. But the more proactive an author and his/her agent are, the better. Sometimes there are ideas that are incredibly simply and cost- effective that the overtaxed marketing departments just didn’t have time to think of, but when presented correctly, can really get behind and support.

ED: Who needs an agent? Would you advise every professionally-minded children’s book creator to be represented by an agent?

BG: I think everyone needs an agent, but I’m biased of course. Okay, if you’re totally comfortable negotiating deals and contracts, asking your editor for more money, being tough when things aren’t going smoothly, and generally have a good, levelheaded business sense, you probably don’t need an agent (but it still wouldn’t hurt). The simple fact is that you’re a creator, and the best thing you can do for your career is concentrate on creating, and the best way to do that is to have someone else handling the business side of things on your behalf. Writing and illustrating also tends to be a pretty lonely business, so having a dedicated person in your corner is a nice plus too.

ED: Do you have to actually like all your clients’ work to be able to represent it successfully?

BG: I certainly think it helps. I don’t know that I could sell something very effectively if I didn’t love it, couldn’t put my support behind it 120%. It’s not really fair to the author if I don’t.

ED: Are you still looking for new talent? Can you give any advice for an author or illustrator looking for an agent to represent them?

BG: I’m always looking for new talent…complacency is death. There are always holes in my client list I’m looking to fill, types of work I don’t represent but would like to. As for advice, well, it all starts with the creating: make your work as perfect as possible, and present yourself and it in a professional manner. Do your homework! The Internet makes finding out about an agent so simple, at least the basics, and there are plenty of resources online to find out detailed info as well. SCBWI of course offers things, and there are several publications on the market that also have in-depth info. Don’t send work that’s not appropriate for the agent you’re contacting, make sure you follow submission guidelines, and don’t expect an answer overnight!

ED: Are there any trends or new developments in children’s publishing at the moment that you would like to say a few words about?

BG: YA isn’t showing any signs of slowing, though it is evolving, which is good. There’s room for so many different kinds of books, for challenging, boundary-pushing books. Fantasy still remains hot, in spite of many editors saying they think it’s over (said editors who then promptly go out and try and acquire the latest hot fantasy). I see signs of real recovery in the picture book market, which is quite a relief; it’s never going to be the boom market it was in the 80s, but I think picture book writers and artists are going to be pretty happy over the next five years or so. And I am beginning to see a strong surge for middle-grade, or at least I’ve got a lot of editors asking for it, which is a good sign.

Cynsational Notes

Erzsi Deàk, along with Kristin Litchman, was an editor of Period Pieces: Stories for Girls (HarperCollins, 2003)(co-editors interview), which included my short story, “The Gentleman Cowboy” as well as stories by Dian Curtis Regan; Linda Sue Park; Jane Kurtz; Rita Williams Garcia; Bobbi Katz; April Halprin Wayland; Johanna Hurwitz; Uma Krishnaswami; Carmen Bernier-Grand; Kristin Litchman; and Erzsi Deàk.

Cynsational News & Links

April Lurie: Children’s and Young Adult Author: new official website from the author of Dancing in the Streets of Brooklyn (Delacorte, 2002) and the forthcoming Brothers, Boyfriends, and Other Criminal Minds (Delacorte, 2007)(excerpt). See her writing tips and school-visit information. April was born and raised in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and now makes her home in Round Rock, Texas, just outside of Austin. Read a Cynsations interview with April. Note: I heard April read from the manuscript of her upcoming YA novel, Brothers, Boyfriends, and Other Criminal Minds, this past summer and was wowed.

April’s Blog from author April Lurie. Surf over to the blog and (via comments) welcome April to the online children’s/YA book creator community! Please also consider linking to her blog and website.