SCBWI Bologna 2008 Agent Interview: Tracey Adams of Adams Literary

Tracey Adams is co-founder of Adams Literary, which exclusively represents children’s book authors and artists. She founded Adams Literary in the U.S. in 2004. The agency is affiliated to David Higham in the U.K.

Anita Loughrey interviewed her, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 (scheduled for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy).

What is the book or experience that made you want to work in children’s literature as a literary agent?

TA: From my years in publishing houses, I learned that I love working directly with authors and artists, and during my early agenting years at Writers House, I discovered the joy of being on the front lines. It is tremendously exciting to me that I’m often the first to read a manuscript, and that it’s my responsibility to find just the right home for it. And it doesn’t end in the U.S. I love working with our co-agents to bring our books to young readers around the world. I have the most amazing job!

Do you have a background in publishing?

TA: Yes. I was an English major at Mount Holyoke College, and during my college years I interned at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Greenwillow Books.

After graduation I worked in marketing at William Morrow and then in editorial at Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Before starting my own agency four years ago, I spent ten years at two large New York literary agencies. By the way, my family owned a printing company in New York City for generations, so I grew up visiting the printing presses in SoHo. It’s been said that we have ink in our veins.

How did you get your start as an agent?

TA: In editorial, I saw firsthand that agented manuscripts went to the top of the reading pile. This was somewhat mysterious to me, so when a spot opened at Writers House, I took it to explore. It was a great place to really learn all aspects of the agenting side of the business–which is quite different!

In your opinion, what makes a good agent?

TA: The best agents are passionate about children’s books, are excellent communicators, good readers, and fair negotiators. An accomplished agent knows that you never burn a bridge, and maintains many strong industry relationships.

Do you represent writers and illustrators?

TA: Yes.

Do you look at art samples?

TA: Yes, though I’m careful to say I’m not a trained artist. I’m a literary agent, and I do not rep art outside the publishing industry, unlike artist representatives.

Do you also represent other publishers or agents abroad? If so, can you tell us which publishers and agents?

TA: We represent U.S. rights for the children’s list at David Higham Associates in London.

How many clients do you represent?

TA: Approximately 50.

Do you represent on a project-by-project basis, or do you take on the “whole” writer or the illustrator or even the entire list of a publisher (i.e., everything they produce)?

TA: Our philosophy has always been (and will always be) that we represent authors, not books. We take on a client because we love and believe in their work. That doesn’t change book by book, or year by year.

At what point in a manuscript do you “know” you either want to work on the project or not?

TA: If I can easily put down a manuscript, and I’m not thinking about the story while away from it, I know it’s not clicking for me. If I don’t want to stop reading, if it has me laughing or crying or thrilled, I’m already shopping the manuscript to editors in my head as I read. If I dream about it, I know I need to rep it.

What does the ideal cover letter say?

TA: I throw away anything that says “Dear Sir” immediately. It should be properly addressed, include a one paragraph summary (think flap copy) of the work, and list any professional credentials relevant to children’s book publishing. The ideal cover letter shows that the writer has done research on my agency, and perhaps even mentions specific authors we represent.

What kinds of things “turn you off” a manuscript right away?

TA: Of course a picture book should never be illustrated by someone who is not an artist, and a rhyming text needs to rhyme. In novels, I’m turned off by telling rather than showing, whiny main characters, too much directly addressing the reader, and violence and profanity when it’s only there for shock value.

From an agent’s point of view, what are the “realities” of children’s book publishing?

TA: Patience and Fortitude. A manuscript may take time to sell, and when it does sell, there will be a lot of waiting: for the contract, for your advance, edits, another round of edits, galleys, the actual book, reviews, your royalty statements…

Some books will take off immediately, others will slowly find an audience, and others, sadly, don’t catch on. Since there is so much uncertainly in this industry, my best advice to authors is to let an agent do the business work for you–the author’s job is to do what she is best at: write. Keep writing.

What was the easiest book to sell and why?

TA: The next book by a major award winner and/or a bestselling author! No explanation needed, right?!

Have you ever represented a book that you loved but couldn’t convince an editor to publish? What advice do you give your authors in this situation?

TA: Oh, yes! I tell my authors that we haven’t yet found the right match. If it’s taking a long time to find a home for a book, the client usually will have another manuscript ready to market. We’ll put the tricky one on the back burner and start from scratch with the new one–of course we’ll first approach anyone who was interested in seeing more of the author’s work. We may very well dust off the challenging manuscript down the road!

Are you accepting new clients now?

TA: Always.

Do you get involved with the marketing aspect of the book?

TA: We are in touch with the publisher about marketing plans, we keep the dialogue going, and we communicate clients’ wishes. In certain situations, specific things may be discussed prior to acquisition. Adams Literary enjoys promoting our clients’ works through our own e-newsletter, website, and rights lists for the Bologna and Frankurt fairs. If a client is interested in additional marketing beyond their publishing house, we can refer them to freelance specialists with whom we are in contact.

Do you give any pre-submission editing and revision requests to your clients?

TA: Because I was in editorial, I value the role of the editor and I will not get in the way editorially. That said, I’m happy to read and offer suggestions before submitting–but with a light hand. I’ll do what it takes to help make it the strongest it can be, and the most marketable. I usually will not have taken on a client that isn’t going to send me a work that is ready, or almost ready, to submit.

Do you specialize in any particular genre and/or are you looking for anything in particular at the moment?

TA: We specialize in children’s–we don’t handle any adult books. Within children’s, we represent picture books, middle-grade, and teen. We don’t handle very much nonfiction. At the moment we are especially eager for middle-grade novels.

What are publishers telling you about the market and what they’d like to see?

TA: The picture book market remains tough. We are being asked mostly for middle grade and chapter books. From our perspective, the market has become more competitive for teen novels in the past year because the shelves are getting crowded.

Cynsational Notes

Anita Loughrey writes teacher resources and children’s non-fiction. Her books have been published by A&C Black, Hopscotch and Brilliant Publications. She also writes regular features for Writers’ Forum in the U.K. about authors and the writing industry. She recently interviewed all 31 speakers for 2008’s Bologna Conference.

The SCBWI Bologna 2008 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations.

To register for the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2008, please visit and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries?