After more than fifteen years in book publishing, Steven Chudney founded The Chudney Agency, specializing in children’s books. He is based is New York. Anita Loughrey interviewed him November 2007, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 (scheduled for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy).
What made you want to work in children’s literature as a literary agent?
SC: I’ve always loved books, of course, and I had long enjoyed working in children’’s book marketing. For me, it was also a timing issue. I had committed the cardinal sin of resigning from a job without another one already lined up. This was three days before September 11, 2000. Needless to say, all of New York and the world came to a standstill and most NY companies were not hiring for many months.
A wise friend urged me, again, to consider being an agent. In the past, I had dismissed the idea, but in 2001 it seemed like a good plan and I was ready for the challenge. So, I had my letterhead and business cards printed, made some calls, sent out tons of emails, and hung my agency shingle outside my door–The Chudney Agency was born.
My first job was selling paperbacks for Dell Publishing in their small telemarketing department. I have always believed that if I can sell a book over the phone from New York, sight unseen, to a book buyer somewhere in Des Moines or Anchorage, then I can sell just about anything.
Since then I have held various sales and marketing positions at Viking Penguin, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Simon & Schuster where I was the marketing director for the children’s division and then director of licensing development. My last publishing position was with the (now defunct) Winslow Press where I held the position of Senior Director of Marketing, Sales & Subsidiary Rights.
Throughout my career, I have sold and marketed every imaginable type of book: adult and children’s, hardcovers, pop-up books, and paperbacks to a variety of sources: wholesalers, independent bookstores, and chain stores. The last ten years of corporate publishing experience was in children’s books.
In your opinion, what makes a good agent?
SC: Love of literature, knowledge of the children’s publishing industry, tenaciousness, patience, and knowledge of the individual tastes of editors
Do you represent writers and illustrators?
SC: I represent writers and author/illustrators–an individual who both writes and illustrates picture books or novels. I do not represent individuals who only illustrate.
Do you look at art samples?
SC: Yes, from prospective author/illustrator clients.
Do you also represent other publishers or agents abroad? If so, can you tell us which publishers and agents?
SC: I have a reciprocal relationship with the Watson, Little Agency in London. I also represent Ireland’s The O’Brien Press here in the U.S., and I represent Marshall Cavendish in the international marketplace.
Do you represent on a project-by-project basis or do you take on the “whole” writer or author/illustrator (i.e., everything they produce)?
SC: I rarely take on a client based only on one project, as I’m interested in folks who have lots of books in them so I can build their careers.
At what point in a manuscript do you “know” you either want to work on the project or not?
SC: It depends, but sometimes I can tell within about 15 to 20 pages–at least about the quality of the writing and voice. With picture books it, of course, takes fewer pages and I also need to love the illustrations.
What does the ideal cover letter say?
SC: The ideal cover letter should be pretty brief (no more than one page, and not in six point typeface!) and tell me a little about the project being submitted–just enough to whet my appetite. A brief and relevant bio about the writer is needed, too.
Don’t get too personal. We aren’t interested in how friends or family members reacted to your manuscript or an author’s hobbies, etc.
What kinds of things “turn you off” a manuscript right away?
SC: Writing that really isn’t ready to be submitted, sloppy presentation, and manuscripts that aren’t properly formatted. Also, it never is a good idea to submit material not requested by the agent–make sure you send what was requested.
What was the easiest book to sell and why?
SC: I sold a first-time picture book called Sir Ryan’s Adventures by Jason Deeble (2009) to Neal Porter at Roaring Brook Press within hours after the editor opened the envelope! A simple case of selecting the right editor for the right manuscript at the right time.
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?
SC: Of course! This happens all the time, unfortunately. Sometimes it just takes a heck of a long time to place a manuscript you love, and sometimes it never finds a home.
I’ll continue to work to try to place a novel for as long as I continue to believe in it–and for as long as I can find houses/imprints to send it to. I had a middle grade novel I loved and believed it–and I finally sold it on the eighteenth submission! Other times I’ll have a frank conversation with an author, and we’ll decide to shelve a challenging novel and work on another–in hopes that one day in the future we’ll be able to go back to it.
Are you accepting new clients now?
SC: My submission status changes from time to time, and for the most up-to-date information, please go to my website.
Do you get involved with the marketing aspect of the books you represent?
SC: A little. I do discuss and suggest marketing and promotion plans with my clients, and I hope they are interested in doing as much as they can for their books. At times, I also liaise with the editor/publisher on such concerns, as needed.
Do you give editing and revision requests to your clients?
SC: Absolutely: everything that is submitted by my agency has been revised as many times as needed to strengthen it for acceptance by a publisher.
Do you specialize in any particular genre and/or are you looking for anything in particular at the moment? What are publishers telling you about the market and what they’d like to see?
SC: I handle all literature for children and teens, from young picture books all the way up to teen fiction.
Editors are always looking for wonderful, engaging, well-written books for kids: all age levels and in all genres and categories. At the moment, I feel that the era of big fantasy series being bought for a lot of money has dimmed–I think many were bought as a result of the Harry Potter success. Some performed well, but many didn’t fare as well.
So, I think publishers are looking for something other than fantasy, but can still be commercially viable and exciting for kids. I’m seeing some more interest in historical fiction. Subgenres like paranormal and vampire-themed books have emerged as a very strong fiction category.
For a while, teen novels were very hot–at the expense of middle grade novels. I think now we’re seeing a bit more demand for the forgotten middle grade category, but I think eventually things will level off, and we’ll always have demand for both wonderful middle grade and teen fiction. The picture book market still is pretty soft, and I hope we’ll see it turn around in 2008 and beyond.
How many new clients do you take on each year?
SC: This varies from year to year, so it’s difficult to say. As I work alone, you can imagine how careful I need to be with my time. I can only take on new clients if I feel I have enough time to devote to all my other clients as well.
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.
See also a previous Cynsations interview with Steven Chudney.