SCBWI Bologna 2008 Agent Interview: Josh Adams of Adams Literary

Josh Adams co-founded the Adams Literary in the U.S., which exclusively represents children’s book authors and artists, with his wife Tracey Adams (agent interview). The agency is affiliated to David Higham in the U.K. Anita Loughrey interviewed him in January, 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?

JA: I can say with all certainty I would not be working in children’s literature as a literary agent if it weren’t for my wife, Tracey. I’ve always admired her passion and dedication to children’s literature, and even before we started Adams Literary together in 2004, I had accompanied Tracey to many industry events and kept up-to-date on new books and trends.

From day one, I was intimately involved in every aspect of the business except agenting, which I really wanted to do but couldn’t because, in addition to my role at Adams Literary, I was working as a full-time consultant.

It wasn’t until after we moved to Charlotte, N.C., in October 2005, that I was able to start agenting. I’ve always enjoyed my work, but being a part of Adams Literary and helping our clients to accomplish their dreams is the most meaningful and rewarding professional experience I’ve ever had.

Do you have a background in publishing?

JA: I do have a background in publishing: magazine publishing. I was an editor at several national magazines for nearly a decade, most recently overseeing the editorial content for two magazines, and developing new magazine properties and publishing tie-ins, including books.

In 2000, I left publishing to get my MBA at Columbia Business School, and after graduating, I transitioned into marketing and brand strategy consulting for major international companies. I definitely think my experience in magazine publishing and consulting (as well as my MBA), have helped me to be a literary agent, especially when it comes to looking at books and potential client projects from both a creative and business perspective.

In your opinion, what makes a good agent?

JA: Passion, perseverance, an eye for talent, a thick skin, negotiation skills, people skills, ability to multi-task, a long-term perspective, and, last but not least, a sense of humor.

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

JA: I usually know pretty early on–usually by the end of the first chapter, if not the first paragraph. I’m an optimist, so I’ll hope the rest of the manuscript holds up. And of course I’ll want to know what else the person is planning, as we don’t represent clients on a book-by-book basis. It’s really important for me and Tracey to love an author or artist’s work, so that’s our main criteria when taking on a new client.

The hardest part for me is saying “no” to someone who I know is talented or whose work I know will sell (they may even have an offer in hand), but whose work I just don’t fully connect with. But saying “yes” in such a case just wouldn’t feel right to us or be fair to the potential client.

For you, what does the ideal cover letter say?

JA: As little as possible. It should say who the person is, how they came to us (by referral or conference), what they’re submitting, and what else they’re working on. We also want to know that the person has put thought into why they’re submitting to Adams Literary.

If it’s clear it’s a mass cover letter, I will not give it as much consideration.

If it has another agent’s name on it (yes, it’s happened), I’ll throw it away.

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

JA: Unlikeable characters and lack of detail. I need to feel like I can make an investment of time in the characters, and I need to be able to visualize what’s happening.

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

JA: We’re certainly involved in marketing manuscripts, and we do as much as we can to promote our clients’ work, highlighting it in our newsletter that goes out to editors and publishers worldwide, film and television producers, as well as people who’ve signed up on our site.

We also produce rights guides for Frankfurt and Bologna, and we attend Bologna annually.

We work closely with our clients, their editors and the marketing departments to facilitate coverage of books and events, and we share the best practices of our clients among them, as we feel authors are often (and certainly should be) the most effective marketers of their own books.

And, finally, we certainly put our clients in touch with marketers specializing in children’s books if and when they want an extra push beyond what the publisher has done.

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

JA: Yes, but my suggested revisions are typically more high-level–I don’t line-edit, as I believe that’s the editor’s job–and they are only recommendations. My comments are aimed at clarifying any questions or issues I think readers will have, giving an overall sense of what I think works well or can be improved, and strengthening the work.

I don’t expect manuscripts to come to me in perfect shape, as I believe it’s my job to see the potential that’s there. Obviously, the more polished a manuscript is at the time of submission, the better the chance there is that an editor will want to acquire it.

Although it doesn’t happen often, I’ll still send something out if a client doesn’t agree with my suggested changes, provided they seriously consider the feedback from editors.

One of the reasons I don’t line-edit is that we could send a manuscript out to five editors, and get five totally different responses, since tastes are subjective. Of course, if we get five responses all citing the same issues I’d mentioned, then I’d ask the client to revisit those issues before submitting further.

You co-founded the Adams Literary Agency with your wife, Tracey Adams, in 2004. Whose idea was it to work together?

JA: It was really a mutual decision. For years I’d wanted to have my own business, but wasn’t sure what it would be, and Tracey at the time felt the need to have more autonomy in her work than she could at her previous (or, for that matter, any other) agency.

We were both excited by the prospect of starting a literary agency specializing in children’s books in a very forward-thinking way. We both share a very “old-school” view of the industry–in that it’s all based on relationships–but wanted to reinvent what we felt was often a very traditional and outdated way of doing things.

For instance, we were one of the first to have a Web site and to publicize our client list. We also continually strive to find new and better ways of accomplishing the routine tasks an agent must do. It’s satisfying to be able to think “out of the box” and try new things without anyone telling us, “Well, we’ve always done it this way.”

As a husband and wife team, how do you compliment and contrast each other?

JA: Tracey’s computer desktop is very messy, and her actual desktop is very neat. My computer desktop is very neat, and my actual desktop is very messy. But, more seriously, we’ve somehow learned to build on each other’s strengths while trying to avoid each other’s weaknesses. I think we’ve both learned a lot from each other, and continue to do so every day.

We were profiled last summer in a Charlotte magazine article about couples who work together, and the writer asked for our advice to couples who are considering working together but have reservations about it.

Our advice was simple: If you have any reservations, don’t do it. It may seem odd to some people who can’t imagine working with their spouse–and we fully appreciate that there are many loving couples who couldn’t–but Tracey and I really never thought twice about working together. We frequently joke that we share the same brain, which isn’t far from the truth.

Describe your working relationship at the Adams Literary Agency?

JA: We really work together as a team on everything. We consult each other about any major decisions or issues, and we keep each other up-to-date on everything that’s happening, so if need be, either one of us can pick something up where the other left off.

Though Tracey or I may handle the day-to-day management of a particular client more than the other, we don’t work with the notion that someone is a “Tracey” client or a “Josh” client. All of our clients are Adams Literary clients.

Tracey and I share the same philosophy about our business, our dedication to clients, and largely our taste in books, and–perhaps because of my background in branding–we work hard to maintain our reputation, and build the Adams Literary “brand” that is based on our philosophy. There are many good agencies and agents out there, and many different working styles and personalities, and I think our philosophy helps to differentiate us from other agencies.

How do you keep your working relationship separate from your home commitments?

JA: This is perhaps the most difficult part of having your own business–especially when it’s run out of your home. Since this is Tracey’s and my livelihood, and it’s our name on the business, there really is no “off” switch. But as much as we love what we do, we need time away from it, too. Tracey is a bit better than I am at switching off work-mode after hours. So even though you might get an email from me late at night and I will constantly check my iPhone for email when I’m away from the office, I do have one hard rule: I don’t respond to email on the weekends.

Cynsational Notes

Don’t miss: SCBWI Bologna 2008 Agent Interview: Tracey Adams of Adams Literary from Cynsations.

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?