Nancy Miles is the founder of the Miles Stott Children’s Literary Agency. She represents many highly acclaimed authors, including: Ronda Armitage, who wrote The Lighthouse Keeper series; Dominic Barker, who wrote Blart; and Justin Richards, who has adapted the television series, “Dr. Who.” She was interviewed in November 2007 by Anita Loughrey, 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 experience that made you want to work in children’s literature as a literary agent?
NM: I sold rights in children’s books for 15 years. Specializing in children’s literature seemed a natural thing, and negotiating terms is what I knew!
Do you have a background in publishing?
NM: Yes. I worked for various children’s book publishers in London over a 15-year period. My career was preceded by a three-year Diploma in Book Publishing at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes). So publishing has been the plan all the way through.
How did you get your start as an agent?
NM: I made my own start. My family decamped from London to the depths of west Wales with the birth of our third child. I didn’t feel ready to stop working in the industry, and, with limited publishing opportunities in this part of the world, I had to look to myself for inspiration. With a background in rights selling and technology at my fingertips, I couldn’t think of a good enough reason not to start my own agency.
In your opinion, what makes a good agent?
NM: I think one of the most important things for an agent to be is a good communicator. An author or illustrator needs to feel that his/her agent is at the end of the phone to listen, to discuss ideas and career paths, and to fight his/her corner where necessary.
Equally your client must feel confident that his/her agent has good relationships with publishers and other third parties to ensure that the right homes are found for their work.
Keeping your client in touch is really important.
Do you represent writers and illustrators?
NM: Yes, but mostly writers.
Do you look at art samples?
NM: Yes. I’d love to have one or two more fabulous illustrators on my list. But probably not more than that.
Do you also represent other publishers or agents abroad? If so, can you tell us which publishers and agents?
NM: Yes. I represent one New York based publisher–Roaring Brook Press. I also represent U.S. agents Rosemary Stimola [interview] and Barry Goldblatt [interview]. I have a reciprocal arrangement with Barry.
How many clients do you represent?
NM: I currently represent 14 individuals, plus publisher and U.S. agents as above.
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?
NM: I always commit to the “whole” writer or illustrator. Developing a working relationship with your client, working out a career strategy, considering changes of direction, etc., happens over time. I wouldn’t want to share my investment with anyone else, and it’s hard to see how a project-by-project arrangement wouldn’t leave all parties dissatisfied and unfulfilled.
On the other hand, I do take on the entire list of a publisher, though I will cherry pick from that list. It doesn’t do agent or client publisher any good to submit material indiscriminately. And you would try the patience of the U.K. publisher if you were to persist in submitting material which is unsuitable for their list, the U.K. market, or whatever.
At what point in a manuscript do you “know” you either want the project or not?
NM: Usually almost instantly, if it’s a “no.”
The “maybes” are far trickier to judge. In my experience, it’s rare to read an unsolicited manuscript that blows your socks off. More common is the text that shows promise but needs lots of work. You have a stay of execution by limiting the first submission to three chapters. So if it’s a “maybe” you can ask for more–or the whole book if it’s written–and this will invariably answer the question for you.
What does the ideal cover letter say?
NM: Not very much. A brief line or two about who you are, what you’re submitting, and who it’s for. If the author/illustrator has been published, this is always good to know. And, unless there’s artwork involved, I can’t understand why people want their material returned. It’s a waste of everything. So ideally I’d like the letter to say, “don’t bother to return the manuscript!”
What kinds of things “turn you off” a manuscript right away?
NM: Quite often it’s the covering letter. I loathe it when people compare their work to books written by established authors. A dreadful title will also put me off. Poor sentence structure and spelling mistakes are the voices of doom.
From an agent’s point of view, what are the “realities” of children’s book publishing?
NM: That’s a big question. One of the first things that seem to surprise a lot of aspirant authors is how difficult it is to write a good children’s book. Writing for children is not the easy option it’s often believed it to be.
Although children’s books have enjoyed a tremendously exciting 10 years or so with an increasing number of high-profile authors making headlines, the market remains intensely competitive, and publishers will expect and require a very good reason to acquire a title, especially from a new author.
There are tons of children’s books out there, and, with publishers spending limited amounts on marketing most children’s titles, it’s incredibly difficult to sell books in volume.
Picture books have been having a particularly tough time, and publishers will rely heavily on co-edition success to make them profitable. Young adult novels suffer from being neither children’s or adult books, and few book stores seem to know how to sell them well. It’s not easy to get published. It’s a long, hard slog, and there are no short cuts.
What was the easiest book to sell and why?
NM: A good book is easy to sell, and a book is good for all sorts of reasons.
Have you ever represented a book that you loved but couldn’t convince an editor to publish? What advice do you give authors in this situation?
NM: Yes. I submitted a lovely, touching novel by an unknown author a few years ago that I could not persuade any publisher to take on. Most of the rejections were “good” ones, and it was a difficult book to pin down in terms of who it was for. Although it could be read on several levels, it was perhaps pitched a bit too high for the target age. It was probably a bit overwritten, too, which is a common problem with less-experienced authors.
In this particular situation, I showed the author the publisher responses I felt were constructive. I encouraged him to come up with new synopsis, taking on board the editorial feedback he’d received.
Are you accepting new clients now?
NM: Yes, especially for authors of young, middle grade, and young adult fiction to balance out my list. I’ve got enough picture book authors for the moment but would love another illustrator or two.
Do you get involved with the marketing aspect of the book?
NM: Yes. Where appropriate, I’ll ask a publisher for their marketing plans at negotiation stage. Although these do not go into the contract, it does concentrate the mind.
By the time publication time arrives, everyone’s forgotten what’s been promised, and you do have to ask questions well in advance of publication. And keep asking them.
Marketing performance will certainly affect my decision on whether to place titles with a publisher.
Do you give any pre-submission editing and revision requests to your clients?
NM: Yes, though this will vary from client to client and from project to project. An established author with an on-going publisher/editor relationship will need less input from me than a first timer. But I will always offer suggestions for revisions, even with an established author, if I feel it will improve the submission and attract a better quality offer.
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?
No and no. I’m always looking for a strong voice and a good, satisfying story, preferably with a good dose of humor. The combination is not easy to find, but it is possible to tease a book out of a good story, even if the voice needs to be brought out. But you need to be prepared to put the work in.
It depends who you talk to! Picture-book publishers are telling me that the market is tough and there’s a dearth of good texts. The market for YA fiction is shrinking, and booksellers struggle to position them effectively in the stores. Strong, commercial series for middle graders are in demand as is fantasy (as ever) and action packed thrillers, especially for boys.
How many new clients do you take on each year?
There’s no pattern. If I have the opportunity to sign up someone fantastic, I will.
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.