Interview by Jenny Desmond Walters for SCBWI Bologna 2010
Kendra, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions in preparation for the upcoming 2010 SCBWI Bologna Symposium. I’m sure everyone is eager to read more about your agency, so let’s jump right in to some questions.
You started the BookStop Literary Agency in 1984. What was the path that led you to become an agent, and also, what prompted you to open your own literary agency?
My agency morphed from a book-fair company I started when we lived in Mexico during the late 1970s to serve the numerous English speakers and learners who needed English language books to read and cement the English language skills they’d learned in school.
There were no children’s bookstores in Mexico. BookStop, my company, set up book fairs in the various bilingual schools around the city and sold books directly to the kids in the schools.
I ordered the books I knew would succeed, given my elementary teaching experience and knowledge of kids. I had contact with literally thousands of kids each year and learned which books caught their interest.
My business was a success, but in 1983, we left Mexico and landed in a suburb of San Francisco. I decided not to continue the company I’d started because the same “book-less” conditions didn’t exist in the U.S. Scholastic Book Fairs were well entrenched.
So, after two years of trying to volunteer in the schools where I was invited to stuff envelopes, my friends suggested to me that I go into real estate since I was so good at connecting people and houses.
Well, not real estate, I said, but I could be a literary agent connecting manuscripts and book publishers. I already knew many editors and publishers from my book-fair business, and I knew kids both from my teaching days and from my book-fair days.
I was pretty sure I knew a good book when I saw one since my book tastes had already been tested when I was buying for my book-fair business.
I started my agency the day I made the decision so many years ago, and I haven’t regretted it for a minute. When I needed to learn about new books, I traveled to New York where I met with editors who told me what new books they were excited about.
It took a year to sell the first manuscript, and my business has grown significantly since then. Last year I took on an associate, Minju Chang, who works with me to get the best in children’s and young adult literature into the market.
Publishers Marketplace lists a nice collection of recent sales and forthcoming books from BookStop. What are some of the titles that you’re especially excited about this year?
You’re asking which of my children I like the best this year, and that is a tough question.
Here’s a sampling of some “BookStop” books that will release in 2010:
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine (Philomel);
Mimi’s Dada Catifesto by Shelley Jackson (Clarion);
The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan (Scholastic);
Saint Training by Elizabeth Fixmer (Zondervan).
In your opinion, what qualities make for a successful children’s picture book?
Of course a good story with an unpredictable or simply delicious ending is paramount. Beyond that, a good picture book (or even novel, for that matter) needs well developed characters who drive a plot that makes me turn the pages.
In a picture book, I am eager to read a fresh approach to any of the myriad of familiar topics that kids can relate to–early concepts, daily life, siblings, family, friends, or even aliens. I love quirky and well-developed characters in any book, but especially in a picture book. We would never reject a great manuscript.
I also like to work with books that tell a socially important or interesting story, despite the fact that they may not experience great sales.
Kids love to learn about the world around them, and I feel there is a need for good nonfiction that teaches a subject in a non-didactic way.
Unfortunately, at the moment nonfiction is difficult to sell. Sometimes there is something magical and undefinable where the words and the pictures combine to create something above and beyond either the illustrations or the text on their own. This makes the odd equation of one plus one equals three!
Are you currently accepting submissions from writers and illustrators, and if so, do you have any specific tips or suggestions as to how they might best approach your agency?
Both my associate, Minju Chang, and I are actively seeking new talent. We work closely together so it doesn’t matter to whom you submit your work. We accept submissions from writers and illustrators for kids from age 0 to 16 years old.
Minju is especially skilled at working with authors who write at the upper end of that spectrum, and I can’t pass up a good picture book. We both work with illustrators.
You can find our submission guidelines at www.bookstopliterary.com. We prefer a query letter with a manuscript. If you send your manuscript through the mail, please make sure to include a stamped, self-addressed envelope or mailer so we can respond (and return your manuscript if you want it back). With email submissions, send first 10 pages pasted into body of email. Please do not send a query letter without the manuscript. We like to see what you write immediately.
Read our bios to get a sense of what we like. In short, we love humor and strong stories with strong and well-developed characters.
How long does it usually take for your agency to respond to a query and manuscript submission, and how many submissions do you typically receive in a given month?
We receive hundreds of submissions a month—anywhere from 200 to 300. Certain times of the year (holiday season), we’re going to be slower, but we try to respond within four-to-six weeks. Usually it’s two to three.
As an agency that represents both writers and illustrators, what are some of the different strategies you must employ to support these different types of clients throughout their career?
Every client has different needs and different skills.
With illustrators, we are constantly on the lookout for manuscripts that might fit their styles. We are pretty good at matching writers and illustrators, so when we hear an editor is looking for an illustrator, we try to find out about the text, to see if we might have an appropriate illustrator on board. Sometimes we’ll send a manuscript in with illustrator suggestions to give an editor an idea of a style of illustration that might work.
With writers, we try to think about what sort of illustration goes with the manuscript and offer that as a suggestion to an editor who may be on the fence. With writers, we also have to keep our eye on what the next book might be because we understand that a publishing house is most interested if they can count on the fact that the author has more than one book in their mind.
In an article in Publishers Weekly, Megan McDonald, author of the Judy Moody books and also one of your clients, talked about how she shared a series of short “Judy Moody” vignettes with you and that you led her to the brilliant idea of combining them together into the first Judy Moody short novel.
Can you give us some examples of other recommendations you might make to clients after they submit a project to you?
It’s difficult to say because this depends so much on the manuscript. We enjoy the editorial process, and if we think you’ve got a good strong character, we’re more than happy to work with you to integrate that character into an equally strong plot.
Judy Moody was a great character to start with, and Megan found she could put her into almost any situation. It was the editor who led Megan to the short-novel format for Judy Moody.
Esperanza Rising by Pam Ryan started as a picture book. We kept trying different formats until someone suggested making it a novel.
Although Pam had never written a novel before, she took the suggestion and ran with it. It is clear the novel format gave her the space she needed to tell the story.
Sometimes our job is only a matter of figuring out what works in a story and what isn’t quite working. Lack of tension? Episodic structure? Stagnant relationship? Undeveloped character. We know that the character needs to come first.
Some of your best known projects include Esperanza Rising, the Judy Moody book series, and the Froggy picture book series illustrations.
Can you tell us the story behind how you found, offered representation to, and then sold the work of one or more of these clients?
My clients typically find me. The three cases you mention above are representative. In one case, the author found me in a writer’s handbook. In another, I was recommended by the author’s editor, and in another, I was recommended by a friend of the author.
There is no single road to meeting the right agent. Sometimes authors hear of me from several different sources and tell me that, after the fourth person recommended us, they had to contact us. We are very open to reading manuscripts from first-time writers. We are as eager to start careers as we are to take on already established careers.
What aspects need to be considered about a book before an agent presents it to a publisher?
We want to be able to identify what makes this book stand out. What makes it different from comparable titles? Is there a large enough target audience to ensure the book’s success? And we need to really be its advocate.
We need to think about how we could pitch the book to a child and how that child might react to the book. How will the editor pitch this to their editorial and sales team? How will the publishers pitch this to kids? Does the subject matter fit into the curriculum (school sales and library sales are critical to a book’s success). Is this a new take on a perennially favorite subject that can never go out of favor?
And, these are questions we also ask ourselves when we’re reading each submission.
You served as a featured panelist at the Stanford Publishing Courses Writers Workshop in July 2009. What can you tell us about your experience there last year?
It was a very exciting couple of days where the participants learned everything from writing skills to publicity and how to actually manage social media. I was on a panel of agents talking about the ever-changing market in children’s books. Since the focus was not only children’s books, I was able to attend more general sessions and learn from well-known adult writers. Such conferences are invaluable for writers who want to get to know all phases of the business.
Unfortunately, the course has been suspended for the foreseeable future.
What kinds of things do you like to see new or unpublished authors or illustrators doing to promote themselves at the start of their careers?
They should be able to help with the publicity of their books. Today that includes being able to use the usual social networking tools – facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, blogs, etc. It is clear that the publishers are scaling back their publicity efforts and expecting authors to take up the slack. Authors who are really “out there” seem to enjoy better sales, and their publishers notice!
One of our clients, with a book about a dog, has become a one-woman marketing machine although she didn’t start out that way. She’s worked relentlessly pursuing every single possible lead or tangent related to dogs, and it’s paying off with good blurbs from a variety of organizations. We so appreciate her tenacity and hard work.
Seeing our clients work so hard makes us want to work that much harder to support their efforts.
It’s important to remember that publicity doesn’t always have to happen on a large scale. Sometimes it’s about pursuing individual contacts one at a time. Another client has a natural gift for charming and talking to almost everyone she passes. She just has charisma, which makes her an extremely successful face-to-face promoter. She never “sells” to people; she’s just who she is and people want to know about her. For example, after she just struck up a conversation with a couple of strangers on an airport shuttle, she learned that they later bought six copies of her book! I’ll bet they spread the word even farther to their friends and family.
The underlying message is: use your talents and think outside of the box. If you’re a video-editing pro, use that. If you’re a great public speaker, put yourself out there in schools, stores, conferences, etc. Use your connections, too. If your kids are fabulous at building websites, ask them to do it for you. And also get their feedback on what appeals to kids.
Don’t be afraid to be different. We’re always around to help you brainstorm.
Thank you again for sharing your knowledge and expertise. We’re excited about hearing more from you in Bologna!
Kendra Marcus started BookStop Literary Agency in 1984, and since then the agency has grown to be one of the most well known and well respected agencies for children’s book writers and illustrators.
Kendra gravitates toward texts and illustrations for quirky and funny picture books. She is also interested in stories with Hispanic or Latino characters and unusual nonfiction and is always thrilled to find unforgettable and vivid voices or stories that will bring her to tears.
Jenny Desmond Walters is the founding regional advisor of the SCBWI Korea chapter. She is an experienced education professional with a love of learning and literature. She has worked in public television developing curriculum and promoting instructional programs, as well as worked extensively with educational publishers and learning materials companies. For the last several years, Jenny has lived in east Asia where she has become an avid writer and observer of life in Japan and Korea. Her articles have been published in national children’s magazines and writing journals, and she has been a member of SCBWI for more than 10 years. Jenny currently resides in Seoul with her husband and three daughters, and she rarely runs out of interesting stories to write.
The SCBWI Bologna 2010 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations. To register, visit the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2010. Note: Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.