Mary Kole came to children’s literature from a writer’s perspective and got involved at Andrea Brown Literary Agency to see what it was like “on the other side of the desk.” She quickly found her passion, and, after a year of working behind the scenes, officially joined the agency in August 2009.
In her quest to learn all sides of publishing, she has also worked in the children’s editorial department at Chronicle Books and earned her MFA in creative writing at the University of San Francisco.
At this time, Mary is only considering young adult and middle grade fiction and truly exceptional picture books from author-illustrators (art and text from one creator, not art or text separately). She prefers upmarket premises with literary spark and commercial appeal. Her favorite genres are light fantasy, paranormal, dystopian, thriller, horror, humor, contemporary, romance and mystery.
What led you to specialize in youth literature?
I love children’s books because I love the audience. Kids read voraciously and socially — they really do stay up all night with a flashlight under the covers, then pass around their favorite books to all their friends. They also read to form deep bonds with their favorite characters.
Great books for kids have the potential to make people into lifelong readers, and to give kids a friend, an outlet, a role model…quite simply, they change lives. I can’t think of a better way to spend my days than working on books with such incredible potential.
What sort of work are you looking for–picture books, early readers, middle grade fiction, YA fiction, author-illustrators, memoir, graphic novels, creative nonfiction, children’s-YA poetry, etc.? Realistic fiction, genre, multicultural, etc.?
Other than that, I never want to close the door on a potentially amazing submission, so I will look at any genre. I keep a Manuscript Wish List in the sidebar of my blog, Kidlit.com.
Right now, I’d love to find a great dystopian YA and murder, horror, mystery, thriller or ghost stories for MG or YA.
In terms of picture books, I find myself especially drawn to author-illustrators, who can create both the art and the text (usually, the art is their first passion, then we refine the text). My picture book sensibility skews toward the quirky, funny and character-driven.
In any genre or for any age, it’s all about fresh voice, literary spark, and upmarket commercial appeal.
More globally, what is your attitude/approach toward today’s challenging economic market?
The market is challenging these days, but that just means that houses are being more selective and buying smarter. Tighter lists have made everyone raise their standards, from authors to agents to editors, and that’s a great thing in the long run.
At Andrea Brown, we’ve been selling as many books as ever, if not more, throughout the downturn. As Andrea says: we don’t believe in the recession, and we refuse to participate!
What “model” books would you suggest to prospective clients for study and why?
The best career model that a writer can aspire to is, I think, a slow build. You get a modest advance for your first book, but that gives you a chance to meet or exceed your publisher’s expectations. Then your financial rewards and your legions of readers grow as you progress.
You’re more than just a flash in the pan, and your editors are excited to publish your books year after year because you generate consistent sales. That’s a long-term career plan, for me. I always try to take the long view.
Of course, I wouldn’t turn down a crazy blockbuster deal for one of my clients, but I think there needs to be a lot of emphasis on earning out (recouping your advance through book or subsidiary rights sales) and earning royalties–that’s where you develop career stability and prove yourself.
Would you describe yourself as an “editorial agent,” one who comments on manuscripts, or one who concentrates more exclusively on publishing issues? Why?
I’m definitely an editorial agent. Giving feedback and working on craft are my first loves. These days, a submission has to show up at an editor’s desk wearing a suit and tie and holding roses. If the manuscript isn’t as strong as it can possibly be, what’s the point of submitting it?
I always want my authors to learn and grow as a result of our work together. One client calls me a “one-woman MFA program.” I concentrate on publishing issues of course and always try to steer clients toward the most sophisticated and commercial ideas, but I place a heavy emphasis on the writing and storytelling, too.
Is your approach more manuscript by manuscript, or do you see yourself as a career builder? In either case, why?
Like I said, I take the long view and focus on career. The writers I want to work with are career-minded, too. I don’t want someone who dabbles. I want someone who can’t do anything else with their life beside creating children’s books.
Agenting is all about return on investment. I don’t want to spend the time on someone if they’re not going to grow their career with me as I grow mine. And that involves brainstorming ideas for future projects together and honing in on the most viable premises, which I always try to do. Career coaching is definitely part of the job.
What do you see as the ingredients for a breakout book in terms of commercial success, literary acclaim, and/or both?
I always look for fantastic writing, voice, characterization, and structure. That said, I can’t resist a hot premise. I know a good book premise when I read one because my imagination starts firing and I can’t wait to read the story promised in the pitch. Possible scenes start flashing in my mind, characters come to life, conflict roils.
Unfortunately, I see a lot of beautiful novels that don’t have a commercial premise, let alone a plot. I also see a lot of blockbuster book ideas that suffer from poor execution.
It really has to be a balance of the two elements–literary spark and commercial appeal–in today’s world, since more and more publishers tend to look for breakout books. There’s less room for the slow-cooked, literary coming of age story now, but I’ll never turn one down if I think it will sell. That’s the bottom line: an amazing story crafted by an expert storyteller will always find a home, regardless of trends or the marketplace.
Are you accepting unsolicited submissions? What is the best way for a prospective client to get in touch with you?
I’m very actively looking to build my list! Prospective clients can contact me by putting the word “query” into the subject line of an email message, then pasting their query letter and the first 10 pages of their book into the body of the email. Illustrators can send a link to an online portfolio of their work, and picture book authors can include the full text of their manuscript after their query. I only accept submissions via email, and you can find me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I respond to all submissions (unless, of course, you didn’t take the time to personalize your message to me) and look forward to hearing from you.
Do you have any particular submissions preferences or pet peeves?
I love short queries that make me care about the character and story. You can easily do this by presenting me with a compelling character, telling me what they want, what the stakes are if they don’t get it, and the obstacles in their way. If you’re having trouble identifying these elements in your story, you’re in trouble.
Unsuccessful queries go on for pages, read more like a plot synopsis than a pitch, and fail to touch an emotional nerve.
Describe your dream client.
I want a long-term career writer or author-illustrator who is savvy, personable, communicative, receptive to editorial suggestions, and who has done their homework and understands most elements of the publishing business.
They’re easygoing and have realistic ideas about how the process works, and they’re driven…they’re usually busy coming up with ideas and have good writing habits.
Big turn offs for me are wildly unrealistic expectations, diva behavior, and lack of communication.
How much contact will you have with your clients? Emails, phone calls, retreats, list servs?
I have a feeling I’ll do retreats and workshops one day–that would be a dream.
In the meantime, though, I travel a lot so email communication is fast and easy. I always call with important news or to brainstorm, if the client needs me, but I really do prefer email. That said, everyone works differently, so I can tailor my communication style to the client, if need be.
Overall, I believe in transparency and always share submission lists, editor feedback, news, ideas, etc. I know that, often, the agent is a writer’s main link to the sometimes-incomprehensible publishing industry. I take that responsibility very seriously and want clients to feel like they’re in the loop.
What kind of relationship are you looking to build and why?
Other than relationships with great writers and potential clients, I love meeting published authors, librarians, booksellers, media professionals and other people involved in the book world. You never know when someone will need a conference speaker or want to put together a reading or promotion. I’m really looking forward to being in Brooklyn because I’ll also get to deepen my relationships with editors and houses, too.
Do you expect your writers to develop a market brand and stick to it? Or are you open to them pursuing a diversity of stories within their body of work? In either case, what is your reasoning?
In children’s books, I feel like creators can be more flexible. If they have great voice for MG and YA or for picture books and chapter books, for example, it’s usually pretty easy to write across age categories.
I encourage writers to publish several books for one age range or in one genre to build a following and a reputation, but am very open to new opportunities for a client’s talent. It’s very much career-planning on a case-by-case basis.
[In the photo, baby Mary begins her publishing career.]
What do you consider the greatest challenges of being an agent?
The challenges of any new agent are building strong relationships with editors and houses, keeping up with or anticipating market needs and trends, and building a reputation for having great books. That’s what makes or breaks a career, and I leap into my work every day wanting to learn and grow and be a great asset to my list.
I also wouldn’t be where I am today if I wasn’t with a fantastic agency. Andrea Brown Lit has a great reputation, and my colleagues are a constant source of wisdom and inspiration.
What do you love about it?
Everything. Working editorially on manuscripts, speaking at conferences, meeting people, forming relationships, launching books into the world, multitasking, reading my eyes off, discovering talent…the list goes on!
Would you like to highlight a few of your clients and/or their recent/upcoming titles?
My first books won’t hit shelves until 2011, but that doesn’t make me any less excited about them! Bethanie Murguia is a debut author-illustrator who has a beautiful picture book about a heroic, mischievous bug, called Buglette, the Messy Sleeper, coming out from Tricycle Press.
That same summer, I have a really well-written, darkly funny, unusual YA urban fantasy coming out from Simon & Schuster. It’s called Wildefire, about a girl who is a Polynesian volcano goddess, and is by the talented Karsten Knight.
I think both of these books will launch long careers for their authors.
Are you interested in speaking at writers’ conferences? If so, how can event coordinators contact you?
I absolutely adore traveling, speaking, doing manuscript consultations, hearing pitches, teaching workshop and meeting writers across the country and, one day, I hope, the world.
I’ve recently started doing more events for the SCBWI and want to connect with more regional advisers, as well as conference organizers for any event that needs a children’s book agent presence. I’m very actively building my list, so that’s always a big draw for attendees. Organizers and regional advisers can connect with me at email@example.com
I’m a huge fan of Kidlit.com! What inspired you to become an agent-blogger?
When I knew I’d one day be an agent, I looked at my fantastic colleagues at ABLit and all the other rock-star agents at other agencies. How would great writers find me? What would set me apart? How could I drum up fantastic submissions and start building my list?
So I created the blog. It combines many of my passions–writing, teaching, and talking about craft and the publishing business. If you couldn’t tell…I can go on about this stuff for quite a while. I wish I could meet and talk with more aspiring writers, one-on-one, but there aren’t enough hours in a day. The blog is the next best thing to an intimate conversation.
What do you love about it? What are the challenges?
I feel like I have friends everywhere I go. Readers introduce themselves to me at every conference! I also love being challenged by my readers and challenging myself to really be articulate and helpful on the issues I discuss. The only challenge, of course, is the time commitment, but Kidlit.com is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
So far, what are your favorite children’s/YA books of 2010 and why?
I like to cook, hang out with my boyfriend and my cat, explore new restaurants, and, of course, write, since that’s what got me into this whole crazy business in the first place.