SCBWI Bologna 2012 Agent Interview: Erzsi Deak

By Mio Debnam for SCBWI Bologna 2012
at Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Erzsi Deak is the founder and president of literary salon and agency Hen & ink, which she established in November 2010, bringing with her more than twenty-five years of publishing experience.

Erzsi is eager to find new talent but has a request for all potential clients:

“Please note that unless you meet me at the Showcase or a workshop, are referred by a client or other publishing professional, you’ll need to wait until we announce Open Coop Day to submit. We’re still getting back to everyone who has submitted in the last year. Thanks for your understanding. We want to give everyone the professional courtesy they deserve and appreciate your patience.

“Open Coop Days are random days when Hen&ink is open to submissions. We will announce them on the Hen & ink site, the Facebook Hen&ink Literary page (if you aren’t already a fan, please click LIKE on the page to receive updates and news), Twitter and anywhere else we can think of.”

Congratulations, Erzsi, on a successful first year as a literary agent! What’s been the best, worst and most surprising thing you have encountered in your agenting journey so far?

Outside of lamenting the still-overflowing submissions, I’d say that it’s been, far and wide, a positive experience.

When Siobhan Curham told me, in the very beginning, that (a) it was my bad bird jokes that won her over and, later, we (b) signed the first deal for her book…those were pretty good “bests”!

Other bests are the fabulous letters I get back from writers, even those I’ve declined to represent.

Worst thing? I hate closing submissions. As a writer, I know what it’s like to put your baby on the block, as it were, and then hear nothing. Many in business have adopted a laissez-faire attitude wherein no one bothers to let you know your submission arrived and no one bothers to ever let you know, well, anything.

This lack of politesse in communication is very likely due to the excess that the Internet allows — mass mailing v. targeted submissions, for example — but it would seem that with technology, sending auto-responses and some notification would also be made easier.

As long as we have submissions at Hen&ink, we aim to respond to everyone with more than a form letter. And that takes time. I say we, but until recently, it was I.

Luckily, Beatriz Caicoya knocked on my door, thanks to Lawrence Schimel’s introduction. She will be in Bologna this year and is taking on the Scouting and Submissions side of Hen&ink, which is a huge relief!

The most surprising thing? Maybe how much fun we’re having in the coop — or perhaps it was when we got a very ugly (to the point of beautiful) warty plush toy chicken from Barbara McClintock and her son? No, wait, the ugliest prize goes to the rubber chicken handbag that Hen&ink chick Mima Tipper sent me. I may need to bring that bird to Bologna…

Following the SCBWI South Africa conference in October, Erzsi & her daughter Esmee traveled from Cape Town (thanks to Marjorie and Johann van Heerden) to the Sanbona Wildlife Preserve (54,000 hectares and the only free self-sustaining White Lions in the world). Erzsi & Esmee were lucky to have these giraffes frame their photo and also to see the
white mother lion reunited with her cubs after days apart, which was “seriously amazing,” Erzsi says. All-in-all it was a spectacular trip. Erzsi & Esmee say, “Thank you, SCBWI SA, for making it possible!”

I know you are accepting manuscripts for everything from picture books to adult nonfiction, but what type of book makes you cluck with excitement?

I love the Ariol French comic book for younger readers. I thought the original Olivia was brilliant and rather perfect as a picture book.

I look for story and not anecdote. I want a beginning, middle, and a satisfying end no matter the genre, and my authors will tell you that they have bony fingers but stronger manuscripts after I’ve made them go through a number of revisions.

Mostly, it’s sharing a good Story (with a capital S) with Characters I Care About. If I don’t care about the character, if I can’t hear the voice of the characters nor the work overall, I’m “outta there”.

So, I guess the message is: Surprise me with a fantastic story that is original about a character I care about and has a voice that sings.

These days YA seems very genre driven. Is there any genre of YA novel you definitely don’t want submitted, however well written?

Not really. Anything original. Nothing derivative, please. If the voice sings, I’ll listen.

Obviously a good book has to have a balance of story, character, voice and craft etc, but which one (or more) of these facets does an imperfect manuscript absolutely have to have, before you’ll take the chance on it?

Author-illustrator Paddy Bouma (whom Erzsi met in Greece at the SCBWI conference on Hydra in 2001) kindly escorted Esmee & Erzsi to the Spier Cheetah sanctuary and conservation project in Cape Town. There are over 20 cheetahs at the sanctuary, most of which were born in captivity and all of which could not survive in the wild. The idea is that these cheetahs are ‘ambassadors’ for wild cheetah. The aim is to educate and raise awareness among the public so that wild cheetahs can be conserved. “We had, I think three minutes, for the photo shoot and lots more time looking at the babies and a few older cheetahs through the fence,” Erzsi says. “The man in the photo is keeping the cheetah calm while we goofy tourists had our picture taken. Beautiful animals.”

After my comments above, you probably know the answer: voice. The voice of the character, of the work, has to grab me and want me to hang on for the ride.

And action. The worst thing a writer can do is bore the reader.

I’m an impatient reader and get bored easily, so I need emotional and physical action (in plot lines, language, general story); this doesn’t mean I’m looking for an endless chase scene; it means showing rather than telling and keeping me hooked.

In addition, as I’ve said elsewhere, I need light with my dark, so if you are writing a grim war story, I need some irony or sunshine for balance or the story will die a lonely death as I put it aside. I don’t mind tears, but I’m not all about grim-getting-grimmer (unless it’s tongue-and-cheek).

I’m looking for the perfect combination of pain and humor told in an original way with a voice that makes me want to stay up all night listening. 

I’ve been following the success of your client, Sarah Towle, with her iPhone app ‘Beware Madam la Guillotine’. Was it originally pitched to you as a book? Are you interested in more submissions for non-traditional media projects?

Before Hen&ink I knew Sarah’s project as a book project. We are now looking at ink-on-paper version; short story collection; film; and virtual eTours for her project. I’m interested in seeing original submissions, whether words on paper or otherwise.

These days, the words ‘building a platform’ seem to be on everyone’s lips… What advice would you give to a yet-unpublished author on building a platform?

Content is the royal flush. First advice is just to write.

And then, when you have something to write about you can start building a platform. It’s definitely good to have a platform, but doesn’t help you much if that’s all you have.

When I was a journalism major, I realized I’d have a lot more to write about as a history major, so I built some content, if-you-will, as a history major and then put it to work as a journalism minor.

My client, Barbara Younger, came to me with a non-children’s project and I suggested that she develop a platform to support it. Thus was born This has been one fun success story — lots of guest blogging going on!

We’re sharing the book proposal at The London Book Fair in April and looking forward to finding a home (in all possible forms) that is supported by the ongoing blog. 

You will be hearing pitches at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair this year. In your opinion, what makes a good pitch? Do you have advice for writers struggling to come up with a perfect pitch for their project?

Think of the famous elevator pitch — you have two minutes to tell me:

Who you are, the title and genre of your book, and if it’s complete. You can include the word count if it’s on the tip of your tongue.
Who the main character is, what s/he wants and why s/he can’t have it (tell me what happens).
Use active words and breathe.

Breathing is key to a good pitch.
Then, let the listener (agent, editor, etc.) ask questions — don’t feel like you have to fill the empty space.


“My name is J.J. Jones and my completed middle-grade book, The Princess Diet, is about a dragon named Dragoondo who doesn’t want to eat princesses and the princess who changes his mind. It’s a live-action drama with a sense of purpose — and fire-breathing humor.”

I’d probably respond,

“Nice to meet you J.J. [Are you breathing?] This sounds fun. I’m, of course, curious to hear about the princess that changes Dragoondo’s mind to the point that he does want to eat princesses — what’s that about!? Send me the first chapter embedded to [this] address and if I’m hooked, I’ll ask for the rest and a submissions history. Would you also include your author bio? Thanks for thinking of Hen & ink!”

More on the Agency

More on Siobhan

Hen&ink, a Paris-based literary agency, marks its first year with major announcements for Siobhan Curham (U.K.) and Tom Llewellyn (U.S.).

For Siobhan, the agency has just signed a two-book deal with Egmont UK for Shipwrecked, and there’s already strong TV interest reported for the book.

This follows previous deals for Siobhan, whose Dear Dylan is now a lead title for Egmont, and Finding Cherokee Brown, which Hen&ink sold to Egmont, which was then sold to publishers in France and Germany.

Hen&ink is also pleased to announce that Tom Llewellyn’s novel, The Tilting House , in a deal brokered by co-agent Thomas Schlueck agency, has just been acquired by Theinemann, one of Germany’s oldest publishers of books for young children.

Hen&ink founder, Erzsi Deak, is now also adding to her staff with translation specialist, Beatriz Caicoya, who’s been brought in to handle translations, scouting and permissions.

Erzsi started Hen&ink because she saw the need for an internationally-focused agency that could specialize in handling authors, illustrators and creative talent interested in broadening cultural awareness and in crossing transmedia borders.

The agency now represents more than thirty authors, including bestselling author/illustrator Doug Cushman, author and award-winning app developer Sarah Towle, and authors and illustrators Jennifer Dalrymple, and Jeanne de Sainte Marie (France); Mina Witteman and Sandra Guy (Netherlands); Bridget Strevens-Marzo and Jacqui Hazell (U.K.); and Maria Lebedeva (South Africa).

In the U.S., Hen&ink has clients in more than a dozen states: Angela Morrison (AZ), Andrea Zuill and Ann Jacobus (CA), Whitney Stewart (LA), J.M. Lee (MN), Barbara Younger and Candy Dahl (NC), Claudia Classon (NJ), Connie Fleming (NM), Anna Angelidakis and Vicky Shiefman (NY), Cece Hall and Katherine M. Dunn (OR), Janine Burgan (PA), Hannah R. Goodman (RI), Rae Ann Parker (TN), Monica Shaughnessy and Melissa Buron (TX), Caryn Caldwell (UT), and Kathryn Kramer and Mima Tipper (VT).

Award credits for their books already include New York Times Best Illustrated and bestselling titles. Hen&ink represents Red Fox Literary outside of North America and Thomas Jeunesse outside of France.

Erzsi Deak has spent more than twenty-five years on the international stage, connecting individuals and companies with those around the globe who can make things happen. She’s the author of Period Pieces: Stories for Girls (HarperCollins), and since 2009 has worked as a consulting editor with La Martinière Groupe.

Erzsi is also well-known throughout the literary world for her work on behalf of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), where she ran the organization’s international arm for nearly ten years. In that time, she developed and mentored writers, illustrators and publishing programs in twenty-eight countries.

Now with Hen&ink, Deak manages a growing list of prize-winning clients, marketing their books to publishers worldwide, including at the Bologna, London and Frankfurt rights fairs. She’s also established key partnerships for Hen&ink with Sheepscot Creative and Raab Associates, companies that share her international and creative goals.

Cynsational Notes

See an SCBWI Bologna interview with author-app creator Sarah Towle and a guest post by Siobhan Curham on Daring to Dream.

Mio Debnam
is currently working as a writer and an editor of children’s books,
having ‘retired’ from the world of journalism, where she worked as the
Editor in Chief of two daily children’s newspapers for several years.

She has had short stories and articles for both adults and children
published, as well as a middle grade fantasy novel, four picture books,
and several educational readers.

The first six in her kidsGo! series of travel guides for kids were published in 2011.

started on her present career path early, editing and writing stories
for school and university newspapers; getting her hands inky learning
how to print the old fashioned way.

After a decade working in the
financial markets in London and Hong Kong, she returned to her first
love and has been working with words ever since.

Mio Debnam

To get inspiration for
her writing, and to keep up with ‘what’s hot’, Mio has become expert at
eavesdropping on her children’s conversation, as well as those she
encounters at school visits and the creative writing workshops she runs.
She is the Regional Advisor of the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators, Hong Kong Chapter.

The SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Showcase in conjunction with Cynsations. To find out more, visit the SCBWI Bologna Showcase Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

4 thoughts on “SCBWI Bologna 2012 Agent Interview: Erzsi Deak

  1. Wonderful interview, Cynthia! I'm just about to submit to Ms. Deak via Julie Hedlund's 12×12 Challenge and was so glad to find this 'look inside' Hen and Ink and this trailblazing woman. I was also thrilled to see Mio Debman's pic…just enjoyed connecting with her at the 2013 Asian Festival of Children's Content in Singapore. It's a small world…and getting smaller by the moment.;)

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