Agents Interview: Holly McGhee, Elena Giovinazzo & Julie Just of Pippin Properties

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Welcome to Cynsations, Holly McGhee, Elena Giovinazzo and Julie Just of Pippin Properties!

From the agency website:

Since 1998, Pippin Properties, Inc. has been an integrated publishing and entertainment representation agency.

Located in New York City, it is a diverse agency dedicated to maximizing the creative and commercial potential of all its properties.

Pippin represents the works of these writers and artists to a wide range of publishing, animation, motion picture, television, and licensing companies.

Could you tell us about the history of Pippin Properties? How has the agency changed over time?

Holly McGhee: When I founded Pippin, in 1998, I had just left HarperCollins, where I was an executive editor and where I also had some good luck, because the first book I ever edited was Zeke Pippin by William Steig (HarperCollins, 1997)—that’s how I fell in love with words and pictures!

William Steig with Holly McGhee’s daughter Charlotte

I was excited for a chance to bring projects I could stand behind into the world. I felt so liberated (and still do) to act on my own instinct, and not be guided by an acquisitions committee. I believe that if a potential book means something to me, it will mean something to somebody else, too.

But as the years go by, Pippin has become an agency that not only represents books that we think matter, but careers that matter. Think of Kate DiCamillo, Kathi Appelt, Doreen Cronin, David Small, Peter H. Reynolds, Katherine Applegate, Alison McGhee, Jon Agee, Jandy Nelson, to name a few.

We embrace every artistic endeavor, from picture books to middle-grade novels, nonfiction, young adult, graphic, or adult projects. We don’t follow trends—we encourage our clients to follow their hearts. Our philosophy, the world owes you nothing, you owe the world your best work, hasn’t changed, but as an agency we have evolved to keep pace with our clients.

Special thanks to Sujean Rim for dressing up our mascot for his fifteenth birthday!

Zeke Pippin

What types of clients do you represent—in terms of body of work, art vs. text, age levels, genres and more? Are you looking for a certain kind of book that says “Pippin” or for a widely diversified body of work from your client base?

Julie Just: I took a winding path here. As a teenager I loved The New Yorker (especially the covers of William Steig!), and I ended up there in my 20s; now I almost can’t believe I’m at the agency of Steig, Koren, Bliss, and Booth.

After years of editing fiction and nonfiction at magazines, I wanted more direct involvement with making things, or helping artists bring them into being, and that’s why I became an agent.

I lean toward the literary, which I would define as rich and interesting sentences and a strong point of view, offering something real and unique to the author. Most of my clients are YA or upper middle grade, but I have some picture book authors, too.

I especially love humor, romance, witty dialogue, adventure, mystery, and ghosts. I found many of these qualities in clients like Amy Butler Greenfield (Chantress) and Austin Aslan (coming in 2014: The Islands at the End of the World). I’m also interested in nonfiction, and think there’s such a big untapped audience out there for truly voice-y and/or unknown stories.

Elena Giovinazzo: I joined the agency in June of 2009 after trying my hand at a variety of facets of the publishing industry.

What I love the most about being at Pippin is that I really get to use the skills and knowledge I picked up along the way here in one place. We really do it all, marketing, publicity, sales, editorial, on a small and large scale, every day.

As my list of clients grows and continues to develop (I’m still pretty new at this!) I’m finding it to become increasingly varied. I seem to have a little bit of everything, and I love that.

I think what ties them together is that they were all projects I couldn’t say “no” to. That seems to be a really telling barometer. The process of taking on a new client can be an arduous one and so there’s got to be more than just a spark. It’s got to be full-on devotion.

Elena Giovinazzo modeling buttons for Flora & Ulysses

Holly McGhee: I abide by one rule when taking on clients—I have to fall in love with their work. That’s become the backbone of a pretty wide-ranging list—from Kate DiCamillo’s classic and beloved middle-grade novels to Harry Bliss’s “Peanuts-style” cherubs to Kathi Appelt’s literary masterpiece The Underneath to Jandy Nelson’s super-romantic The Sky Is Everywhere to David Small’s dark psycho-dramatic graphic Stitches to Peter H. Reynolds’ The Dot, Ish, and Sky Color creatrilogy.

In general, novels I love tend to be very literary and a bit on the darker side, and the same holds true for graphics.

In picture books, I usually start by looking at a character’s face—if I respond to the face, the rest often follows.

What makes Pippin Properties different from other literary agencies?

Julie Just: What I knew about Pippin before I came here in May was that it was the agency of Kate DiCamillo and William Steig and Jandy Nelson and David Small—it was associated in my mind, in other words, with really distinctive voices and talents.

From an agent’s point of view, it feels like a big deal to bring a client in. Certainly more than it would at some big honking midtown agency. I know that every client I bring to Pippin has to shine, and that he or she in turn will get the benefit of all of our expertise. It’s very much a team effort.

Holly McGhee: We follow our instincts, and once we are connected to an author or artist, we work as hard as they do to bring their very best work (no matter how many revisions) into the world of books, and if appropriate, the world of film, television, theatre, and merchandise. We won’t stop until the footprint of a property is as significant as possible.

I firmly believe: “Do what you love and the money will follow.”

On a different note, we are also an agency that remains committed to debuting new illustrators, artists who can draw and may not necessarily find their voice in words.

Based in New York City, we invite editors in on a regular basis, not only to review our illustrator portfolios, but also to connect and share perspectives on the publishing industry, what’s working in books and what’s not, and we discuss what the editors are looking for on an individual basis.

More often than not, wonderful matches with both authors and illustrators are made on the basis of these get-togethers, and they are not only intellectually stimulating but also tremendous fun.

The ability to meet in this way, with the very people who are making the acquisitions decisions, definitely sets us apart. We’ve recently moved to spacious new headquarters, in part to be able to host our get-togethers more comfortably.

Editors from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt visiting Pippin’s new office

Elena Giovinazzo: All those wonderful points that Holly and Julie made, plus I think we have a team approach that isn’t as prevalent at other agencies. While we each have our own clients and projects, there’s hardly anything that goes out that hasn’t found its way across at least two of our desks. So much of what we do is a collaboration.

When we were looking for new office space, we saw floor plans that had beautiful windowed offices, which were tempting, but we knew that if we were going to keep the collaborative feel that we now enjoy, having an open floor plan was vital (as well as a reading room!).

Julie Just settling in with a manuscript

Why should an unpublished but competitive writer consider querying Pippin?

Julie Just: All the clients we take on can be sure they will have our serious attention. There’s a significant time investment in each client and each project. We all love the editorial process and try to think globally, looking for places where voice or story could be stronger, so we can be sure of not just a sale but a strong one to the right house. The collective knowledge of editors and publishers at Pippin has astounded me; it’s a fantastic resource.

Elena Giovinazzo: Unpublished authors, query away!

Launching a debut author is so thrilling. There’s nothing like calling an author to tell them there’s an offer or sending a copy of their first contract or galley or marketing plan or foreign offer or . . . get the point? We’re always hoping to find brand-new talent—that’s the farm team!

Please do look at our guidelines before querying. We like a short synopsis and sample, and be sure to number the pages.

How about a more established author who, for whatever reasons, finds herself without representation?

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Elena Giovinazzo: We’re looking to hear from you, too. We understand, from experience, that agents and authors part ways for all sorts of reasons and that it does not at all mean that our own relationship would be doomed.

It’s often just a matter of finding the right match, which doesn’t always happen the first time around.

Holly McGhee: An established author should consider where they want to be in the future, too. Do they want to break new ground, redefine themselves? Do they want to take a close and realistic look at what has worked for them and what hasn’t? Are they willing to be honest? Are they willing to grow? Are they willing to give the world their best?

If so, they should talk to us! When we love the work, we have a very high success rate in “relaunches.”

Julie Just: Most agents seem to be biased toward sticking with what works, or what has worked in the past. And to some degree it’s understandable—this is a conservative time in publishing, relatively speaking. At Pippin the mood couldn’t be more different: we aren’t conservative, and we make our own rules. I can’t say it better than Holly did—it’s all a question of what the author or artist really wants to do next, and are we the right partner to help get them there?

There was a time when children’s-YA authors and illustrators debated the need for an agent at all. Do you think that time has passed? Why or why not? What considerations should be weighed?

Elena Giovinazzo: I do think that time has passed. The publishing landscape is changing so fast it can give you whiplash. You need someone on your side who knows the landscape when your editor moves houses, when houses merge, when a new technology comes onto the scene. Having an agent allows the client to focus on their work.

Julie Just: Especially in the field of digital rights, the risks and opportunities are more complex all the time. The question is, how much does managing the business side take away from actually creating the work? Especially on the back end—royalties, foreign and audio rights, etc—without an agent, would the author get the best deal and protections they could have? Was someone thinking big for them?

The happiest outcome for any client, of course, is to find an editor who is a great partner, creatively and financially. When we’re able to make the right match, we’re glad to step back and not be some kind of middleman, except when the client needs us to be.

Holly McGhee: Additionally, I often find that our very most successful clients need a gatekeeper—there can come a point when there’s nobody left who will tell an author to “shelve it” or that the author “can do better.” We are the keepers of the castle, the ones you can trust to tell you the truth about the work as we see it.

To what degree do you do career framing and consultation with your clients?

Elena Giovinazzo: Each client has different needs and are at different points in their careers and so it’s a really personalized strategic approach for each client. Are they a client who would benefit from having multiple publishing homes or just one? Can the author’s audience handle more than one book a year or would the author be cannibalizing their own sales? Are they working with the most inspiring editor? If sales are languishing, what can we do to give them a reboot?

I love to work with people who have their own career goals and dreams. Maybe they’re illustrating other people’s picture book texts right now but what they really want to do is a graphic—how are we going to get there, together? That sort of career framing can’t happen with an agency that works on a “per book” approach.

Julie Just: I try to think strategically for my clients all the time. When it comes to fiction, though, for example, I’m mainly thinking What kind of book does the author want to write? And, how’s it going? There are career considerations and then creative ones.

Or, sometimes it’s kind of a mix, as when an author has a certain genre down cold and has had some success, but wants to try stretching into a new field in hopes of breaking out better or differently. That’s an interesting moment for a writer or artist, when they need our support but need our candid feedback even more.

Holly McGhee: We spend a good share of our time managing careers. We do all we can to avoid having more than one book per season by any client on a list, and for our more prolific writers and artists, this can be a real challenge; if one book is late, the whole house of cards is vulnerable to collapse. We encourage our clients, and continually brainstorm with them to break out of any sort of box they may find themselves in.

What if Kathi Appelt had stayed in her comfortable category of rhyming picture books? We would never had met Grandma Moccasin or the Alligator King, two of the most intimidating characters of all time from her Newbery Honor-winning novel The Underneath?

What if Kate DiCamillo had remained the “Southern writer” she thought the world expected her to be? The tiny hero Despereaux would never have been born.

Be a maverick—lead, don’t follow.

Do you promote your client list? If so, how? Or do you think that the agency should be more behind the scenes? Why or why not?

Elena Giovinazzo: Absolutely—all the time! At lunches with editors and other industry types, on our website, on our Facebook page, Twitter page and my own personal social media pages as well.

Promoting our clients to the publishing industry is a huge part of our job. We like to think we’re our clients’ best champions. Besides their moms, of course.

As far as marketing and publicity for a given title, though, we do typically leave that in the very capable hands of the publishers, but we happily brainstorm and offer ideas and attend the publisher marketing meetings for our major titles.

Julie Just: We talk up our writers and our new books when we participate in panels and conferences, and generally ensure that our clients are on as many people’s radar as possible—we are always on the lookout for magazine and book review sections that do a good job with children’s and YA books.

My own background in magazines and newspapers—The New Yorker and The Times Book Review, and New York magazine—has been pretty helpful that way. When I’m excited about a new client, I love to send their work around.

Holly McGhee: We also work hand-in-hand with our film partners and our foreign-rights team. We meet with many foreign publishers, film producers, and digital start-ups as they come through New York. We don’t passively wait for deals to come through from our subagents—we want as many people in the world as possible to read our books and we do what it takes to make that happen!

What is your take on e-format books, with regard to the novel and picture book and fiction versus nonfiction respectively?

Holly McGhee: E-formats have been terrific for our young adult novelists, given that many teenagers read on e-devices of one sort or another.

 For picture books, we have been hoping for a remarkable format that would rival a physical book. So far our hopes have not been met. It’s been frustrating, to be honest.

Publishers fight hard for the electronic rights to our picture books, and more recently they are asking for version formats too, to be granted the right to make interactive electronic books.

Yet nobody is making or selling these versions successfully—the truth is that the more money a publisher spends on making a book akin to a “game” the less the consumer is willing to pay. If you can download fruit ninja for free, why pay for a book that allows you to open a few cupboards and see what’s inside? This area remains a fierce battleground.

Our philosophy has always been to grant a publisher all of the rights that they have proven they can successfully exploit—but we aren’t interested in granting rights that will remain unexercised.

Julie Just: I’m especially interested in the potential of e-formats for nonfiction: amazing stuff can be done with links to primary sources, video archives, music, maps, competing viewpoints, and on and on. Obviously this will be great for school projects and Common Core standards, but there should be a strong trade market as well. It’s a design challenge to enhance and not compete with the text, and a big cost challenge as well, but the potential is very exciting.

What is the culture of Pippin? The mood around the office, the food, the banter?

Julie Just: It’s a riot. When we have group office tasks to do, like, say, book shelving, we try to do them with wine and/or chocolate. We often have visitors in, whether clients, editors, or scouts, and we laugh a lot. And complain about our pets, or other people’s pets. We have a good time.

Elena Giovinazzo: Gosh—I can’t imagine a better workplace environment. For all that we do and get done in a day, which is a lot, we have a ton of fun.

How could we not? We’re working with people we love and on projects we love. I feel so lucky to work with Holly, Julie and the rest of the Pippin team. And luckily, like me, they also love a good plate of pasta with a nice glass of wine. Or two, or three . . .

There’s also, as I mentioned above, such a sense of camaraderie and collaboration. I know I can always ask someone to give something a quick read for me, or ask their opinion on a tricky negotiation point, or ask them if I have something in my teeth—ha ha.

Holly McGhee: It’s a generous, not-stuffy atmosphere—we always notice each other’s new clothes—that’s important. And we had fun admiring Elena’s wedding presents, which she had delivered to the office. Julie’s and my kids helped so much with our big move—we’re training them early.

Pippins before the move to West 40th Street

How have you responded to the recent years of economic challenges in publishing? How has that impacted the authors / illustrators you sign and the way you work with them? How about with regard to the picture book in particular?

Holly McGhee: Children’s publishing has absolutely undergone a “reality check.” In my opinion, there were far too many books being published for a good long time. “If you’re going to kill a tree,” I always tell my authors, “it should be for good reason.” I.E. you should be publishing a book that will make a difference in a reader’s life—sometimes by hooking a reader early, thereby helping them find new worlds and ideas through books. I am continually stunned by how my own thinking opens when reading books by our authors.

In Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, which is Kate DiCamillo’s new middle-grade novel, one of her characters says: “But always . . . you opened the door because you could not stop hoping that on the other side of it would be the face of someone you loved.”

That sentence has stuck with me for over year—how right she is and how hopeful she is and how much I love that thought. It’s books like hers that survive the storm, that are impervious to the economy—books that offer more than a story.

But regarding picture books in particular, there was a time in 2010 when it was difficult to place any kind of picture book—submitting a picture book was equivalent to throwing a snake in an editor’s lap.

So we took the long road . . . we held those submissions back until 2011, when the very same wonderful submission was welcomed once again.

On an anecdotal level, I had one picture book, by a debut author-artist, that was rejected in 2010 eight times over. But I still believed in this book with all my heart. So the author and I “shelved” it (though not happily or easily) while she worked on a new story.

By the time we were ready to submit the new story, it was 2011, which was a more hopeful year for picture books. We sent the new story out, and it found an enthusiastic home, with three bidders no less. We then sent our new editor the story that we’d shelved during the downturn. And she acquired that too—timing counts. Don’t rush and don’t give up.

What new directions do you anticipate for Pippin in the future?

Elena Giovinazzo: With our new office space, Julie having recently come on, and a really kick-butt team falling into place, I can’t help but feel like the sky is the limit. We’re all working on such a wide variety of projects. It’s so exciting. There’s so much room for growth in any direction imagined. There’s something interesting happening almost every single day. What more could we ask for!

Julie Just: Coming here from a career spent almost entirely at big companies, to me Pippin is a dream team. It’s a “boutique” agency, but seems huge in spirit and success—like Elena said, the sky is the limit.

Holly McGhee: We have established a wonderful and creative studio environment, designed to foster our clients’ creativity (and our own). We are fluid and flexible, and we’ll continue to grow our brand in an organic way—we strive to stand for excellence, and excellence knows no bounds.

10 thoughts on “Agents Interview: Holly McGhee, Elena Giovinazzo & Julie Just of Pippin Properties

  1. Whenever I hear "Pippin," I'm interested 🙂 I read the entire interview VERY enthusiastically, for sure! I MUST ask, though, just to clarify…it looks like Elena Mechlin in the pic, so is Elena now Mrs. Elena Giovinazzo?! I DO know that Katherine Applegate mentioned Elena postponed her honeymoon to be at the Newbery banquet, so I'm right—right?! How special 🙂 Congrats to Elena on your wedding, and the whole Pippin team for 15 years! 🙂

  2. Absolutely the most thorough interview with an agency that I have seen. Great job with a clear light on this group of agents with passion in their pursuits.

  3. This was a wonderful illustration of a team of agents that are dedicated to their work for all the right reasons. I learned so much and am delighted with the possibilities as I commit to querying. Thank you for producing quality and excellence in your blog.

  4. I echo everything that Pizzos3 said. Love your blog, Cynthia, and thanks so much for this amazing and enlightening interview with the gang at Pippin.

  5. What a wonderful interview. I feel like we all just met for a glass of wine and talked for 3 hours. It is so nice to get a feeling for who you are asking to take time to read your submission, and to feel excited about that person.
    Pippin sounds like a delightful place to work and to be engaged with. Expect a story to be folded up into a paper airplane and launched from here. Hats off for the excellent work you do and the fabulous clients you represent. I am wistful.

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