Cynsations Note: This is the second in a series of posts highlighting the upcoming SCBWI Europolitan Conference, set for May 4 and May 5 in Zurich, Switzerland. Today’s post features faculty members Molly O’Neill and Alice Sutherland-Hawes, both literary agents.
Here we are at base camp, preparing to “Take Our Work to the Next Level.” Our guides today are children’s-YA literary agents, Molly O’Neill and Alice Sutherland-Hawes.
For the past 16 years, Molly has held various roles inside the publishing industry.
Currently an agent at Root Literary, she was previously an editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books (where she acquired Veronica Roth‘s juggernaut Divergent series), the head of editorial at Storybird, a publishing/tech start-up, and a member of the school and library marketing departments at both HarperCollins and Clarion Books.
Molly loves the creative process and early-stage project development, is invigorated by business strategy and entrepreneurial thinking, and is fascinated by the intersections of art, commerce, creativity, and innovation.
Her client list includes cartoonists, illustrators, picture book and early reader writers-illustrators, middle grade and young adult novelists, and nonfiction writers across categories.
Learn more on her website. Molly is assisted in her work by Captain Von Smooch, a highly skilled negotiator/agent-in-training.
Alice Sutherland-Hawes is the Rights and Children’s Agent at Madeleine Milburn Ltd, growing the children’s-YA list at the agency, including illustrators.
She began her career as a bookseller before working at The Agency for three years, where she gained an invaluable insight into the publishing industry.
Whilst at The Agency she negotiated multiple U.K. deals and helped sell rights across the world in titles, including A Kestrel for a Knave (Penguin, 1969), the Paddington books and Malorie Blackman’s books.
Along with books, she has a passion for films and spent some time as a film critic.
Before we get started with climbing, let’s review the basics:
Preparing for the Climb
I’m sure you’ve both heard this before: “I want to write a children’s book.” What’s your advice for aspiring authors? What should be their very first steps?
Molly: I recently had a client who wanted to try his hand at writing a picture book text (he typically writes in a completely different genre).
As we talked about this new possibility, my client did the beautiful task of assigning himself “homework,” saying, “Okay, I think my first step is that I should go read a hundred picture books and see what I like and what I don’t like, and what I learn, and then I’ll try my hand at writing a draft.”
And guess what? The self-educating worked, and the resulting draft he sent me was light years stronger than most first drafts I see.
I was impressed by his humility and willingness to become a beginner (even though he has expertise in other areas) but also by the understanding that publishing a book means stepping outside of yourself at some point—yes, it begins with having idea and looking for the right ways to use your creativity to turn it into a story. That’s the writing part, and it’s yours alone.
But the minute you begin to think about publishing that story, then it becomes important to understand that you’re entering an industry with both a history and an ever-evolving present, and with that comes a need to familiarize oneself with the existing canon, with market trends in the industry, and most especially, with the needs of young readers in today’s world.
Like any form of art, publishing is in constant conversation with itself about what it has been and what it is becoming, and part of being a responsible author of books for young readers means engaging with those questions and ideas in the stories you create for them.
In other words, don’t only write in a vacuum of self.
Read, read, read dozens if not a hundred or more books (contemporary books! Not ones from your own youth, as market trends are ever-shifting), and you will learn many things about how to begin and how to successfully go on as a writer.
You will also perhaps save yourself the time, energy, and the disappointment of writing the sorts of overly-familiar stories that garner rejections because editors see them so often—because you’ll know that such stories have already been written well and can thus reach deeper within yourself to discover even more original ideas.
Alice: Reading! I get so many submissions telling me they can’t give me comp titles, but I could list at least 10, and I just wonder if that person has read any children’s books.
Equally, when someone comps classics, it generally tells me they’re not keeping up to date with what’s being published today, which is so important.
Also, realize that writing a children’s book isn’t “easy” because it’s for children. If anything, it’s harder. People can be so disparaging, and if you’re doing it just because you think it’s easy and you can do better than any of the huge successes we’ve had, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
Overall, I think reading around your chosen age group and genre is the most important thing and the first step to take. Often I set my clients homework of reading books in the area they want to write so they can get a sense of the voices and styles out there. It can be really helpful and allows you to see trends and patterns.
Choosing a Guide
What advice do you have for someone looking for a literary agent? What questions should an author ask an agent when they call offering representation? How do you know if that agent is “the one”?
I’m pretty open on Twitter so you can find out a lot about me from my feed, and I often appreciate someone saying, “I saw on Twitter you like this.”
The question I’m asked the most when I offer rep is what happens if the first book doesn’t sell, and I think that’s an important one. I sign an author, not a book, but some agents may differ and you need to know what will happen in that scenario.
Also, double check their commission, what happens if they leave their current agency, what they’ve got coming up (sometimes they’ve got things which haven’t been announced but they can tell you about) and another great question to ask is what happens if you write in a different age range or genre.
Molly: I think it’s important to think and talk about your career and ambitions. If you’ve been researching agents, you might know a lot about their clients and what those career paths have looked like. But keep in mind that your own trajectory will be different; no writer has the same career as another, and having an agent with whom you can connect comfortably is more important than being able to say that you have the same agent as another famous author.
Ultimately, you want to use “the call” to get a sense of whether you and this agent seem to speak the same language creatively and professionally. An agent represents you and your professional interests to the publishing world; is this someone you feel confident having do that for you?
Asking about what your agent’s training or background has been like is important and will help you be able to gauge how deeply they understand the industry and if they’ll be a strong guide, particularly if things turn particularly messy or particularly awesome, as both require a high level of strategy and agent-wisdom.
Also, agents wear a lot of hats, but most approach publishing from a particular lens based on their prior experience. See if you can get them to talk about what theirs is, and think about if that aligns well with what you’re seeking.
Are they editorial/developmental because they’ve worked on the creative side of the industry?
Do they come to a project thinking first about its potential to work in the global market and generate multiple foreign sales?
Are they contracts-minded, first-and-foremost, focused on negotiation as the key to your career?
Do they work for a big talent agency where film/TV/ancillary opportunities drive the entire publishing experience?
None of these is inherently good or bad; it’s a matter of what feels most valuable to you.
Hits & Misses on the Journey
What makes a manuscript stand out in the slush pile? Are there any mistakes you see repeated in query letters? Do you have any tips for querying writers?
Molly: So often I see opening pages which tell me that the author has clearly heard the advice to start with action, and so I get several opening lines/paragraphs/pages that are so full of activity (zooming, and clattering, and shouting, and racing, and slamming, etc.) that I barely get to know the character at all.
These kinds of openings tell me both too much and not enough. If a reader is compelled enough by your character and their voice to follow them into the narrative, you won’t need as much artificial set-up.
Ultimately, what captures my attention most is if your opening pages—or even your title itself, perhaps—make me wonder.
For example, what’s motivating your main character?
What’s the thing that happened just before the story began that they’re alluding to?
What are their voice and emotions telling me about who they are as a character and how they fit in their world and how does that perhaps resonate for me as a reader?
Why have I as a reader never encountered a story quite like this one before?
As for query letters, keep them succinct—like a professional email or a cover letter to accompany a resume. Talk to the agent or editor you’re addressing as the adult professional they are and not like they’re a kid reader. Don’t narrate from your main character’s voice. Don’t attempt to be overly clever.
Do tell me the facts about who you are as a writer, particularly any qualifications or expertise or lived experiences you have that connect to the story (and bear in mind that being a debut writer is fine! Every author you can think of was once a debut.)
If there’s an interesting anecdote about where the story idea sprang from, certainly you can share it—but don’t feel a need to fabricate or fill up space.
After all, I can’t sell your query letter to a publisher, so the query letter is just one minor piece of the equation, really—it’s the strength of your sample pages that matters most.
Alice: I agree with Molly on keeping it succinct. We all get so many queries each day and it does sometimes get to the point where a huge email is very off-putting. Keep it short and sweet–I want to know about you, your book, why you wrote it and where you see it sitting in the market.
Another point is the opening three chapters of a book are obviously crucial, but too often I request the full manuscript only to find it falls off a ledge at chapter four.
Make sure you pay the same attention to every single chapter of your book!
What’s something you’ve sold that’s coming out soon that you’re excited about?
Alice: So many things! 2019 is looking amazing for my authors and illustrators, but a lot hasn’t been announced.
I have a wonderful middle grade debut coming in August which I’m really excited about, and there’s also The Year I Didn’t Eat by Samuel Pollen (Zuntold, 2019) which is the first book I signed and sold and is very dear to my heart.
Molly: Out in May 2019 in the U.K./U.S. simultaneously is The Dictionary Of Difficult Words (Quarto Kids, 2019), written by Jane Solomon, a lexicographer who works for Dictionary.com. It is wonderfully illustrated in a folk-art style and is the kind of book that any info-loving kid (or adult!) in your life will enjoy devouring.
Also coming in May: Nerdy Babies: Space and Nerdy Babies: Ocean by author-illustrator Emmy Kastner (Roaring Brook, 2019) are the first in a smart, utterly delightful new series for the very young that introduces and explores scientific concepts and celebrates what it means to be curious about the world around us.
And just out at the end of March: The Tragical Tale Of Birdie Bloom by Temre Beltz (HarperCollins, 2019), which is the fairytale-ish fantasy of my inner-nine-year-old-self’s dreams, full of orphans and witches and dragons and magical letters and the power of friendship! And all three of those are debut authors, hooray!
Thank you, Alice and Molly, for your fantastic insights, which are so helpful to all of us on our journey. I look forward to learning more from you both at Europolitan 2019 in Zurich!
Melanie writes primarily for middle graders and has had stories published in Highlights and other magazines. She also recently wrote two children’s books for Kyowon’s ESL program.
Originally from the west coast of Canada, Melanie now lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two daughters. She is the Regional Advisor for SCBWI Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg).
Huge thanks and appreciation to the amazing Elisabeth Norton for organizing, coordinating and making the SCBWI Europolitan Con series possible.