Abigail Samoun is an agent, author and former editor with a distinguished career in children’s publishing. After meeting her in person at the Austin SCBWI Picture Book Retreat last fall, I had to share her insights with Cynsations readers.
You’re a writer, an agent and a former editor. How did you come to literature for young readers?
I grew up in France and learned English when I was seven. Soon after, I discovered Beverly Cleary, Lois Lowry, and Judy Blume and started devouring their books.
From then on, my favorite place to be was next to the heating vents in the dining room with a blanket and a book. If my parents were looking for me, they knew they’d find me there.
I had pretty eclectic tastes as a kid. I liked Cleary, Lowry, Blume, and John Bellairs, but also the 19th century French children’s novels my grandparents gave me and random books I found on my parents’ bookshelves.
I had such a strong connection to the books I read then that I still have a special place in my heart for middle grade.
My appreciation for picture books came later. I always had an appreciation for art because my mother is an artist and has many friends who are artists, so I grew up with lots of art on the walls and Mom would always get my childhood friends and I to pose for portraits.
So there was that early awareness of art that kind of set the stage for working on picture books.
In my first editorial job, I worked on both adult and kid projects. I quickly discovered that working on picture books suited me much better and allowed me to use the eye for art I’d developed via my mom while also tapping into the love of stories instilled in me by my favorite authors.
When I work on picture books, I love figuring out the interplay between art and text. How the words can amplify art and vice versa. Even after eighteen years in the business, there’s still so much to learn about the craft. Martin Salisbury’s books are inspiring and always give me something new to think about.
How do Writer You and Agent You inform each other?
I think my experience as an agent has made me a more practical writer.
That knowledge of the market, of the business side of things, has given me a means of getting over the ego and confidence blocks I used to have as a writer. I’m no longer so intimidated about sending work out.
Children’s books is a business. If we want to share our stories with a general audience, we have to learn the business.
There’s nothing wrong in writing for your own gratification, and I’ve known several excellent writers who never submitted a single manuscript to a publisher. That’s fine—not everything one writes is for a broad audience. But if you do want a broad audience, then sooner or later you’ll have to tackle the business side of writing.
The agent in me gets impatient with all my neurotic writerly insecurities and says, “Just sit your butt down and get it done.” Of course, I do have a darn stubborn writer side, and she doesn’t always listen to her agent’s practical advice. There is a power, though, as a writer, in knowing how the business works—how wide-ranging the U.S. children’s book market is, how editors have different tastes, and where your work in particular fits into it all.
I encourage writers to study the copyright pages of their favorite books, get to know the different publishers, the imprints, the editors. See which ones you relate to and figure out why.
It gives you a more concrete goal if you can say, “Philomel publishes the books I love. I think my work would find a good home there.”
Could you tell us about the history of the Red Fox? How has the agency changed over time?
Back in 2008, after the big financial crisis, the publisher I’d been working for was bought by Random House. I remember when the marketing materials arrived for the next season and looking at our books versus the other Random House imprints and thinking, “We’re going to have to get a lot more commercial if we’re going to survive.”
A few months later, Random House announced that they were shuttering the imprint. I’d been at the job for ten years and had really needed a kick in the pants to get to my next stage so, though I was sad at the loss of the imprint, I was excited about the possibilities ahead.
My favorite part of being an editor had always been working with the writers and illustrators I had grown so fond of. I wanted to find a way to keep working with them, and agenting seemed like just the thing.
At our imprint’s goodbye party, I reconnected with Karen Grencik, who’d been the first agent who’d ever sold me a picture book. After the party, we had a glass of wine and talked about partnering and forming a brand-new agency. It felt right because Karen and I share very much the same values. For us, it’s about the relationships with our clients and having pride in the books we’ve worked on. The size of the deal, the size of the publisher, doesn’t matter nearly as much to us (though a good auction does get the adrenaline going!).
Red Fox launched in June 2011. I started with 15 authors and illustrators. Now I have 40 clients and Karen has at least that many. Karen has been #1 in picture book sales, and I’ve been #1 in middle grade. Our clients’ books have won awards and starred reviews, have gotten film options, and gone to auction.
Along the way, the little agency that started with just Karen and I and a couple of dozen clients now has five agents, an assistant, a foreign rights partner, and well over 100 amazing and talented clients. Each year, we sell more books.
Picture books have always been the heart of our agency, and I still think we have one of the best websites for finding illustrators. But we’re finally also getting on the map for young adult novels.
Jennie Kendrick, our newest agent, specializes in young adult, and since she joined Red Fox three months ago, she’s already sold four titles—that’s pretty rocking. Stephanie Fretwell-Hill had a high-profile project go to auction earlier this year, and Jenna Poicus just sold her second project to Chronicle and has been bringing aboard some amazing illustrators.
After seven years, I think we’re hitting our stride and there’s a lot of growth still ahead of us.
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 “Red Fox” or for a widely diversified body of work from your client base?
If you look at my list of authors and illustrators, you’ll see an incredibly diverse array of styles, genres, and themes. My tastes haven’t changed much since I was a kid—they’re still pretty eclectic.
I’ve worked on board books, picture books, nonfiction, early readers, chapter books, graphic novels, middle grade, and young adult. Our illustrators range in style from boldly graphic to softly whimsical—they work in watercolor, multimedia, three-dimensional shadowboxes, digital, acrylic, pen and ink…the whole gamut.
The thread that runs through everyone I represent is that they have a highly personal style and a distinct point of view. Their work is expressing something personal. It’s commercially viable, yes, but it’s also distinctive and speaks from the heart. That’s the one thing I always look for.
That and a personal connection with the author or illustrator—I have to understand where they’re coming from and what they’re striving to say with their work. A big part of my job is helping them fulfill the potential of their work. In order to do that, I have to be able to get inside their heads a bit.
Why should an unpublished but competitive writer consider querying Red Fox (and you specifically)?
I think our strength as an agency is that we know the market. We know how to find just the right niche for a project, and we know how to negotiate a fair deal, but we also have a personal approach to our work and, above all, we value the relationships we have with our clients.
I think all five of us find the greatest thrill in being able to tell clients we’ve sold their first book and their dreams of publication are coming true.
One of my measures of success is what percentage of my clients are busy working under a contract. This year, I reached 90 percent. My goal, of course, is 100 percent. I want to keep all my clients busily working on projects that fulfill them and support them financially.
Red Fox Literary is closed to unsolicited submissions, instead considering referrals or submissions through conferences where their agents present.
However, Abigail is on Twitter and occasionally participates in online contests.
Red Fox agents are also big fans of SCBWI and attend conferences on a regular basis.
Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. She’s worked with Cynthia Leitich Smith as a Cynsations intern since 2016 and also serves as assistant regional advisor for the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Gayleen is represented by Andrea Cascardi of Transatlantic Literary Agency.