Wearing Two Hats: Editors & Agents Who Write: Editor Frances Gilbert & Agent John Cusick

By Helen Kampion

Spotlight image: agent John Cusick signing a contract

Most of us think that agents and editors just do agenting or editing. But what if they are also writers? Does this make a difference how our work is viewed? Evaluated? This three-part series asks agents and editors to share their thoughts and experiences on wearing two hats.

Teddy and Jack, Frances’ editorial assistants

Frances Gilbert is the Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Double Day Books for Young Readers. She has authored numerous children’s books including, Go, Girls, Go!, illustrated by Allison Black (Beach Lane, 2019) and Too Much Slime!, illustrated by Vin Vogel (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2021).

What lessons have you learned from your own writing that affect your editing? How do these lessons influence your consideration of potential clients/authors?

After becoming a picture book writer for the first time with Go, Girls, Go!, published by Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster, I realized what a journey it can be. Getting your first offer of a book deal, finding out which illustrator you’ll be working with, seeing sketches and final art for the first time, the nervousness of the weeks and days leading up to publication – it’s all quite emotional. (And fun, of course.) It’s made me more empathetic to what writers experience along the way.

What have you been most surprised to learn as an author/editor?-From your experience, what tips would you like to share with early career writers?

Prior to being a published author, I don’t think I fully understood how much time I’d need to promote my own book. I spent all my evenings working on publicity: contacting people on social media to ask them to feature it, writing to booksellers to let them know it was coming out, creating activity sheets, maintaining a strong Twitter presence, and setting up in-store events. For the months leading up to publication, it feels like a second job. I’ve enjoyed it all along the way, but the hundreds of details and things to follow up on were intense!

Thank goodness for spreadsheets. It’s made me much less hesitant to expect this of my authors, too. If I can do it, so can you! Working hard to help get the word out about your book is a big part of the job.

We all have professional self-doubts. How does self-doubt show up for you as an editor? As a writer? Do you manage them differently?

As an editor, sometimes I worry I’ll never find another great manuscript to acquire again, when many weeks and even months have passed and I haven’t found anything I want to publish. And as a writer, I often wonder where and when my next idea will come from, as they seem to fall out of the sky.

So I suppose those are opposite sides of the same coin; writers are trying to come up with fresh ideas for new stories, and editors are waiting for those stories to come over the transom.

What are you working on now that you’d like us to know about?

I have a new picture book coming out next May with Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster called Can You Hug a Forest?, gorgeously illustrated by Amy Hevron. It’s a love letter to trees, leaves, flowers, ferns, wind, water, and everything else that makes up a forest. It’s soothing and gentle but also asks a reader to get up and stomp around a bit, so I can’t wait to read it to groups of kids at my local indie bookstores.

John Cusick is a Literary Agent & Vice President at Folio Literary Management. He is the author of the humorous and futuristic middle grade series Dimension Why #1: How to Save the Universe Without Really Trying (HarperCollins, 2020) and Dimension Why #2: Revenge of the Sequel (HarperCollins, 2021).

What lessons have you learned from your own writing that affect your editing/agenting? How do these lessons influence your consideration of potential clients/authors?

Being a writer has a major impact on my editing and agenting style. On one level, it effects how I think about the editorial process. I try not just to make critiques but to understand what the writer was intending and if or how it might have gone wrong. I also know how it feels to bring a project from idea to final draft, to see that project go out into the world, and to field both criticism and praise for it. Sometimes this allows me to know what writers need to hear without them asking for it, or to intuit when tough love or encouragement are called for.

Being able to empathize with the joys and anxieties of the writing life makes me a more sensitive and effective agent—at least I hope!

We all have professional self-doubts. How does self-doubt show up for you as an agent/editor?

Ooh boy, there’s lots of self-doubt in agenting! You stay afloat as an agent only if you correctly anticipate which projects editors will buy, so there can be some anxiety that goes into that client selection process. With each new client, agents gamble dozens of hours of potentially unpaid efforts, in the hope that the project they’ve taken on will sell for enough money to justify their investment.

Every time an editor rejects a project I’ve submitted, I feel it. Just like when someone rejects my writing, it can eat away at your confidence. It stinks! But you’ve got to pick yourself up and move on. Every New York Times bestseller I’ve represented was rejected by somebody. So you keep going and do your best to trust your own taste.

As a writer? Do you manage them differently?

Ironically, being an agent has sort of cured my artistic insecurities. The reason is, I feel like I have a pretty solid professional opinion of my own writing. Which is to say: it’s pretty good! It’s not great, it’s not genius, it’s not world-changing, and in some passages it can be bit hacky. But in other ways it’s above average— I think I’m pretty darn funny when I want to be, and that’s not easy! So for better or worse, agenting has given me the measure of my writer self. I’m no longer insecure, because I know pretty much exactly where I stand. But that’s not to say I don’t strive to improve.

John’s home office

How has being an editor/agent influenced your own writing?

Being an agent totally changed my approach to writing novels. When I was younger, I wrote with the aim of creating something complex and “good”—whatever that meant. I suppose I wanted my fiction to be studied in college classrooms one day. But being an agent taught me that novels are gifts. They’re beautiful surprises and puzzle boxes intended to create a moving and compelling experience for a reader.

The moment you start to think of your novels as a gift for someone else is the moment you begin writing with your reader in mind. That’s the benefit of working in publishing— my eye is always on the reader and their experience.

Beyond making me a less self-involved writer, this also taught me to write intentionally— that is, with a particular reaction in mind. How do I want my reader to feel in this scene? What information do I want them to come away with? What is the tone or atmosphere that I want them to experience without even realizing it? These are the questions I ask when tackling a scene, the same questions an editor or agent would ask.

What are the pros and cons of wearing two hats for you? For your publisher/agency?

The pros are easy: as a writer I’m better able to empathize with my clients, their goals, their anxieties, and their experience within the industry. Being a writer, creating novels, it isn’t always a logical or rational process, and it helps to have an agent who’s been through the ups and downs themselves. I remember one writer whose novels suffered because nothing exciting ever happened in them.

As a fellow storyteller, I could tell the author was blocked because she loved her characters so much, she didn’t want anything bad to happen to them. After realizing this was the cause of her issue, the writer was able to change her thinking and raise the drama of her stories. I think I was able to help her identify this problem because I’ve had the same one myself.

The downside is, working in publishing, seeing how the sausage is made, takes the romance and (I’ll admit) some of the joy out of being a writer. Writing is a glorious thing– an art form. Publishing, on the other hand, is a business, and one that often mistreats and exploits artists. So I would say the ultimate downside to wearing two hats is it can easily make you cynical. But that’s another reason why I love working with writers! Their energy and enthusiasm keeps me optimistic for the future of our business.

What have you been most surprised to learn as an agent/editor?

In the early days, I was amazed at how much editorial work was done on projects after the author had “completed” their own draft. Before publishing, I was under the impression that people typed “The End” on the last page, and they were pretty much finished. How wrong I was! Really, the drafting process is at best 50% of the workload— the rest is revising with the input of others: your critique partners, your agent, your editor, your copy editors, etc. And they call writing solitary!

From your experience, what tips would you like to share with early career writers? With early career publishing agents and editors? With anyone considering wearing the two hats that you wear?

Firstly, don’t quit your day job, even if you get a big six figure (or higher!) advance. The reason is: publishing is fickle, and a great big deal today may not mean you’re still selling new books in five or ten years’ time. You want a more stable day job running in the background, just in case.

Today, writers need to be flexible. To stay under contract, most authors end up writing in multiple categories, maybe starting out in YA and then branching into middle-grade or adult.

Be ready to write in different categories, and to scrap or shelve projects you love when they’re not working. Flexibility, a willingness to pivot, and seriously thick skin are important tools for any aspiring writer—or agent, for that matter.

What is the biggest surprise of wearing two hats?

For me, it’s a change in perspective. In college, I saw a book deal as a sign I was a Good Writer. But that’s not really what they are. Publishing isn’t patronage, nor is it an artistic institution. It’s a business, and a deal with a publisher is no more or less than a contract with a company that believes it can make money selling your intellectual property. If you can approach your writing business with this perspective, you can avoid a lot of the pitfalls. Be reverent with your writing, and mercenary about your publishing.

What are you working on now that you’d like us to know about? Feel free to answer with either/both hats.

Right now I’m (very slowly) working on a new middle-grade novel about a theme park, which is a lot of fun and keeps my writer brain occupied. In terms of client stuff, YA fans should keep an eye out for Joan He’s jaw-dropping new historical fantasy, Strike The Zither, which came out October 25th, 2022, from Roaring Brook Press. And if you’re in the mood for something more adult, Julie Murphy and Sierra Simone’s spicy rom-com A Merry Little Meet Cute was just released from Avon. Check ‘em out!

Helen Kampion writes poetry, picture books, and middle grade novels. She has published stories in magazines and written non-fiction articles for The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance (NCBLA, where she serves as Treasurer.

In addition to an MBA from Boston University, Helen holds an MFA in WCYA from Vermont College. Her debut picture book bio, co-authored with fellow Vermont College grad, Renee Lyons, is scheduled for launch Fall 2024 by Sleeping Bear Press. She lives with her husband and two cats (her “mews”) in Massachusetts. When she is not scribbling away, you will find her curled up with a book, a cat, and a nice hot cup of tea.