|Linda at Cliffs of Moher
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
You’re a writer and an agent. Let’s start with Writer You. How did you come to literature for young readers?
When I was in middle school, I was obsessed with YA, like R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series (St. Martin’s Griffin), Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High books (Bantam), and L.J. Smith’s Night World series (Simon Pulse).
The YA section used to be a lot smaller, so I think I burned through most of them at Walden Books way back when! I tried my hand at typing up my own stories set in the wilds of high school, but never finished them.
I soon moved into the adult section of the store, and years later, got my first job on the adult side at Penguin. I enjoyed my time there, but one day I found myself going through my childhood book collection and wondering why I hadn’t even considered children’s book publishing. I loved the books I was working with, but children’s books were more special to me. Once that train of thought started, there was no stopping it!
After much job hunting and waiting, Random House children’s books called and I made the jump.
Describe your apprenticeship and the types of stories that call to you.
My tastes are broad and I have a varied background at different houses. My first job at Penguin was in production under the Berkley/Jove/Ace/Riverhead imprints, so that was a healthy dose of genre fiction with some literary fiction. After some time, I left Penguin when I briefly toyed with the idea of law school. I missed publishing, however, so to get back in, I interned and rotated through the departments at Dorchester, Simon and Schuster, Random House, and Writers House literary agency.
Luckily, Random House children’s eventually took pity and hired me to work on marketing picture books all the way through young adult titles, which is where I’ve been the last five years.
I have to say, I do skew toward darker books, ones that reflect the human condition in all its ugliness and beauty. Ones that make my heart pound or tear it right out in the telling. Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls (Walker, 2012), Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now (Wendy Lamb, 2004), Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone (Henry Holt, 2012), and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (Knopf, 2006), come to mind as examples.
You are a graduate of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Why did you pursue an MFA?
I knew I wanted to get my graduate degree in something I was really passionate about. I considered getting my MFA to continue building my editing skills, but wasn’t interested in pursuing one at a program that denigrated genre fiction (which, unfortunately, most do).
It wasn’t until I picked up a copy of Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt (Front Street, 2006) that I noticed her author bio mentioned the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
I then started seeing that VCFA name in the dedication pages of other books, a few of which Random House published. I reached out the admissions folks, and after that, VCFA was the only place I wanted to go. It was a happy day when they accepted me!
What did you gain from the experience?
Like all writers, I was a reader first. I had a gut instinct for what worked in a story, especially as I got hands-on experience in the publishing world; however, I wasn’t always great at articulating those impressions. VCFA really pushed me me to pinpoint what was working (or not) in a manuscript.
It was an intensive two years of craft boot camp. I became much stronger in providing editorial feedback—not to mention, I became a much better writer in the process.
Beyond that practical aspect, I made the most wonderful colleagues and friends at VCFA, ones that I know will be with me for the rest of my life.
What would you say to someone considering an MFA in writing for young readers?
Depending on your goals and means, I would encourage it. Is an MFA necessary for publication? Definitely not. If publication is your only aim, I’d steer clear of the MFA.
If, however, you’re also looking to improve your craft and/or teach writing, I highly recommend it.
And if you didn’t already have it, you’ll gain a supportive writing community and build confidence in yourself as a writer.
In terms of financial means, I found the low-residency format beneficial because I could continue working while I studied. Some programs offer financial assistance and scholarships, so potential applicants should reach out to admissions to learn their options.
How about Agent You? What inspired you to take on this additional career?
I did an internship at Writers House years ago and that was the beginning, really. Before that, I had only been interested in editorial (like many people trying to break into the industry).
I didn’t know much about agenting, but boy did I learn! I took any job I could to get my foot in the door and learned so much about the different publishing departments, but ultimately, I always knew I would settle into an editorial/agenting role. Agenting feels like a better fit for me because I’m not tied to an imprint like editors are. I can acquire anything that catches my eye.
Could you tell us about the history of the Prospect Agency? How has the agency changed over time?
Emily Sylvan Kim is the owner who, after working six wonderful years at Writers House literary agency, decided to hang up her own shingle. Her mission was to provide top-notch representation and a warm community for authors and illustrators, and she has certainly done that these past ten years.
Prospect Agency has grown tremendously and I anticipate that upward trajectory continuing.
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 “Prospect” or for a widely diversified body of work from your client base?
Prospect is very open-minded in terms of representation, so I’m looking for a high quality, diversified body of work. My tastes range from picture books to young adult, from clean and lighthearted contemporary to edgy and dark fantasy. And I’d love to see diverse stories of all types (ethnicity, disability, sexuality, etc.).
My focus is on genre fiction (romance, horror, fantasy, realistic, light sci-fi, and graphic novels), namely in the middle grade and YA age ranges. I’ll also be taking on literary fiction with commercial appeal (à la Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion 2012), I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson (Dial, 2014), or When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb, 2009)), along with very select picture book projects (both writers and illustrators).
I’m not looking for early readers/chapter books or standalone short stories.
To get a better idea of what I like, on my Prospect Agency page, I’ve included a list of titles that are dream representations.
What makes Prospect different from other literary agencies?
Prospect is a boutique agency of six women who really do embody Emily’s mission statement of creating a warm community. The agents not only advocate strongly for their clients, but they do so in a positive way.
When the editors at Penguin Random House learned I was going to be an agent at Prospect, I only heard wonderful things said about the agents there. And that says a lot—not only are they successful, but they’re actually a pleasure to work with.
Why should an unpublished but competitive writer consider querying Prospect (and you specifically)?
Prospect Agency is staffed with publishing professionals who are very experienced and open to a broad range of genres. They all have either big five publishing experience or Writers House experience (owner Emily Sylvan Kim used to be agent there).
I’m a new agent, but I’ve been in the business a decade and am being mentored every step of the way.
I’ve seen publishing from just about every angle—publicity, marketing, production, editorial, writing—and it will help me advise my clients about the process.
Want to know what goes on in an acquisitions or launch meeting? Want to know what a standard marketing plan is? Want to know about NetGalley, metadata, or the annoyingly complicated process of cover reveals? If so, I’m your girl! I can give them the inside look at what occurs even beyond the editorial and marketing screens.
How about established authors who, for whatever reasons, finds themselves without representation?
I’d repeat everything I said above. It really depends on what an established author is seeking out of their next partnership, but I’m flexible and can devote the time in helping take his/her career to the next level.
From my years in publishing, I have many editor friends to whom I can already reach out personally, so I’m not coming into this without support.
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?
It’s understandable that children’s-YA authors and illustrators used to question the need, especially since they might wonder if agents are worth the 15% domestic commission. I would advise getting an agent, especially if an author would prefer to be traditionally published.
At the big publishing houses, editors don’t generally accept manuscripts that aren’t submitted by an agent (there are exceptions, but even if it results in an offer, you’d need to go back and get an agent to proceed with publication).
An author can certainly score a publishing contract at an indie press without an agent, but is he sure that he’s getting the best deal possible when signing on the dotted line?
Publishing houses aren’t actively trying to take advantage of authors, but they are part of big business and do want to get the best deal possible on their end, sometimes to the detriment of the author.
Now, an agentless author can hire a publishing attorney to look over the contract for each deal. If the author wants to do it that way, there isn’t anything wrong with it. It’s just that (and clearly I’m biased) a good agent is a counselor/manager that can help guide the author throughout the course of his career.
A good agent can also be the bad cop who crosses the I’s and dots the T’s while the author gets to be the good cop who smiles and focuses on the creative aspects.
Still, there are those authors who are more hands on and want to handle every single aspect of their career and publishing process. If that’s the case, I encourage smart self-publishing and indie press publishing. It might work better for some than others (I would say that it works best depending on genre—romance writers do better with this, at least on the self-publishing end.)
Personally, if I ever decide to publish, I’m getting an agent of my own. But that’s because I know my own needs. Authors and illustrators need to know themselves as they figure out the best course to take. Word of caution, though: No agent is better than a bad agent. so do your research!
To what degree do you do career framing and consultation with your clients?
|Sweet treats from Linda’s pantry!
I anticipate working closely with my clients, so beyond editorial feedback and submission check-ins, I’m absolutely available for career consultation. I’m ideally taking on a client for the course of his career, not on a project-by-project basis. I’m available for project brainstorming sessions, marketing tips, and encouragement as they traverse the wilds of publishing.
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?
I’m on Facebook and Twitter, so I would be promoting my clients on those platforms. Other than that, I’m not in this business to be a star. My clients are the stars and I’m there to support and foster them in the background.
We’ve corresponded about your strong interest in the current discussion around diversity in youth literature. What are your thoughts about where we are now, where we’re going, and how we can best get there? How do you see yourself fitting in the conversation?
I’m so excited about the ongoing discussion! I’m aware that it isn’t a new one, but it’s really cresting and I’m proud to be part of the wave of diverse people in the publishing realm. Things are improving, slowly but surely (and certainly not without a few missteps), and I remain optimistic about the future.
It’s a complicated issue with no clear cut method of engagement, considering that the disparity affects industry folks and consumers at every level—the writers, agents, editors, marketers, publicists, production staff, sales reps, booksellers, readers, and everyone else in between. Still, so long as there is increasing awareness about the lack of diversity, steps can be taken and matters can only improve.
There really needs to be recruitment outside of the typical channels (nepotism or people in the know) and outreach to people in diverse communities. I’m a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx and I never had any exposure to writers or publishing people. And I was a big reader who frequented the library constantly!
Still, I was completely unaware of publishing as a career. Even in college, I didn’t quite connect my love of reading into a job beyond writing, and even that didn’t seem feasible. If a human resources person (a person of color and fellow Cornellian) hadn’t taken an interest and steered me towards publishing, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
To be clear, I understand that diversity goes beyond ethnicity. It spans religion, sexuality, gender, and physicality, extending to anyone who finds himself underrepresented in the stories being told.
As a matter of fact, my masters thesis was related to my desire as a plus-sized woman to see characters of size portrayed without the stereotypical weight loss journey, titled “The Anti-Ugly Duckling Tale: Fat Protagonists Who…Stay Fat?”
I’m looking to get even more diverse writers published, so I’m keeping a weather eye out for those narratives. And they don’t need to be issue books. As Matt de la Peña wondered in his 2014 CNN.com article “Where’s the African-American Harry Potter or the Mexican Katniss,” that’s what I’d like to know!
How do Writer You and Agent You inform each other?
Before my MFA program, my marketing brain dominated.
Now, though? I have more sympathy for the difficult writing process and better comprehend the need to tell the story you’re burning to tell. As I read submissions, I’m not only asking myself: Will this sell? That’s an important question I do take into account, but it it’s no longer the question since I’ve already turned down some marketable projects.
An even bigger question for me is: Do I love it?
Trends change with the wind, but the projects I love? Those grab hold of me for good.