Guest Post: Lee Wind: From Kickstarter to Book – The Wild Roller Coaster of Publishing My Debut YA Novel

Learn more about Lee Wind

By Lee Wind
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

There’s a saying that a work of art isn’t complete until it has been witnessed.

So the book I wrote that would have completely changed my life if I’d read it as a fifteen-year-old wasn’t complete. Not until it had readers.

Over six years, the manuscript for Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill had been written and re-written, eight full revisions in all, with the final polish under the brilliant editorial direction of National Book Award-winner M.T. Anderson at a Highlights Foundation workshop. It was ready, but with no readers, it wasn’t complete.

My agent at the time told me it had been submitted, over a period of two years, to more than twenty editors. In all that time, it had only received five rejections, with the rest not even bothering to respond. No book deal meant no readers.

I didn’t doubt the merit of my story. I didn’t doubt that I’m a good writer. I did doubt the courage of traditional publishing to put out a story that would be controversial, as the novel’s hook is a closeted teen boy discovering a secret from history—that Abraham Lincoln wrote Joshua Fry Speed letters that could prove the two men were in love. Romantic love.

This doubt was strengthened by what happened to the nonfiction book for young readers that I had sold to an imprint of Simon & Schuster in 2015. The Queer History Project: No Way, They Were Gay? included five chapters on men who loved men in history, and Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Fry Speed were one of those chapters. Everything was going great until two weeks after Trump’s election, I got a phone call. Suddenly, they absolutely couldn’t publish my book.

I got the rights back in January of 2016, and my agent at the time told me it was so strong she’d sell it in three weeks… It was sent, I was told, to eight editors. Nine months passed, and no responses. Not even a “no, thank you.”

I was sure I was being preemptively banned by a traditional publishing industry too afraid to rock the cultural boat that was suddenly, with the election of our 45th President, in stormy seas.

Now I’ve been blogging about books, politics, and culture for LGBTQ kids and teens since 2007. I’m Here. I’m Queer. What The Hell Do I Read? has done well, gaining an audience across the world that’s built over time—The blog passed 2.5 million page loads in July 2018. So I thought, maybe one way to reach readers would be to post chapters on my blog.

Starting in September of 2017, over 32 weeks, I serialized the entire novel. I knew people were reading it, and I liked the idea of it being available for free, forever.

But the experience of reading the manuscript, clicking for each chapter, felt different than reading a polished, published book with copyedited text, interior design, an author’s note, discussion questions, and all the other great stuff that makes a book in your hands such a transformative experience. How could I create that? How could I reach more readers?

Lee visited with the Pasadena City College Queer Alliance in May 2018.

Publishing a book professionally is expensive. Copyediting, design, cover art, setting up printing and wholesale fulfillment—it’s thousands of dollars if you’re doing it right. $5,600 was what I needed to cover those expenses. And wouldn’t it be amazing if in addition to having the money to do that, I could have the money to donate copies of the book to LGBTQ teens, as my book is a story that could empower them?

That’s where the idea of crowdfunding came in. A friend argued with me that it sounded like a lot of work for what wasn’t in the big scheme of things that much money. Couldn’t I take a loan, or ask two or three wealthy friends?

But I loved the idea of crowdfunding being a barn-raising. Of the community coming together to not just help me professional publish Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill but to also raise enough money to donate some dramatic number (I settled on 400 copies) of the book to LGBTQ and Allied teens.

In January 2018 I launched the Kickstarter project, and we fully funded in six days! The campaign went on for a full thirty days, and by the end 182 people had donated enough money to give away 810 copies of the novel to LGBTQ and Allied teens!

Now with the funding secured, the publish date was set, and I put on my publisher hat and got to work. I sent the manuscript out asking for blurbs. I held a cover design contest. I hired a book designer. I tested out copy editors, found a great one, and had them do their thing. I printed ARCs. I submitted the book for reviews. I printed up bookmarks, and started using them instead of business cards. I signed up for marketing programs, to let librarians and the rest of the trade know about my book.

And I gave away the first 260 copies of the ARCs to LGBTQ teens at four summer sessions of Camp Brave Trails.

Lee speaking to teens at Camp Brave Trails

I got a curve ball thrown at me when on July 25, 2018 it was revealed that my agent at the time had lied about submissions, and rejections, and two book offers that were ‘pending.’ She lied to about 60 other clients as well.

The book I’d decided to crowdfund and author publish may never even have been seen by any editor! I hadn’t been preemptively banned by a publishing industry in need of courage, I’d just been preemptively screwed over by a criminally manipulative agent! (Needless to say, Danielle Smith is no longer an agent, and I’m now represented by the ethical and wonderful Marietta Zacker.)

But the train had left the station: 182 people were waiting for their copies of Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill. I’d committed to give away 810 copies to LGBTQ teens. And I was already getting strong trade reviews! Librarians were interested! I’d started booking some events! And I’d told the world that I was publishing this book. That couldn’t change now.

So Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill publishes on Tuesday October 2, 2018 (BookBaby).

It’s the story of Wyatt, who is fifteen, and nobody in his homophobic small town of Lincolnville, Oregon, knows that he’s Gay. Not even his best friend (and accidental girlfriend) Mackenzie.

Then he discovers a secret from actual history: Abraham Lincoln was in love with another guy!

Since everyone loves Lincoln, Wyatt’s sure that if the world knew about it, they would treat Gay people differently and it would solve everything about his life.

So Wyatt outs Lincoln online, triggering a media firestorm that threatens to destroy everything he cares about—and he has to pretend more than ever that he’s straight. . . . Only then he meets Martin, who is openly Gay and who just might be the guy Wyatt’s been hoping to find.

And here’s hoping it reaches readers.

Lee signing ARCs of Queer As a Five Dollar Bill
for librarians at the ALA Conference in June 2018.

Guest Post: Author Deborah Lytton & Agent Stacey Glick on Middle Grade Series Proposals

By Deborah Lytton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Thanks to Gayleen and Cyn for having us on Cynsations. It’s always such a pleasure to be here!

Today, I have asked my agent and friend, Stacey Glick to join me to discuss the Middle Grade series proposal.

Stacey is Vice President at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret Literary Management and has been my agent for over 12 years. Stacey and I share a background as child actors, although we never worked together as kids because she was on the East Coast and I was on the West Coast. 
Hi Stacey, thanks for chatting with me today.

Stacey: So happy to be here! I’m thrilled to talk about Debby, one of my favorite people, and her books!

Deborah: Thanks, Stacey. You’re one of my favorite people, too. Before we discuss books though, we have to talk about being child actors. (I’m including our acting headshots here. I really love my 80’s red vest and tie!)

How do you think your acting background helped you become a literary agent?

Deborah’s acting headshot

Stacey: I think my ability to network and schmooze with almost anyone stems from my experiences as a child actor.

That skill has served me very well in my almost 20 years as a book agent!


Deborah: That’s so true! Speaking about books, it’s so exciting to see the first book in the Ruby Starr (Sourcebooks, 2017) series released.

Creating the series proposal was such a collaborative process between us and the proposal was an effective selling tool for the manuscript.

Why do you think it helps so much?

Stacey: I think when you are talking about a series with a protagonist who has a big personality, like Ruby or Junie B. Jones (by Barbara Park, illustrated by Denise Brunkus, Random House), it’s important to map out not only the plots for the proposed books in the series, but also the characters and the arcs they will follow throughout the series.

Deborah: The first step was to come up with an idea for a book that could extend into multiple stand-alone books.

My other published books have been stand-alone titles, and I have also written some manuscripts for trilogies, but a series is really different from a trilogy where you leave certain storylines unfinished to extend the threads through the second and third books. With a series, each book stands alone and is connected through the character and the setting.

What do you think the important differences are?

Stacey: I think it’s just what you said. A series like Ruby Starr is really about a group of characters working through a very different story and set of circumstances in each book. A duology or trilogy is really one story that continues over the course of two or three books.

Stacey’s acting headshot

Deborah: Once I had the idea for the series, I wrote the complete manuscript for Book 1.

Then after you read it, you suggested writing a proposal as well. I remember it was really helpful when you sent me an outline for the proposal because it gave me an idea of what I needed to include.

There was a short synopsis of the series, a character list, a list of multiple other stories, and then a section about me.

If we were pitching the series again, would you add anything to the proposal?

Stacey: No, I think the proposal we put together was really perfect to show the scope of the series and your ability to write it. All of the components put together made for a very strong sales pitch for the series.

Deborah: You told me that I could be creative within the format and change things around if I wanted to convey the personality of my series but still create something that editors would be able to read easily.

The most flexible section was the information about the book. I used some of the wording from the manuscript and then shared my vision for the market age range for the book. I also added a section about similar books.

Why do editors and agents like to hear comparisons in order to consider a book?

Stacey: It’s so important for agents and editors to get a sense of how you see your work in the marketplace. You need to highlight books that will appeal to the same audience as your book. This will help you and your agent and publishing partner work together to effectively market and promote the books to the right audience.

Deborah: We spent a lot of time working on the books to follow the first so that the theme of the series was really consistent and the whole package focused.

What is your tip for writers who are working on a proposal without an agent to guide them?

Stacey: Do your research and find resources online. There are a lot of sample proposals available and, if you follow the guidelines you suggested above for a series proposal, including the manuscript for Book 1, it should be more than enough for agents to be able to consider the work.

Deborah: Stacey, thanks so much for chatting with me today!

Stacey: I loved it too. And hope you all have a chance to read the Ruby Star series. She’s adorable and so much fun!

Cynsations Notes


Kirkus Reviews wrote: “Peppered with references to her favorite books, Ruby’s fresh, humorous, first-person, present-tense account of her fifth-grade traumas, her real and imaginary friendships, and her supportive family rings true…amusing saga of primary-school friendships with a clever pro-reading subtext.”

Book 2 in the Ruby Starr series, The Fantastic Library Rescue and Other Major Plot Twists, is now available for pre-order and will be released May 1, 2018. Ruby and the other Unicorns are involved in a new adventure to save the school library.

Deborah Lytton is the author of Jane In Bloom (Dutton Children’s Books, 2009), which was selected for several state reading lists and chosen by Chicago Public Library as one of the Best of the Best Books of 2009. See Deborah’s Cynsations Interview About Jane in Bloom.

Her YA novel, Silence (Shadow Mountain) was a nominee for the Florida Teens Read Program. See Deborah on What’s True to You from Cynsations.

Deborah resides in Los Angeles, California with her two daughters and their Papillon, Faith. She is active in the writing and blogging community and is a member of SCBWI.

Stacey Glick joined Dystel, Goderich & Bourret in 1999 after working in film and television development for five years.

Stacey grew up just outside of Manhattan and is a former child actress who appeared on television, in theater, and in feature films. She now lives in New Jersey with her husband and four daughters (the youngest are identical twins), and enjoys cooking and baking, sipping wine and cocktails, taking pictures, shopping, theater, going to Mets games and eating chocolate, cheese and spicy tuna hand rolls (not necessarily in that order) when she can find the time.

She represents young adult, middle grade, nonfiction and picture books.

2017 Europolitan Con: Agent Penny Holroyde & Author-Illustrator Chris Mould

By Catherine Coe

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Note: This is the final installment of our series focusing on the SCBWI Europolitan Conference. Author Catherine Coe interviewed agent Penny Holroyde and her client author-illustrator Chris Mould.

Agent Penny Holroyde started her career in publishing over twenty years ago working in the rights department at Walker Books and selling picture book co-editions across the world.

She then relocated to Massachusetts and worked as Director of Rights and Licensing for Candlewick Press before relocating to the United Kingdom and starting life as an agent.

After 10 years with the Caroline Sheldon Agency she founded Holroyde Cartey in 2015 with Claire Cartey, former art director at Hodder Children’s Books.

Chris Mould was born and raised in West Yorkshire where he still lives with his family.

He is one of twenty studio artists at the prestigious Dean Clough Mills arts and business complex. His published work ranges from picture books to young fiction, and throughout a long career he has also produced theater posters, editorial cartoons for major newspapers and character development work for animated features.

Chris has won the Nottingham Children’s Book Award and the Swiss Prix Enfantaisie Best Children’s Novel Award, and has been short-listed for numerous others including the Kate Greenaway Medal and the Sheffield Children’s Book Award.

Chris is the author/illustrator of many picture books and young fiction, including the hugely successful Something Wickedly Weird series, and he also illustrates for others, such as Matt Haig‘s A Boy Called Christmas (Canongate, 2015) and The Girl Who Saved Christmas (Canongate, 2016). He occasionally shares illustrations and publishing news on blog.

Penny, can you tell us about how you and Chris first met, and what attracted you to his work?


As soon as I saw the words ‘My name is Chris Mould’ in my inbox I was looking up train times to Halifax. I would need to bring my A-game because, as a talent seeking new representation, he would not be short of suitors. I already knew I loved his work and when we met, we got along really well plus we shared the same strategy for how his career should progress.

And, Chris, what drew you to Penny?


Although Penny was an ‘ideal world’ choice for me I’d never be so presumptuous as to say I chose her because it has to be a mutual agreement of two people deciding to work together and matching up their skills. But her reputation goes before her.

She has a publishing background that means she completely understands the foundations of children’s publishing and why, when and how it works, both at home and abroad. She can wrestle a contract into the ground and she will do it in a way that shows that she’s human and enjoys working with the people that she negotiates with. She’s always 100-percent respectful of publishers and their respective teams when she talks to me privately and I like that.

But what’s hugely and equally important to me is that we get on tremendously and we’re like-minded on the creative front. You should hear us nattering in the pub. We’re like two old men.

Penny, many of your clients are illustrators and/or authors of younger fiction, such as Chris. Is this an intentional direction for you, or has it just happened that way? When considering illustrators, do you look for those who can write too, or do you find that comes later?


This does appear to have become Holroyde Cartey’s brand and although this has not been a conscious thing, it reflects my and Claire’s respective fields of interest and has actually become a kind of USP for the agency. We don’t insist that illustrators can also write though.

Chris, how did you get into children’s books? Were you an illustrator or a writer first?

Illustration was my first port of call. I was in art schools for six years after struggling through school, directionless.

When I found what I loved they couldn’t get rid of me. From then on I dived head first into publishing. But the sketchbook process is a big part of what I do and it lead to me creating written content.

I’d draw characters and give them names or just write odd sentences that floated around mid-air but that definitely had the opportunity to develop into something. It grew from there.

I always say I don’t really separate words and pictures. Integrated text and image makes for more coherent storytelling and I love the idea that the two can seamlessly merge.


Penny, in your day-to-day working life, how does teamwork play a part? 


It would be weird if 10 days went by when Chris and I didn’t talk on the phone. He is always busy so there is always stuff to discuss. Part of what I really respect about our working partnership is the trust. I might explain where I’m at with a contractual technicality and he will diligently listen and say that he trusts me to do the right thing.

We had a situation recently where he was approached for a high profile (read, celebrity) fiction series and we worked out our position, together, and stuck to it.

Chris’ work space in his Dean Clough Mills studio 

Chris, are there other partnerships – aside from illustrators, your agent and your publisher – that are important to you in your creative work?


My studio sits in a large complex which is a mixture of art and business. We have art space, galleries,
restaurants and cafes mingled with office space that is home to over 150 companies.

It’s huge and it has a great vibe and the whole idea of it initially was that it would encourage business and art to mingle and mix and enthuse one another. It works well for me and it means that there’s a certain dynamic that allows and assists inspiration, creative thinking and interesting input from people connected, and not connected, to the arts.

Sometimes inspiration comes in the form of a sandwich and a coffee in the cafe. I’m a big believer in that.

Penny, before becoming an agent, you worked in international rights (for Candlewick in the US). How has that affected what you do and how you approach agenting? Do you always think internationally?


Yes, I do, particularly when it comes to picture books. My background in rights gave me a lot of field knowledge but I learned the most about contracts, rights, and technicalities (which I think are essential skills for an agent) whilst working with Caroline Sheldon for 10 years.

Chris, your books have been translated into over 20 different languages. Do you take into account the potential for international book deals when developing ideas? 


Outside of publishing, people don’t realise how reliant we are on selling foreign rights and how small the U.K. market is. It’s not something you’d need to consider. And there are many things you’d like to ignore when you’re creating content because the whole idea of doing just that is that you can go anywhere you want to within your imagination.

But you do become conscious of what will travel and what won’t.

Pirates are a good example. Always a sure seller in the children’s market. Everlasting appeal guaranteed. And then consider the countries that have problems with modern day piracy and you can strike them off of your list of foreign rights options.

Penny, can you give us an insight into your professional mindset and what drives you as an agent?


I’m so happy to be running a business with Claire Cartey and, nearly two years in, we have some good successes and our client list is building very nicely. In terms of what drives me, I think it’s that thing of seeing a book go from a germ of an idea during a phone conversation with a client, right through to holding the finished book in my hand.

Chris, what drives you as an author/illustrator? Do you have any ambitions as yet unrealized? Is there anything you’d really love to work on/anyone you’d love to work with?


What drives me is the need (not the desire or the love of) but the need to draw and paint and tell stories.

It’s something we’ve always done. It’s as old as time and I’m endlessly fascinated by it. I always say I’d love to see something go to screen but being in this industry I am realistic. It’s about handing your work to someone else and very possibly feeling lukewarm about what comes back. So although that interests me and I’ve already got a waste bin full of popcorn on reserve, I’m acutely aware of the reality.

Also there are plenty authors I’d love to work with. I guess that’s fairly normal for most people like me. And I need to do a graphic novel.

Chris, you’re both an author and an illustrator, so in a way you’re your own partnership! Does that mean that when you’re working on a book you’re both writing and illustrating that your creative process is fairly solitary? Or do you still involve others – your agent/publisher? – and in what way? 

I’d say I’m very solitary in the early stages until I roll something out there. I’ll harbour my thoughts in my sketchbook and then it would probably extend into excited conversations over the phone with Penny.

Usually I’d send her drawings and ask her what she thinks and we will talk about why something may or may not work before she takes it anywhere. Maybe with some adjustment aforehand. Sometimes we talk about ideas before there’s any content if it happens that way. Usually this needs wine or beer.

Penny, how involved do you get with Chris’s early ideas and the development of his projects? 


When Chris and I started working together, Pocket Pirates was pretty much fully-formed and since then, he hasn’t had much time to work on his own ideas as he’s always being approached!

His sketch book is a cornucopia of delights and we keep promising each other that one of these days we’ll find a quiet corner of a pub and dig through for new ideas.

Chris, how do you find that writing informs the illustrating side of your work and vice versa? Where do you usually start when developing a new project? Do you experiment with different illustration styles depending on the concept? 

It’s back to that idea of trying not to separate words and pictures. And just letting thoughts out and not being self-conscious of what something is before it’s formed into something concrete.

I always try and start with something that just interests me. But it can be something very simple. A written line, a character, even just words that I like the sound of and start playing around with. It’s a very back to front and inside out process. So yes, in answer to your question they do inform each other and I think, subconsciously, that’s why I work in the way I work.

Penny, do you think it’s the words or the illustrations that are more important to a publisher when considering a submission from someone who does both, such as Chris?

Chris reads a lot in his free time and so he has a good gut instinct about whether a text (someone else’s) is for him when he’s offered it.

He’s currently working on a very exciting new non-fiction book that was born when a publisher saw something in his sketch book. The publisher then worked up the idea and attached a non-fiction author to it so that was a very collaboratively process.

Chris, you’re best known for your Something Wickedly Weird series. Can you tell us where the idea for that came from and how you developed the concept? 

Something Wickedly Weird was the beginning of me putting artwork and narrative together and at the time it was really just a vehicle for me to add all the elements to a story that I wanted to draw.

So, for example, I was always fascinated by all those animated sequences of people turning into werewolves in horror movies. I loved the idea of a character becoming another character within a plot.

I also loved the idea of a completely invented place away from anywhere else where anything could happen without cause for explanation. And I had to weave pirates in there just because they make for great characters and children love the sinister ones.

So it was a jumble of all the things knocking around in my sketchbook and all the nonsense in my head that I wanted to include and it became a process of weaving them into a coherent storyline.

Penny, why do you think Something Wickedly Weird has been so successful? 

A hugely likeable hero in Stanley Buggles, recognizable fantasy worlds featuring pirates and three-legged dogs, etc., the writing is strong and perfectly pitched for the age group, plus, of course, Chris’s amazing pictures.

Chris, some of your most recent work has been illustrating Matt Haig’s Christmas novels – A Boy Called Christmas and The Girl Who Saved Christmas. Can you tell us about how that came about and how the partnership works? Are there difficult things about illustrating someone else’s work? Is it easier or harder to illustrate someone else’s work because you are also a writer?


Canongate had looked around for an illustrator who would make visual sense of the Christmas books and needless to say we were very excited by the prospect when we were approached. I’d always wanted to do a book about Father Christmas and here on a plate was a ready-made tale by a significant author. And a strong one at that. A Christmas gift, in the middle of May!

Matt and Canongate are both great to work with because they weren’t prescriptive about how things should appear visually.

Sometimes authors can be very specific in this sense. That’s fine. It just means they have a clear view of the whole look of that world in their head when they’re writing. But obviously that makes the process a bit more backwards and forwards and less free for the visually creative side.

But the team embraced the visual interpretation with open arms and allowed me to develop it in the way I saw it, which was great for me and made the process all the more enjoyable.

I really believe that to get the best out of illustrators you have to let them do what they do. Myself and Matt also seem quite well matched in that we aren’t overly sentimental and we are both happy to deal with the darker side of things.

I love that his Father Christmas origin story has trolls in it. And that someone’s head explodes. Who’d have thunk it??

Someone said to me that they could tell that when my reindeers aren’t ‘in shot’, they’re round the back of the sleigh shed, having a cigarette.


Penny, can you give us your thoughts on why Chris and Matt make such a great combination?


Chris is a perfect choice for Matt’s Christmas novels and Canongate’s publishing of this franchise has been very talented. Chris is very good at portraying poignancy in dark situations, and Victoriana and the Gothic are very much his metier.


Thanks, Penny and Chris, for talking to me today and giving such interesting insights into your work. I’m very much looking forward to seeing you both at the Europolitan conference.


Catherine Coe is a children’s book editor and author with over 15 years’ experience. Having worked in-house for many years, most recently as senior commissioning editor at Orchard Books, Catherine went freelance in 2011.

Since then she has authored over 30 books, including The Owls of Blossom Wood (Scholastic, 2015), The Unicorns of Blossom Wood (Scholastic, 2016), and the Kid Cowboy (Orchard Books, 2012) series.

Editorially, Catherine’s clients include many major and independent publishers and agents, and she also works directly with writers, offering consultancy, mentoring and editing services.

When Catherine’s not reading or writing with a cup of Earl Grey in hand, you’ll most likely find her out running the waterside paths of Stockholm, the city she now calls home. On Twitter she’s @catherinecoe.

Cynsational Notes


Huge thanks and appreciation to the amazing Elisabeth Norton, for organizing, coordinating and making the SCBWI Europolitan Con series of articles possible! Without her generous assistance, we would not have been able to share these in-depth interviews with you.

Elisabeth Norton

2017 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Agent Gemma Cooper & Author Robin Stevens

Agent Gemma Cooper

By Melanie Rook Welfing
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations


Note: Gemma Cooper and Robin Stevens were interviewed by SCBWI Netherlands Regional Advisor Melanie Rook Welfing for the upcoming SCBWI Europolitan conference. This is the second in a series of six articles.

Gemma Cooper started her publishing career in New York, then spent several years working in London, and now lives in Chicago. She joined the Bent Agency in 2012, where she works with authors and author/illustrators based all over the world who write for every age of children – from picture books to young adult, fiction and non-fiction.

Gemma has a soft spot for all types of middle grade fiction, young adult romance, funny chapter books and animal protagonists. She also loves a good punny title and book with a big hook that can be summed up in one line.

Her monthly wishlist appears on the agency blog, Bent On Books and she loves working with SCBWI members.

Robin Stevens was born in California and grew up in an Oxford college, across the road from the house where Alice in Wonderland lived.

She has been making up stories all her life. When she was twelve, her father handed her a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (by Agatha Christie, William Collins, Sons, 1926) and she realised that she wanted to be either Hercule Poirot or Agatha Christie when she grew up.

She spent her teenage years at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, reading a lot of murder mysteries and hoping that she’d get the chance to do some detecting herself (she didn’t). She went to university, where she studied crime fiction, and then worked in children’s publishing.

She is now a full-time writer, and her books, the Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries, are best-selling

and award-winning. Robin lives in London with her husband and her pet bearded dragon, Watson. She’s @redbreastedbird on Twitter and Instagram and Robin Stevens on Facebook.

Gemma, you represent Robin. Can you describe the start of your relationship? What was it about Robin’s work that drew you in?

It’s always funny when I look back to the start of agent/author relationships to see how formal and business-like they are.

Of course they do continue to be professional relationships, but over time they evolve to dropping the ‘Dear Robin’ at the start of emails, to signing off with an ‘x’ – you become more informal in the way you communicate as you become more familiar with each other.

I always try to meet or video call new clients before I offer representation as I think you get a lot more out of a face-to-face chat.

So our relationship started with that first meeting – me telling Robin how much I loved her book, and then telling her all my editorial thoughts! I offered rep on the basis that she would be happy to make those changes, and asked her to take a day or so to think it over, me nervously hoping that I hadn’t said anything to make her turn me down!

I didn’t thankfully, so the next stage was me sending over my first editorial letter and a marked up manuscript. We would then have agreed a timeline for Robin sending it back to me, and probably arranged a few phone calls to discuss any questions she had during the edits.

Robin’s book was one of the first things I signed when moving to the Bent Agency, and as a massive murder mystery fan, it was exactly the book I was looking for. I remember being sucked into the voice from page one – Hazel saying she is much too short to be the heroine.

I got to page 10 and forwarded it to my colleague Molly Ker Hawn saying ‘This book is amazing, right?’

I just knew it was special and that I loved it – that terrible unhelpful agent saying of “you just know when you know.” So the voice pulled me in, and mystery kept me turning the pages.


Robin, what prompted you to query Gemma?


Robin wins the Waterstone Prize

I queried Gemma for one huge reason: she was looking for the book I’d written!

She’d made a list on the Bent Agency website of all of the projects that she’d most love to see in her inbox, and one of them was basically ‘Poirot for 8-12 year olds, a historical mystery story’.

I’d already sent Murder Most Unladylike (Corgi, Random House, 2014) to several agents, but I’d never seen anyone who so clearly was interested in the kind of book I was working on.

I knew Gemma was the agent for me – and I hoped that she’d feel the same way.

When she asked to meet with me, I was just as nervous as she was. But I saw that she got my book, and had amazing ideas of what to do with it. And she was clearly a smart, driven businesswoman, too.

I was confident she’d do right by me, and I knew she was someone who I’d be happy working with. And I’ve been proven totally correct!

At the Europolitan Conference in Brussels you will both participate in a panel on “Working Together: Relationships.” What does working together as an author and agent entail?

Gemma: Nearly every part of the publishing process has the agent and author in discussion first before coming to a consensus on a response to external parties. We discuss edits, covers, publicity, marketing, events, next book deals, new ideas, foreign offers, etc.

Working together really means just that – I’m involved in everything Robin is involved in. Even if I’m just cc’ed into an email, I still know what is going on. We tend to talk once a week, and email every few days, depending on what is going on.

Robin: I work very closely with Gemma on all aspects of my books. We don’t just talk about edits, we discuss covers, marketing and publicity directions, foreign offers – she’s my sense-check and my sounding-board, and helps me feel like I’m not in this on my own.

Authoring can be a strange and confusing business, so it’s wonderful to have an agent to turn to!

Has anything surprised you in this relationship?

Gemma: I introduced Robin to her husband!

Gemma Cooper & her clients, Ruth Fitzgerald, Mo O’Hara
Harriet Reuter Hapgood and Robin Stevens 

Something that I’m not surprised at, but that I’m very grateful for, is how Robin and my other clients are all now friends.

They cheer each other on and cheer each other up when things aren’t going well. Seeing them all congratulating each other on a book deal or prize on social media really makes me smile.

This team/collegial approach is something I’d dreamed of fostering, but in the competitive nature of publishing, I’d worried it couldn’t work. To have it work so well is a constant pleasure to watch.

Robin: It’s true! Through Gemma I’ve met friends, colleagues and, as she says, even my husband (thanks, Gemma! I owe you). Being part of Team Cooper is a lifestyle, not just a book deal, and I’m so proud of the way we all support each other.

How has it developed or changed since you first started working together?

Gemma: As mentioned above, we have a very easy style of communication now. The whole relationship is comfortable and familiar!

That means when harder conversations need to happen, there is no awkwardness or treading on eggshells. We are honest with each other and have become friends over the last four years.

Of course, there is a fine line keeping professional boundaries, but I feel we navigate that well.

Robin: Absolutely. We’re able to be honest with each other, which is really helpful. We know each other very well.

A good agent should be for life, not just for Christmas, and this is why – your relationship will improve with every project you work on together. But you do always have to remember that you’re professional friends: an agent is a colleague, not a member of your family, no matter how much you chat on WhatsApp!

Gemma, I’ve read in another interview that you like taking a hands-on, editorial approach with your authors. What are some of the challenges with that? Do you ever disagree on editorial matters, and if so, how do you resolve them? Robin, your thoughts?


Gemma: Yes, I’m a very editorial agent. It’s a hard market, so my aim is always to get a book in the best shape I can before sending it to publishers.

Gemma at Bologna Children’s Book Fair
with foreign editions of Robin’s books

I tell potential new clients my editorial thoughts before offering rep, so if there is something they are
not keen on they can walk away or find another agent who is a better fit for their vision.

I have to go into meetings with the confidence that this is the best book ever, so I have to believe that. The challenge sometimes is time – a good editorial letter takes a big chunk of a week to craft, and then the author has to take time to edit. So when you take someone on, you might not be submitting their project for 3-6 months, sometimes even longer.

If I do disagree with a client on editorial matters, ultimately it’s still their name on the book, so I will defer to them.

It’s a subjective business, and I’m not always right! If it were a bigger issue and I didn’t feel I could confidently sub the book, we might talk about the future of our relationship. The editorial process, like so many other parts of the journey, is all about communication.

Robin: I’ve always been reassured by Gemma’s directness.

If she doesn’t like a project idea, or a plot line, or a character, she will say. So you really do know when she’s behind your work! She gives me feedback on my first drafts, and gets very hands-on with shaping the plot. However, she never insists on a particular change being made. She can suggest strongly, but at the end of the day we both know that it is my book.

I can’t recall any time when I’ve really ignored her comments, though! She has a great eye for what works, and why.

Robin, you will be leading the keynote on “Better Together,” on how your writing has improved with every new connection you’ve made. How has your partnership with Gemma improved your writing? Gemma, your thoughts?

Gemma and Natalie Doherty (Robin’s editor)
visiting MMU in the shops on publication week

Robin: Gemma has been my introduction to the world of publishing.

Without her I’d never have found my editor, my publishers and my readers – it’s just impossible to over-estimate how much a good agent can change your life. But in terms of Gemma herself … she was the first person who forced me to think about my writing as being for a specific audience.

Murder Most Unladylike was 80,000 words when she first saw it, just because no one had ever told me that I needed to make sure that I was telling an exciting story as well as creating nice scenes.

She helped me cut the slack and remind me that I’m writing to entertain. She loves my characters as much as I do, and so she wants the best for them (and me).

She’s an invaluable voice, critical in the best way – I know that she won’t ever flatter me for the sake of it, and so I trust her judgment implicitly!

Gemma: Robin is so great at taking feedback, thinking it over, and then responding to it thoughtfully.

So often the gut reaction can be to go on the defense when receiving critical feedback. But Robin learnt early on that my feedback is given in the spirit of wanting to make the book stronger. Because of how she responds, I never have to worry about how I phrase things – I know I can be honest and she understands and doesn’t take it personally. It makes it a quicker process for me.

Her first drafts now are a world away from that 80,000-word version of Murder Most Unladylike. She’s learned so much, and improved with every book.

Getting to read her first drafts so early when I know her fans are chomping at the bit is one of the best benefits of my job!

Robin Stevens visiting Trafalgar Primary School

What other partnerships are essential to the aspiring author? And how best can those meaningful connections be made? (Conferences? Social media? Critique partners?)


Robin: I think it’s crucial to be part of the publishing world, but never to be totally lost in it.

Conferences, launch parties and social media can all help you find the support network that every author needs. Make sure you have trusted critique partners, mentors (authors who are further along than you in their publishing careers) and peers (authors who you can share stories of woe or triumph).

Celebrating the American publication of Robin’s first book with
Gemma’s clients Harriet Reuter HapgoodSibeal PounderBeth Garrod & Robin

Remember that no one will ever have exactly the same publishing trajectory as you, and so comparing yourself closely to anyone else will end in despair, but it’s vital to keep talking to people who share your strange career!

If you are under contract with a publishing house, try to keep speaking to them and communicating questions and ideas.

My attitude is that my publishers are my colleagues – by working together closely we can produce the best results. There’s nothing to be gained by not talking through issues!

And finally, stay connected to your family and your non-publishing friends. Sometimes you need a break and a perspective check, and they’re the only people who can provide that.

Gemma: I agree with all of this. It’s important that you make connections in the publishing world, but you still need your own life outside of it.

I love groups like SCBWI for new and published authors alike, especially their conferences. You can also reach out to other clients of your agent’s, or other authors at your publishers – if you are nice and collegial in your support of others, they will support you.

Critique partners are a godsend, even once you are published. Everyone should have at least one crit partner!

Cynsational Notes

At the age of 12 Melanie Rook Welfing’s life ambition was to be part-time author, part-time roller skater. The skating dreams died, along with the 80s hair, but the author dream lives on.

Melanie writes primarily for middle graders and has had stories published in Highlights and other magazines.

Originally from Canada, Melanie now lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two daughters. She is the Regional Advisor for SCBWI in the Netherlands.