Interview with Agent Elizabeth Bennett

IMG_3124Elizabeth Bennett is an agent at Jill Corcoran Literary Agency. She represents fiction and non-fiction children’s books and has experience in nearly every facet of the publishing industry. She also represents graphic novels. She is currently closed to submissions, but has kindly agreed to accept submissions from readers of this post for a limited time. [Submissions are now closed.]

Thank you, Elizabeth!

You’ve worn several hats in the publishing world, editorial, marketing, product development, author, and now agent. How have all these roles informed your work as an agent?

Ah yes, at this point in my career I feel a bit like the man in Caps for Sale, balancing a tall stack of hats on my head. Each of the hats I’ve worn has made me that much more capable as an agent. As an author, I know what if feels like to feel passionate about your work and determined to find the right home for it. As an editor, I know how to negotiate the acquisition process with compassion for both the publishing house and the writer. I’ve been in the industry long enough to know that while trends and technology change, there is always a path for true quality and innovative thought to find a way to the market.

You dealt with franchise development at HMH, and wrote books for the DocMcStuffins, Hello Kitty, and Clifford franchises, among others. Are you primarily focused on representing books that have series potential?

No, I’m open to stand-alone titles as well as books with series potential. My years at Scholastic and HMH have given me a good sense of the market for series, and I have a sweet spot for a book that that can pull a reluctant reader over the hump and leave him/her looking for the next title in the series. But I’m also interested in good stand-alone manuscripts.

When you read a manuscript from a potential client, what are you looking for?

The market has gotten so tight, it is harder and harder for new authors to break through. I am looking for ideas that are truly unique or writing that stops me in my tracks.

Do you have any tips for writers in the querying stage that will help them rise to the top of the slush?

When I’m open to submissions, I’ll admit to eyeballing everything I receive. But a poorly written query letter, with typos or false claims, will not get more than a passing glance. Convince me that your query is worth taking the time to consider. And while most queries are from first time authors, show me that you know the market, that you have done research and reading in your genre, that you know your competition.

You represent picture books, board books, novelty, graphic novels, middle grade and YA. Which is the hardest to sell? Why do chapter books need to have series potential to break out, unlike other categories of children’s lit?

As the market changes, categories move in and out of favor. For a while, everyone was looking for YA. Recently we are hearing a call for middle grade. And lately, I’ve had some success selling picture books and non-fiction.

Chapter books don’t have to have series potential for success, and in fact, I’m finding editors reluctant to commit to more than one title in a proposed series from the onset. But knowing that a book has series potential can certainly be a plus. Once a title has found an audience, there’s nothing better than keeping that audience wanting more.

Let’s talk about graphic novels for a moment. They seem to be a bit of buzz these days in publishing circles—the market at least, seems to be pushing for more of them. Why do you think that is?

It could be that this generation of kids, who have been raised with more and more screen time, are drawn toward the more visual input of a graphic novel. But I like to think that we are seeing a surge in graphic novels simply because we have better graphic novels (and talented graphic novelists) in the market.  They have such broad appeal – satisfying both reluctant and prolific readers. And there really is something satisfying about seeing a story unfold before your eyes panel by panel.

Is there a particular age group that’s seeing more of a surge in graphic novel interest than others?

In middle grade, there is a call for contemporary and slice of life stories. But we are also hearing editors looking for more mature and #ownvoices material in YA. The graphic novel format is an excellent way to draw readers into topics that might otherwise be overwhelming. I was first introduced to graphic novels when I read Maus. Who would have thought that a Holocaust story could be told through comics, yet it was one of the most compelling and approachable series I’ve ever read.

Graphic novels for non-fiction seems to be a thing too—although it seems to be a bit of a squishy area to call some of them ‘non-fiction.’ I recently tried to find Smile for my daughter and had to look in the non-fiction section of the graphic novel section. What types of ‘non-fiction’ projects lend itself to graphic novel format? Is this something publishers/agents want to see more of?

Well, the fact that your bookstore had a non-fiction graphic novel section speaks to how big the genre has become. I moonlighted as a bookseller a few years back (another one of the caps I’m balancing on my head), and we shelved Smile along with the Peanuts and Garfield books. A comic was seen as a comic.

Though, I’m with you in finding the definition confusing. There’s a big difference between a history or science book with graphic illustrations and a memoir like Smile which really reads like a novel. And speaking of Smile, it really did open the door for acceptance of graphic novels in mainstream literature. And yes, I do believe that publishers are looking for more memoir-type graphic novels.

Would you ever consider a graphic novel text from an author who was not also an illustrator?

Yes, but it’s really hard to do well.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to produce graphic novels?

All of the graphic novelists I represent have honed their skill with web comics. They’ve learned how to develop characters, plot, and pace. And they have established followers and fans.

Is there a market for illustrated middle grade? The Invention of Hugo Cabret certainly put that idea on the map, but I’m curious if that’s an anomaly or something you see opening up?

Well, there is also the Diary of a Wimpy Kid type of illustrated middle grade. I do see increased interest in this category. Hugo is more in a category of its own and would require a really unique kind of special sauce to replicate.

If you were open to submissions, what would you want to have on your desk immediately?

I continue to hope to find a great early chapter book series. I believe there is a gaping hole between early readers and middle grade. If we can pull kids in as readers at the point they are becoming confident, independent readers, we have them for life.

Will you be open to submissions in the future? If so, where can people go to find out when?

At the moment, I am focusing my energy on supporting the clients I have, but I do expect to be open again soon. I encourage folks to check back from time to time as I will update my status as my schedule settles down.

And if there’s anything else you want to add, please feel free!

One of the most refreshing things I’ve discovered with my agent cap on is the number of passionate, talented writers out there. I continue to be blown away by the dedication and determination of writers and the fresh ideas they generate.

Thank you, Elizabeth, for your in-depth answers!

Submissions are now closed. For further updates on when Elizabeth opens again, please visit her bio on JCLA’s site.

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Interview with Author Pam Calvert

pam5Pam Calvert is a former science teacher turned award-winning children’s author. She’s best known for her Princess Peepers series, but recently launched her new chapter book series Brianna Bright Ballerina Knight, illustrated by Liana Hee. Pam has mentored other writers through the Writing With the Stars mentorship program and through her own informative site, Woven With Pixie Dust. Pam has two character-driven series under her belt and a soon-to-be-third underway. She’s joined us to talk about characters. Thank you, Pam!

What made Princess Peepers a character that could translate across several stories?

She’s a quirky character that has a personality. If you don’t know your character, you can’t write more stories about them. Princess Peepers loves everyone no matter what they look like or who they are. They could be an ugly troll or a tiny dragonfly, she’ll love it. Which is quite different from many people who put labels on things. And that comes through the stories. She also is a people pleaser, which is one of her faults. Your character must have flaws they have to work through to make a story—this causes problems, something every story must have! Also, PP always loses her glasses, one way or another, and this allows for comedic situations that make children laugh when she can’t see what’s going on. Put all that together on top of some of her silly catch phrases, and you have a good series character! 

With Brianna Bright, did you purposefully plan to have a character driven series and if so, how did you go about crafting her in a way from the beginning to ensure that she could last across a series? 

I did. My editor came to me and asked if I could write a strong girl book. She wanted a commercial book, too, which lends itself to series. 

Calvert-BriannaBrightBallerinaKnight-21431-JK-FL-v4.inddSo…I knew ballet books were very popular with girls, and Two Lions didn’t have one. But I wanted to do something different. At the time, I was reading and watching Game of Thrones. Arya Stark, one of the characters, was this strong princess type character that didn’t want to be in frilly dresses. She wanted to be a knight like her brothers (they didn’t call them this in the story but that’s basically what they are.) That gave me the idea to make my ballerina princess into a knight as well. I worked backward to create the story with what if’s…what if a clumsy ballerina also wanted to become a knight? What would happen? How would she go about finding her way? Then the story basically wrote itself. 

The key to a great story is an even greater idea. Giving my ballerina princess a sword had never been done before. Sure, there’s princess knights out there, but there’s only ONE princess ballerina knight. That’s Brianna Bright. Continue reading

Interview with Artist Mark Swan

markswanYou’ve probably seen Mark Swan’s name a dozen times, but didn’t know it. As an animator for over 30 years, he’s worked for Walt Disney Studios, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros. and MGM, among others. Some of his credits include An American TailLand Before Time I, II, III, IVSpace JamA Goofy MovieAll Dogs Go To HeavenRock-A-DoodleThumbelinaA Troll In Central ParkCats Don’t Dance, The Princess and the Pea, and for t.v., Thundarr the BarbarianThe Incredible Hulkand The Smurfs. His work has taken him from L.A. to Dublin to Budapest and Barcelona. And the most amazing part of all of this is that he’s my big brother. I grew up watching his artwork on Saturday morning cartoons looking for the secret pictures he’d drawn for me to find. I’m thrilled to interview him about his career and his upcoming Kickstarter campaign for a comic book series all his own. 

You’ve worked in animation for a long time. As such, you are quite familiar with storyboarding. Can you talk about the role storyboarding plays in creating an animated movie?

For people unfamiliar with storyboards I’ll often define it as making the comic book version of the movie. You’re drawing out the story shot by shot. It’s a lot like being the director because the storyboard artist reads the scripts and starts breaking things down into different shots and you’re making decisions like, should this be a long shot, medium shot or a close up, a pan shot, a dolly shot. You’re concerned about the composition, the acting and the transitions from shot to shot. You have various story points that you have to keep in mind, and in storyboarding, the artists think up much of the visual humor, and visual interest. page 5

When you get a script, how do you go about creating the pictures to go along with it? 

As I read a script, I get images in my mind and I’ll make a little thumbnail sketch or write a little note in the margins. I’d probably read through it a few different times and then start sketching things out. After getting the first sketches done then you have to review and edit things. In the old days we used to pin up sketches on a cork board so you could move things around, add new drawings or pull some down. You are looking for the flow of the story, the entertainment value and checking to see if you hit all the important story points for that scene.

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Openings in The Prose Shop

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The Prose Shop is an online critique forum for writers of picture books and magazine stories in prose for children up to 12 years of age. It’s an established online critique group (created in 2005) and has a mix of both published and unpublished writers. The Shop’s goal is to help members improve their techniques, become more confident and capable writers, discuss and share information, and become traditionally published.

The Prose Shop is organized via a message board forum. There are a few rules pertinent to the group:

First, members critique at least one or two stories for each manuscript they post.

Second, members must critique at least one story every 30 days, whether or not they post a story.

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The Cat Sent My Query: And Other Cautionary Advice

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It’s true, there I was pulling up my query that I’d been marinating for a few days–re-reading, re-tweaking, resting to read again. That day was the day–I’d done everything I could think of to personalize it, tighten it, make it shine, oh, except for that one line and this word and this one …

Right in the middle of changing a word, my foster kitty decided to attack. 

The swirling icon of doom assured me that her pounce had hit the bulls eye. Once the swirl’s hypnotic effect wore off, it took all of one second to realize that my query had been sent—mid-change and without a final edit. 

At that point, I figured that all illusion of professionalism had tucked tail and fled, so I hurriedly replied back and explained that my cat had sent the query and that here’s what that line should have said and btw, “can I interview you for my site.” 

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Interview with Agent Natascha Morris Part 2

NMorris320x400IMG_20161127_103045-240x300Natascha is a former editor turned agent for BookEnds Literary. I first interviewed Natascha just over a year ago when she was getting started in her new career. With a year-plus behind her, I’ve been dying for an update. Luckily, she agreed to a second interview. 

Thank you, Natascha!

 

You recently hit your year-mark as an agent. What has been the biggest surprise for you from the agenting side of the industry?

There have been two really big surprises. The first is the amazing talent I have found, and the connections I have made. I had some idea when going in, but it is just amazing how far I have come. The second was how much grit it takes to be on this side of the desk. Agents take those punches alongside their clients, and we do it for everyone. Being an agent teaches you about yourself.  

 I imagine you’ve built up a solid client list by now. Are you still seeking clients?

Always seeking new clients, but out of necessity, I am getting pickier. When I first started, I had loads of time to pour into a client. Now, I have to weigh that against the time for 24 other talented people. It’s not just one book per author, it’s multiple books per author.

What would you say is the split between the categories you represent? How many are PB writers, MG, illustrators, etc.? Continue reading

Interview with Agent Adria Goetz

27024121_10155402205773230_1021693440946990922_oAdria Goetz is an agent at Martin Literary Management. Adria is seeking board books, picture books, graphic novels, MG, YA, and Christian themed works. She earned her B.A. in English, with an emphasis in creative writing, from the University of Washington. 

Thank you, Adria! 

Your education was in publishing and writing, and you even worked at a library for a while, did that influence your decision to become a literary agent? How did that all come about?

In high school and part of college I thought I wanted to be an editor, but as I learned more and more about the publishing industry and the publishing process, I quickly changed my mind. I first learned that there are very few opportunities for editor jobs in Seattle, and I’ve never had a desire to leave the Pacific Northwest. The PNW is the land of coffee and Sasquatches, and rich true crime history. AKA my personal heaven. During college, I applied to every publishing internship I heard about because I wanted to observe the publishing beast from every angle. When I started my internship with Martin Literary Management, I knew I’d found the right avenue for me. Agents get to work from home. Agents get to edit stories. And agents get to make dreams come true. The internship was only supposed to last for a few quarters, but it ended up lasting for two years because it was such a good fit. I wanted to start agenting right after graduation, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it work financially. It takes so long as a new agent to get things going to the point where you’re making a livable salary. And I needed a job! I was a fresh college graduate with my wedding around the corner, and I needed something that would pay the bills. So I got a job in the Communications department of Pierce County Library. After working for the library for a while, I thought maybe a job as a children’s librarian would be a more practical job for me, so I applied for library school, and got in! It was right when I opened my acceptance letter that I knew it wasn’t the right decision for me, and I realized if I didn’t at least try my hand at agenting, I’d regret it. So I attended a publishing program at Columbia University in New York, then when I returned, I knocked back on Martin Literary’s door and asked them if they’d be willing to train me as an agent. And they said yes! So my husband and I decided that we needed to make a few financial sacrifices in order to make a career as an agent happen. We moved out of our condo and moved into a used camper on some family property. We cut out as many fixed expenses and splurge purchases as we could. And then I began my career as a literary agent. Living in a camper might seem like an extreme lifestyle change just to break into a tough industry, but the first few years of agenting are a lot like the first few years of starting a business—you typically don’t make much of a profit off of the time you invest in your projects. We also realized that we were young and poor, and had expensive dreams—traveling and adoption and buying a home being the biggest ones. After a year of living in the camper, we saved up enough to buy our first home—a Victorian home which I am still hoping is secretly haunted. I now have my own little office, or as I call it: my “writing studio.” It is a much more spacious place to work!

You’re accepting picture book submissions. What are you specifically looking for in a picture book? Continue reading

Why Critiques Matter: And What I Learned from the ‘Slush’

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I recently had the opportunity to review more than a hundred stories in a short space of time–all from writers seeking feedback. By the time I was done, I felt like I’d had a master class on writing—I learned as much from the stories that needed work as I did from the ones that were ready. There really is no substitute for critiquing—both the giving and receiving of it.

If you belong to a group such as SCBWI or 12×12, take advantage of the critique forums. Read as many stories in a row (and the feedback) as possible—it’s like a mini slush pile. You’ll learn buckets just reading stories in all sorts of stages. And when you’re ready, return that blessing by critiquing and adding your own stories.

I remember feeling overwhelmed as a newbie to comment on the stories of other writers. I also remember feeling petrified to allow others to see my work, but my writing didn’t progress until I sought those critiques.

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Interview with Agent Hannah Mann

 

hm headshot croppedHannah Mann is a junior agent at Writers House. She is open to submissions and is seeking clients in children’s lit through YA. In picture books, Hannah is drawn to ‘artful, human, and/or humorous picture books that are driven by expressive characters.’ She prefers art ‘with something fresh going on (or that pays homage to a classic with its own modern layering).’ For more details on Hannah’s preferences, please visit her Publishers Marketplace profile

Thank you, Hannah!

You interned at Writers House in NYC before moving to intern with Steven Malk in San Diego (I sort of feel like I need to whisper his name, like ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,’ but in a good way). How did you get that all started? Are your NYC friends jealous of your San Diego winters?

That’s very funny, but I agree—Steven Malk is a total legend, and I’m grateful everyday that I’ve gotten to learn from the best. It’s a long story, but I applied for the job with him before interning, and ended up landing it after interning. I needed a little publishing experience, and I’m so glad I got to be in the New York office for a little while—I really feel like it’s informed my sense of pride in the Writers House ethos and reputation, and it’s great to have faces and real connection with the people I’m emailing all day!

Did you always know you wanted to work in publishing or with books in some capacity? When did you figure that out? What job would you snatch up if publishing jobs weren’t an option?

I think, like a lot of people, it probably started with wanting to be a writer. The publishing industry can be mysterious before actually being in it, so I think a lot of people’s first thought is, “okay, I love books, so I’ll write them!” The truth is that so much goes into every single book, and there are also so many books! Once I started to realize that, I thought I might want to be an editor, but when I discovered agency, and its intersection of creativity with business, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I love being behind the scenes and advocating for creators. If I weren’t in publishing, I think I’d want to be in medicine—not that I could do it! I’m just fascinated by biology and love people. Continue reading