I had a one-on-one critique session with Rick Richter at a writing conference in Boston. I wish I could have chatted with him for hours. As you’ll see from his answers, he’s got a wealth of information from his many years in the publishing industry, and I am grateful he took the time to answer the following questions, including the tough ones. Thank you, Rick!
Let me first set up your rather amazing resume. You were a co-founder (with many others) and former CEO of Candlewick Press, a publisher at Simon & Schuster Children’s Books, president of Simon & Schuster Sales and Distribution Division, the creator of Simon Spotlight, and the founder of Ruckus Media Group. While at S&S you helped reintroduce the market to Eloise and Raggedy Ann. You’ve also served as chairman of the Children’s Book Council, and as an early director of First Book, and you’re currently a literary agent at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth. I think it’s safe to say you know a lot about children’s literature. How did you get started on this path?
My father worked the night shift at the Boston Globe—the “lobstah” shift I think is what they called it—and he thought the book business was nobler than newspapers. “People don’t wrap fish in your work at the end of the day.” I remember him saying, so he encouraged me to find a job in books. My soon-to-be-wife introduced me to a friend who worked at a small company in Natick, Massachusetts—Picture Book Studio—and I fell head over heels over the work of Lizbeth Zwerger. I remember telling the staff there (the entire staff interviewed me!) that I would do anything at the company. “Anything at all.” I started packing books in their warehouse.
I was really fortunate to have two amazing bosses at this little company. The first, Motoko Inoue, went on to become Eric Carle’s long-time and exclusive agent. The second, Andrew Clements, went on to write the classic Frindle, and became a staple in the industry. So I learned to love the business at the knee of two highly principled and wonderful people.
Now that you’re an agent, do you see the children’s lit world differently?
Absolutely, I think becoming an agent is something every publisher should do. It is a lesson in humility, a lesson in patience, and one feels the victories and setbacks of the authors and illustrators we work with in a much, much more visceral way. I’m even more in awe of the talented people who make up our industry and their willingness to persevere.
Did you work on film/tv rights for Olivia and Eloise?
Yes, but not directly in either case—our talented subsidiary rights folks at S&S handled the rights on Eloise, and Olivia rights were held by Ian Falconer’s very savvy agent.
Do you or agents you know purposely select manuscripts that can cross from book to film/tv or does it become a natural segue when the book does well?
I can’t speak for all agents of course, but I do look specifically for single, identifiable characters that can find a life across many books, and possibly in other media. I think kids like characters who feel familiar. My own favorite “series” George and Martha taught my kids what friendship means.
I was quite involved with bringing The Spiderwick Chronicles to screen at Paramount. That was an amazing experience on several levels, not the least of which was how quickly the book became a movie after the project was greenlighted. Hollywood movie agents, the Gotham Group, were actively pitching the project even as the books were being published.
It does sometime happen that books are optioned before they are published, although less so in kids’ books. For instance, I have a thriller author who has had seven expressions of interest from scouts just based on our announcement of the deal.
Tony and Holly were also quite successful in their own right too. They’ve both gone on to amazing careers.
With your work at Ruckus Media, what do you see as the future of digital books? How can a writer break into the digital market, or is the digital book market still based on pre-established characters/titles only? In your opinion, will hard copy books for children phase out?
The lesson we learned very quickly at Ruckus is that parents were mostly seeking large mass-market children’s brands in a digital environment. (With Epic being a notable exception.) I don’t see this market as particularly viable for new authors except in the case of say Wattpadd, or other crowd sourced platforms in YA. I think parents have a romantic attachment to hard copy books for kids, and as it turns out, teens also have that attachment because of the lend-ability of physical books.
You state that you are looking for “young adult in all forms, middle grade titles that are humorous or literary in nature, and picture books with strong central characters capable of being sustained over several books.” Can you give an example of a book in each category that you represent or would like to represent?
My clients Barbara Bottner and Michael Emberley have a great book—Priscilla Gorilla—coming from Caitlin Dloughy/Atheneum this spring featuring a feisty girl that I’m sure you’ll see in several books in the future. If I could agent the kind of books with the heart and skill of an Andrew Clements title I would do that in a flash. I have several books in development that show that kind of tremendous promise. As for YA, I lean more towards realistic fiction or really funny protagonists—these just resonate more with me.
You also state that you’re interested in “narrative non-fiction in the areas of history and military history.” Does this include PBs, MG, YA, or is this for the adult audience?
Great question! The market is very hot right now for older narrative non-fiction (YA), and I don’t see nearly enough of it. But great narrative non-fiction reads like a ripping yarn—and it has a story arc and catharsis—it needs to be hugely entertaining.
What is the biggest error you see in queries and manuscripts you receive? What does a query and manuscript need in order to interest you in reading more or in representing it?
I’ll state this in the positive. A great query has a very punchy and succinct synopsis; the author knows who the market is for—the book and the word count suggests this; the plot isn’t derivative and doesn’t feel familiar at all; the author has researched comparative titles, and they are accurate; and the author has evidenced some commitment to the craft either through their education or groups they belong to. But a magical query is like a magical first chapter of a book. It leaves you wanting more.
How do you feel about illustration notes in manuscripts?
I don’t think they are necessary unless the author is suggesting that a story point is told in art alone. Then they can be fun.
Interacting with agents can be intimidating for writers/illustrators. What would you say to a writer/illustrator to help them prepare for personal contact with an agent at a conference or on a phone call? What do you think most authors would be surprised to know about agents?
I can only speak for myself in this regard, but I take quite a bit of stock in that first call. If we agree to work together we will be spending a LOT of time together and it needs to be a relationship of mutual trust and respect, and fun. I don’t think you want your agent to feel like they are on a job interview, but I think also you’ll want some sense that the agent loves your work. In my experience so far, if there is a personal connection, that can go a very long way.
As far as what might surprise an author, I think the one thing I might say is that we don’t like to have a manuscript rejected, and it is always painful for us. This said, it is part of the process, so we perhaps take things a little less personally.
What are you hearing from children’s book professionals as far as waxing or waning trends in children’s lit, or stories they wish they were getting and aren’t?
I tend not to pay too much attention to blanket comments about the market. By the time they are said, they are often no longer true. Unless of course if I make them!
Now for a few tough questions (thank you for being willing to tackle these):
Can you help frustrated authors understand why some author-illustrators receive representation based on manuscripts that need work when it seems like authors-only get passed over unless their manuscript is perfect?
Again, I can only speak personally, but I might take on a manuscript that needs a lot of work if there are moments of genius in the draft, and if the author understands that major revisions will be required and doesn’t balk at the idea. More typically, I’ll recommend one of several consulting editors to the author with the idea that they will work on the manuscript independently and return. I do know there are some agents that do intensive line editing, or who have staff who does intensive line editing, but I tend to favor editors who have had accomplished professional careers. But this comes down to genre too. I’m quite adept at offering input on picture books given my experience, but of course this takes far less time.
Writers often talk about “editorial” vs. “non-editorial” agents. Do you think agents truly fall into those two categories? If so, how does an agent who isn’t “editorial” work with the writer on revisions?
See the answer above.
How do agents feel about a writer who already has an offer from say a small press but has not yet signed a contract? Does it boost an agent’s interest in repping the author or complicate the relationship?
For me it isn’t a problem. I recently turned a tiny small press offer into a major six-figure offer from a large publisher.
Are you open for queries?
I’m entirely open to queries. I respond to every query I receive usually within a week. Requested manuscripts take longer …
Thank you again, Rick, for your candid and thoughtful answers!
Rick accepts queries only and will request the manuscript if interested. To send a query, visit ZSH’s site at: http://www.zshliterary.com/zsh-contacts.html#emailForm