Tracy is a relatively new agent at BookEnds literary, but is not new to the publishing world. As you’ll see by her comments, Tracy is knowledgeable about the industry, and being a writer as well, she understands the challenges that come with pursuing a writing career.
Thank you, Tracy, for taking time out of your busy day to answer these questions.
You’ve had an impressive career. You worked at Curtis Brown, then took time off to finish an MFA in writing for children from Simmons College. You are an agent at BookEnds Literary and an author as well. What started you on the path to working in the publishing industry and in particular, becoming an agent?
Like many of my colleagues, I was writing and reading from a young age. My mother joined SCBWI in 1996 and learned how to submit to publishers, and the next year I started submitting my first picture book. (In hindsight, it was not that good.) A few years later, I graduated college with a degree in English and attended the local SCBWI conference.
I was sitting with Gail Carson Levine and mentioned that I’d just graduated from college and was hoping to work in publishing. She offered to pass along my resume to her agent, where it was hung on the kitchen bulletin board. Kirsten Manges was leaving Curtis Brown to start her own agency, and so she grabbed my resume and I was able to intern for her as she set up everything from the phone lines to the submissions system to the boilerplate files. After about six months, I had to leave and find full time work. But a few months later, Kirsten told me that Curtis Brown was looking for an agent’s assistant. I interviewed first with one of their romance agents and didn’t get the job. A month or so later though I had an interview in the children’s suite, and that’s how I ended up with my first full time job at an agency!
What’s your ideal query? What’s your ideal picture book manuscript? YA and MG?
Ideal is hard, because sometimes I don’t know what I’m looking for until I see it! But my ideal query definitely follows the standard format (a line to draw me in, one to two paragraph synopsis, and a one paragraph bio with your writing or professional credits) and displays your professionalism. Writing is a creative pursuit, but publishing is a business. I need to be able to see that you understand both sides of the industry.
My ideal picture book manuscript has a strong voice and a unique concept. It’s child friendly/focused. If it’s fiction, it’s probably funny. And if it’s non-fiction, it teaches me about someone or something that I didn’t know as much about. (And generally, it doesn’t rhyme.)
My ideal middle grade or YA manuscript has an appropriate voice for the audience. In middle grade, it looks at the way that character navigates the world closest to them – their family, their school, their community. In YA, it looks at the teen character on the brink of entering the wider world. It doesn’t have to be an issue driven book – in fact, I’d love a funny middle grade mystery with a spunky girl detective – but it does have to ring true to its readership and the things that are most important to them at that time in their lives.
And in PB, MG and YA I’m definitely looking for diversity and own voices for my list, as well as strong female characters.
What current picture books best represent your taste? What classic picture books still float your boat?
I love Ryan T. Higgins’s Mother Bruce and his newest Hotel Bruce. The idea of a curmudgeonly bear taking care of four geese is hysterical. (Only way it could have been better is if the geese were ducklings.) I think Sean Ferrell and Charles Santoso’s The Snurtch is a great example of taking a familiar feeling that children can identify with and turning it into something unique and different. I’m also a fan of Mo Willems, Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett, and Oliver Jeffers.
As a child, I loved Princess Furball by Charlotte Huck and Anita Lobel. I loved the gorgeous illustrations of her dresses, the idea of packing these dresses into a walnut shell, but also that Princess Furball was resourceful and resilient. It’s a different take on the Cinderella story, and I enjoyed it a lot. I also loved the humor and unreliable narrator in Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!
What has been the biggest surprise about working as a literary agent?
Hmm, I think maybe the biggest surprise is how emotional I can feel over queries. It’s still disappointing when I see a great idea but the writing isn’t strong enough to carry it. I’m always sad to turn those books down.
What is something you wish querying writers knew about your role that perhaps they don’t know?
Speaking to the question above, I’m an editorial agent but I do only have so much time. So while I love revising with my clients, I can’t take something on unless I truly feel like the writer has figured out their voice.
I think writers new in their career are sometimes confused about what an agent does most of the day. Most of the day, I’m not actually reading queries or requested manuscripts. I’m pitching books, talking to editors about what they’re looking for, negotiating offers or contracts, preparing pitch letters, and working with the rest of the BookEnds team on other office matters.
Most of my reading gets done after business hours and on weekends, and client reading has to come first.
It may seem like the wait is long and unfair – but once you’re a client, you’re going to benefit!
Do you have any automatic “no” topics in a manuscript?
While I don’t want to rule off anything with a universal no, in general I’m not a great fit for stories where there’s a huge power disparity in the romantic relationship.
Do agents get the jitters before they call a potential client?
Of course! If we’re calling it’s because we are excited to work with you, and we know that an offer doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll get that opportunity. If we’re calling, it’s because we’re already a fan of your work.
What are you assessing when you call a potential client?
We’re looking for professionalism, and also trying to figure out if our goals and vision for your career are aligned. We want to make sure that we have an understanding of what the author or illustrator would like to achieve, and make sure that we are the right person to help get them there.
How’s the market looking for picture books? Are PBs staying at the 500 word or less or are you seeing a desire for longer picture books?
I think the market is still looking for fiction around 500 – 600, and non-fiction under about 1000. There’s always exceptions, but as a debut it’s wise to stay within those parameters.
Is it hard to sell abstract picture books?
Unless you’re an author/illustrator I would say that yes, that could be a difficult sell.
Picture book writers seem to be at a disadvantage in finding an agent, perhaps because the return isn’t as lucrative as a novel? Can you address that? Is it true?
I think there are fewer agents that do picture books, but I don’t think it’s necessarily about the returns.
For an agent to represent any category, they have to feel like they understand the tropes of the genre. I don’t represent adult literary fiction because I don’t feel confident in my ability to pick marketable works or to help the author revise their fiction for submission. It has nothing to do with the return, and everything to do with how confidently I feel about my ability to represent the work.
There’s so much chatter about whether or not to include illustration notes. Some agents/publishers have even said, “just don’t do it.” But for writers-only, not having illustration notes for a picture book feels like an automatic death sentence for your MS. What’s your take on illustration notes? Do you submit your clients’ work with them or without them? Do editors prefer illustration notes in brackets, double parentheses, italicized?
I think that an author should only include illustration notes when they’re absolutely necessary to the plot. So something like,
What is it?
(Art spec: a ball sits on a chair)
Emma loves her ball.
(Art spec: Emma holds a pink ball. She is wearing a blue dress.)
It’s hard to see in just bits of text. But in the first example, let’s pretend that the rest of the text is dedicated to figuring out what the object does or does not do, but never says that the object is a ball. Then you need to tell the agent or editor, otherwise you’re just going to have a confused reader.
But in the second example, the art notes are really just personal preference. If it’s not vital to the plot that the ball is pink or that Emma’s dress is blue, they should be deleted to leave room for the illustrator’s vision for the book.
Your first picture book, Chicken Wants A Nap, comes out in the Fall of 2017. How does an agent who’s also an author juggle the demands of both jobs? Do you feel like writing your own books gives you more empathy for the writers you rep?
I try to make time for my writing either in the mornings before working hours begin, or on the weekends. It’s definitely important for me to carve out that time, and that means that I have to be very cognizant of the things I say yes to and how I spend my time!
As for making me more empathetic, sure. I understand the feeling of waiting for a response, the thrill of finalizing the deal, and the stress of marking your forthcoming book while trying to write more books.
You accept authors-only, do you also accept illustrators-only?
Are you open for queries?
Yes! I accept picture book, middle grade and young adult fiction and non-fiction queries at https://querymanager.com/query/1009. If you’re an illustrator, please include a link to your portfolio when you query.
Thank you, Tracy! You can also find Tracy at her site: http://tracymarchini.com