Elizabeth 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.