Hello, all, and happy April!
I’m so pleased to have my fabulous agent, Jennifer Mattson, with us today. Before joining Andrea Brown Literary in 2008, Jennifer held various positions as an editor, book reviewer and bookseller—excellent preparation for her current profession (you’ll find her bio and literary tastes here).
I met Jennifer seven years ago when we were on the faculty of Andrea Brown’s Big Sur in the Rockies (more on Big Sur Writing Workshops later). Agent-less at the time, I was impressed with Jennifer’s smarts and thoughtfulness and followed up with her afterward. We’ve been working together ever since, and I count my lucky stars to have such a skilled and supportive advocate.
Since teaming up, Jennifer’s sold fourteen of my manuscripts, including Ella WHO?, out next week, and RAIN!, which was just published in a board book edition. To celebrate, I’m giving away copies to two randomly-selected winners (details below).
And, now, to Jennifer!
Let’s start with trends. What are you seeing these days in the picture book market?
People in children’s book publishing are often drawn to this industry, at least in part, because it offers a chance to do something meaningful and positive in the world. I think it’s safe to say that with the start of the Trump administration, many acquiring editors feel uniquely positioned to help counter some of the policies or currents of opinion—about immigrants, about diversity, about LGBTQ issues, about science, and, of course, much more—by acquiring manuscripts that foster a different narrative. There was already a lot of love among editors for topics that develop empathy among young readers in all sorts of way—i.e., Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrode’s The Lost and Found Cat, focused on a refugee family; Selina Alko’s The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage; or your own Over the River & Through the Wood, which features an extended family at Thanksgiving that includes a gay and biracial couple. But there’s (if possible) an intensified level of passion behind publishing these kinds of books now. And, across the board (fiction and nonfiction, picture books and older fiction), there is an increased awareness of the need for more #ownvoices publishing, to use the hashtag shorthand for stories about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.
When I started in children’s book publishing, as a marketing assistant at Penguin Putnam, most nonfiction picture books were instantly pegged as “institutional” (i.e., for the library and school market). Since then, I think authors, editors, and publishers have found ways of making nonfiction picture books that work for both the institutional market, and bookstore customers (known in the industry as the “trade” market). Our agency is particularly proud of I Dissent!, represented by my colleague Caryn Wiseman—which has made frequent appearances on The New York Times Bestseller list and the Indie Best lists, both key markers of bookstore sales. (My own 5-year-old has really responded to RBG’s story, and now regularly “dissents” to whatever I choose to serve her for dinner. )
Nonfiction picture books had already been experiencing a warmer reception, perhaps due to the Common Core, and now I think there is even a stronger market for them—for reasons mentioned in my answer to the first question.
What about the trend of recent years toward shorter and shorter texts—are you seeing any movement in the other direction?
Cue the sigh of relief from picture book authors everywhere: Yes, I think so! While it’s always going to be better to use only as many words as it takes (Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus took only 161, e.g.), I think the crazy-low-word-count picture book epoch was driven in part by the trend toward concept-driven stories and metafiction. Editors published the heck out of that trend, and are hungry for something a little bit different, and maybe a little more stick-to-your-ribs.
I often get asked about nearly-wordless texts like RAIN!—the first manuscript you sold for me. Are these a tough sell for writers (as opposed to writer/illustrators)? Any advice?
RAIN!, a masterpiece in 80-odd words, is one of those exceptions to every rule that drives aspiring writers crazy! As anyone can see from the manuscript you so smartly posted on your website, its illustrative notes exceeded the actual text’s word count many times over, so pretty much smashes the “don’t tell the artist what to do” rule to smithereens. We definitely had some editors tell us that they couldn’t wrap their minds around buying a text that was mostly art suggestions, and I don’t think it’s something that an author should tackle early in his or her career. Your extensive publishing background with more traditional picture books allowed editors to give a nearly wordless text the benefit of the doubt, and happily, editor Kate O’Sullivan at Houghton Mifflin saw the genius in it and signed Christian Robinson to illustrate it.
It is a true delight to anticipate the book birthday of your Ella WHO?, releasing from Sterling on April 11—huzzah! It’s such a sweet, funny, and clever story about unexpected friendship (and the foibles of distracted grown-ups…something my kids certainly appreciate), and has been winsomely illustrated by new artist Sara Sanchez. But equally noteworthy, Ella WHO? is the first picture book you’ve published that’s a more traditional narrative format rather than verse (or nearly wordless, like RAIN!). If I were interviewing you, I’d ask what it was like to switch gears this way!
The other two books I’ll highlight are both part of the renaissance in nonfiction that I touched upon before. John Ronald’s Dragons, by my client Caroline McAlister and illustrated by your PBB compatriot Eliza Wheeler, takes J. R. R. Tolkien’s fascination with dragons as a recurring theme that really pulls together the facts of his life. I think this book is a perfect example of how a successful PB bio must draw deeply from storytelling craft to elevate a text above dry, cradle-to-grave reportage. And then there’s Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code, by Laurie Wallmark and illustrated by my client Katy Wu, which is a triple-threat nonfiction picture book: a lively, fresh text; a STEM topic; and a subject who was a groundbreaking role model for girls.
Yes, there are 11 of us, plus the excellent Taryn Fagerness, who handles selling our clients’ books to the foreign markets. Truly, I’m fortunate to be working for an agency as collaborative and congenial as this one. While we’re definitely far-flung—I’m in Chicago, Jennifer Laughran’s outside of New York, and the rest of us are scattered around California—we’re in almost constant communication, either by email or through regular videoconference meetings. And, we all get together at least once a year, sometimes in New York where we meet with editors, sometimes at industry conferences like ALA, and sometimes at the Big Sur Writing Conferences that Andrea Brown runs in partnership with the Henry Miller Library.
Beyond the helpful ABLA submission guidelines, what advice do you have for writers submitting to you to make their work stand out?
Honestly, approaching things with utmost professionalism is the most universally applicable advice I can give. That extends from doing your homework about agent tastes and submissions policies to formatting and spellchecking your query letter. Personalizing the query letter in a meaningful, non-generic way really helps, too. In her original query letter, one of my clients observed that I used to be a staff book reviewer at a magazine, and mentioned that she used to be one at a competing magazine. Obviously this told me little about her skills, but it did show me that she had done her homework and made me curious.
As an agent, you work with multiple clients and juggle many different roles. What do you enjoy most?
The most glorious part about being an agent is that moment when you share good news with an author or artist. That doesn’t happen daily, but luckily a job as a children’s-book literary agent has no shortage of happy tasks. My background is in editorial (I was an editor at Dutton Children’s Books for about five years), so I love to sink my teeth into providing editorial feedback. But I also spent five years as a kids’-book reviewer at Booklist, where I wrote 24 book reviews every month. I find that writing pitch letters—i.e., brief descriptions of a project, addressed to editors/publishers—allows me to tap back into what I enjoyed about reviewing (minus the uncomfortable parts of having to be a critic!)
Tell us about Andrea Brown’s Big Sur Writing Workshops.
Happily! ABLA’s Big Sur Writing Workshops, which occur two or three times annually in different locations (yes, there really is a Big Sur Cape Cod!), are craft-focused retreats, organized into small-group writing workshops moderated by faculty members who are either editors, authors, or agents. The conferences work well for picture book authors or fiction authors, and every year brings news of publishing success for workshop alumni. It’s something I look forward to attending every year, for the chance to think deeply about craft and for the spirit of camaraderie that, magically, always evolves by the end of the weekend.
Where else might readers meet you in the coming year?
I spent last year living abroad, in Paris (I know, poor me), so it’s nice to be back on the U.S. conference circuit! I’ll be appearing at SCBWI-IL’s Spring Thaw Conference on April 25, 2017; at the SCBWI-Carolinas Conference, Aug. 25-27, 2017; and at SCBWI-Inland Northwest Region’s Fall conference (in Spokane, WA) on September 16, 2017.
(By the way, I’ll be joining Jennifer at the Carolinas conference for a session on navigating the author-agent relationship–which we’ve managed to do from afar all these years. This is the first time we’ll be in the same room since our initial meeting!)
Thanks so much for joining us, Jennifer!
* * * * * B O O K G I V E A W A Y ! ! * * * * *