Talking with Agent Jennifer Mattson (+ Giveaways!)

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.

And in the non-fiction arena?

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.

What new picture books that you represent are you excited about?

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.

One of the things that has impressed me about ABLA is how collaborative the agents are in sharing information and advice. With eleven (yes?) agents located around the country, how do you manage that?

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 ! !  * * * * *

Two randomly-selected winners will receive a copy of Ella WHO? and the new board book edition of RAIN!  Just leave a comment below by April 30th. I’ll announce the winners in my May 2nd post.

 

 

Linda Ashman

Linda Ashman is the author of more than 35 picture books, as well as The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books, a “how to” e-book for picture book writers.

124 Comments:

  1. I would love to add that title to my collection! Thanks for the chance to win! Great agent info. Thank you!

  2. I have always said that if it can’t be said in 80 words, we might not need to say it.

  3. Great interview! I especially enjoyed reading about your thoughts of trends, NF, and length of texts! And congrats, Linda, on your forthcoming books!

  4. Rosemary Basham

    Thank you for great information!

  5. What an insightful interview! Thank you, Jennifer and Linda 🙂

  6. I appreciate everything shared. Great interview, Linda!

  7. Happy to hear some trends are changing and appreciate Jennifer’s insights. Thanks, Linda, and congratulations on RAIN.

  8. Great insight, thank you! And the new book looks fabulous, Linda.

  9. Thanks for this great interview, ladies.

    –Tammi (proud member of the ABLA family) 🙂

    P.S. Ella-WANT! I’m so looking forward to this book!

  10. Linda, I’ve been a fan of yours for years! Such a great and insightful discussion here between you and Jennifer, especially for a new-ish agent like me. 🙂 I would LOVE to win your books.

  11. Our library currently has the regular edition of Rain! on display (and in Ohio we’ve had LOTS of it), and am so happy to see a board book version available. Will certainly add it to our collection. Thanks for all the info on lots of other titles, too. I love this blog!

  12. Thanks for this delightful and helpful interview. Congratulations on your continuing success, Linda. I love the original Rain!

  13. Great information! Congratulations on your successes! I’m looking forward to adding these to my reading list.

  14. Wonderful interview, Linda!! Congrats on Ella Who! I adore that cover!! And how exciting that Rain! is a board book. It is a joyous and brilliant book–love it!

    And merci/ thanks to Jennifer for sharing her insights!

    And ooh-la-la how I’d love to win either of these books 😉

  15. Thanks for the insights. I attended Big Sur last Dec and it was a magical time. Encourage all to attend at least one.

  16. What a wonderful interview! I smile every time I look at the cover of RAIN – from the puddle reflection to the rainbow-hued letters. So marvelous it will become a board book soon! Can’t wait to see what is in store within the pages of ELLA WHO?

  17. This was a great interview — thanks for sharing! I look forward tor reading Ella Who? and the other suggestions mentioned here.

  18. Thank you for sharing. I would love to win. Lovely books.

  19. Midge Ballou Smith

    Great interview! My granddaughter will be enchanted that your new book uses her name!

  20. I can’t wait to get my hands on your new book, Linda! And RAIN is one I share with my classes, along with SAMANTHA ON A ROLL. Thank you to both, Linda and Jennifer, for this insightful interview that I can’t wait to share. Three cheers for (possibly?) longer picture books as long as those words are warranted!

  21. This post is full of helpful information. And I am glad the low word count trend is relaxing a bit. Though most of my manuscripts fit well within the range, I have one PB that is 850 words. My critique group has offered a few suggestions but, all in all, it will still be about 800. Most of my others are betwen 200 and 400 but this one is a beast!

    Attending a Big Sur Writing Workshop is a dream of mine but the additional cost of airfare from Europe (and my lousy budget) means it won’t happen this year. I am saving and hoping. Everyone I know who has attended one has only good things to say.

  22. It is always interesting to hear from an agent in a “human” way instead of as the faceless entity on the other end of email exchanges. Thanks for sharing this interview.

  23. Thank you for the great article. A lot of my ideas for Storystorm involve nonfiction subjects, so it was great to hear about current trends.
    I’m always looking for great picture books to share with my two 6 year old granddaughters, so wouldn’t mind winning a free book here and there! Thanks!

  24. Lindsay Hanson Metcalf

    Great insight! Thanks for sharing, and congrats, Linda, on Ella WHO!

  25. Thank you for this post. I would love to win one of these books!!!!

  26. Thank you for introducing me to Agent Jennifer Mattson. I’ve enjoyed many of the titles featured and look forward to reading the others. Thank you, Linda.

  27. Really enjoyed this peek into Jennifer’s sensibilities and especially love her obvious respect for you, Linda.

  28. Always helpful to hear about trends and upcoming books to watch out for! Thanks for the interview!

  29. Great interview, Linda and Jennifer. I love hearing about the exciting, upcoming books!

  30. What a great post! Congrats on Ella Who? I can’t wait to get my hands on it! Thank you!

  31. I’m loving the new non-fiction books that showcase great stories about everyone! I really love “I DISSENT” because of the current climate–we need to keep letting our little girls know that they are strong and can persist!

    I’m looking forward to reading “Ella WHO?” it looks adorable!

  32. Thank you for sharing the great trends insight. And congratulations, Linda, on the upcoming book birthday.

  33. Great interview- worth a second read and some more research on Jennifer for submission.

  34. Glad you’re back on the U.S. conference circuit, Jennifer — we loved having you in Kansas City before your Paris interlude! Thanks to both of you for an interesting and encouraging interview. I’ll be on the lookout for Ella Who!

  35. Thanks for the great interview!

  36. This is wonderful…thanks for sharing!

  37. danielle hammelef

    Thanks for the interview and helpful information as far as word count trends and what to keep in mind when seeking publication and representation. Picture books are difficult to write and studying the favorites of editors and agents will help my own writing.

  38. Terrific interview! Congratulations on Ella Who! Thank you for your thoughts on trends in writing… I especially enjoyed learning that editors are now seeking more nonfiction picture books and that the word counts are being loosened a bit for as you said, “more stick-to-your-ribs” reading

  39. I was so happy to read the pendulum is swinging back towards a bit longer texts. Thank you for a great post.

  40. Such an awesome giveaway and thank you for the insights. It is always interesting to hear about which way the wind is blowing.

  41. Thank you for such an insightful post. It is refreshing to hear that agents are looking for great books based on criteria other than minimal word counts.

  42. Thank you for shedding some light into the industry.

  43. This is great! Really informative.

  44. Thank you for this helpful interview Linda and Jennifer. RAIN! is such a joy. I want to check out ELLA WHO?

  45. Spring Fling is April 29th! See you there.

  46. I very much enjoyed reading this interview. Hearing from an agent is always helpful and especially hearing about trends.

  47. Thank you Jennifer and Linda. It’s nice to hear that word counts just might be creeping up again in future.

  48. Thank you both for this wonderful interview.

  49. Becky Scharnhorst

    Thank you both for a great post! Linda, your books look delightful. I can’t wait to read them!

  50. Thank you, ladies, for the insights and trends in the publishing world.

    • Hi Linda and Jennifer,
      Thanks for this informative post. I’ll share it with my SCBWI group. I just spent some time with “Ella Who?” at my local bookstore the other day. Another great PB, Linda! Look forward to meeting you in person this September, Jennifer.

  51. This was such a helpful post. Thank you!

  52. Thank you so much! I look forward to submitting to Jennifer again soon.

  53. Rebecca Levington

    Great interview! Thank you so much!

  54. I am so happy I came upon this today! Thank you for the interview. Love the books too!

  55. Great interview! Jennifer, I appreciate all of your insights and I’m sorry to be missing you at the SCBWI-IL Spring Thaw this year – I know you’ll wow them!

    • Linda, I’ve been a fan since I discovered “Rub-a-Dub Sub for my story time crowd years ago. Eagerly looking forward to “Ella Who?

      Jennifer, thanks for sharing your insights on current industry trends related to picture books. Looking forward to meeting you when you visit the Inland NW this fall. If you haven’t visited our region of the Pacific Northwest before, I hope you will consider taking some extra time for exploring. It’s a whole different world than the Westside.

  56. Wonderful, insightful post, Linda and Jennifer. I can’t wait to read ELLA WHO? as well as WILLIAM’S WINTER NAP!

  57. Thanks to both of you for the post. Going to a birthday party this weekend and giving HENRY WANTS MORE as our gift. Which reminds me: I have to wrap that. Can’t wait for Ella, Who?, Linda! Congrats!

  58. Let’s hope you’re right, Jennifer. I can’t wait to see more stick-to-your ribs books released. Thank you both for sharing your insights.

  59. Lovely interview, Linda and Jennifer. ELLA WHO? looks fantastic!

  60. Thanks, Linda and Jennifer! This whole thing is just so informative and delightful. 🙂

  61. Thanks for the interesting interview!

  62. Glad to hear acquiring editors are interested in manuscripts that counter many of the negative policies coming out of the Trump White House! Great to learn more about Jennifer and ABLA. Linda, continued success to you!!

  63. What a wonderful interview. Thank you Linda and Jennifer! I would love to add these titles to my bookshelf! Thank you!

  64. Lovely to see such a warm professional relationship between you two. Thank you for sharing your insights!

  65. Thank you for sharing this interview! And Ella WHO? looks delightful! (We already know and love RAIN!)

  66. Jill Giesbrecht

    Thanks for the helpful interview and the chance to win those sweet books!

  67. Thank you for an enlightening interview!

  68. I recently completed my first PB manuscript. A friend’s editor took a quick look at it and confirmed my worst fears….I write like someone who has never written a children’s book before. Needless to say I have a huge learning curve ahead of me. Thank you both for being a part of it.

  69. Thank you for this wonderful interview, Linda and Jennifer. Loved “Rain!” and look forward to reading “Ella Who?”

  70. Thank you, Jennifer, for your advice on querying, and the insight into the publishing world:>

  71. Thank you for sharing these great insights with us!

  72. I love all of the great recommendations and helpful info, especially about how much she values professionalism and doing your homework when querying. Thanks!

  73. Wonderful! I love learning about more amazing children’s picture books to read and experience. Can’t wait to check out Rain! Thank you.

  74. Thanks for the interview. Nice to see picture book trends now going back to a little bit longer!

  75. I LOVE that your illustrator notes exceeded the text in RAIN! What a great story from Jennifer on selling it. Sigh, one more of yours, Linda, that I’ll need to buy for the baby grands and get you to sign in August 🙂

    I look forward to seeing you both at the SCBWI Carolinas conference. Very cool!

  76. Frances Kalavritinos

    Very informative interview. I especially appreciate that Jennifer gave an example of the type of personalization she looks for in a query letter. I’m also happy to hear that the pendulum might be swinging in the opposite direction in terms of PB word counts. It’s good to have options.

  77. Marjie Podzielinski

    This was a very informative article

  78. What a great interview! Loved learning the reasons behind trends.

  79. I am so excited about finally meeting you in person in August. This post was delightful to read, and thank you for publicizing John Ronald’s Dragons.

  80. Thanks for sharing your expertise . Glad to know nonfiction is popular using a more story-like format.

  81. Cindy Schumerth

    What a hoot it must be to hear a 5 year old saying “I dissent!”
    Thanks for sharing.

  82. Thank you for the wonderful information. I’d love to attend a Big Sue Conference. (sigh)

    Can I please win one of your books?

  83. I enjoyed this article About an agent I haven’t read very much about before. Thank you !

  84. Great interview with lots of interesting information. Thanks! RAIN is a favorite around my house. Can’t wait for ELLA WHO?

  85. Thanks for the wonderful post and especially for adding anticipated titles to my to be read list.

  86. Wonderfull interview! I met Jennifer at Big Sur in Boulder and was impressed by her thoughtfulness as well. Can’t wait to read ELLA WHO? and RAIN is one of my favorites.

  87. Latanya Thornhill

    These are cute books!

  88. As a pre-published author, this was such a helpful post! Thank you both, Linda and Jennifer.

  89. Great interview, Linda! And thanks to Jennifer for sharing her insights and wisdom. Can’t wait to read Ella Who?

  90. Thank you for demystifying what a submission looks like and also for sharing such great insights about the PB industry.

  91. Thank you!❤

  92. Thanks for agent insights. I’m re-checking out Rain and look forward to Ella WHO?

  93. Wow! Such great agent insight into the current market! Thank you for sharing.

  94. Hooray! Leave it to children’s books to tackle serious, important subjects with class, style and beauty. I’ve seen some of these titles and look forward to reading them all! Thanks Linda and Jennifer for a great post!

  95. Beautiful books! I also really appreciate the agent insight. Thank you!

  96. Thank you for this very interesting interview of Ms. Mattson. I want to say that Big Sur Cape Cod is amazing! I went to the inaugural one last year and it was so good. I loved Annie Sibley O’Brien, one of my mentors. Lisa Rehfuss, the organizer, is sweet and wonderful and the location is amazing (not to mention the fabulous food there).

    Thank you also for the giveaway, Linda!

  97. Linda, congrats to you and Sara! We are looking forward to offering it to our young patrons!

  98. Stacy Digianantonio

    I always put Rain! in our Spring book displays and it gets checked out frequently. I’m looking forward to Ella WHO? – it looks cute and I love the color palette in the illustrations!

  99. Thank you Jennifer & Linda for all this great information! I look forward to reading Rain! and Ella WHO?

  100. What a nice interview. I love that her daughter dissents on dinner. Looking forward to Ella WHO?

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