You worked for a long time in children's books marketing and did some editorial acquisitions at Penguin, as well. What was it about agenting that enticed you to move into that side of publishing? What do you miss about marketing? How does that experience and those skills give you an edge in the agenting world?
Before I jump into my answer, I want to say a big thanks to Kristin for having me here on YA Highway. There are so many writers here that I admire and tons of helpful information. I’m so glad to be included! (YAH note: Thanks for chatting with us!)
Most of the time that I was in marketing, I focused on librarians (since I have a MLS and was a children’s librarian). While doing that work I created a piece to feature new fiction and especially debut authors on the Penguin list; collecting chapters from these books and bundling them together into a magazine. There were several of these sorts of marketing pieces around, so we wanted to make ours different. We decided to interview both the author and her editor about their upcoming books, so readers had insight into the road to publication from acceptance of the manuscript through the editorial process.
I adored working on this project – reading every piece of fiction we published, selecting just the right titles for it, talking with writers and editors about the process – all of it was thrilling. And as it turns out, related to what I do now, except that I’m actually lucky enough to be a part of that process! So, though I didn’t know it then, the seeds of my jump to agenting were probably sown as I worked away on this magazine.
Luckily, the parts of marketing that I like best are key to being a good agent, and I carry it all with me. At its core, marketing is about creating relationships and trust. Back then, I could produce glossy brochures and blingy websites – and sure, those things can help – but what I needed most was to understand deeply what librarians wanted on their shelves and to connect them with the books that filled their needs exactly. The same is true now, but the focus is with editors instead. I learned then that if people trust your recommendations, they will be interested in more.
Aside from building relationships, I use my marketing background on a client’s behalf once the book has sold and the publishing house is ready to take their book to market. Understanding how the marketing and sales team will approach titles, the language they use, how they build marketing plans, how to effectively lobby for marketing support at the book’s debut and through its life, the kinds of marketing a client can and should undertake on her own, and how to communicate that back to her publishing house – all of that is something that I work on very closely with my clients.
You represent children's books exclusively, though you do take a wide range, from picture books to YA, from classic novels to graphic novels. What do you love about children's books that makes you want to wrap your career around them?
When I think about what I love most about books – books for any age – I think mostly about story and character. I love setting too, and language as well, but what I want most is to deeply connect with a person on the page, and to feel that I can’t wait to find out what will happen to them next. I think that story especially, and character too, are the truly key elements in children’s books (which is not to say that there aren’t children’s books that have blown me away with either setting or language), so they are just a complete fit for me. It seems to me that human beings have an elemental need for story, and the fact that stories have existed long before books ever did confirms that. I love seeing kids’ books as connected to that need.
When you are considering signing a client, what kinds of qualities are you looking for, other than an amazing manuscript?
Two things are important to me – communication and a willingness to work hard. I appreciate someone who can communicate in a straight-forward fashion, articulate what she wants, but be willing to discuss other options as well. Writing, and being successful in books, is hard work. Being committed to that is key.
Tell us about the things you dream about finding in your slushpile, right now.
I’d love a juicy historical right now – something with intrigue. I’ve always been interested in English history, especially Henry VIII and the Elizabethan period. Perhaps the story of a lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth I, who is reluctantly involved in some court deception and drama? I’m also interested in the periods of history where there has been some clash of cultures or values, and things are changing quickly.
Mystery is always top of my wants list. Many mysteries I see involve a magical element, or a teen that has special powers of some sort. I’d love something that is less fantastical, and more grounded; perhaps about a teen who works with a PI, breaking her own cases?
I’ve always been a fan of scifi and I’d love to see a real space adventure; think Battlestar Gallactica, which I loved (I do see lots of dystopian, which I’m not as keen on right now). Humor – something witty and sly would be fun. Much of the contemporary that I see has a romantic element (not that I object to romance); I’d love something that’s about the other parts of a teen’s life; perhaps friendships, which can be so hard to navigate at this time too.
More generally, what I’d love to see comes back to what I mentioned above – characters I can’t forget, storyline that keeps me guessing, and a strong, original voice. If you’ve got that, I want to see it!
In the past year, what are your favorite non-client children's books that have hit the shelves?
Breadcrumbs is a beautiful book. It’s about friendships, things changing, and about being sad; the way that feels, the way it can seem to sink into everything. And it’s also about the way a person keeps moving through that sadness and in spite of it. What I love is that I think the author, Anne Ursu, never cheats, never makes it easy for her character, even though she’s a child. In that sense, even though it’s a fantasy and uses fairy tales, it’s a completely true book, and it felt bone deep to me.
Children's books are not easy to write, but they have that reputation. Why do you think people think of them as "easy," and what is it about them that actually makes them very difficult?
Ah. What a good question. The simple answer is the same for both parts of this question: they are short. This is especially true for picture books, which are really short, but I think it holds across the board. So, someone picks up a novel 98 pages long and thinks -- it can’t take that long, can it? This somehow translates into being easy. Of course, the shorter something is, the fewer words you have to communicate with, and every word counts in a very particular way. And that’s not easy at all!
If you could see any one genre of children's books gain exponentially in strength, what would it be? (ex: YA historical, wordless picture books, etc).
I’d love to see the long form picture book, or story book, rebound. Right now the emphasis is on shorter picture books that skew to the very young. Some of these books are wonderful, so I don’t want them to go anywhere; in addition I’d love to see more gorgeously illustrated, beautifully told longer stories, in a generous trim size, geared towards older children, in grades 3 and 4 and even 5. There were plenty of these books when I was that age, so many that I adored, and I think they can really inspire a passion for reading.
Your favorite city to visit: Can I pick an area instead? I once drove the Pacific Coast highway with a friend from San Francisco to Seattle. Pretty much every part of that is a favorite.
The dessert you can't live without: Pie. All kinds. Never met one I didn’t like and the world wouldn’t be as nice without it.
One book that would be a great movie: One of my all time favorite books is I Capture the Castle. I think there is a movie of this (a sort of Masterpiece Theater-ish one), but I’m afraid to see it, in case it’s not right. A movie that did this book justice would be the best.
My favorite book covers feature: something that I haven’t seen before
If you're going to send me flowers, I prefer: Lilacs and dahlias, though they don’t bloom at the same time. So maybe you’ll send me twice!
Does Susan sound like a great fit for your story? Want to submit your work to her? Here's how:
Email your query to firstname.lastname@example.org, and include the first ten pages of your book. You can get all the details on Susan's blog SusanSays in the About and Query sections, or visit the agency website thebentagency.com. She is also on twitter: @susanhawk