Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ask Winston

The stalwart Winston B. Larson, recovered from recent traumas, is back in the Ask Winston saddle again.

This week's question comes from an as-yet-unpublished author:

I've been warned not to say anything negative about works represented by a certain agent who (the rumor goes) will not represent any writer who's said something negative about a book she's sold. Since I wasn't told this directly by the agent, I don't know how true it is, but it makes me wonder if this is something that most agents and editors feel. I'm not talking about bashing a book for the sake of it, or smearing a writer--that's poor form--but what about a critical review?

Winston B. Larson: I think you should quit reading blogs and get yourself a good chew toy. I recommend munchies from Mud Bay. But what do I know? I'm only man's (and woman's!) best friend. Speaking of best friends, I fetched my good buddy, Elizabeth "Betsy" Bird to help respond to this query.

the lovely Betsy Bird

Elizabeth works in the best children’s room in New York City, The Children's Center at 42nd Street. She currently runs a blog called A Fuse #8 Production which is hosted by School Library Journal. In 2007 she served on the Newbery committee and since that time has sold two picture books to Greenwillow, a non-fiction adult book about the true stories behind your favorite children’s books (which she's writing with two other bloggers) to Candlewick, and she published an informational title for librarians with ALA Editions. Elizabeth was on the November 2009 cover of School Library Journal, and there was an article about her in Forbes Magazine in February of 2010. She currently reviews for Kirkus, TimeOut Kids New York, and sometimes the New York Times.

My literate two-legged friend takes time out from her busy schedule to offer these words to chew on:

Seems to me it would have to be a pretty powerful agent to not only make note of the bloggers and reviewers that have criticized their clients' books but have also taken the time to note those people's names in the uncertain event that any of them solicit them for help in the future. Now I totally understand the inclination to avoid writing a critical review. For good or for ill, the children's literary community is a nice place to be, full of nice people saying a lot of nice things about one another's works. That said, there's a lot of schlock out there. A lot. And if you can keep someone from spending their hard earned cash on a book that is less than entirely worthy, you're doing a good deed. Fortunately for all of us, editors and agents represent a lot of authors and illustrators. They will definitely note when someone says something less than sterling about a book they love, but generally speaking they're not gonna hold a grudge about it. We're all professionals here. If you didn't like a particular book by a particular author this time, there's nothing to say you won't love a book of theirs later down the line. And sometimes, just sometimes, the agent or the editor is going to agree with you. They may not say it to your face, but there are times when the point you are making in your review is the EXACT point they themselves made to their client, only to be ignored. If nothing else, you can reinforce what they were saying all along. There's a lot to be said for that.

Thank you, Elizabeth! As I've been trying to tell the writer I live with, honesty is always the best policy. I hate to call her out on this but, truth to tell, she has on occasion PRETENDED to have a treat in hand when, in fact, she has none. This generally happens before the unpleasantness known as bathtime. It's good to know that I share something in common with someone of your high reputation. Perhaps you also have a bit of spaniel blood in you?

Perhaps not. Until next time. . . questions are always welcome.


  1. A thoughtful answer! Critiquing and promoting other writers can be tricky.

    Kirby, your dog's coloring does look a lot like ours! But I'm not going to show Winston's picture to my girls as they still wish Topaz was a little puppy. (She's now 50 lbs!)

    So here's my question for Winston: What are the pros and cons to getting an agent first or an editor?

  2. Thank you Betsy and...er...*Winston*. One thing I like about both of you is your ability to be true to yourselves without ticking everyone off.

    I have a question for Winston too:

    Amazon: Evil Empire or Spawn of Satan?

    (Before you judge...consider Wiley's sale of exclusive e-book rights to Amazon, which limits access to said titles to owners of Kindle. Wave of the future...?)