Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ask Winston

Ask me! I know it all.

A writer in Austin submitted this question: What are the pros and cons to getting an agent first or an editor?

I personally think a chewy toy is preferable to either an agent or an editor but my two-legged writing friends say both are important folks. I tossed the question to my buddies Martha Brockenbrough, Holly Cupala and Lisa Sandell and quicker than I could bury a bone, they were back with these words of wisdom.

Martha Brockenbrough is the author of the forthcoming picture book The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy. She is on the SCBWI National blog team, and is the social media director for readergirlz.org. She lives with her husband, their two daughters, and their smelly dog in Seattle.

MB: I love working with an agent. I’ve worked with several. I’m sort of like Elizabeth Taylor and husbands, but that’s another story.

Agents are not essential to selling books, but they make a number of things easier for you:
- agents are first in line with submissions;
- they often can give you editorial feedback that will help get your book in its best shape; and
- if you’re lucky enough to get an offer, they can and will make it better for you.

There is no one path to success in this industry, though. And often, it’s not as cut-and-dried as you might imagine. The story of The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy is a great example of that.

I met Arthur Levine, my editor, at a regional SCBWI conference. Because I volunteer on the advisory committee, I was lucky enough to have dinner with him, several other authors, and a literary agent. (I didn’t know I’d get to do this when I signed up to volunteer—I just really liked our regional advisers. But it is true that when you give of yourself, the generosity tends to return itself in unexpected ways.)

I never would’ve dreamed of submitting to Arthur Levine. He is ARTHUR LEVINE. I am merely myself, and at that point in my career, I wasn’t allowing myself such big dreams.

Still, I made him laugh during the dinner, and at one point he said, “You’re hilarious. Why aren’t you submitting to me?”

Honestly, until he asked, it had never occurred to me as something I might do. I’d read plenty of Arthur Levine books, and after that, I read everything in his line that I could possibly get my hands on (and I have a long shelf of Arthur A. Levine books to inspire me).

There was that little matter of having a suitable manuscript, though. And by little, I mean big.

I saw Arthur a few months later at the SCBWI national conference in Los Angeles, and to my astonishment, he remembered me. He also spoke that year about picture books, and how we should not fear for their future. I was so heartened by the talk that I sent him a thank you note with something I intended as a throwaway joke. But Arthur saw a story in it, and wrote back telling me as much.

At that same conference, I’d been impressed by an agent I heard speak. I set about finishing the novel I’d been working on, as well as working on that story idea for Arthur. I hoped to query the agent on one or the other when I was ready, assuming I was able to work out a deal with the agent who represents my adult work.

Meanwhile, a freelance piece I wrote—a Twilight spoof—started making the rounds on the Internet. An editor at HarperCollins posted it on Facebook, and that literary agent I so admired in Los Angeles wrote that it made him die of laughter (I guess he liked my use of the word “badonkadonk.”)

That became an opportunity to query him. And while it sounds on one hand like outrageous luck, it was also luck born of work. I didn’t write a story meant to catch anyone’s eye. I just wrote it because it was my freelance job, and I wanted to do something above and beyond the normal. The moral? Do your work as well as you can. Focus on that. The rest takes care of itself.

So, the agent said he’d be willing to work with me, even though he didn’t like the draft of the picture book I’d written. He didn’t sign me, but I revised it another twenty or so times (he saw two of those revisions). Then he finally read one he deemed “superb.” This, he sent to Arthur.

A few months later (after some gentlemanly prodding from my agent), we heard back. Arthur liked it, but didn’t love it… yet. It didn’t have quite the emotional punch he wanted.

So I revised yet again (I wrote sixty drafts, in all). The revision that worked, I banged out at SeaTac airport while I was waiting for a flight to Tahiti. This sounds great until you know that I was headed there to pick up my critically injured father and arrange for a Medevac flight home, provided he was still alive when I got there.

Side note: If you want a really good way to keep your mind from wondering whether you’d ever see your dad alive again, try revising a picture book! You might just find sources of emotion inside you that you didn’t know you had.

Another side note: I can’t really recommend this technique.

Shortly after I returned home from Tahiti with my dad (yay!), I lost my job writing those funny entertainment things that had earned me an agent (boo). But a few weeks after that, I heard from Arthur. He loved the book and was taking it to acquisition. I still didn’t believe it, though, until I saw Arthur in September at an SCBWI event put on by the Los Angeles chapter—where I also met the person who would become my new agent after the other one turned his focus to packaged books (yay/boo).

I’ll stop now. If you’re still reading, I salute you. And will conclude by saying this: You never know what life will bring—the regular life, or the writing life. So, write your heart out. Share your talents. Get out there and meet people, being genuinely interested in what they have to say, what they can teach you, and what you have to give. Show your gratitude. Be courageous when things don’t go your way. Keep working until you can’t get better. Then get better anyway.

Success isn’t guaranteed by an agent, and there will never be a moment when you are one, because life has a way of turning on itself. It will also turn you upside down from time to time. It’s the relationships that are important—the ones you have with people, and the ones you have with your keyboard. Give these everything you have, and you’ll have a meaningful ride on this earth, which is all anyone of us can really hope for.

Holly Cupala wrote teen romance novels before she ever actually experienced teen romance. When she did, it became all about tragic poetry and slightly less tragic novels. When she isn't writing and contributing to readergirlz, she spends time with her husband and daughter in Seattle, Washington. These days, her writing is less about tragedy and more about hope. TELL ME A SECRET is her first novel. Watch the trailer! Ten percent of the author's proceeds go toward World Vision's Hope for Sexually Exploited Girls.

I’m pretty sure Winston has some words of wisdom on this subject, but I hope my experience to helpful to writers and agent-seekers out there!

When I started writing Tell Me a Secret, there weren’t very many signposts—only the feeling I needed to tell this story and many helpful writer friends to encourage me. I didn’t have editors beating down my door…only a few I’d met at conferences who were waiting to see more.

Even though I’d been learning the craft and business in SCBWI for years, I didn’t really know much about agents. What did they do, and did I really need one? The more I researched, the more I realized…yes, I did. Here’s why:

1) An agent’s business is knowing the business. In volunteering for SCBWI and attending a couple of conferences every year, my knowledge of the market was just a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to a savvy agent. Mine knew exactly who to send it to and landed us a preempt with our top choice!

2) An agent can create urgency and juggle multiple submissions. This is sort of like dating multiple people at the same time. What if you get three proposals (i.e. an auction)? Or what if you get a proposal from choice #2 and still want to angle for choice #1? A savvy agent will save the day.

3) An agent knows how to negotiate. Mine knew the finer points of publisher agreements and guided us through the process, and I daresay he was able to get us a far better deal than we could have negotiated on our own. For instance, we retained most of the international rights and just sold rights to publish TMAS in Germany!

4) It’s very, very competitive—a great agent gives you an invaluable edge. Publishers are cutting back more than ever. A well-respected agent can get a foot in a seemingly impenetrable door. Your job is to give that agent the best possible manuscript to make it happen.

I wouldn’t be the first person to tell you my agent, Edward Necarsulmer of McIntosh and Otis, is awesome. How did we meet? At an SCBWI event, of course!

After I received an SCBWI Work-In-Progress Grant, editors and agents began to take notice. After a few months of single submissions, I’d had it with the slow lane—so I sent queries to a handful of agents, all requesting to see the full manuscript. (Talk about dating too many people at once!) But I met Edward quite by chance when I signed up for the Writer’s Intensive at the winter SCBWI conference in NYC. I read two pages, and he was wowed…literally! He requested it on the spot. A few weeks later, I had an offer from him and one other agent, with the not-as-fun-as-you-might-think task of choosing. Edward is passionate about his clients and loved the book from the start, and I don’t think I could have made a better choice.

I hope this is helpful to you in seeking and choosing exactly the right agent for your book!

Lisa Ann Sandell is an executive editor at Scholastic Inc., where she focuses her attention on acquiring and editing middle grade and young adult fiction, and she manages the Dear America series. Lisa is also the author of three young adult novels, The Weight of the Sky, Song of the Sparrow, and A Map of the Known World. She lives in New York City with her husband, who is also a writer, and their puppy.

Dear Winston,

Thank you so much for inviting me to be your guest! I can’t wait to meet you in person—er, in dog! Meanwhile, I’m very happy to take a crack at the question you’ve posed, which is: whether it is better to get an agent first, or to find an editor who loves your work first.

Well, here goes—and keep in mind, this is just my own humble, yet resounding opinion: Unless a writer has met and formed a special relationship with an editor at a conference, or through some other channel, I think it is always better to find an agent at the outset. Even if a writer does have a personal relationship or direct access to an editor who loves his or her work, it’s still probably better to get an agent at some point in the process.

A good agent will help a writer manage his or her career, will help find the very best home for a book and its author, will know which editors may best fit a writer’s sensibilities and best appreciate his work, and will manage all of the sticky and sometimes less-than-pleasant aspects of contract negotiations. What’s more, we editors look to agents to find the talent and bring it to us. I like to think of agents as sort of matchmakers—in just one of their many important capacities! We trust agents as our colleagues and industry professionals to make the marriage between the right editor/publishing house and the author with the book that fits just perfectly with said editor’s list and house. Agents are also partners in the publishing process, helping us guide the authors in decisions that will affect their careers and sometimes helping shape the books. So, yes, I say to writers, go get yourselves agents!

I hope I have helped to answer this age-old question! Thanks again, Winston!




  1. Dear Winston, You sure do work for your keep. Otis does nothing but lie around except when he's biting someone. Thank you for a very interesting post (can you believe that Martha?).

    And dear Kirby, Last night I dreamed the plot of a Dear America novel. Do you think that means something?

    Your humble correspondent

  2. Thanks for these three, Kirby (and Winston)!