The children’s book publishing world has been roiling for the past week over the disclosure that Danielle Smith, the principal of Lupine Grove Creative, an agency specializing in children’s and YA authors, acted more like a literary grifter than a literary agent. Since Smith emailed a letter to her clients on July 24, confessing that recently she had “not handled a situation as well as I should have” and thus was dissolving the agency effective immediately, 19 former clients have reached out to PW, sharing tales of a pattern of malfeasance that has shaken their confidence and adversely affected their careers.
According to some former clients, she claimed to have had offers in hand that didn’t exist, such as, one author requesting anonymity disclosed, a $50,000 two-book deal. She informed others that editors had expressed interest in their submissions, but subsequently told them that either the editors had then lost interest or had outright rejected those submissions. Clients also complained about Smith’s refusal to communicate with them honestly and in a timely fashion, as well as the lack of transparency, including a reluctance to render submission lists to them upon request. Several clients allege that she even forged emails from editors and passed this correspondence along to them.
“Since this began, I and others have kept asking why, and looking for some rational explanation,” a well-known author who is knowledgeable about the situation told PW. “As more and more levels of deception are uncovered, you think, wouldn’t it have been easier to just to do the work? And of course it would have been. And the more you learn, the more all rational explanations fall away. So then I’m left wondering if the deception itself wasn’t the end game. Just the sheer thrill of getting away with it.”
The negative experiences with Smith, according to these sources, go as far back as five years, when Smith was a newly minted agent at Foreword Literary. She moved to Red Fox Literary in 2014. Smith, who was named a PW Star Watch Honoree in 2016, launched Lupine Grove in Shell Beach (San Luis Obispo County), Calif., in January 2017. Agent Jennie Kendrick joined Smith at Lupine Grove this past January.
After complaints about her surfaced on social media in the wake of that letter, Smith shut down the Lupine Grove website and deleted her social media accounts. PW has reached out to Smith for comment on the allegations, but has not received a response.
More than 60 writers whom Smith has represented at some point between 2013 and 2018 have joined a private Facebook group, where they are sharing information and commiserating with one another. While there is much speculation as to why Smith treated her clients the way she did, and the extent of the deceptions, nobody really has any answers—including Kendrick, who worked remotely from San Francisco. Kendrick says she was taken completely by surprise by Smith’s letter and has spent her time since “finding a new home for my clients.” She added, “As far as my working relationship with Danielle goes, it was professional and helpful, and she was always responsive to me and my clients, so this was just a shock all around.”
According to the former client who is referred to in Smith’s July 24 letter, who spoke with PW on condition of anonymity, Smith represented her for two years, until June. Almost a year ago, Smith claimed that she had scored at auction a lucrative two-book deal with a major house for this debut author of a middle-grade novel. “I never heard from the editor after [I] accepted the offer,” she said. “Danielle always had excuses. Eight months passed, and I saw a lawyer.”
After the client fired Smith, even though she believed that she thus was negating the deal, she signed on with a new agent—who discovered that there was no such deal with that editor. “No one knew who I was and no one had read my book in two years,” she said. “Danielle broke my heart. You think someone is taking care of you, taking care of your art. They’re taking the most vulnerable part of you and exposing it in such a dark way.” The writer says that the “absolute love” expressed by the industry this past week has been “a light during such a dark time,” thus renewing her faith in the publishing process and her hopes that her novel will find a home.
“This deceit has been ongoing for her entire career,” maintains writer Jason Rust, who signed with Smith in 2013 as her “third or fourth” client. “I've heard that she’s sticking hard to the story that it was just one series of mistakes made during a time of some personal stress. That's simply not the case, and we’re all tired of letting her set the narrative. She did wrong by all of us, all this time. This was not an isolated, recent incident. It’s the nuclear bomb sitting on top of the pile of dynamite she built up over five years.”
PW’s research into Lupine Grove’s track record and conversations with knowledgeable sources appears to confirm former clients’ allegations that Smith did not actively play a role in selling books, especially since leaving Red Fox. Several authors PW spoke with maintained that they initiated the contacts with editors at conferences and other professional events that resulted in deals, while other deals were due to long-standing relationships. One prominent author claims that she successfully connected one Lupine Grove author with a publisher. And while picture book author Julie Falatko, Smith’s first client, says Smith brokered five picture book deals since 2013, there have been none from her submissions in the past two years.
Rust says that he has written four middle grade science fiction novels, and collaborated on a graphic novel for young readers. He’s also written two adult novels. He has yet to be published. Recalling that he followed Smith from Foreword to Red Fox and then to Lupine Grove, he said, “I thought we were friends, and that she really believed in my work.” Rust disclosed that last fall, he tried to fire Smith, but that she begged him to give her a “second chance.” Since then, he says, he has spent less time writing, because “in the back of my head, I was thinking, she’s already got five books to sell.” During the last week, Rust contacted an editor whom Smith had told him several years ago was interested in making an offer but then had stopped responding to Smith’s overtures; the editor denied ever receiving a submission. She also told him she was not interested in the genre, so if Smith had submitted anything of his, it would have been for naught.
Kristina Martin says that she met Smith at an SCBWI conference in 2014, and that there was an immediate rapport as they discussed Martin’s YA historical novel. They later talked on the phone “as friends” about the novel, after which Smith offered to represent her. Like most of the others PW spoke with, Smith was Martin’s first agent. Submissions began to be sent out, Martin believed, in 2016, while Smith still worked at Red Fox; after Smith launched Lupine Grove, she told Martin that she had queried four more editors.
“After months of no responses from editors and empty promises from Danielle for copies of her follow-ups on those submissions, I fired her in May 2017,” Martin said, “From the editors we’ve heard back from [since], they never received a submission. Danielle is like a bad romance: she totally groomed me to think she was the perfect agent because she understood me so well. When I complained about anything, I just misunderstood her or what she’d said, or things must have gotten lost but she’d be sure to send them right away.”
“I don’t want my experience with Danielle to be the reason I fail as a writer,” she added. “But I have to admit that her gaslighting has had that effect. That’s the worst thing of having been Danielle Smith’s client: the emotional games didn’t just keep me from selling my novel. They made me question what to believe.”
David Pierce, who has created picture books and a graphic novel, says that he signed on with Smith a year ago, on the recommendation of an “industry insider” whom he declined to name. He said that he quickly felt that “something’s not right,” due to the lack of communication on submissions and her stalling when he asked for a list. After he had a conversation with her in May about his concerns, she told him that DreamWorks was interested in one of his projects (she told several other clients the same thing at about the same time).
“There never was this DreamWorks thing,” he told PW. “We all have the same stories.” Disclosing that he has this past week been in contact with an editor interested in his work whom Smith claimed to have submitted to but never did, as well as two agents sympathetic to his plight, Pierce says that while both his confidence in his work and in his ability to judge character have been shaken by Smith’s deceptions, he hopes “not to lose the child-like view of the world that has made me go towards children’s stuff” in the first place.
As for Kristi Romo, who creates picture books, and who signed with Smith in 2015, she felt “a massive weight lifted” after firing Smith in January, following a discussion about Smith with author Anne Ursu, who told Romo that it was “not a normal” agent-client relationship. “I gave her the benefit of the doubt over and over again,” Romo said, recalling that Smith once blew off Romo’s request for updates by claiming she was busy participating in three auctions. “I [felt] bad for suspecting her of bad behavior. No more.”
When PW spoke with Romo, she disclosed that she had been wary of querying agents since firing Smith, as “they don’t respond anyway,” and that perhaps there simply wasn’t a market for her work. “I doubt I’ll ever be published,” she said.
In a subsequent email, however, she reported that she has since realized that since her work had never been sent to any editors, “I have nothing on which to base that impression.” She has since queried eight agents who had offered Smith’s former clients their sympathies and indicated that they were open to submissions from them—although Romo concedes that she still fears being fooled again.
“It’s scarier to query than it was three years ago,” she wrote. “But I’m determined to rise up and not berate myself for being duped. I have since felt vindicated for having the doubts that I had. I was right on, but had been told by the whole writing world to trust my agent. So I did. But if I don’t trust her—[I can’t] say anything critical or I’ll never get another agent. So I didn’t.”
Many of the other authors interviewed for this story echoed Romo’s fears of risking being blacklisted in the industry if they expressed displeasure with Smith.
One, the author of picture books and middle grade novels, who was represented by Smith for a year before switching to another agent, told PW that perhaps the industry should speculate less about why Smith deceived her clients and focus more on the larger issues of communication and transparency between industry professionals and authors. Recalling her own frustration with Smith’s lack of timely responses to emails, and frequent lack of response, this author—who requested anonymity—told PW that Smith’s behavior towards her clients, while extreme, is not an isolated case in terms of some agents not keeping lines of communication open.
“For a long time, I didn’t suspect that anything was amiss, because I had experienced that kind of erratic communication with agents and editors before,” she wrote in an email. “I can’t think of another industry where this level of communication would be acceptable. But when working with agents and editors, it's commonplace. I wonder if the fact that many agents and editors overlook common business communication etiquette (i.e., reply within a few business days), and the fact that we authors and illustrators are used to this and fear being shunned if we complain—I wonder if this created the ideal breeding ground for Danielle’s underhanded practices to go on as long as they did. Here’s hoping that the whole Danielle debacle opens a larger conversation about improving communication and transparency.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Danielle Smith launched her agent career at Fuse Literary. Smith worked at Foreword Literary from March 2013 to March 2014. The company rebranded to become Fuse Literary in October 2014.