Writers House literary agent Steven Malk spent his high school years immersed in children’s books at The White Rabbit, his family’s children’s bookstore in La Jolla, Calif. After college, the third-generation bookseller embarked on a career as a children’s book literary agent. In 1998, Malk opened the San Diego office for Writers House, part of the agency’s children’s book department that Amy Berkower founded more than 40 years ago. Malk now represents a number of notable authors and illustrators, including Mac Barnett, Kelly Barnhill, Matt de la Peña, Jennifer Donnelly, Marla Frazee, Jon Klassen, Kadir Nelson, Sara Pennypacker, Christian Robinson, Ruta Sepetys, Tui T. Sutherland, and Jillian Tamaki. His clients have won the Newbery Medal, the Caldecott Medal, Carnegie Medals, and the Kate Greenaway Medal. Malk spoke with PW about his career, reflecting on his experience as a literary agent, bookseller, and parent of two young readers.
Your parents moved to San Diego in the 1970s and opened The White Rabbit. How did that experience shape your life and career?
I worked with both my mom and my grandmother. I watched how they handled the customers and how they were able to very quickly understand what kind of book would be perfect for what kind of customer and why. That instinct is something I still draw on every day. I think retail bookstore experience is invaluable. In some ways, I think it should be required for everyone. I think that that one-on-one interaction with a customer is a pretty special relationship: trying to determine what books they will love, to give it to them, and to have them come back and tell you how much they love or don’t love the book.
At what point did you decide to become a literary agent? What drove you to follow this particular path?
For a long time, I thought I would always be a bookseller and work in a bookstore. And I think I would’ve been really happy doing that. But just by chance, in one of these moments when your life turns on something small and random, I was at my brother’s graduation from UCLA. I was waiting to go to the ceremony, and I read an article in [now defunct] Buzz magazine about an agent here in San Diego named Sandra Dijkstra.
I wrote her a letter and I was fortunate enough to get an internship with her, and then, a job with her as soon as I graduated. As soon as I spent time in her office, I had one of those lightning-bolt moments of knowing exactly where I was meant to be. The intersection of the business and artistic side of the industry was really exciting for me.
How did your early bookstore experience help you as an agent?
Matching the right book to the right customer is very similar to matching the right project to the right editor and publisher. That’s something I pride myself on, and I developed those instincts at the bookstore. I was really watching what kinds of books people responded to and why. There were a lot of iconic authors and illustrators coming through The White Rabbit on tour.
As a kid, I got to meet Beverly Cleary, Barbara Cooney, James Marshall, Eric Carle, Aliki, Leo and Diane Dillon, and Ashley Bryan. Interacting, even in a small way, with authors and illustrators had a profound impact on me. It instilled a true appreciation for what they did. That really stuck with me.
When you get an email from a potential client, what are the elements that make you excited about a project or creator? What things are most important for aspiring authors to communicate in their query letters and emails to an agent?
The most exciting thing for me has always been reading a voice I’ve never read before, coming across a perspective, point of view, or experience that’s different and new. The advice I always give is just to communicate what it is that makes you unique.
And there’s the really basic stuff of just being professional. You want to come across as really serious about what you’re doing. You don'’ want to come across as someone who’s just dabbling or who doesn’t take the business particularly seriously as a potential career. It is a career. You should demonstrate that, just like with any job.
What are some current trends you’ve noticed in the children’s publishing world? Do you have any predictions for future growth in the children’s market?
I’ve definitely noted the explosion of graphic novels and heavily illustrated books for older readers, which I find super heartening. There’s a rise in different forms and formats for nonfiction, which for me, as a former history and poli sci major, is very gratifying.
What’s on your manuscript wish list at the moment?
I love coming across a voice I haven’t read before. I love books that open windows into a wide range of experiences. Not many people know it, but I’m a huge fan of mysteries and read them in my spare time whenever I can. I’d love to find a great mystery, especially a mystery with real emotional stakes and a setting we haven’t seen before. I’ve always been a big fan of flawed or unreliable narrators as protagonists. I love music, history, and sports, so I’m always receptive to books that touch on those subjects as well.
You are now a father sharing books with your children. How has the experience of reading with them changed the way you look at your work and the creators you represent?
I have two kids. I have a daughter who is almost five and a half, and a son who just turned two. I’ve always believed that kids are very, very smart and sophisticated readers, and should be treated as such. Seeing up close how observant, empathetic, and sharp they are has been a really powerful thing. It really reinforced that belief.
Building our kids’ library of books has been a super fun process for me and I’ve loved doing a really deep dive on some of my favorite authors, such as Gyo Fujikawa, Margaret Wise Brown, Mary Ann Hoberman, and Sandra Boynton. Reading their books again and again with my kids and getting deep into their backlists has given me a full appreciation for just how brilliant their books are.
I spent so many years as a bookseller, agent, and general children’s book enthusiast, and I always have loved recommending books to people. To be able to apply that experience to our own kids has been really meaningful.
During the course of your career, you’ve seen ebooks, apps, and online tools evolve in the publishing scene. Do you think printed books will endure as the primary reading format for children?
At the end of the day, people will always want great stories. The way that the stories are delivered has evolved and will continue to evolve. But what will never change is people’s hunger for great stories and great storytelling. I do think the printed book will endure as a primary reading format, especially for kids.