Children's Features

Representing Change
Jason Britton -- 2/12/01
Today's publishing environment means an expanding job description for children's book agents

It seems as though issues that felt new just a few years ago--consolidation of companies, editorial shakeups, a growing corporatization of the industry--are now part of the everyday reality of children's book publishing. As a result, the role an agent plays in the process has changed and, in many ways, expanded. A number of new agents have recently opened shop, bringing different approaches with them. PW spoke with several agents and editors to gain an overview of the current scene in children's book agenting.

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Without a doubt, children's book agents are enjoying more visibility and cachet these days than ever before. The field is growing rapidly, more authors and illustrators have agents--even some who have long thought they didn't need an agent have changed their minds--and there are more agents representing children's books. Until relatively recently, few agents specialized in children's books, and for those who did handle this area, it was most often as an adjunct to their main business of adult books. Today, however, children's agenting is a viable--and increasingly competitive--career choice. For editors, this means maintaining relationships not only with authors and illustrators but also with their agents.

Though agents have always represented children's authors and illustrators, previously it wasn't considered necessary, at a time when relatively few authors and illustrators made their living solely from their children's book work (unless an author had gained "superstar" status and was
involved in more complicated negotiations). Advances were standard, publishers retained rights and that's the way it was. "I used to tell authors they didn't need to have an agent--for their first book, anyway," commented George Nicholson, senior agent at Sterling Lord Literistic, "but I wouldn't say that now."
Back when agents were not as abundant as today, authors and illustrators would often approach lawyers with their questions about contracts and other business issues. Sheldon Fogelman, of the Sheldon Fogelman Agency, came to children's book agenting from a background as a lawyer. Though he started his agency in 1975, Fogelman had been representing authors and illustrators through his law firm for 10 years before that. At that time, most of the authors and illustrators who came through his door were already established, but Fogelman said that the agency now regularly takes on unpublished clients. Fogelman has seen a dramatic increase in business; he reports that income for his agency has grown more than 20% annually in recent years.

The job of an agent has always been, and continues to be, pairing clients and their work with the right editors. "It's like matchmaking," observed Marilyn Marlow, an agent with Curtis Brown since 1959, now executive v-p, "and I love getting authors, illustrators and editors together who like each other." This basic function remains. However, the methods by which agents operate have, for the most part, changed.

In the old days, an agent would typically send out a manuscript (possibly with black-and-white
photocopies of art) to a number of editors, along with a brief cover letter, and follow up a month later--often in writing, not by phone. "If you didn't respond to the submission, sometimes you wouldn't hear from them again for months," said Megan Tingley, editorial director of Megan Tingley Books at Little, Brown. "The whole process seemed pretty sleepy. Frankly, it wasn't clear to me what these agents were really doing for their clients."
Not so any longer, according to Tingley, who publishes Joan Steiner and Todd Parr, among others, and estimates that about 75% of the authors and illustrators on her list have agents. "In the past few years, agents seem to have focused their submission strategies. They target their submissions to a select group of editors, call the editors first to preview them on the project, send a packet of information that often includes an author/artist bio and Web site, sales history, color art samples, and marketing and merchandising suggestions."

In addition, most children's agents today submit projects to a number of editors at once. The days of offering submissions exclusively to one editor are mostly over. "But that's understandable," said Christy Ottaviano, executive editor at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, "since authors themselves have become more impatient with editors' taking too long to respond."

Nicholson cited this inefficient working style as one of the reasons he insists on multiple submissions: "Because children's book editors are devastatingly bad at responding," he said, "by submitting to more than one editor, one is more likely to get some sort of timely response. It's not like with adult editors, who inherently feel more competition and therefore move much more swiftly."

Like much of the work of agents, the submission process continues to be a matter of personal style. Marlow, for example, continues to reject the idea of multiple submissions, because, in her view, "There aren't five editors who are perfect for one project." Clearly this works for Marlow, who has successfully paired a striking number of well-known and lasting books with editors over the years.

The matchmaking between artists and editors is extending into more personal areas as well. "I'm looking for which editor is going to inspire artists to do their best work," said Holly McGhee of Pippin Properties. McGhee started Pippin a little over two years ago, after leaving her post as associate publisher of Michael di Capua Books when the imprint was at HarperCollins, and her
client list includes David Small, Fred Marcellino, Kate DiCamillo and William Steig, among others. "Many artists are looking for creative inspiration, and often editors at individual houses don't have time to dote on a particular author and develop a style that works for that person."
Steven Malk, an agent at Writers House who represents Jon Scieszka, Nancy Farmer and Franny Billingsley, agreed, saying, "I only take on material that I have a passion for, and I look for an editor who shares that passion." This sort of approach can be ideal for authors and illustrators, but off-putting to some editors. As one editor put it, "You can feel like you're trying out for an author, which takes a lot of extra time that editors simply don't have."

Perhaps the most apparent change in children's agenting of late is the increased number of people in the field. According to a recent Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators survey, there are currently more than 75 agents representing children's book authors and artists. And editors, probably because they have little choice, are learning how to deal with the influx.
"It's exciting to see some new faces on the scene. There's some nice new energy out there," said Joanna Cotler, publisher of Joanna Cotler Books at HarperCollins. Almost all of the authors and illustrators on Cotler's list are represented by agents.
"There are more agents now--more good agents--who all have their own unique styles and specialties," observed Paula Wiseman, editorial director of Silver Whistle Books at Harcourt Children's Books, who estimates that about two-thirds of her list is agented. "Now editors can go to agents knowing their tastes, which is good, especially now that we don't have staff to read slush."

Ottaviano at Henry Holt had a good turn of this sort with agent Jennifer Flannery of Flannery Literary. The two ended up sharing a room for two nights at an SCBWI conference some years ago, and by the end of the weekend Flannery had told Ottaviano about a project she thought would be a good fit. "That project turned out to be MyLouisiana Sky by Kimberly Willis Holt," said Ottaviano (Holt went on to win the National Book Award in 1999 for her novel When Zachary Beaver Came to Stay).

Agents are also increasingly involving themselves in the success of their clients and their books longer into the publication process. Flannery continued her efforts after she sold the book to Ottaviano, working with Henry Holt on publicity and marketing for the first-time author. She even arranged a small book tour for Holt, on which the agent accompanied her client.

Filling the GapAs the business of making books became more profitable for children's publishers, beginning with the retail bookstore boom of the 1980s, title output was increased, and editors became less able to look after their authors personally. "Before," Nicholson said, "editors' work wasn't interfered with or even watched because children's book expenditures were so small and insignificant to a large company." Also, profits were less speculative, since the institutional market could be counted on for consistent orders.

Having to devote more of the workday to dealing with company-related matters like meetings and administrative activities, editors are finding themselves left with less and less time to actually work on the editing of their books. As a result, it has become more desirable to receive projects from agents in a state closer to finished, as opposed to at the very beginning, where more attention is required. McGhee has observed this shift in publishing, saying it has become apparent that "projects that will take more work [on the editor's part] are less likely to sell."

In this respect, agents within this new wave who have editorial background may have an advantage, as they bring with them the skills necessary to fine-tune their clients' projects before sending them out to editors. Their in-house experience can also prove invaluable when maneuvering through the increasingly complex maze of editorial and service departments within big publishers; they often know the right people to talk to, and have established relationships with them. "Having an understanding of the organizational hierarchy of a publishing house makes it easier to know when to be concerned about something and when not to," McGhee explained. "From my experience, I also know how long it takes to draft a contract once the paperwork is filled out and what kinds of things are possible when making a book, production-wise."

For some editors, this kind of editorial experience is welcome and even helpful. "Agents with an editorial background have a different take on what could be a good project," said Caitlyn Dlouhy, senior editor at Atheneum Books for Young Readers. "They also appreciate the importance of a good working relationship between an author and an editor in a way that agents without this sort of background might not." Dlouhy continued, "There have been instances when I'm engrossed in a picture-book manuscript and am visualizing the pages in my head only to find out that the illustrator isn't available, and at those times I've found that agents have enough distance and outsider's perspective to suggest an equally good illustrator I would have never thought of."

Cotler agreed that an agent with an editorial bent can be quite effective. "When an editor becomes an agent, it can be particularly effective because they bring another level of extertise to the field, and understand the publishing process and are patient when necessary," she explained.

This sentiment is not universal, however. Emily Easton, publisher of Walker Books for Young Readers, said, "I find it very unfortunate. For me, I would feel a great sense of loss if I couldn't be the one to edit a book from the beginning." There is also a camp of children's agents who believe it is not their place to edit books, but rather to deal with the business of publishing and leave the creative process to editors and artists.

Raising the StakesAgents and editors alike agree that the bottom line is more important then ever these days. More publishing companies have been involved in mergers, having been bought and absorbed into larger houses and into enormous entertainment conglomerates. And children's books, for better or worse, have earned their proverbial place at the table. As agent Nancy Gallt, who came to agenting from a background as subsidiary rights director of children's books at Morrow (and before that at HarperCollins), said, "Children's books are Big Business now more than ever before."

One sign of this shift may be that adult agents are also starting to take on children's projects with more frequency. Charlotte Sheedy, of the Charlotte Sheedy Agency, started representing children's projects about 10 years ago, and now estimates that 10% of her client list is children's authors and illustrators, including Jacqueline Woodson, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) and Hudson Talbott. "When I first started doing children's books," she recalled, "I found that there were different conventions from adult books, but they were changing. Children's editors moved at a much more leisurely pace than adult editors. At first, I was told that multiple submitting was not done, and my submitting like that offended children's editors. Also, at that time auctions were very, very rare in children's." Auctions are still not as common as they are in adult books, but they are no longer shocking occurrences either.

As Gallt observed, "Authors are becoming more savvy, too, and are paying more attention to the business side of their careers." Indeed, it seems more authors and illustrators are getting agents to handle the business aspect of their relationship with their publisher or publishers. "I don't think any author can represent themselves," said Sheedy. "No author knows how to read royalty
statements or deal with other business parts of the process--especially the sub rights stuff. They need someone whose job it is to deal with that end of their career. Publishing involves many people--it's like making a movie--and if you don't have the attention of everyone, your project is doomed. The agent has a relationship with all of these people, with everyone who is involved--and the author d sn't have time to do that."
The business issues in children's books are becoming increasingly complex these days, with film and television deals proliferating, and most recently with the introduction of e-rights into the mix. E-rights brings its own unique set of concerns, ranging from basic questions like who should have these rights to more complex ones like figuring out how exactly to exploit e-books and then determining royalty rates for them.

Consolidations at publishing houses have yielded other results as well. "All of the mergers have made agenting more difficult and much more political," said McGhee. "It's often like walking a diplomatic tightrope. When a company is up for sale, I am more hesitant to submit projects there. And when mergers happen, artists gets nervous during the year of shakedown--to see who will be let go--and then there are new contracts, new mandates, different ways of operating."

Another issue resulting from publishing's current business-focused climate is the fate of the midlist. "The midlist is disappearing in favor of blockbusters, and editors are more selective about what they buy," said Malk. But not every book can be a bestseller. Editors who work on midlist books agreed that they do encounter more resistance to those books being published, and those books generally get short shrift from their marketing departments. But despite this, editors remain determined to continue rallying behind the books they are passionate about. Many said that they just have to find "creative" ways of working with little money for marketing and publicity; this can involve touches like sending personal notes or signing books for sales people and/or bookstore accounts.

Marlow d sn't view the shrinking midlist as necessarily negative: "The cream rises to the top," she said, the idea being that because the midlist is shrinking, books that should not be published are no longer making it to market. Whether or not this is true, one thing is for sure: more and more, publishers are putting their resources behind "big" books that are sure to sell, rather than trying to break out books that need more help.

This possibility of a book falling to the bottom of the marketing budget heap has resulted in many children's book agents asking for marketing plans and even guarantees when they are negotiating contracts with publishers. McGhee justified this practice, saying, "In today's competitive market, the sales and marketing of a book is as important as the editing and production of a book." But this often means more work for editors, who are having to approach their marketing people--already stretched thin working on books that actually exist--to devise plans for a book that only might get made.

With higher children's book advances come higher sales expectations from publishers, and editors now must justify those advances with increased profits. An author's sales record is more important than ever, too; if an author's previous book bombs, the author is seen as a liability and the next project becomes very difficult to sell. For a first-time author, it is even sometimes preferable not to receive too large an advance, so that it will more likely be earned out and therefore profitable to the publisher. A good track record is very valuable these day. This is especially true when it comes to the big chain stores; if a particular author's last book did not sell well for them, the chain is not likely to take their next effort, which can mean sudden death for that book.

Increased interest in various forms of media, from movies and television to CD-ROMs and e-books, has also contributed to the changing role of children's agents. Rights issues associated with these forms of intellectual property are increasingly complex, and the number of players involved--lawyers, licensing agents, movie studio executives and so on--is growing. Sub rights departments, especially those in houses that have recently merged, are often forced to focus their efforts on only a fraction of the list any given season (along with profitable backlist titles), and non-lead titles can suffer as a result. In these cases, agents say, it especially makes sense for them to retain subsidiary rights rather than give them to publishers, since agents have more time to devote to selling the rights elsewhere. "Children's publishing is now at a turning point," McGhee said. "Artists are realizing how many opportunities there are to exploit their ideas outside of the book publishing program, and also realizing that publishers are not always the best vehicle for exposing those rights. The book is only the beginning."

Wiseman summarized the situation thus: "It is the publisher's charge to focus on the book, and editors are still here to make books. To take the book into other forms of media is the charge of the agent." This is just what Malk at Writers House did with a book that Wiseman published. In 1999, Malk approached Saks Fifth Avenue with AuntieClaus by his client Elise Primavera as a possible theme for their holiday windows. "Saks loved it," Malk recalled, "and decided to use it." Malk and a co-film agent also sold the film rights at the same time, all of which helped to build excitement for the book within Harcourt's sales force. It also gained the book considerable publicity, and AuntieClaus went on to become a New York Times and PW bestseller.

For publishers looking to gain consumers' attention, the more potential for cross-media promotion that a project has, the better, since it will inevitably lead to more attention and sales for the book. For example, McGhee cited a deal she made with a publisher in which an author's visibility on QVC played a role. The author appears regularly on the network to promote a popular line of clothing, but because of his relationship with QVC, his books will debut on the network--an attractive prospect in terms of sales potential for both publisher and author.

Nicholson at Sterling Lord was able to approach Houghton Mifflin with a similarly attractive offer when he submitted the picture book Rabbit's Bedtime by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace. A program had been started that provided free books for every child born at the Yale-New Haven Hospital, and because of a connection Wallace had to the program, her book was chosen even before it was published. When Nicholson brought the project to Houghton, it was with a virtual guarantee that an extra print run of more than 15,000 copies would go to the New Haven program, followed the next year by a Spanish-English run of 7,500 copies.

"There is more of a sense of the potential of a book being more than a book," said Dlouhy at Atheneum. "There is attention being paid to a book's long-term potential, which can be helpful--it provides more ammo to go to a publisher with [during the acquisition process]." Dlouhy was quick to add, though, "first and foremost, what is most important to the acquisition decision is the merit of the story itself. If the story d sn't work, the rest d sn't matter."

Dlouhy's sentiment was ech d by a number of editors. While children's publishing these days is encountering more pressure than ever before for commercial success, and more and more people are looking to get in on the action, at the center remains a palpable admiration for the field and its efforts to publish quality books for children. Will there soon be as many agents representing children's authors and illustrators as represent adult authors? Will there come a day when every children's book will be represented by an agent? How will this affect the industry? The answers are uncertain at this point, but the growing role of and demand for children's agents is telling. It is certainly something to watch.