“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Holly McGhee) is a series of quick interviews with literary agents and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else. This series has more than 170 interviews so far with reps from great literary agencies. This collection of interviews is a great place to start if you are just starting your research on literary agencies.
This installment features Holly McGhee of Pippin Properties, Inc. After a twelve-year career in book publishing, with positions ranging from assistant to advertising-and-promotion director to executive editor, Holly founded Pippin Properties, Inc. The author of the Dessert chapter book series as well as the upcoming Mitchell’s License (under pen name Hallie Durand), her fascination with making books began in 1991, when she was appointed Associate Publisher for Michael di Capua’s imprint at HarperCollins.
She is seeking: children’s, middle-grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction as well as the some adult projects.
GLA: Why did you become an agent?
HM: I was an executive editor at HarperCollins, where I had the extraordinary opportunity to work with some amazing writers and artists such as William Steig and Fred Marcellino, who were well established (an understatement). But there were many wonderful projects that came across my desk that I believed in but was unable to acquire. So I decided to set out on my own, to set up a creative studio environment where I could work on any project that struck a chord with me—no committee—I would be fully accountable for my success or failure.
GLA: What’s something you’ve sold that comes out now/soon that you’re excited about?
HM: Our new books really run the gamut! Coming right now is Ross MacDonald and James Victore’s In & Out with Dick & Jane, a loving parody (it’s for adults and all I’ll say is that on the title page Dick and Jane are reading Our Bodies Ourselves), Michael Kaplan’s debut picture book, Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake (she wants to marry it), and Doreen Cronin’s first novel, The Trouble with Chickens (already on the Indie Bestseller list).
GLA: One of your philosophies at Pippin Properties, Inc., is to acquire “evergreens” in terms of books you put out to the world—and with authors like Kathi Appelt, Jandy Nelson and William Steig being represented by your agency, we can see you’re doing just that! Does this mean you look for more literary writing, or do you feel commercial fiction can stand the test of time as well?
HM: I tend to gravitate to classic literature—but it’s always personal. When I read The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, I cried for myself as a teenager, wishing I had had that incredible book to read as a 17-year-old who was going through some very difficult times, wishing a book had shown me that the other side of despair is joy.
With William Steig’s work, there is always honesty and unconditional love, and his characters inevitably learn an essential truth about the world. So I look for books that give something back, books that make me think or speak to my spirit. Commercial fiction can do this too, and good writing is simply that: good writing.
Whether commercial or literary, I look for books that help us grapple with the complicated emotions of this world, books that don’t diminish the challenges of being human, books that help us make sense of things. Kate DiCamillo, whom I represent, is a fitting example—in her beautiful stories, I always find something for myself, some connection to my own sadness and ultimately to my own hope for the world as well. I think everybody who reads her does—I guess that’s what they call universal appeal. Timeless for its truthfulness.
GLA: Do you accept any nonfiction?
HM: Oh, yes, of course. [David Small’s] Stitches is a graphic memoir—that’s nonfiction. And one of our upcoming picture books, Stay, about an eighth-generation Italian circus performer, Luciano Anastasini, and his rescue dogs, is a nonfiction picture book along the lines of Owen and Mzee. Excellent nonfiction is always welcome at Pippin.
GLA: Do you notice any trends in the kinds of projects that pique your interest, in terms of subgenres or elements that particularly grab you?
HM: I am drawn to beautifully written stories that come from the heart, across all genres. Show me your heart and you’ve got mine. That’s just how it works.
GLA: There are two other agents at your agency. Do you and your colleagues share the same tastes in terms of age groups and topics, or are potential queriers better off sending young adult projects to one of you, middle-grades to another, picture books to the third, etc.?
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HM: Elena Mechlin’s taste tends to run a bit more commercial than Joan Slattery’s. Joan has a deep appreciation for a literary voice while Elena often finds satisfaction in a commercially appealing story.
GLA: What is the number one mistake you see writers making when writing for kids?
HM: Talking down to kids. It’s kind of like those parents on the playground—the ones who talk baby talk to their children. As a parent and as a writer, it’s our duty to prepare kids for the world. That means telling and talking the truth.
GLA: What would you say is the healthiest area of juvenile lit at the moment? And why do you think that is so?
HM: First I would say that the truth is forever changing. That said, YA is still very hot, especially YA in which we encounter a different reality, often a grim reality. Perhaps its popularity is due to the fact that we are in denial of how horrific our own world can be (and often is)? It’s easier to read about a different and seemingly more ruthless reality, when actually through our reading, we are learning to cope with our own world. That’s my best guess (today).
GLA: You are an author as well as an agent (with the Dessert chapter book series as well as the upcoming Mitchell’s License under pen name Hallie Durand). How do you think this dual perspective affects the types of projects you take on as an agent?
HM: Oh, becoming a writer now too has been a tectonic shift. In my career I’ve worked as a marketing manager, an editor, a literary agent, and now I’m a writer, too. I know this business from every side—my background gives me the foundation to make well-informed decisions, but it’s hard too, because I empathize with all the players!
In terms of the effect on the projects I take on, writing hasn’t made a difference. I look for stories that change me for the reading, or stories that make me cry with laughter and recognition.
GLA: How have you found the role of agent to be changing as the industry changes? Any projections for what’s to come?
HM: It is a fascinating time to be a literary agent, especially with all of the potential of picture books in the digital world. Enhanced e-books, electronic versions, stories that move (literally)—who controls which rights and how do we all work together to expand the footprint of the original property, how do we find a way to seamlessly feed one derivation into another and ultimately back to the original book?
We’re going to crack it, but publishers will have to stop negotiating from a place of fear and just start making some really cool stuff! Don’t just stand there, bust a move!
GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers’ conferences where writers can meet and pitch you?
HM: I am working on a speech that I’ll deliver at the Princeton SCBWI on Sunday, June 5, 2011. It’s called “Locating Your Inner GPS.” It’s about the artistic journey (at least so far!).
Joan Slattery will be at SCBWI’s Eastern Pennsylvania’s 19th Annual Pocono Mountains Retreat April 8-10, 2011.
Elena Mechlin will be at the Writers’ League of Texas’s YA A-Z conference in Austin, Texas, April 15-16, 2011 and also at the Princeton SCBWI June 3-5, 2011. Come say hello!
GLA: What is something personal about you writers would be surprised to hear?
HM: I love playing Skeeball on my iPad. And even more, I love playing Skeeball in an arcade. I like watching the tickets come out, and I love the machine that gobbles up the tickets and gives you a receipt.
GLA: Best piece(s) of advice we haven’t talked about yet?
HM: Don’t tell me your neighbor or your friends like it, don’t even describe it in detail—because—it’s all in the execution!
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Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
- Your Job is to WRITE, Not Worry.
- NEW Literary Agent Seeking Clients: Michelle Witte of Mansion Street Mgmt.
- The Advice I Need Most As a New Writer (But Never Got).
- 5 Pieces of Advice I’m Glad I Didn’t Take.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Author Platform.
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and how to write a query letter.