Four agents who represent children’s literature, took time out of their busy day to share their insight and wisdom on platform, writing picture books, and writing for young audiences. If you want a better understand of what these agents are seeking in their submissions inbox and in their clients—and thus developing a better understanding of how to approach them and find representation—be sure to pick up a copy of Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market 2018 for the full roundup!
Kerrie Flanagan is an author, writing consultant, publisher, and accomplished freelance writer with more than 18 years’ experience. Her work has appeared in publications such as Writer’s Digest, Alaska Magazine, The Writer, and six Chicken Soup for the Soul books. She is the author of seven books, including two children’s books, Claire’s Christmas Catastrophe and Claire’s Unbearable Campout, all published under her label, Hot Chocolate Press. She was the founder and former director of Northern Colorado Writers and now does individual consulting with writers. Her background in teaching and enjoyment of helping writers has led her to present at writing conferences across the country, including the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference, the Willamette Writer’s Conference, and the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference. You can find her online at www.hotchocolatepress.com and on Twitter at @Kerrie_Flanagan. Her book, Writer’s Digest Guide to Magazine Article Writing, will release with Writer’s Digest Books in Spring 2018.
Meet the Agents
Kelly Sonnack (Andrea Brown Literary Agency) represents illustrators and writers for all age groups within children’s literature: picture books, middle grade, chapter book, young adult, and graphic novels. Kelly is on the Advisory Board and faculty for UCSD’s certificate in Writing and Illustrating for Children, and is a frequent speaker at conferences, including SCBWI’s national and regional conferences, and can be found talking about all things children’s books on Facebook (/agentsonnack) and Twitter (@KSonnack).
John Rudolph’s (Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC) list started out as mostly children’s books, it has evolved to the point where it is now half adult, half children’s authors—and he’s looking to maintain that balance. On the children’s side, John is keenly interested in middle-grade and young adult fiction and would love to find the next great picture book author/illustrator.
Sara Megibow (KT Literary) is a literary agent with nine years of experience in publishing. Sara specializes in working with authors in middle grade, young adult, romance, erotica, science fiction, and fantasy. She represents New York Times bestselling authors, Roni Loren and Jason Hough, and international best-selling authors, Stefan Bachmann and Tiffany Reisz. Sara is LGBTQ-friendly and presents regularly at SCBWI and RWA events around the country. She tries to answer professional questions on Twitter (@SaraMegibow) as time allows.
Jennifer March Soloway (Andrea Brown Literary Agency) represents authors and illustrators of picture book, middle grade, and YA stories, and is actively building her list. For picture books, she is drawn to a wide range of stories from silly to sweet, but she always appreciates a strong dose of humor and some kind of surprise at the end. When it comes to middle grade, she likes all kinds of genres, including adventures, mysteries, spooky-but-not-too-scary ghost stories, humor, realistic contemporary, and fantasy. Jennifer regularly presents at writing conferences all over the country, including the San Francisco Writers Conference, the Northern Colorado Writers Conference, and regional SCBWI conferences. For her latest conference schedule, craft tips, and more, follow Jennifer on Twitter at @marchsoloway.
What is the biggest mistake adult writers make when writing for young audiences (up through middle grade)?
Sonnack: Sounding like they’ve been listening in on their kids’ conversations. It’s really obvious when a writer approaches a story because they want to teach their kids a lesson versus really remembering what it was like to be that age and writing from a kid’s perspective.
Rudolph: Likewise, misunderstanding the proposed genre. For picture books, that could mean a text that’s way too long, vocabulary and sentence structure way above age level, or adult characters without any kid appeal. Chapter books and middle grade are more flexible, but I still turn down a lot of those projects where the voice and characters are too advanced—or too young.
Megibow: Great question! In my opinion, the biggest mistake adult writers make when writing for young readers is they use a narrative voice that sounds like an adult writing for a child. Young readers demand authentic books! Some adult writers “talk down” to young audiences by using silly language or by not fleshing out complex conflicts or characters. Avoid these mistakes! Write complex characters, real conflict, and always use an authentic voice.
Soloway: Crafting a voice that sounds adult instead of having the perspective of a child.
There is lots of talk at conferences and in writing magazines about platform. How important is it to you that a writer has an established platform?
Sonnack: Platform is something that means a lot more for the adult nonfiction market where readers are looking for advice/information from an established source (say, you want a book about finance—you’re probably going to want to buy a book written by someone who has some expertise in that field). In nonfiction for kids, this can be important too, but for kids’ fiction, your readers don’t really care who you are. This really only comes into play when an author has been successful and established a fan base. At that point, the child reader may follow the writer and want to read their next book(s).
Instead of platform, I like to see market awareness and engagement with the kid lit community. These things indicate that a prospective writer is more prepared for a career as a writer/illustrator. And that they’re giving back and participating in the community we hope will support them once they publish.
Rudolph: I don’t think platform is as important in children’s books, or at least not at the point when I sign a client. I do like to see authors engage with the world, whether through social media, being a member of SCBWI, or writing in other genres. But that’s very much secondary to the quality of the work. Once a client is signed, though, I do ask them to work on all of those things, and continue that work once their book is sold.
Megibow: For a debut fiction writer, I’m not worried about platform at the point I read a query letter. Some writers query with no platform at all and some come to the slush pile with an extensive social media campaign already in place. Both of these writers’ manuscripts will be reviewed equally. If a writer has an author website at the point they submit, I like to see that in the query letter—but it’s not a deal-maker or a deal-breaker. If we go on to work together, there is time to build platform and branding after we get a book deal.
A smart platform is important to have in place once the publishing house starts shopping a novel to its retailers and once the agent starts shopping subsidiary rights, but that platform should be tailored to the author’s personality and the genre in which they write. These are things that can be done after the query phase.
Soloway: For me, a platform is less important than the quality of the writing and story, but good platforms never hurt!
Because picture books are short, some writers think they are easy to write. What is the biggest mistake writers make when writing for this market and what makes a great picture book?
Sonnack: I think they’re one of the hardest forms to execute, especially for new writers. Many writers don’t take the time to explore the current landscape of picture books and what is succeeding today (which is quite different than when they were a picture book reader). They also often think the illustrations need to be a part of the submission package (which isn’t true; the publisher usually selects an illustrator once they purchase the text). I also see a lot of manuscripts that aren’t full stories (with a beginning, middle, and end, including conflict and resolution), or that aren’t doing anything special with the writing.
Rudolph: I don’t know if this is the biggest mistake, but not telling a story is up there. I get a ton of picture book manuscripts that aren’t stories—they’re glorified lists or concept books or poems—and I pass on almost all of them. Want to write a great picture book? Tell a great story!
Soloway: The best picture books have wonderful language at the line level that is fun to read aloud, a full story arc, a full character arc, an additional story thread, and an unexpected twist at the end that is either funny or sweet or both—and all of that needs to happen in 500 words or less. It’s quite a task, and the people who write great picture books are masters at their craft!
If you’re an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Writer’s Digest Books Managing Editor Cris Freese at firstname.lastname@example.org.