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Literary Agent Interview: Susan Hawk of the Bent Agency

This interview features Susan Hawk of The Bent Agency. She came to the agency from Children's Book Marketing, where she worked for over 15 years, most recently as the Marketing Director at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, and previous to that as the Library Marketing Director at Penguin Young Readers. She is seeking: Susan represents authors who write for children of all ages: babies to teenage. She is seeking young adult, middle grade books, and picture books nonfiction and fiction (especially literary fiction). Within the realm of kid’s stories, she likes fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, and mystery.

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Susan Hawk of the Bent Agency) 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 agents.

(What to write in the BIO section of your queries.)

This installment features Susan Hawk of The Bent Agency. She came to the agency from Children's Book Marketing, where she worked for over 15 years, most recently as the Marketing Director at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, and previous to that as the Library Marketing Director at Penguin Young Readers. You can find her on Twitter or on the agency’s blog.

She is seeking: Susan represents authors who write for children of all ages: babies to teenage. She is seeking young adult, middle grade books, and picture books nonfiction and fiction (especially literary fiction). Within the realm of kid’s stories, she likes fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, and mystery.

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GLA: How and why did you become a literary agent?

SH: I was in children’s book marketing for close to twenty years and I loved that time because of the many wonderful books and authors I worked with. At one point, I became curious about the editor’s job and working with writers to help shape their work. That led to some time wearing two hats at Penguin Young Readers – I acquired some projects for Dutton Children’s Books (a division of Penguin), while also running the Library Marketing Department. Eventually, I came to see that agenting would be a great way to marry the skills I have from both these experiences.

GLA: Besides “good writing and voice,” what are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?

SH: What I’m always looking for is something that’s going to surprise me – something that feels new and unique. I’m always drawn to characters; I want to feel like I deeply understand, and am moved, by the characters I’m reading about.

I would love to have a fabulous, sexy YA historical. I’m a total sucker for things British, so I’d love something from almost any time in British history, but I’m very open to other times and places too. I love mystery and am on the lookout for something that feels rich and different in this genre, for YA or MG. If you have a gorgeously written, literary novel for YA or MG, please send it to me!

GLA: For the past 15 years, you worked in Children’s Book Marketing. How has book marketing changed over the years for authors?

SH: Social media has really changed everything. The explosion in children’s publishing has meant that publisher’s lists are bigger and there is more competition for attention and marketing dollars. As a result, most authors now handle some of their own marketing.

(Advance your social media by building your author platform.)

GLA: Considering your experience in marketing, if you met a writer and suggested that he build his platform, only for him to ask “How do I do that?” - what would you say?

SH: It’s a good idea to create an online presence of course. Be careful with this – making a website and blog can be a full time job. You don’t want to invent something that will keep you from your main focus: writing the very best book you can. Look at what other writers are doing online. You’ll see lots of different ways to give folks a sense of who you are as a writer.

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GLA: I’ve heard that writing picture book fiction is one of the hardest types of writing out there. What are the three biggest mistakes you see in picture book proposals?

SH: Keeping texts concise is key – take a look at newly published picture books to see approximately how long they are. Editors aren’t looking for a lengthy text. I often receive rhyming picture books and these can also be a tough sell. Ask yourself if your story must rhyme; sometimes it can open up possibilities if you aren’t bound to a rhyme scheme.

I also avoid texts that teach a lesson. I find that a story that’s in service of a lesson can obscure the star of the story – the characters I want to fall in love with.

(See more literary agents who represent picture books.)

GLA: I’ve also heard it’s one of the most popular genres writers are submitting to. Do you have any tips for writers that would help make their picture book stand out from the crowd?

SH: I see lots of picture books that cover “evergreen” subjects like finding a friend. These are universal experiences, so everyone can connect, but it’s also a challenge to make a story like this stand out amongst the others out there. See if you can push your story and take on something that feels fresh.

GLA: How do your tastes differ from chapter books to middle grade to young adult?

SH: I’d say that they are the same for each of these – I want to be surprised, I love great characters and powerful, unique writing!

(Look over our growing list of young adult literary agents.)

GLA: When you reject a query letter, what’s the best thing a writer can say when they respond to your rejection?

SH: I never cease to be amazed and humbled by the bravery of every writer who risks putting a piece of themselves on the page and asks for a response to that. That takes a ton of heart and I honestly don’t expect anything more than this.

But, a brief thanks is always nice, especially if I’ve made a suggestion you feel is helpful. It’s good to remember that there are so many different agents and editors out there. It’s not worth getting hung up on one rejection or opinion. If someone makes a comment that you don’t agree with, you don’t need to argue the point, just know they are not the right agent for you!

(How NOT to start your story. Read advice from agents.)

GLA: What is something personal about you writers would be surprised to hear?

SH: In another life, I might be an opera singer.

GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers’ conferences where writers can meet and pitch you?

SH: I'm working on confirming a few conferences for next year [2013], but nothing is nailed down right now. However, anyone who is interested can check this site for news of where I’ll be appearing.

GLA: Best piece of advice we haven’t talked about yet?

SH: Read, read, read. Never stop reading!

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This agent interview is by Brittany Roshelle Davis, a
freelance writer and aspiring author. You can visit her
blog, The Write Stuff, or follow her on Facebook.

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