A Literary Agent's Advice to Children's and YA Authors
Read to Get Connected to the Audience
For many aspiring authors, publishing a children's book is the dream. One of the first cautions most publishing professionals give, though, is that the children's book market is quite different than the adult book market.
A vice president at Curtis Brown Ltd. literary agency, Elizabeth Harding represents authors and illustrators of juvenile, middle grade, and young adult fiction. Her list includes New York Times bestsellers, Newbery, National Book Award, Printz, and Coretta Scott King honor and award winners. With decades of literary agent experience, she is well-qualified to understand the marketplace.
To Write Children's Books, Read Children's Books
Valerie Peterson: When someone says to you, "I want to write a kid's book," what do you say?
Elizabeth Harding: I'd ask: "Have you read any recently?"
I think people feel so connected to kid's books—especially with picture books—because if you read "Goodnight Moon" or "Madeleine" or one of many other picture books when you were young, I think that you feel like you just read them yesterday. There's a whole association with the books that you read as a child.
But I think it's very important for aspiring authors to take a look at and really familiarize themselves with what's being published today.
Your Friendly Neighborhood Children's Librarian
VP: So, go do your book market research in a bookstore…
EH: I'm in publishing, so I bring books home all the time, and being in New York City, my kids are more attuned to the bookstore than the library.
But for someone who is new and starting out writing a children's book, it's worth it to befriend your local librarian because she or he is probably the most knowledgeable person about kids' books. Not only will the librarian know what's selling—which is not always what's the best—they'll know what is the best.
That goes especially for picture books and middle-grade books. Teachers and librarians are a fierce group of advocates and gatekeepers for children's books.
VP: Are teachers and librarians gatekeepers for Young Adult books and authors, as well?
EH: Yes, but in the case of YA and teen books, the kids are finding and/or buying the books themselves, whereas a picture book and a middle-grade book are often recommended by a teacher or librarian.
The Children's Book Market
VP: You've been agenting kids' books for nearly 20 percent of Curtis Brown's 100 years. Can you comment on the state of the kids' book market today?
EH: The children's book market has always been totally distinct from the adult market.
The difference today from when I started in the business is that children's books were a little more below the radar they are now—now, it's a big business. I mean, it's always been a business, but now it's recognized as such. Children's book publishing is estimated to be a $3 billion business.
VP: Could you elaborate on that?
EH: Basically, after successful books and series like Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, "Twilight," and "The Hunger Games," the industry now recognizes that children's books and Young Adult books make money. In that respect, the publishing perspective on it is similar now to its perspective on the adult market—the realization that there's money to be made focused industry attention on the market and its potential.
School and Library Sales
VP: So, aside from the age ranges of the intended readers, what factors distinguish the children's market from the adult?
EH: Where the retail booksellers have been the primary market for adult books, for children's books, the school and library markets have always been really important to sales—and there's been a recent resurgence there.
To give some historical perspective—20 years ago, the school and library market was very robust and, at the time, it was great if your children's book sold in bookstores, obviously, but it wasn't the focus.
The focus shifted [from schools and libraries] to getting books onto the picture book wall at B&N. The children's market began to rely heavily on those retail sales, which hadn't traditionally been the case, and which was more in tune with how adult books were sold.
There still is a lot of weight put on those sales, but we're back to having the school library market being really critical.
VP: So that would support your suggestion to aspiring authors that they engage their local librarians for advice and input.
EH: Yes. The picture book market is starting to tick back up, and it's coinciding with all the buzz about standards and Common Core, and so now the teachers and the librarians and the school market are once again really important to the success of a book.
Schools and libraries never really lost their importance, but I think they're back in the spotlight.
VP: How have shifts in retail bookselling affected the children's book market?
EH: One interesting thing is that independent booksellers have been compelled to be so much more nimble and creative to stay competitive and so many of them have gotten really good at selling picture books and middle-grade books.
There would sometimes be a situation when I'd hear that Barnes & Noble "passed" on an author's book and it used to be devastating—devastating. I would have an inconsolable author and have nothing to really to be able to tell him or her. That's become less and less the case.
Of course, it's great if the book is at Barnes & Noble, but it doesn't need to be there. If they pass —while it's not ideal—between school, library, and the indies, now we're able to say, "That's OK. There are other ways to sell the book."
The Young Adult (YA) Market
VP: Young Adult has become so popular in recent years. Any words of wisdom for aspiring YA writers?
EH: First, I'd caution anyone writing for that audience that I think YA readers can sniff out things that are not authentic faster than anyone else. Again, that's why I think it's important to read—because it's important to understand that your readers are complex, emotional, smart, interesting kids and your characters better be the same. You can't get anything by a YA reader.
VP: Any personal recommendations for YA research reading?
EH: I think three of the cornerstones of YA are "The Outsiders" by S. E. Hinton, "The Pigman" by Paul Zindel, and "The Chocolate War" by Robert Cormier. Those happen to all have been represented by my Curtis Brown predecessor Marilyn Marlow, and they are absolutely great examples of excellence in the genre.
VP: No dystopian battles or vampires among those. Can you speak to Young Adult trends?
EH: The YA market is cyclical, like many. Right now there's a trend toward contemporary—eventually, we'll get back to dystopian, vampires, and werewolves. Then fantasy, romance, and back to contemporary. Mermaids even had their moment for a bit.
The readers don't disappear just because the trend changes—the readers are there!
Getting a Literary Agent
VP: The conventional wisdom used to be that children's authors don't need an agent, but that seems to have changed pretty dramatically. Can you speak to today's necessity of having an agent?
EH: It's interesting but when I started almost 20 years ago, there weren't so many agents handling children's books, and the YA/teen market was much smaller than it is now, so there were fewer kids book agents and the author-editor relationship was forged directly, and there was a lot of intimacy in that.
I think the author-editor intimacy is still there, but making that initial connection is harder than it was when I started because the business is so much bigger now—there are so many more authors and editors. That's where an agent comes in.
VP: You also represent illustrators. How does that differ from representing writers?
EH: It's a little bit harder to represent an illustrator, only because you're selling style, rather than a concrete manuscript.
As an illustrators' agent [my getting them a book deal] is a lot of making sure that people have eyes on their portfolios. It's also an outgrowth of my constantly talking to editors. Sometimes it will come up as "I have a great manuscript about such-and-such topic—do you know anyone who has that kind of look or feel?"
It's a lot about staying in front of people, keeping the illustrator's work under their noses.
VP: What advice would you have for someone looking for a literary agent?
EH: Be professional. The level of querying since I started has gotten much more elevated. I think it's because people are doing much more research, and there are many more opportunities to come to a site like yours and learn more about the process before taking a step out into the world…
But it's surprising how many interactions I have with someone who doesn't act professionally. Even if it's someone who sends me an email query.
Email queries all start to look alike, but if I email back and say I'd be interested in reading 50 pages, don't send back a response in all caps "OMG!" You have to continue that professionalism, carry it through. It's important; again going back to the fact that children's book publishing is a business, it's important.
VP: How do you find the authors you want to represent?
EH: I get a lot [of manuscripts] over the transom—I have a pretty big list at the moment so generally if I ask for material it's either that I find the subject matter interesting or it fills a hole in my list—it's something that I don't have on my list.
I get a lot of referrals from other authors I represent, which is always very flattering.
I have four kids, so I don't do a lot of conferences at the moment—but I used to do a ton, and I find them very energizing. I like meeting someone in person and putting a face to a name. Whether the material is right for me or not, I like to meet people.
I do think it's important for aspiring authors to attend conferences. I do think they are worth it. As someone who has presented, I also feel they are worth it. At conferences, you're among a group of people who are all there for the same reason—there is always an interesting dialogue.
VP: Say you have an offer from an agent. How can you tell if he or she is "the one"?
EH: Having an agent is a personal decision—and there are so many out there that I think it's important to find someone who is similar to you in philosophy. Whether your and your agent have similar personalities, I think it's important that you agree on how things should be handled. Some people may prefer someone who is really aggressive in the way they handle things; some people are more laid back and would prefer to have someone with a similar temperament.
It's exciting for an agent to be interested in your work, but if it's not the right agent for you, it's not going to be a great experience.
VP: Thanks so much for your time and thoughts, Elizabeth.