#LA11SCBWI – The Wisdom of Agents – Brenda Bowen

I’m home from SCBWI LA and am playing catch-up with my notes. I’m planning several more conference posts, today’s featuring Brenda Bowen, and I’ll continue to post until they’re all up, including the keynotes I attended. I’ll also post the promised/threatened pictures from the PJ party. There were some creatively wacky costumes.

I attended four workshops/panels given by agents, which is somewhat odd since I have an agent and don’t need another one. It’s kind of like being married and checking out additional husbands when one man is more than enough. But I’m glad to share what the agents had to say with those of you out there who weren’t able to attend SCBWI LA .

First up with a workshop titled Agents: Who Needs ‘Em? is Brenda Bowen of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates.

Brenda started by saying that in children’s, it was once thought that an author didn’t need an agent. Of course, this is no longer true with so many publishers only accepting submissions through an agent. But having someone to submit for you is only one feature/advantage of having an agent. Your agent can be a constant in the publishing world, even when editors change houses or publishing houses merge or close.

An agent has to find that diamond in the rough amongst her submissions. When your

manuscript comes over the transom, if it’s what the agent is looking for, she’ll see there’s something there, that you’re the kind of writer who might one day win the Newbery Award.

If you submit and the agent decides she wants to work with you, she will want you to revise your manuscript. The agent wants to get it up to being salable. The editor to whom your book will be submitted should be able to confidently take it into the acquisition meeting. In the old days an editor could buy herself, but now that decision requires an acquisition committee. Everyone has to read the manuscript and feel they can see it as a book. A manuscript has to be much more polished than in the old day

What else do agents do? They schmooze. They’re constantly in touch with the editors at various publishing houses. Often it’s best for an agent to find out what the editors don’t need. For example, if an editor says, “If I see another dystopian I’m going to throw up,” the agent won’t send a dystopian to her. Brenda gave as an example of how well agents know editors by quoting Adams Literary agent Tracey Adams: “I know whether they’re a dog person or a cat person.” That is, agents develop personal relationships with editors.

All an agent has is her taste and her gut instinct about a book. The agent shouldn’t have the mindset that they’re selling the book to make money, rather they should believe in the book. However, the books Brenda represents are not always what she likes as an agent, and she’ll need to be more neutral because an editor can love it.

Brenda has learned to schmooze with everyone, not just the editor. She has to be nice to the assistants too because one day you might be crawling to them for a job (she referred to her former boss, Alessandra Balzer as an example).

She referred to the art of the deal (which she went into in more detail in a later workshop and I’ll be posting that later). But there’s a lot going on after the deal; the deal is just one episode. The agent helps handle the editor. When an author gets worried, about a title change, for instance, the agent can assure the author. Sometimes an author might want her agent to take a look at an e-mail she plans to send to her editor and get feedback on it. The agent’s job is to mitigate those issues.

Selling translation rights (and UK foreign rights) are another key service of an agent. They’ll try to keep those rights to sell independently. For picture books, the publisher usually acquires foreign rights as well as NA, but those rights can be available at other age levels. There are also commercial, dramatic and ancillary rights (merchandising—think action figures). The literary agent will visit film agents & tell them about upcoming books, what the agent thinks will appeal to them. For e-rights, the agent can make sure it’s the best deal possible, with better language. The agent takes care of  backlist as well as frontlist. The agent takes the heat so you can enjoy the ride and be the star you are.

There was a Q&A after Brenda’s talk. I’ll list them here in the original Q&A form

Q. Do you represent screenwriting?

A. No.

Q. Speak to how agents handle illustrators who also write or only illustrate

A. The great thing about representing illustrators is she’ll get e-mails asking to use a particular client (illustrator). Work goes up on her site & she gets interest. She only works with PB & illustrated novels

Q. What would you suggest to writers who have submitted to agents without success and are considering submitting directly to publishers?

A. A large number of publishers don’t accept unsolicited ms.

Q. What are your personal submission guidelines?

A. After she’s back from vacation (after Labor Day) use querybb@sjga.com (note: there was a secret word given, but it was only for the use of those who were at the presentation). Include the title of the book in the subject line. The query goes in the body of the e-mail and 3 chapters are sent  as an attachment (note: there are further instructions at http://www.sjga.com/code/contact.htm). For an illustrated PB, send as PDF. A pet peeve—she hates to see forwards. That is, she doesn’t want to see that you forwarded a query that you’d sent to another agent. Another pet peeve is the use of rhetorical questions (“Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be born with three elbows?”)

If you query her, you’re going to get a bounceback that says “I’m not able to read and respond to all, so if you don’t hear from me in 8 weeks, I’m declining the opportunity.” If you hear from another agent, put “interest received” or “offer received” in the subject line. For what it’s worth, TNR is her fave font.

Q. How do you feel about historical fiction?

A. She loves historical fiction, and is repping an author who’s a master of the genre. Publishers say no historical fiction, but they publish it all the time. All the Newbery & honor books this year were historical fiction.

Q. What if you didn’t attend this workshop and what’s a bad time frame to submit?

A. If you didn’t attend the workshop, you could say, I recently attended the SCBWI conference. As to when to submit, although people are looking for good books all the time, the following time periods are slow: the month of August and Dec 15-Jan 1. Another tip: use Publisher’s Marketplace to see who represents what.

Q. Do you do specific change suggestions?

A. Yes. She’ll help the author get something ready, and then the editor might have suggestions as well

Q. Can a publisher take rights to character?

A. That would be a very bad deal. They own right to publish the book, maybe an option to the next book with the same character, but an agent is unlikely to allow them to own rights to the character itself.

Q. Would a publisher be involved with other rights such as a TV show?

A. Those rights don’t have to be included in the publishing contract, but everyone should work together. The question is, Whose team is the editor on? the publisher’s or the author’s? If everyone is on one team that works the best.

Q. Is the client under contract during revisions?

A. Sometimes yes. Brenda has a broad contract, but some agencies don’t have that contract.

About karensandler

Lover of chocolate. A couple felines short of full-fledged Cat Lady. Author of the YA Tankborn Trilogy (TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and REBELLION), from Tu Books. Founding team member of We Need Diverse Books. Opinions expressed here are my own.
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