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The World Doesn't Need Another Rhyming Tooth Fairy Story:
A Conversation with Children's Book Agent Andrea Brown
By Anna Olswanger
Early in her career Andrea Brown worked in the editorial departments of Dell Publishing Company and Random House Children's Books. She credits her mentors there--Ron Buehl, Judy Gitenstein, Walter Retan, and Pat Ross--with teaching her that "it all begins with the writer." But when Brown moved on to Knopf/Pantheon Books for Young Readers, she realized that the business was changing. She was no longer free to offer her authors certain rights in their contracts, for example. So she decided to become an agent for authors and illustrators of childrens' books. Her publishing friends said she was crazy--she'd never make a living--but after seventeen years, she has sold a thousand books for kids, and in her own words, "lives nicely on the California coast with an ocean view."
ANNA OLSWANGER: Are you limited as an agent because you live outside New York?
ANDREA BROWN: When I moved to California in 1990, I found a huge publishing community in the Bay Area, second only to New York, with about thirty agents who meet regularly. I found loads of authors, publishing houses, and active booksellers. Since I had already built a reputation in New York as an agent, it didn't matter where I lived. I lost a few clients, but many editors say they see me more now. That's because we lunch when I go to New York. The editors make an effort to see me. Some New York agents never lunch with editors--they figure they will see them at events, but it's not the same. I also think it helps that I have an editorial background, and many of the editors I now sell to are old friends from early publishing days. There are still only a handful of us who specialize in children's books.
OLSWANGER: Why is it so hard to get an agent?
BROWN: Most of us are handling more than we should. We get thousands of submissions a year to my small agency, for example. I'm open to new talent--it's crucial--and I'm thrilled when I find it, but I only took on five new clients last year, and three were from referrals.
OLSWANGER: How should a writer decide which agent to contact?
BROWN: I'm a member of AAR--Association of Author's Representatives--the only agent association with a cannon of ethics. We charge no reading fees. New writers might find it harder to get an AAR agent to take them on because most have been in the business a long time and have full lists. But writers shouldn't feel that they have to have an AAR agent. There are many excellent agents who choose not to be a member.
If I were a new writer looking for an agent, I would contact younger, hungry agents, but I'd do my research because working with an agent is worse than a marriage. You can divorce a spouse and say farewell, but once you sell a book with an agent, you two are tied together for the life of the book--which could be forever with a successful book. Because it becomes a close relationship, writers should make sure they like the agent's style of working. Writers should never agree to a time limit that binds them to an agent, and they should only work with an agent as long as both parties are content.
OLSWANGER: What's the best way to contact an agent?
BROWN: Read the listings and see which agents handle what you write. If in doubt, call the office and ask. Most agents want a query letter first, and it has to be perfect: short with two to three paragraphs, and little bio information unless it's relevant to the writing. Give a two to three line sample of your writing style to hook the agent because it comes down to both good writing and a commercial idea. It's not enough any longer just to be a good writer.
Query several agents at one time. We are all backlogged, and our clients' work comes first. Readers are not cost effective so it takes longer to hear from agents. Always include a SASE, or you won't get a response--agents can't be expected to pay for hundreds of stamps and envelopes in order to reply to mostly terrible queries.
OLSWANGER: What's your advice to new writers?
BROWN: Most new writers think it's easy to write for children, but it's not. You have to get in a beginning, middle and end, tell a great story, write well, not be condescending--all in a few pages.
Also, the best children's book writers are not people who have kids, but people who write from the child within themselves. Most new writers are writing material that would have sold for kids of the 80's, but not for kids of the 21st century. The voice sounds dated or too adult. You have to write challenging material for the kids of the next century. They are smart and savvy. They won't bother with books that don't excite them. I hate to sound negative, but most people are wasting their time and postage trying to get published. They world doesn't need another rhyming tooth fairy story or alphabet book.
OLSWANGER: What are the chances of a new writer being published today?
BROWN: Publishers are cautious. That means they buy from established authors and take on few new writers with no name recognition. For a new writer to be published now, the book has to have a commercial hook, or be a Newbery literary type of novel. Quirky is in, and novelty books are in. I am seeing more books with a dual purpose. They are books and puzzles, books with CDs attached, books that pop-up, or fly. The one area that is easiest to sell for new writers is science. I have sold about twenty-five books this past year on nonfiction subjects, but especially on science and technology, including activity books.
Middle grade and YA fiction are almost impossible to sell these days without a name. Publishers can't get the shelf space from the chains who want series books and name authors. And paperback rights have dried up. The publishers come out with their own paperbacks, which is mostly what kids want. Publishers are losing money on hardcover fiction.
To publish a competitive picture book and charge $18 for it, editors want art that is museum quality. So they aren't going to pair "name" illustrators with many new picture book writers.
OLSWANGER: Is this the toughest time for writers since you've been in the business?
BROWN: Yes, it's more competitive than ever. Most writers can't make a living this way, and while I have many clients who do, they have been in the business a long time and even they sometimes can't pay the rent. They freelance, work part-time, or teach. This is not a get-rich quick scheme. It takes years to build a reputation and make good money at it, and unless you have a successful series like Goosebumps, you won't make millions.
OLSWANGER: What's your advice to established writers?
BROWN: Authors make a mistake in assuming that if they get one book published, they are set. These days in publishing, you are only as good as the sales of your latest book. Publishing is like the film and television business now. It's all numbers and ratings. Even good reviews don't matter unless the sales figures are good too. Children's books used to be immune to these factors, but the big corporations who own most of the imprints want big numbers from the children's books they publish. Sales and marketing people have the power. Authors can't make the mistake of assuming that just because an editor likes her book, the book will do well. Editors leave and get fired.
Authors can't be difficult to work with either. I hear editors say that they don't care if an author sells well--if she's a primadonna, they won't sign up a new book. Editors don't have the time to handhold the way they used to because staffs are small and editors are overworked. So writers should try to make editors' jobs easier and be as professional as possible. Common courtesy helps. Ask how the editor likes to work in the beginning. Know what to expect. A good editor helps a writer grow but that is harder to find now. Writers must challenge themselves.
And writers must have patience. This is all a slow process--getting read, getting contracts and money, seeing your book published, waiting for sales and royalties.
OLSWANGER: Should an author leave contract negotiations in an agent's hands?
BROWN: If you have an agent, don't be shy in asking about the meaning of clauses. Authors have to sign the contracts, so make sure you know what you are agreeing to. If you are writing nonfiction, you are the one that could be sued if a kid hurts himself from reading your book. And tell your agent what is important to you. If you are an artist, tell your agent that you want your material back in one piece to resell. Make sure you will receive compensation if the publisher loses or destroys your art--which happens all too often.
OLSWANGER: What if you don't have an agent?
BROWN: If you don't have an agent, I don't advise you to try to handle a contract on your own. They are too complicated and many publishers still have awful contracts for unagented authors. Either pay an entertainment lawyer a fee (but not your real-estate lawyer cousin who won't have a clue what to do with publishing contracts) or call an agent and ask if she will handle just your contract for a flat fee or hourly basis. Many agents will do that. Join the Authors Guild or PEN and ask for help from their lawyers, or ask a published friend. Unagented authors won't get far asking to hold electronic rights, foreign rights, film or tv rights, and merchandising rights. You also have to be careful about options, reversion of rights, delivery, revisions, cancellations, world publishing rights, and warranties and indemnities.
OLSWANGER: What's a writer's place in promotion and publicity?
BROWN: After the book is published--and even before--an author today must get out and promote the book. The publishers can't do that for all their books, and of course, the bigger names get the promotion dollars. Some agents won't even take on new clients without a marketing plan and even a publicist attached to the project. Our society is media-driven, and you must let people know your book is out there, or there won't be sales or future books. One of my clients spent the year after her first novel was published promoting it, rather than writing her second. There never would have been a second one if she hadn't done that. I receive hundreds of royalty statements and see that the sales figures of the authors who go out and visit schools, libraries, and bookstores are far better than those of the authors who sit around writing and expecting publishers to sell their books.
OLSWANGER: If the children's book business is so tough, why do your clients stay in it?
BROWN: It's true that the children's book business is different from when I started out and could publish a book just because I liked it. It may not be pretty. It's not as much fun. But it is still one of the best businesses to be in--especially when you see a kid on a plane reading one of your books. A funny book will always sell, for example. Write from the child within, write with your heart and passion, and it may not seem a tough business at all.
Copyright 1998 by Anna Olswanger. All rights reserved. Copyright policy
Other interviews by Anna Olswanger are available at Anna Olswanger Books.
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