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Authors Need Someone on Their Side:
A Conversation with Literary Agent Ann Tobias
By Anna Olswanger
Ann Tobias started out as an editor at Harper and Row under the legendary Ursula Nordstrom. She later freelanced for Harper, Morrow, Crown, Dial, and other publishers; spent some years full time at Greenwillow Books and a year at Scholastic; then moved to Washington, DC, where she founded Ann Tobias, A Literary Agency.
Tobias thought the idea of an interview sounded "wonderfully glamorous" and said she longed to be asked questions about the current state of publishing and where writers fit in. Too often she has been asked to read and take on material without regard to what is happening in children's book publishing, and believes authors should look at the the big picture.
At the time of the interview, Tobias lived and worked near the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill, but has since moved her agency to another city. She reads unsolicited manuscripts only if authors have been referred to her.
Update as of January 2002: Ann is now settled in New York City, working part-time as an editor for Handprint Books and also continuing to agent. We hear this from Ann Tobias: "I think you of all people will enjoy hearing that Handprint Books strives to be a paperless office. We encourage people to send us mss electronically. Picture book texts by email, jpegged art, and longer material in sample chapter form--say 10 pp and a synopsis. We try to get back to people in a timely way. My email address at work is email@example.com. If someone wants to contact me for agenting only, I am still old-fashioned and appreciate a submission in hard copy with a ssa envelope enclosed (520 E. 84th Street, Apt. 4L, New York, NY 10028)." She tells us that she is interesting in just about anything, from picture book manuscripts to young adult novels.
ANNA OLSWANGER: Do you think children's book authors need agents?
ANN TOBIAS: Authors need someone on their side to make sure their career is growing. That used to be their editor. An editor used to take a job and stay in it until he or she got carried out in a pine box. That doesn't happen now.
Publishers are in business to make money, and they want to pay as little as possible. I don't feel that publishers are out to cheat authors, not in children's books. I have never had that sense, but neither do I feel that a huge amount of time and thought are given to an author's financial situation.
And because our lives are compartmentalized--we have someone special to fix our computers, someone special to fix our plumbing--authors need agents.
OLSWANGER: How do you define your job as agent?
TOBIAS: My job is to help my clients grow a career. I am not a one-book agent. If a brilliant manuscript comes my way, I want to see others that the author has written. I want to talk to the author and see where the author is going and how he or she feels about children's books. It's a slow growth in children's books. First it takes talent, then it takes patience and discipline. I don't tell people to give up their day jobs in the beginning.
OLSWANGER: How do you spend your day?
TOBIAS: It's spent a lot on the telephone. I can get eighteen calls in an hour-and-a-half. I'm either talking with clients who are in the midst of a project, going back and forth with the contracts department, or I'm talking to publishers.
I spend a lot of time on cover letters to editors about the manuscripts I submit. I'm careful to tell the editor what is important in that manuscript, why I think this particular editor would want to see it. I don't seem to be very fast. Every manuscript is different; every editor is different. I can't use the same letter about the same manuscript over and over. I have to write a new one.
And I try to read an unsolicited manuscript every day so that I don't get behind. I probably get 1200 manuscripts a year, and I feel that every day, including Saturday and Sunday, I must read a manuscript.
OLSWANGER: Can an agent be successful and live outside New York?
TOBIAS: There are phones, there are faxes, you have your contacts, and in some ways it's peaceful to be away from New York. You are out of the rat race. It takes a lot of energy just to exist in New York, and to exist in a field where there is pressure and time constraints. People are being agents all over the United States now, and if you are paying attention to the field, you learn everything you need to know plenty soon. Also, I have an advantage because I'm only three hours by Metroliner from Seventh Avenue and Thirty-third Street.
OLSWANGER: How do you find new clients?
TOBIAS: I am talking with a man right now whose next door neighbor is a children's book editor and she gave him my name. That is probably the best way that any agent could ever get a client--through an editor who recommends you. Very seldom do I find somebody in the unsolicited manuscripts.
OLSWANGER: What do you like to see in a cover letter?
TOBIAS: As little as possible. The manuscript says it all. If the material is nonfiction, I would like a paragraph on the person's qualifications. If the person has been published, I would like to know when and where--dates, titles, names of publishers. Other than that, I just want to get to the manuscript.
OLSWANGER: How savvy do you expect authors to be about publishing?
TOBIAS: If they want to work with me, I need them to do their homework. I will guide them editorially, as well as from a business point of view, to meet that niche in the market that I think exists for their material, but I don't really want to be in a position to educate people about the children's book scene, nor do I want people to say, "Here's my manuscript, take it and do something with it." For most of my clients, next to their families, this is the most important thing in their lives. They have to take some responsibility for it. I can tell them where their book fits in. I can say this is the market, this is the kind of publisher that would be interested. I can do all that, but I need their participation. I consider my clients to be my partners.
OLSWANGER: How flawless does a manuscript have to be before you will try to place it?
TOBIAS: I do a fair amount of editorial work with my clients. If I see that it is a potentially great piece of writing but needs gussying-up to appeal to editors, I offer my suggestions. In fact, I'm leery of a manuscript that doesn't need much work because it denies me the opportunity to go back and forth on a manuscript and get to know the potential client.
OLSWANGER: What impresses you about a piece of writing?
TOBIAS: Themes impress me. Everything else--plot, characterization, setting, pacing, language--emanates from the theme. So, one of my first questions when I get a manuscript is, "What does this author want kids to think about?" If an author can extend a kid's thinking without preaching, then I'm interested in that manuscript.
OLSWANGER: What do you want from the writing itself?
TOBIAS: I'm looking for writing that is honest, where the author has paid attention to the language and the rhythm. I'm not talking about poetry, but internal rhythm that good prose has. I'm looking for writing that moves me, writing that makes me think, that shows me something funny even. It doesn't have to be serious writing; I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about writing that does what it sets out to do. If the theme is strong and the writing makes it all work, then that is what I'm looking for.
OLSWANGER: Are first novels a hard sell?
TOBIAS: A first novel is easy if it is great. And it has to be great or I'm not going to take it. I don't send my manuscripts around a lot. They get taken the first few times out.
I will tell you what is a hard sell, and that's when a writer calls me and says, "I would like to send you a picture book." I never know what to say to them, because a picture book text these days probably runs between one and three pages, double-spaced. And, I want to make a lifetime commitment to this author. I want this author to make a lifetime commitment to me. Even if I love the picture book, even if it is brilliant, how do I know it wasn't a mistake, a monkey-at-the-typewriter kind of thing? So I don't know what to do with people who have written one picture book, except to tell them to write several more.
OLSWANGER: Are second novels a hard sell?
TOBIAS: I do have a problem with first time novelists, in that generally they have taken many years to produce that first novel. They have poured themselves into it. They're hungry, they want to get published. And they will do just about anything, including listening to me editorially about revisions. And generally, as I say, the manuscript gets taken and things go well until the second manuscript comes in which is generally not as sound in theme, not as original in plot. The writing is not as gripping, there's nothing that works. It was a shock to me in the beginning to realize that this was going to happen.
To alleviate this situation, I ask all my clients when they are conceptualizing a new project, would they please write themselves a letter about the book, describe it to themselves, almost as if it were a published book. I want the age group, the theme, I want everything, so that I can know that they are going to take a year to do something and I'm not going to say at the end of a year, "I can't sell it."
OLSWANGER: Do you send out multiple submissions?
TOBIAS: I believe very strongly in submitting exclusively to one editor at a time. I will send a manuscript out to an editor and give them two months. At that point, I will call and say, "Have you any sense of this? If you don't, when will you?" But I can do that. I don't submit to people I don't know. Most of the people I submit to, I worked with for years. I know them well, I know their children. It's not just business and I'm never going to see them again. I want these people to trust my client and to trust me.
OLSWANGER: So do you advise writers to submit exclusively to one editor?
TOBIAS: I don't think editors read manuscripts any faster because they get multiple submissions. There are too many good manuscripts out there. It's a buyer's market. I think that we are making the situation worse with multiple submissions to the point where nobody wants them and soon there are not going to be any more unsolicited manuscripts. That is too bad, because as an editor I have found good things in unsolicited manuscript piles.
OLSWANGER: Do you submit to an editor, or to a house?
TOBIAS: I definitely submit to editors, but I look at the house. I pay attention to whether they are asking someone to buy them, any little gossip I can pick up.
OLSWANGER: How would the sale of a publishing house affect you as an agent?
TOBIAS: Let's take one that has already happened. When Simon and Schuster acquired Macmillan, the number of imprints available to me as an agent was sharply reduced. The editors I liked and submitted to were out of work. I can tell you that when I sat down to become an agent, I made a list of the publishers who I respected and would like to see clients published at. I felt that there were three dozen very good publishers that I would be proud to have my clients published by. The last time I sat down and counted, the list was half.
OLSWANGER: So when an editor moves to a new house, you want the manuscript to go with her?
TOBIAS: If the manuscript were contractually free, absolutely. Even if the editor didn't want to take it, I would like to see her take it. The editor is the one who sees what kind of book the manuscript is going to be. Until recently, editors were encouraged to be subjective. I have a theory, and this is just a theory: we were all paid so badly back in the old days, one of the reasons we became children's book editors was because we were given a fair amount of autonomy and allowed to use our heads. A residue of that lingers, I'm glad to say, even though editors are being downgraded in favor of marketers. So the person who contracted for the book, who made the offer, who had the vision for the book, is the person the book belongs with.
Since a new editor will not have the same vision, writers can lose valuable time. One of my jobs is to know what my clients should do when the bottom drops out and an editor leaves.
OLSWANGER: What do you think of children's book publishing today?
TOBIAS: I'm depressed by it. Don't forget, I was active in the "golden years" of children's publishing, when we would have been fired for even thinking of publishing a Goosebumps. If some editor had gotten totally drunk and published a series like that, the librarians would have organized a strike on Fifth Avenue. I think that the children's book departments flourished because of the benign neglect on the part of the publishers. We were called "the girls." We were put in the darkest offices at the end of the hall with no air conditioning. We were not valued, and we were allowed to go ahead and do whatever we wanted as long as we didn't lose money—and we didn't. We worked closely with librarians who worked closely with children. The books were child-oriented.
Nowadays, librarians don't have the clout that they had. The booksellers have taken over. I'm talking about the chains. They don't work with children. They don't know the obscure mid-list people who are very good.
OLSWANGER: What was it like working under Ursula Nordstrom?
TOBIAS: Her viewpoint was completely original. You never knew what she was going to say next. I thought that after I worked at Harper a number of years, I could recognize good plot, good this, good that. But she could pick something that all of us would walk by. She was an original.
OLSWANGER: As an agent, why do you continue to work as an editor?
TOBIAS: My worry is that as publishing changes so rapidly, my insider's eye is getting worn out. That's one of the reasons I do editing still, because it keeps me on top of what is going on in publishing companies, how things are working nowadays. It's useful for my clients.
Copyright 2000 by Anna Olswanger. All rights reserved.
Other interviews by Anna Olswanger are available at Anna Olswanger Books.
Read A Primer on Agents for more information.
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