Thank you to everyone who suggested a question to put to Curtis Brown‘s Children’s Literary Agent, Stephanie Thwaites. Here are her responses. I’ve tried to keep the questions general so they’ll be useful to everyone, and where questions were similar I put them together into one query. I think you’ll agree there’s some great tips here from Stephanie.
1. What puts you off the most when reading a query letter?
There are a few things! Letters not addressed to anyone in particular or Dear Sir/ Mr. Curtis Brown. This tells me the person submitting hasn’t taken any time to research who would be the best person to represent them and this suggests that they are not serious about writing or treating writing in a professional way. It’s important when approaching an agent to identify who the most appropriate person is within an agency, it’s easy to google and find out, and this will also give new writers the best chance of finding the right match. I find long letters off-putting. The letter should give a taster and make the reader want to move on to the important part –the material itself. For this reason I also prefer a short synopsis rather than a detailed chapter breakdown and a little biographical information but not a full CV or a description of how much the writer’s children love the manuscript. I do like a well structured, carefully considered letter. If a writer can’t express him or herself well in the covering letter then it doesn’t bode well for the book itself.
2. What should you include when pitching a series?
It might depend on the kind of series but the focus should be on the first book initially. While it’s fine to mention ideas for future books it’s important to have a manageable number of titles and to have realistic expectations about how many books a publisher will acquire at once anyway. Multi-book deals for new authors are quite unusual and unless a publisher is commissioning for a series they have initiated, they just wouldn’t buy twelve, or even six, titles all in one go. Often a series will build when the first couple of titles take off – which can be tricky for the author if the plan was just for two books but on the other hand it can be a nice problem to have! I would avoid the word ‘trilogy’ even if you’re writing a trilogy and stick to pitching the first book first – if the idea or character is obvious series material then that will be picked up upon by an agent and editor so you don’t need to pitch it too hard.
3. If a writer has interest from both an editor and an agent, should she give it to the agent first or is it acceptable to send to both at the same time?
It’s usually best to send to the agent first as they may want to submit to several publishers at once and it can confuse matters if one has a head start. An agent might also want to work with an author on a manuscript before submitting to editors. If you have sent your work to an editor and agent simultaneously it doesn’t matter too much but where possible I would suggest agents go first!
4. Several readers have asked if they can send you children’s manuscripts – rather than individually mentioning them I presume anyone is welcome to submit through the new submissions page? Is there anything particularly you’re NOT looking for?
Absolutely and yes please do submit via our site, http://curtisbrowncreative.co.uk/. We’re not taking on new illustrators but otherwise we are open to everything. Do bear in mind that we receive 100 new manuscripts every week so unfortunately we can’t send a personal response to everyone.
5. Is it ok to send more than one story at a time?
I can’t answer for all agents but we prefer to look at one idea at a time and for full length fiction we start with the first three chapters with a synopsis. So it’s best to select your strongest work for submission and if we like the writing but not that particular idea we will sometimes express an interest in seeing other material from that writer.
6. If a writer is already published, would they be better off having an agent or continue to deal with the publisher themselves?
I would argue that an agent can always add value. We can negotiate the best possible terms with an awareness and knowledge of industry standards and norms. We have agreed terms with publishers across such a broad range of authors and have precedents in place which allow us to have more leverage than an individual author will have when negotiating. We have the resources to sell rights internationally, for film and TV, and audio, and with the support of contracts and accounts departments we make sure we protect the rights of authors and chase payments and royalties, check statements and deal with all the paperwork. We really fight on our clients’ behalf and work with them over the course of their career – not through just one book and with one publisher but for the long term. We can step in to advise or help when an author and editor don’t see eye to eye or if other sticky situations emerge. Editors move on, particularly in children’s publishing, but an agent is more of a constant presence in an author’s life, representing their best interests and sticking with them through thick and thin.
7. Is a picture book with a sing-along CD still ‘done’ these days, or have e-books and apps taken over the scene as far as interactive musical activities for children go?
Publishers sometimes produce an audio recording of a picture book text on a CD which is sold together with the book but I’m not aware of any new sing along CDs. It could be the case that they are being produced for bigger brands or, as with many novelty projects, developed in-house by publishers. I think it’s safe to say that it is unlikely that literary agents would be able to place a project if it relied heavily on a musical sing along element.
7. Is it still true that boys will not read YA SF & fantasy written by women, or have recent successes such as the Harry Potter Series, The Hunger Games Trilogy and others changed things?
I think it’s more about the gender of the protagonist than of the author now and while there are exceptions it is harder to encourage boys to read books with a female protagonist while girls are more open to reading about books with a male protagonist. I hope the female perspectives presented in adult fantasy like George R. R. Martin’s GAME OF THRONES, Charlaine Harris’ and Rachel Caine’s titles might mean there has been a shift and we’ll see more feisty heroines in YA fantasy too as in Sarah J Maas’ THRONE OF GLASS. I’m certainly keen to find something in that vein and I would prefer a female protagonist.
8. How important is it for agents and authors to have face to face meetings and how often are these?
I prefer to meet all new clients face to face where possible and I think this is important when you’re first getting to know one another. The number of face to face meetings varies from client to client and a lot can be done over the phone and email but I do think there’s no substitute for face to face contact even if it’s only once or twice a year.
9. Is representation for life?
I’ve touched on this a bit above and the answer is yes in an ideal world, although it doesn’t always work out that way. When I offer representation I am always taking on an author rather than a book and the aim is that it should absolutely be for life. Since I also represent a number of Estates it’s actually life and beyond!
10. For those who write across genres, is it accepted practice to take on representation by several different agents?
I think the nature of the agent/ author relationship means that it just doesn’t work to have more than one or two maximum. Sometimes writers will have different agents for children’s and adult books or for books and TV/ radio/plays but if you’re writing across genre which are not wildly different you should be able to find an agent who can handle both.
11. And finally – can a writer resubmit a manuscript if it has been substantially rewritten?
We usually indicate to authors in our response if we are interested in reading a new draft but unless we specifically mention it we prefer not to see the same material twice, albeit a revised version. This is due to the volume of material we receive and the limited number of hours in the day. If you want to read more about what a literary agent does, and why we can’t read material twice, there’s a great article by writer, Michael Bourne which I blogged about a little while ago that brilliantly sums up the challenges facing agents – and why we’re not terrible, heartless people! The blog post is here: http://childrensliteraryagent.co.uk/2012/08/16/literary-agents-the-devil-in-disguise/
Thank you very much to Stephanie Thwaites for her time and all her helpful advice!