Thank you to everyone who sent in questions for Steven Malk's Q&A. I love the quality and variety of questions that came in. Please grab yourself a delicious drink and settle in for a treat. Steven's most excellent answers are in bold below.
Greg Pattridge asks:
What is it beyond just good writing that propels you to ask for more pages?
It’s important to remember that this is truly a subjective business. I think that makes this business very exciting – because there’s no right or wrong answer – but it can also make the query process a little mysterious for writers. I read every single query letter that I get and I always go into them with an open mind. I really respond to a letter that demonstrates that the author is a true professional who’s serious about their work and that they’re being thoughtful and considered in their letter. I know those things sound vague but you know it when you see it; I love when I can tell very clearly that an author is in complete control of the story they’re telling and really understands where they’re heading. Beyond that, I tend to like an idea that I haven’t seen before, as opposed to something that echoes what so many others are doing. I’m not the right person for those projects. I do love when I look at someone’s work and see very classic influences, but they’ve taken that and layered their own unique point of view on top of it. I think that’s a sweet spot, at least for me.
Laura Zarrin asks:
My question is, how do you promote an illustrator for illustration only work?
Representing illustrators for illustration-only work is definitely very different than representing writers or illustrators who write and illustrate. It’s not like sending out a manuscript or dummy, where you’re going to get a concrete yes or no. Instead, the key is to just make as many editors, art directors, and designers aware of an illustrator’s work. Writers House maintains a site for our illustrators – www.writershouseart.com -- and it tends to get a significant amount of traffic from publishers. Beyond putting our illustrator clients up there, I often do a promotional postcard (which I tend to think is more effective than ever these days in the age when publishers get a lot less cards in the mail than they used to). The biggest element is just talking to editors, art directors, and designers about the illustrators I represent. I have these conversations on a daily basis, and publishers will often tell me that they have a certain kind of project and wonder if I might have the right illustrator for it.
What are some ways for an unpublished picture book writer to differentiate themselves and get noticed by a great agent like you?
This probably sounds generic but the truth is that the best thing you can do is to work incredibly hard on your craft and come across as someone who is serious, confident, and thoughtful. I really respond to people who are clear about what they want to do and have taken the time to go about the process in a smart, careful way.
Stacey T. asks:
You've clearly sold to most, if not all, of the major houses but are there any particular houses/imprints you find yourself working with a lot?
Lately, I’d say that I’ve done a lot of books with Balzer & Bray (HarperCollins), Philomel (Penguin), Candlewick, Abrams, Random House, Roaring Brook and Disney-Hyperion, but I really enjoy working with a wide range of publishers, as I think they all have something slightly different to offer.
Lauren Kerstein asks:
What is your favorite literary character? What about that character’s actions, personality traits, interactions, etc made him/her most appealing?
That’s a tough question, mainly because it’s so hard to limit it to one character – there are so many incredible characters out there. I’m just going to go with the first character who popped into my head and that’s Matilda from MATILDA by Roald Dahl. I love that book and Matilda is the best kind of character: she’s funny, sweet, adventurous, and resilient. Although you feel badly for her, you never feel sorry for her because she never feels sorry for herself.
It seems a lot of the agents I think would be a great fit for me are not open to submissions unless a person is referred or has attended a conference that agent presents at. As someone who has limited funds and responsibilities I can not get away from, this can be frustrating. Do you have any suggestions as to what a person in my situation could do about this? Or is a person just out of luck if they don't have the means or opportunity to attend conferences?
There are so many great agents out there and I wouldn’t worry about the ones who are closed to submissions because you can’t do anything about that. Instead, I’d focus on making a list of those who are open to new submissions, and then deciding which one(s) you’d like to target as you start making submissions.
Steve Moran asks:
What if you want eventually to write Non Fiction as well as Fiction - there seem to be very few agents who rep both. What's the protocol if an agent offers rep, but they only do Fiction?
This type of situation isn’t uncommon and I think the key is clear, open communication. If an agent offers you representation for your fiction but they don’t represent non-fiction, you just need to be completely clear with them that non-fiction is something you’re interested in pursuing, as well. You have to decide whether that means you want to represent your non-fiction work on your own or you want to try to get a separate agent for your non-fiction work. Either way, I’d recommend communicating all of this to an agent up front so there are no surprises later if you pursue other avenues for your non-fiction.
Susan J. Berger asks:
What's the best query letter you ever got? Please share.
It’s hard to limit it to one letter. The truth is that I’ve gotten a lot of amazing query letters. In general, I’ve been really impressed with the quality of the queries that I’ve been receiving. I did get a pretty extraordinary letter and submission from a new author/illustrator named Elise Parsley, whose story was detailed in this article:
Elise established herself as a professional very quickly and it was evident to me just from her letter that she was someone who was extremely serious about wanting to make picture books for the rest of her life. She demonstrated a very clear understanding of where her work fit into the market and she was able to articulate exactly why she’s so drawn to picture books. Those are the sorts of people I’m drawn to, so I was instantly intrigued.
Karen McCoy asks:
What are some recent books you've sold?
Here is a selection of titles that have been published so far in 2014 or will be published by the end of April:
CODENAME ZERO by Chris Rylander (Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins)
WILDWOOD IMPERIUM by Colin Meloy, illustrated by Carson Ellis (Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins)
MAY THE STARS DRIP DOWN by Jeremy Chatelain, illustrated by Nikki McClure (Abrams)
OUTSIDE THE BOX by Karma Wilson, illustrated by Diane Goode (Simon & Schuster)
PRESIDENT TAFT IS STUCK IN THE BATH by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen (Candlewick Press)
WINGS OF FIRE #5: The Brightest Night by Tui Sutherland (Scholastic Press)
BABY BEAR by Kadir Nelson (Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins)
THE BOUNDLESS by Kenneth Oppel (Simon & Schuster)
HOPPER & WILSON FETCH A STAR by Maria Van Lieshout (Philomel)
CHAMPIONS OF BREAKFAST by Adam Rex (Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins)
BUDDY AND THE BUDDIES: Don't Play With Your Food by Bob Shea (Disney-Hyperion)
Are you a collaborative and/or editorial agent?
Yes, I really enjoy the editorial process. In the current publishing environment, I think it’s more important than ever for a manuscript to be as polished as possible before it’s submitted to publishers. That typically entails a lot of revision, often over the course of multiple drafts. It can be a long process, but I think it’s very much worth it, especially if you’re thinking in terms of an entire career. If you take an extra few months or even a year or two to revise, that’s nothing if you’re thinking within the context of a career that could span decades. The ability to revise well is an essential skill for an author; I love seeing people who can take an editorial letter and use it as a springboard; taking the comments to heart but also very much making the revision their own.
What trends are you seeing in your slush pile these days?
I’m still seeing a lot of dystopian novels at the moment, as well as a lot of novels with supernatural elements.
Are you seeing many near-future YA novels?
Yes, I’m seeing a fair amount of those at the moment.
Can mid-size presses promote and distribute a book as well as one of the big five publishers?
There are a lot of variables here, both in terms of exactly what size of house you’re talking about and what kind of book you’re talking about, but, in general, I do think that smaller publishers can be incredibly effective. There are pros and cons with just about any house, but there have been several instances over the last few years of smaller houses publishing books that have enjoyed phenomenal success.
Are books with a setting of an alternate history generally acceptable? Such as, a Nazi invasion of America, or something even more devastating, like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure winning best movie at the Oscar's?
I love a question with a Bill & Ted reference. I absolutely think that books with alternate histories are acceptable and can be great if they’re done right and if the world-building is really stellar.
Stacy Couch asks:
You represent renowned picture book authors like Mac Barnett and Jon Scieszka. You also represent a number of incredible author/illustrators, like Marla Frazee and Melissa Guion. Are you open to unknown PB authors who don't illustrate?
I’ve always enjoyed working with first-time authors of all kinds, so I’m certainly open to new picture book writers.
I try to balance a consistent voice with my need to experiment. How do you establish your authors as a brand? Is there room to play within that brand?
I think some authors tend to overthink the “brand” question. There’s absolutely room to experiment and try different things. You mentioned Mac Barnett and I think he’s a good example: he’s written many different kinds of picture books as well as middle-grade novels, but I think he does have a distinct brand: everything he does is smart and thoughtful and if you buy a Mac Barnett book, you know that you’re getting a book of high quality. I think his brand is strong and getting stronger, but he’s in control of it, as opposed to being controlled by his brand, if that makes sense.
Wendy Greenley asks:
Since an author only queries one project at a time, if authors write for more than one age group, which should they sub first? Middle grade or picture book?
I think different agents have different policies about only considering one book at a time, but for those who do only want to consider one, I think you have to use your best judgment to decide which book to lead with. You may want to think about which you think is stronger and which you feel more strongly about. Also, consider whether you see yourself writing more picture books or more middle-grade down the line.
Laura Moe asks:
If someone writes in multiple genres, for example YA and Mystery, and you only represent Mystery, is it ethical to have a second agent for your YA?
I think that’s possible as long as you’re very open with your agent from the beginning about the fact that you intend to pursue a different agent for a book in the genre they don’t represent. As long as an agent knows this up front and has expressed the fact that they’re okay with it, you shouldn’t run into any problems later.
With the strong emphasis on encouraging young children to learn to read, why are easy readers such a hard sell?
That’s a good question. I’ve often wondered the same thing and I think it’s partly because that category tends to be dominated by very well-established series or well-entrenched programs from publishers. When you go to a store and look at their easy reader shelf, you’ll likely notice that certain series are taking up a bunch of space, so one or two titles can often get lost. Because of this, publishers know going in that in order to make a real dent, they’ll likely have to commit to several books up front, and any time that a publisher is deciding on a commitment that big and far-reaching, they tend to be extra careful, which leads to them being extremely selective.
Big thanks to Mr. Malk for his thoughtful and extensive answers. Please show your appreciation in the comments and give him a follow on Twitter @stevenmalk.
Steven Malk is the third generation of his family to be involved in the children's book industry. The son and grandson of children's booksellers, he worked at his parents' bookstore all through high school and college and entered the world of agenting immediately after graduating from UCSD in 1995. He opened a west coast office for Writers House in 1998, where he represents a wide range of authors and illustrators, including Jon Klassen, Jon Scieszka, Lane Smith, Mac Barnett, Marla Frazee, Kadir Nelson, Ruta Sepetys, Colin Meloy, Carson Ellis, Jennifer Donnelly, Matt de la Pena, Cynthia Rylant, Adam Rex, Sara Pennypacker, Loren Long, Elise Primavera, Bob Shea, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, Nikki McClure, Sonya Sones, and many others.