Monday, April 11, 2011

Agents--Agents of Change?

I’m in the market for a new agent, a slightly bizarre experience for so many reasons. It feels a bit like picking your marriage partner from one of those speed dating sessions where you talk to someone for eight minutes and then shift to the left. Of course, if you hook up with an agent and it doesn’t work out, breaking up isn’t as bad as a real divorce. You do end up sharing custody, though. At least until your joint children go out of print.

So I called friends for suggestions and reviews of agents they know. Then began studying up online. I’d read through an agent’s client list, past triumphs, future wants. I’ve found several candidates I want to pursue, but a surprising number of times, a disturbing number of times, I came upon one of the following phrases:

--Submit middle-grade or YA fiction only
--Submissions of picture books are not welcome at this time
--Our current policy on picturebooks is that we do not solicit either texts or illustrators, but do represent picturebooks by authors whom we have already taken on for their older, longer work. Additionally, we are not looking for non-fiction.
--No nonfiction or poetry collections.

I don’t want to hyperbolic -- but I’m reminded of signs saying “Jews and Irish need not apply” and “Colored waiting room around back.”

I’m not entirely surprised. We all know that the books are a strange alliance of art and commerce and, lately, commerce rules the day. We also have a bit of a population trough in the picture book age group, schools and libraries are budget poor, picture books are expensive to produce in paper form and the technology to sell them as E-books is just enough behind their novel format cousins that it further suppresses the market. Nonfiction books, many of them picture books, can have the same problems. And don’t get me started about the backward notion some parents have about starting their kids on chapter books asap so they can get into Harvard.

I’m not really blaming these agents either. Some of them may have never had any interest in these genres. Fair enough. YA fiction is hot and everyone needs to make a living, and wants a good one at that. Also fair. But here’s my two cents to anyone listening.

*Trends change, populations ebb and flow. It pays to stay flexible.

*There will always be younger kids in greater and fewer numbers. There will always be schools and libraries. There will always be the need to learn about the world and everything in it. It pays to stay flexible. Furthermore, for agents and publishers who can attract quality voices to nonfiction to turn their backs upon it is a disservice not only to children but to our society as a whole.

*When technology changes, its costs tumble, then it will be our turn to shine. Affordable picture e-books will be widely seen in their full double-page spread glory. Nonfiction changes will be stratospheric with books about butterflies clicking onto caterpillars timelapsing quickly into monarchs and a bio of Martin Luther King building up to the “I Have a Dream” speech. Ah, the cyber-sidebars and back matter. And the possibility of a 39 Clues-type book with mysteries that teach kids who are reading/playing them everything from history to forensic science. Hence, it pays to stay flexible

*Many agents wrote on their wish list that they were looking for someone who will reinvent their genre. Well, that doesn’t just happen in dystopian fiction. Vision and innovation can be anywhere—and, when it happens, the market responds. Look at Shaun Tan or ABC3D by Marion Bataille. And so, it pays to stay flexible.

*The market also responds when anyone talented has a great take on a great idea—in any genre.

Guess what? It pays to stay flexible.


CC said...

Meanwhile, truly talented writers and artists, many with previously successful
books not to mention awards have left the field entirely. It certainly is not the fault of agents, who need to make a living, as you said. Some authors and illustrators are changing THEIR tactics and learning about the new technology, realizing that they can do away with the "middle men" ie: corporate publishers, agents, editor/marketers and publishing their own e books. With almost no independent bookstores left, Borders gone and few serious book lovers browsing for new titles in Walmart, while corporate publishing continues to search hope and pray for the next big "Harry Potter" or teenage vampire series, there will be some gems among the self-published. Like Mother Nature, creativity abhors a vacuum.

Susan E. Goodman said...

I know, CC, I've been following a lot of discussions about this brave new world. For people who are interested, check out where our own Loreen Leedy is a contributor. And back-and-forth between Barry Eisler who walked away from a half million dollar advance to self publish and Amanda Hocking who has taken the reverse path. The spreadsheet attachment alone is worth your time.

My big question is about the issue of taking this path with picture books at the current time. If an author has the choice, is self publishing either in paper or e book preferable. The iPad and its competitors are not yet ubiquitous. But more importantly, YA readers can find and buy their own books. Middle-graders have a shot of learning about books from their friends and getting their parents to buy them.

But with younger kids, there is the guardians at the gate issue-the parents, teachers and librarians. What if these adults aren't especially eager to search out books, but rather rely on more traditional venues like reviews in Booklist or SLJ for teachers and librarians. Are there enough ways to distribute self-published books in place and ways for people to hear about them yet? Again, I'm talking about books for younger kids.

I frankly don't know. Anybody out there who's interested have any ideas?

Tammy said...

And it makes it virtually impossible for a new author to even have her work looked at. Very discouraging.Not only do they not want picture books they won't even consider looking at books that are not about aliens, vampires, underwear, or bodily functions. Do they not understand it is the teachers, parents, and grandparents that are BUYING these books? And that is the type of book WE are searching for, for our children.