Agent Day: Insight from Agent Mary Kole

Andrea Brown agent, Mary Kole spoke at the SCBWI Agent Day this past Saturday in Newport Beach. She shared her genuine passion for children’s literature, what she’s specifically looking to find in her submission box, and her love for the iPad.

A Little About Mary Kole and the Andrea Brown Agency:

  • Andrea Brown has been in business for 28 years, and was the first agency to represent children’s books up through young adult literature.
  • Andrea Brown had nine agents who live in various areas from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and now they will be opening a New York branch headed up by none other than Mary Kole herself.
  • Mary is a writer and she just finished her MFA. She became an agent as a result of her interested in seeing “the other side” of children’s literature. She worked for both Chronicle Books, as well as Andrea Brown before discovering this was her passion and becoming an agent.
  • Mary is a new agent but she is HUNGRY and OBSESSED! She presently has a short list and is actively looking for new clients.
  • Mary represents picture books authors or author/illustrators, middle grade novelists, young adult novelists, and illustrators.

What Mary Really Likes and/or is Looking For in Submissions:

  • Dark and edgy illustration.
  • Stories that explore friendship, murder, and/or betrayal.
  • A well executed “issue” book like Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson.
  • A too close for comfort dystopian novel like Feed by M.T. Andersen.
  • A strong love triangle book or a sweet summer romance.
  • Creepy ghost stories that get under your skin, where the ghost follows you home long after you’ve put the book down.
  • Unusual paranormal. If you are writing about vampires, werewolves, etc. then your story needs to be new and exceptional.
  • Books that make her uncomfortable.
  • Books with darker, funnier, or sarcastic sensibilities.
  • Picture books that are quirky, funny, or sweet.

Mary Isn’t Into:

  • Anthropomorphic tales.
  • High fantasy or science fiction.
  • Greek and Egyptian mythology, which is overdone, but there are plenty of other mythologies to use. Do something new!
  • Mary does not represent early readers or chapter books.
  • But she will share your work with a colleague at Andrea Brown if the work seems better fit for another agent.

Why Mary Loves Picture Books and Kid Lit:

  • I  love this audience! I love how kids read! Adults only read when they are about to go to bed (basically to put themselves to sleep) or because they have to, or if it is an established habit. Not kids. Kids are voracious readers! Kids are social readers! Kids share books with their friends, because to them it is important to have similar imaginary landscapes as their friends. Kids devour series.
  • Kids who read, become life long readers!
  • Books for kids help them to become more confident, and as cheesy as this is going to sound, books for kids change their lives!

Mary Kole’s take on the Kidlit Market:

  • The children’s book market was started by the amazing Ursula Nordstrom who published and edited such iconic books as Charlotte’s Web, Goodnight Moon, and Harold and the Purple Crayon. She wanted to publish good books for bad children. At this time she felt that books tried to moralize too much and talk down to them. Nordstrom believed that kids have more insight than adults gave them credit for.
  • “The writer of good books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth.” – Ursula Nordstrom
  • During this recession the YA book market has gone up 30%, while the adult book market has declined. This says a lot about our readers, but it is also attributed to the school and library markets,  not to mention the popularization of books by Harry Potter and Twilight.
  • “If I can resist a book, I resist it.” – Ursula Nordstrom. Therefore, Mary Kole says – write something that’s irresistible!

A Breakdown of Age Ranges and What’s Selling in the Market:

Picture Books:

  • Age group: 3-5 or 5-7.
  • Picture Books are cyclical (the market is). In the 80’s picture books were big, then it declined, but it will be going back up soon.
  • Houses are acquiring fiction and non-fiction picture books, illustrator/author projects, and newer and edgier illustration.
  • Traditional verse is hard to sell.
  • Character driven books with snappy text is selling well.
  • Houses are looking for picture books with quick hooks, or possibly multiple hooks. Hooks could be anything from the re-telling of a common fairy tale, to the inclusion of a cookie recipe in the back of a book.

Middle Grade Novels:

  • Age group : 8-10, or 10-12, and sometimes as high as 14.
  • Fantasy and adventure rules in this age group!
  • Literary middle grade novels do exist, but these stories are usually more sweet and friendship based.
  • This is a great age group to write for because these character’s worlds are full of contrasts. They feel the pull between their family and their friends. They are beginning to find and explore their own individuality and identity, but they still have one foot still in the door at home. This is a wonderful frame of mind.
  • Mary likes characters in this age group who make tough – if not the wrong – choices and have to deal with the consequences.
  • This age group is not very edgy in its content (i.e. sex, drugs, and rock and roll).
  • If there is romance in middle grade novels it is very sweet.
  • Historical books are very popular in middle grade novels, but be sure that the setting is essential to the story.

Young Adult Novels:

  • Age group:12 and up, 14 and up, or 16 and up.
  • Anything goes in this age group – as far as content. Yup you can have your sex, drugs, and your rock and roll.
  • It is a myth that YA has edgy content. If you have a softer and sweeter young adult novel, that’s okay! There are houses that will publish both types of content. Just because “edgy” is in, doesn’t mean you have to write it. And don’t try to force edgy content!
  • Teens have a highly sensitive and honed BS barometer! They will call out a poser!
  • Paranormal and romance is presently huge in the YA age group. This is because young adults have a rich fantasy life. They like to read about things that they are not necessarily doing. They like to live through the experience of reading about huge epic romance. Often times teens feel like they have little control of their lives, like they’ve been put on a train and they can’t get off. So they like to read paranormal and romance as a way to escape. As a way to explore them selves and the darker parts of themselves.
  • Despite the paranormal craze, editors are clamoring for REAL LIFE! They want stories about our world.
  • YA has room for bigger conflicts that can end on a bittersweet note. Everything doesn’t have to tie up in the end of the book. Teens are aware that everything doesn’t always end well. They are aware that you must lose something in order to gain something.
  • A book that really affected Mary Kole is The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and there is a section in that book where the main character described a moment where they felt infinite, there is a welling like you could explode. Mary thinks this really captures a key element of the teen experience. For teens everything is big. Teens have surreal experiences, and they come one after another after another – first kiss, first friend betrays you, etc. It is an incredible and electric time!

Mary Answered the Following Questions from the Audience:

What do you see as the difference between the school and popular markets?

Books in the institutional market must have hooks. They particularly like book that can have a great curriculum tie-in. Books that are non-fiction or have an educational bent to them work well in institutional markets. Niche books as well – this would be something like a book about the Australian Indigenous Population. Where vampires – for example have a much wider audience and would work for main stream.

If I’ve submitted something to the Andrea Brown Agency and I haven’t heard anything can I revise and re-submit or query another agent?

We do share work with other agents at Andrea Brown. So if I think a book has merit but isn’t right for me, I will share it with another agent. Therefore a “no” from one of us is a “no” from all of us. But I will let you know if I am sharing your work with another agent. In terms of revision, unless the book has gone through major changes and is pretty much unrecognizable as the previous work, then you can re-submit it, but otherwise don’t. Query us with something new.

Can you tell us a little bit about the early agent/writer relationship?

Absolutely! If I get a submission and I like it and think it is promising, but I don’t quite think it is ready, I may give the author general notes. This way they can revise and I can see how they apply the changes in his/her revision. This will tell me a lot about a writer. If I offer representation, then I become highly editorial with my client. I really like digging into the hamburger meat. We will work on the book for as many rounds as we need until the book is ready to go out.

What publishing houses do you have a close relationship with?

Andrea Brown originally worked for Knopf, so we have a strong relationship there. However, if an agent is doing her job then she doesn’t have favorite houses. This is because an agent needs to know who wants what at different houses so they are serving the client in the best way possible. I do have relationships with houses, but it’s important to move past those first close relationships and find the perfect house for your book.

What advice do you have for an author who wants to work within multiple genres or age groups?

In children’s books authors are more apt to hop between genres. As long as you are aware of the voices and how they are different within different age groups, then it’s okay to write in multiple genres/age groups. An agent should want to be your career representative. I personally love to give career advice, and want to help shape my clients careers. When you approach an agent and you write in multiple age groups you should always query with the strongest material. You can mention in your query that you have other interests, but don’t unleash your entire creative resume. Pick the work that is the strongest, that you are the most passionate about, that is your favorite. Focus! Even if you are a picture book author, send only one story. I will ask to read more of your picture book manuscripts if I am interested.

How do you think the Kindle and e-readers have changed the marketplace?

This is a constantly changing landscape and an intricate discussion. The great thing about e-readers like the iPad is that you can add elements like sound, video, and pictures. Think about how that can effect your storytelling. But the big question right now is what “rights” is that. Digital rights will be a new thing to sell, and an important one.

Right now only three to five percent of teens get their book content digitally.  The market for e-books is really geared toward adults right now, particularly business adults who travel a lot. There isn’t a large teen market for e-readers yet, but it is on the up and up. In terms of overhead for producing content, as well as royalties – these are all a constant discussion that comes up and changes every day. The cost of producing books digitally is not just about saving money on paper and printing and binding. But we are working through it.

Have you ever had a client or submission where they were an author/illustrator and you liked the text more than the images, or vice versa? How did you deal with that?

Yes, this can be an issue. Usually in this type of situation the illustrations are stronger than the text. This is good for me, because my strength is in writing and I can help the author/illustrator to develop his/her writing abilities. Where visual storytelling and illustration is not my strong suit.

How much of my novel needs to be finished before I query you?

All of it! You must complete the whole novel before you send out a query. Sure the pitch and the premise could be amazing, but it is all about the execution! I need to be able to see the whole arc of the book, and how you deal with an entire novel structurally. Don’t submit until you have had others look at your work and give you feedback. This will make your project stronger, and it will become more attractive to me and other agents.

What are you looking for in the first ten pages of a submission?

The first ten pages wont show me the arc of the book, but it will show me the level of the writing and craft. I can identify where a writer is based on those ten pages. Also, beware of what I call “Conference Polish.” I see this a lot. Because you only submit the first ten to agents or at conferences like this one, writers spend a lot of time making those pages perfect. But once I get to page eleven…everything starts to fall apart. Make sure that the time and energy you put into those first ten pages, you put into the rest of your book!

What are young adult boys looking for in books? Do YA boy books sell?

You don’t see a lot of boys reading young adult books. Around middle school boys stop reading, or they jump from middle grade books to adult books. But if you are writing YA for boys stay away from romance and try horror, thrillers, or science fiction. It’s really hard to find YA books that hit a boy audience. Even if you look at author John Green, he has a huge female audience. Yes, his books have male protagonists, but they are often geeky and they are in love with a girl, and the girls want to be the girl that that boy is in love with.

If I am an author/illustrator what do I send you with my query?

You can copy and paste the manuscript into the body of the text, as well as a few pages of your book dummy. Or a link to your book dummy or website. I will then request the full dummy if I am interested.

Mary Kole is an agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. You can learn more about her and her agency at: The Andrea Brown Website. Mary also keeps up an award-winning blog about children’s literature, writing, and publishing called: www.kidlit.com. Mary is also a big fan of the iPad, but you’ll have to ask her about that.

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5 thoughts on “Agent Day: Insight from Agent Mary Kole

  1. Awesome Ingrid! You are exactly what I meant when I said you can find so much info online when researching editors/agents. Thanks for taking the time to share

  2. Pingback: Great advice from the experts… « CHRISTINE FONSECA, AUTHOR

  3. Pingback: Agent Day: Insight from Brenda Bowen « Ingrid's Notes

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